Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Wikipedia: The Devil is in the Detail

A supervisor in Theology in Melbourne warns his students that if they cite Wikipedia in their essays, he will fail them. This warning returned to my thoughts this week after some of us librarians were sent on a wild goose chase, all due to a book request that, on the face of it, had the hallmarks of a perfectly credible and reasonable reference search.

Farewell to the devil : from the Christian dealing with evil’, by Herbert Haag. 1978: Reprint: Dusseldorf, 2000 ISBN 354570016X

After searches on Amazon, Book Depository, Abebooks, Trove (National Library of Australia), MCDcat (the online catalogue of the University of Divinity), and other likely avenues, as well as the odd google here and there, a message was sent to the library e-list asking “if you have this book in your collection, or know where a copy is obtainable, anywhere, please let me know.”
My searches yielded the German original (‘Abschied vom Teufel‘ von Herbert Haag) now available second-hand at exorbitant cost, and a French translation. The Germans publish English books, indeed with global publishing anyone anywhere can publish books in English, so why wasn’t the English translation showing up? That said, the first giveaway was the book’s ISBN with its 3 prefix, which tells a librarian it is a German book, so quite possibly one of the German versions. Googling 354570016X  proved this to be the case. 
The second clue required background knowledge not supplied in the request. Herbert Haag’s book had been subjected to a critical attack, on publication, by the Pope Emeritus, back when he was Joseph Ratzinger. That was a public dispute conducted in high standard High German. One colleague conjectured that when Ratzinger wrote against it his text was translated, at which stage the title of the book was also translated. Haag’s own book however was probably not translated. If this is true, it meant we were looking at a citation for a book in English that does not exist.

Not the enquirer, the librarians, or Wikipedia could know this with certainty, but given the evidence this probability is in the vicinity of the High Nineties. In all innocence our enquirer, it seems, has copy and pasted, or copied and pasted if you prefer, the details from Wikipedia in the understandable hope and belief that such a book exists. So once more the librarians step in to solve the riddle, undeceiving the researcher, and clarifying the pure reality of the book’s history. Where would we be without a librarian?

Our supervisor in Theology in Melbourne is right to warn his students about the pitfalls of Wikipedia, though what if the book does exist? And what if Wikipedia is the only place where the citation occurs? Is it cited with a disclaimer? Certainly, the researcher must fall back on the basic procedure of only citing books that he, or she, has actually sighted with their own two eyes. 

Meanwhile I had to break the bad news to the enquirer, who has Fair to Middling German but very good French. So do I , as is right practice, order a copy of the original German at an exorbitant price that may never be used? Or just the French translation, that will be used? When I pondered how so few copies of this book were available anywhere anyway, one colleague replied philosophically, “Probably not many around.  Maybe everyone binned it in disgust!” Whatever the merits of Herbert Haag’s book, such, it seems, are the occasional unforeseen outcomes of bygone theological debates.

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