Thursday, June 27, 2013

Updating the DCB

Got to applaud the idea of “updating” some of the entries in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography as part of its elegant new online presentation. It is no slur on that great work to say that anyone who has done much research in the DCB must have come across what might be errors or inadequacies. And even if there were no actual errors, biographical scholarship continues on with new questions and new sources that should not go unacknowledged forever.

But are the editors doing the right thing by silently rewriting signed entries that are still adorned with the name of the original contributor, and without giving any indication of what has been changed?

F’instance:  the DCB Online lists among its updated biographies John Rastell the younger from Volume I, published 1966. I’m pretty sure I’ve never read it before, but it’s by the distinguished Irish historian David Beers Quinn, a master of the tricky history of early transatlantic voyages.  So what's updated in the update?

Reading the updated version online, you have to wonder: did the mighty Quinn screw up the Rastell bio big-time? Or are the DCB editors just embroidering around the edges?   From the online edition, it is impossible to tell, but the online entry is still signed “D.B. Quinn,” as if he had signed off on every word. Quinn has been dead since 2002. Is this biography now a Quinn or a "Quinn"?

Just thinking: wouldn’t it be better for the online, updating DCB to publish biographies in need of revision in their original signed state, with a dated update by the editors at the bottom, setting out the new information that should be added and the sources that underpin it as of the time of revision.

By the present practice, we get an ever-growing dissonance between the published DCB-on-paper and the slowly changing versions online. Increasingly, we will get online entries that have the imprimateur of the historian whose name is given at the bottom, but which have been silently and anonymously re-written to a greater or lesser extent. 

John Rastell?  By comparing the online updated text against the printed original, I find that all the DCB has added are conjectural birth and death dates, a punctuation change or two, and a substitution of “Newfoundland and Labrador” for “Newfoundland” in one place. Quinn’s scholarship endures. Not that you would know from the way the online revision is presented.

(Still a big fan and a constant user)

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