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The View from Sherlock Peoria (262)

June 17, 2007

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To Sherlockipedia and Beyond . . .

Some weeks one just likes to muse about the future, both near-at-hand and distant, and try to envision where destiny lies. So much of Sherlockian life lies in the savoring of the past, the love of Victorian culture, old Rathbone movies, and, as should go without saying, a certain sixty stories involving a certain detective, that the future, with its revolutions in culture and technology seems the antithesis of where our inner compass should point. Yet, as Criswell said in his intro monologue to Plan 9 From Outer Space: “future events such as these will affect you in the future.”

And so, the future. Where is it going to take us?

The old model of Sherlockian behaviour was built heavily around the collector. Books held knowledge, collectors gather books, and thence, at least in theory, knowledge. A good Sherlockian had an ample library. A good Sherlockian could also express their devotion by providing things for collector Sherlockians to put into their libraries. 

When Sherlock Peoria first started as a website, the very first question that was put to us wasn’t “where are you going with this?” – it was “how do you collect a web site?” Sherlockian collectors have always allowed Sherlockian creators to roam where their impulses might take them, in this symbiosis of ours, but they still want something to keep in their Sherlock Holmes room. Early on, I’d occasionally copy the entire site to a CD, put it in a nice case, and hand one to a collector friend to try to fill that need. Yet a web site is a living document, and with Sherlock Peoria, every seven days, a new edition comes out.

There is the same distrust of the web that comes with any paradigm shift – web sites aren’t eternal. If the server fees don’t get paid, if somebody hits us with a very big EMP, if you don’t have access to a computer that’s on-line . . . well, might as well not exist. But there are similar problems with the old system as well. How many Sherlockian books would you love to read but can’t get your hands on because they were small print runs and now cost a fortune when they do finally show up?

It’s easy to forget the weaknesses of the old ways when looking ahead at the frighteningly hard-to-get-used-to new ways.

I was trying to think of the biggest Sherlockian accomplishment of the past ten years, and the best I could come up with was Les Klinger’s new annotated set of Holmes stories. And while it’s both new and a great accomplishment, it’s now up to what our latest and greatest accomplishment should have been if we were keeping up with the rest of the world. It’s basically the same thing Baring-Gould did in 1968. Do we want to see someone else do it again in 2044, again in 2082, etc.? Or are we ready to take it to the next level?

While anyone on the web is probably familiar with Wikipedia, we all tend to look upon it as just an electronic version of the old Encyclopaedia Britannica that sat on the shelf at the school library. But if you look deeper at what Wikipedia is, and the wikimedia software behind it, you’ll find that it’s not about just reference . . . it’s about communal data sharing. It’s about establishing a community of people who are each willing to share their expertise on their individual strong suits. It’s not a finished product that just sits there. It’s a new sort of communication network.

Wikipedia clones are everywhere, on all sorts of subjects, used for much more than encylopaedias. But do we have a Sherlockian wiki yet? A true Sherlockian version of Wikipedia, a Sherlockipedia if you will,  could eclipse every great work of Sherlockian scholarship to date. Jack Tracy’s Encyclopedia Sherlockiana? How primitive! Ron DeWaal’s World Bibliography of Sherlock Holmes? Such static data! Any one of the three annotateds you’d care to name? Horses and buggies, man, horses and buggies.

The great challenge for us as Sherlockians will be that a true wikipedia-type knowledge base is a community effort. No one of us is going to just say “I’m going to build a Sherlockipedia for everybody!” and do it. Well, they could try, but as the old saying goes, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” And that’s the true beauty of the wiki concept. Sure, there might be a few flaws in the results, as critics of Wikipedia are always very quick to point out. But what part of “living document” don’t they understand? It can be fixed in a snap, as long as someone is paying attention . . . and who should be more observant than a follower of Sherlock Holmes?

The future’s coming, and in some ways we’re already looking at the flying cars of the scholarly world. Anyone else think it might be fun to take a ride?

Your humble correspondent,

Brad Keefauver