The old-fashioned way

I recently experienced feelings both of flattery and of irritation to discover that I am now quoted in Wikipedia as an authority on the Duport brothers’ influence on Beethoven. Flattery because they like me! They like me! I’ve heard many stories of Wikipedia’s baffling rejection of qualified contributors, so not being rejected might be worth something.

This preening almost instantly gave way to annoyance. The article they quote, a piece I wrote for Strings (1), really isn’t an authoritative source on the subject. I like to think I’m a good writer, but I’m not a musicologist writing for a peer-reviewed journal. If Wikipedia really wanted to be taken seriously as a scholarly reference site, it shouldn’t be quoting music journalism, it should be quoting the work of the scholar who has done the most original research in the field of Beethoven’s cello music. That scholar is Lewis Lockwood, author of Beethoven: the Music and the Life, and a great many articles on Beethoven’s works, such as the one that was my main source of information for the Strings piece, “Beethoven’s Early Works for Violoncello and Contemporary Violoncello Technique.” (2)

Why hadn’t Wikipedia done this? The same reason I’d never read Lockwood’s article until I was researching the Strings piece last year, despite my interest in the subject: because it’s in an obscure German publication, because it isn’t very well-known, because it took me ages to find it on a database, because it was hard to get on interlibrary loan, and so on. It’s simply more convenient to quote something you can find by Googling for less than ten seconds.

In this age of information technology that affords us near-instant gratification, I can see how tempting it is for Wikipedia authors to rely on things they can access instantly, particularly if they aren’t affiliated with a university whose library subscribes to scholarly databases. But this precisely is why college students shouldn’t be allowed to quote Wikipedia in essays. If you do have access to scholarly resources, you should be learning how to use them. Professors and librarians are there to help you; it’s their job. Google and Wikipedia are useful for a few things, but nothing replaces the old-fashioned way to find information: JSTOR, RILM, WorldCat, Grove Music Online, and so on. (Or even–heavens!–consulting a book.)

(1) Miranda Wilson, “The Cello Works that Sealed a Maestro’s Reputation for Genius,” Strings 26, no. 10 (2012), 25-28.

(2) Lewis Lockwood, “Beethoven’s Cello Works for Violoncello and Contemporary Violoncello Technique” in Rudolf Klein (ed.), Beiträge 176-178: Beethoven-Kolloquium [Vienna] 1977, Dokumentation und Aufführungspraxis, (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1978), 174-182.


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