[Foundation-l] Request for your input: biographies of living people

Ray Saintonge saintonge at telus.net
Wed Mar 4 08:32:27 UTC 2009

Jussi-Ville Heiskanen wrote:
> Ray Saintonge wrote:
>> I'm making a point of replying to this before I read any of the other 
>> responses to avoid being tainted by them.
> Since I think you make several insightful observations
> well worth focusing on, I hope you will in return not
> mind me replying in several messages to your one,  just
> so I don't create a huge long message,  but can focus on
> each point with the detail and consideration it deserves.
> (I may take some time between each partial reply, just so
> I don't give a quick and shallow reply.)

I concur and thank you. Even though I had already trimmed down Sue's 
comments to isolate the ones that I wanted to address, I should know by 
now about the problem of having long and thoughtful responses that 
exhaust the attention of some. 

>> Sue Gardner wrote:
>>> * Do we think the current complaints resolution systems are working?  Is it
>>> easy enough for article subjects to report problems?  Are we courteous and
>>> serious in our handling of complaints?  Do the people handling complaints
>>> need training/support/resources to help them resolve the problem (if there
>>> is one)?  Are there intractable problems, and if so, what can we do to solve
>>> them?  
>> Training accomplishes very little if we don't know what we want that 
>> training to accomplish.  At some level it is important, but it is not in 
>> itself THE problem.  Courtesy is a personal quality that is most often 
>> not amenable to training.  Discourtesies need to be handled with an even 
>> hand.  If courtesy is shown to the subject, but not to the apparently 
>> offending writer, the problem is exacerbated when the writer feels 
>> pushed to defend his actions.  An intervenor who takes an unnecessarily 
>> aggressive approach to fixing an article is as much a part of the 
>> problem.  The intractable problems are rooted in human nature.
>> I have always believed that the subjects of BLPs should have a right of 
>> reply.  To some extent they should have the right to publicly rebut what 
>> is said about them.  Such rebuttals need to be clearly identified and 
>> attributed, and, unless they launch a clear personal attack on some 
>> other person, even an outrageous reply needs to be added without content 
>> editing.
> Personally, (and I admit, this inflames me no end, and I *do*
> lose sleep over it) BDP's should have a right of reply too, from
> beneath the grave (yes, I am referring to Biographies of
> Dead Persons), but they rarely get an even shake. There are
> various Biographies of specific Swedish nobles from the late
> 18th century whose portrayal is clearly libelous, if it were said
> of a living person, as it was written in the 1911 edition of EB -
> and largely unedited, incorporated into the English language
> wikipedia. (I wish I had the historiographical/biographical
> know-how and energy to rectify that, but I have to admit I
> don't.)

Not that I know anything of 18th century Swedish nobility.  There is an 
important point to be made in what you say.  If the only reason for 
being more rigid about BLPs is the fear that we might get sued, or that 
our reputation might otherwise suffer, our actions are rooted in a false 
premise.  The ethical approach is to have all biographies brought to a 
high degree of accuracy.  We may begin with certain preconceptions about 
the accuracy of the 1911EB, but we should never be shy about questioning 
those preconceptions when warranted by alternative evidence. Most of us 
lack not only the know-how and energy, but the resources as well.  It's 
very easy to underestimate the magnitude of the tasks.

> And I am not claiming outrage at a systemic bias, but just
> flagrant bias as per the author of the specific entry.

The systemic bias in your examples is not one of our creation.

> Sure, the persons themselves can not be harmed, but our
> deep understanding of the forces of history, and what force
> personality, heredity, cultural context and up-bringing play
> within it, is immeasurably impoverished by getting a view that
> is faulty.
In the preface to the 1971 printing of the 14th edition of the EB editor 
Warren E. Preece notes: "The world before the war of 1914-18 was no more 
'normal' than the world after it; the series of battles fought between 
1455 and 1487 had hardly lost some of their importance and all of their 
immediacy before man's historians had named them; there is a danger that 
in looking back over what has been, what has most recently been will 
assume an importancethat is in large part only apparent."  Looking at 
the first 10 articles of the 1930 printing of the same edition, "A1 at 
Lloyd's," "Aal," "Aalen," "Aalesund," and "Aali, Mehemet" were no longer 
in the 1971 printing.  50% is quite an attrition rate. Of the first 10 
biographical articles, only 4 survived.  Not all casual library visitors 
seeking information will have the same result.


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