Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Monday, October 13th, 2014

Lowercase history

Among my many roles in the Wikipedia project, I play the part of historian. Not the kind who obsesses over Civil War battles and World War I artillery, building up infoboxes the size of the USS Enterprise. That’s History, uppercase. No, I add historical content to non-history articles – lowercase history. Most articles need lowercase history to provide essential context and flavor. It’s not enough to know how things are; we need to know how things got that way and how we found out about it.

Over the past three months, I more than doubled the prose in “Flag of Ohio”, mostly by elaborating on the circumstances around the flag’s adoption. The resulting text demonstrates the power of lowercase history to link diverse topics together, in this case, the state seal, the flags of Cincinnati and Cuba, and President Garfield. I even drew up a big GIF of the proper way to fold an Ohio flag, because GIF.

Folding the flag of Ohio
The flag of Ohio is officially folded in 17 steps, easier said than done.

Once in a while, there’s even a chance to advance scholarship on a topic. Scouring Google Books led me to long forgotten accounts of an earlier Ohio flag. (It’s actually pretty boring, just a white rectangle with some details on it. I’m glad it never took off.) My sudden activity on that article attracted the attention of another editor, who gradually ate away at a factoid all my social studies teachers in school had repeated as fact: that Nepal and Ohio were the only country and state, respectively, with non-rectangular flags. In fact, there are plenty of counterexamples, from European naval ensigns to the Qing dynasty’s triangular Yellow Dragon Flag.

In another case from earlier this year, I finally quashed the silly misconception that phở is based on a French soup and even named after it. Apparently no one in the English-speaking world, not even the OED, had bothered to check with scholars fluent in Vietnamese to see whether the historical literature backed up that myth. (For the record, Cantonese speakers had much to do with the name, while the dish evolved from a Vietnamese water buffalo soup called xáo trâu. Eww?)

It’s more difficult for a Wikipedia editor to write about lowercase history than to write about the present, because Wikipedia has a stringent policy requiring “verifiable” sources. It’s easy to find websites, books, and reviews raving about phở and easy for another editor to double-check that source. But as soon as you start writing about lowercase history, you run up against all sorts of barriers: paywalls for year-old news articles, paywalls for decade-old news articles, ditto for century-old news articles that should’ve been out of copyright for generations.

Thankfully, Google (Books, Scholar, News Archive Search), HathiTrust, the Internet Archive, and various national library websites do provide access to a huge number of sources for free, if you happen to be looking for something in the right time period. If you’re looking into local or regional history, subscription databases offer even more. Depending on the state of their budget, your local library may provide access one or two good subscription databases. If not, there’s The Wikipedia Library, but you have to apply for access.

Still, searching this wealth of sources can be difficult because OCR is nowhere near as good as you’d expect in 2014, and it’s virtually absent from older or foreign-language documents. So sometimes the best sources can only be found with some guesswork: what kind of publication would cover the topic and in what years? What appears to be an original source might turn out to be regurgitated from a decade earlier, in which case the investigation starts anew.

First State Flag
I came across this Enquirer blurb (subscription required) while searching for details on Ohio’s first flag. It nearly had me going, until I saw the date: April 1, 1905, three years after the familiar double-tailed flag was adopted. Does it qualify as an April Fool’s joke if the humor is a bit stale?

There’s also the problem of bias in historical sources. I came across a great deal of vitriol directed at the flags of Ohio and Cincinnati when they were introduced and came away thinking that they were poorly received at first. In fact, it wasn’t so lopsided, but of the subscription databases I had access to, the only one covering that time period was for a highly partisan Democratic newspaper. Both flags were introduced by Republicans. (These days, that paper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, has about as much edge as that former Ohio flag.) For the phở article, too, I had to remain mindful that some French- and Vietnamese-language sources were more interested in claiming the soup for their country than establishing the truth.

Lowercase history is the most inefficient, time-consuming way to expand an article but the most effective way to increase its quality. Very often, it forces you to square competing narratives and question the assumptions that underlie the contemporary description of a topic. It also builds the reader’s trust by increasing the number and variety of sources beyond the low-hanging fruit that anyone could find via Google search.

These days, at the English Wikipedia particularly, it’s easy to feel that all the good topics have been written about. But the truth is that most of those articles still have plenty of room to grow. If you toss out labels like amateur historian, I think you’d find that writing a coherent encyclopedia depends in large part on how many fields of study you can lowercase.

Short-term memory

  1. Lowercase history


    Among my many roles in the Wikipedia project, I play the part of historian – lowercase historian.

  2. Herding the world’s languages


    The wall of languages at www.wikipedia.org is one of the most frequently accessed series of bits on the Internet, and the whole setup is far simpler than any other portal you’ll visit, every bit as primitive as the design suggests. I’m trying to change that.

  3. AVIM on GitHub


    AVIM’s code base is now hosted on GitHub instead of this website’s Subversion repository.

  4. Cue the newbies


    While some of the Wikimedia Foundation’s English-language projects resist attempts to modernize the editing experience, the Vietnamese-language projects are moving full steam ahead.

  5. Barriers to entry


    Good people with good intentions, good ideas, and good writing skills may nonetheless be unable to grok “wikitext”, the underlying language of Wikipedia’s entries. Why exclude them?

The name’s Minh Nguyen, though I style myself Minh Nguyễn, with all the wonderful diacritics. I’m a graduate of St. Columban, St. Xavier, and Stanford, and currently a software developer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since March 2002, Minh’s Notes has been home to my occasional insights and frequent attempts at humor.