During our weekly fellows’ discussion at the Berkman Center, the conversation turned to a series of issues related to information quality. (This turn of events is not surprising, given who was in the room.) Wikipedia, not surprisingly, cropped up as a topic early and often. One of the examples (good, bad, indifferent?) that David Weinberger raised was the controversy over how Alexander Hamilton’s disputed birthdate is presented (now, accurately in my view, the entry notes that there are two possible dates, one in 1757 which Hamilton himself claimed and an earlier date in 1755 which current scholars seem to prefer).
Which led me to check out the rest of the entry on Hammy. It’s really quite good overall. I’m a huge fan of Wikipedia and am so grateful that it exists. That said: my critique of this entry is that it is spotty. It is neither consistently strong nor consistently brief. Some topics are covered nicely and others not at all. Missing, in particular: discussion of Hamilton’s most famous report to Congress, the 1791 Report on Manufactures, the fourth major report he sent along to the legislature while he was Secretary of the Treasury in the Washington administration. It was this Report that led to the implementation by Congress of a large range of policies supportive of the American industrial state, and it is a classic now in political economic circles. Economists are interested in it for loads of reasons, not least Hamilton’s proposal of “bounties”. (I tried to add in some of this info, but couldn’t get through on the wiki to edit it; perhaps someone else can try at a better time.)
And then I tried to find a link to the full text of the Report itself elsewhere on the Web. Ten minutes of — perhaps clumsy — web surfing, mostly using Google and also Google Scholar and a few other similar resources, led me to plenty of excerpted versions, but no complete text. How hard would it be to load up the complete version of such a seminal work? This could be a wonderful job for Google Scholar or the like: make available a reliable, complete version of Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures and thousands of other documents that have changed history. I’m sure someone out there has it online, but it’s way too hard for someone, even someone who knows what he’s looking for and spends a lot of time on line, to find.
Aside: are you a Hamilton person or a Jefferson person? I am Hamilton.
[…] The New York Times reports on Wikipedia’s challenges in managing fights over what content should comprise the encyclopedia’s entries on certain topics (apparently including human rights in China and Christina Aguilera – though I was able to edit Aguilera’s entry earlier today, in a true leap forward for human knowledge). Wikipedia is, in some ways, an attempt to reify the “marketplace of ideas” prized by European Enlightenment thinkers such as John Milton and John Stuart Mills – truth competes with falsehood and, ultimately, triumphs. The problems are twofold: first, falsehood’s adherents may be determined to keep editing an entry. Second, as my colleague and boss John Palfrey noted, truth itself may be disputed – was Alexander Hamilton born in 1757 or 1755? How should Wikipedia deal with the controversies over the entry for President George W. Bush? […]