Why Wikisource?


One place to start when talking about Wikisource is, “Why bother?” There are many other digital libraries, from Project Gutenberg to the Internet Archive. What separates Wikisource from them?

In fact, this was an early response to the proposal of a Wikisource-like project back in 2001. Larry Sanger was one of the first to comment, saying:

The hard question, I guess, is why we are reinventing the wheel, when Project Gutenberg already exists? I mean, what really is the need for having this project?

This was closely followed by none other than Jimmy Wales himself, who said:

Like Larry, I’m interested that we think it over to see what we can add to Project Gutenberg. It seems unlikely that primary sources should in general be editable by anyone.

So what does separate Wikisource from similar projects? What are Wikisource’s unique selling points?

Wikisource has many things in common with other libraries but many unique qualities as well. A quick list of unique selling points, as I see them at least, would be accessible scans, crowdsourced proofreading and potential for added value. Gutenberg has proofreading but its sources are hidden. The Internet Archive has scans but only error-ridden computer-transcribed text. Other digital libraries fall into one or the other of these camps. Wikisource, however, combines the reliability of the scans with human-made transcriptions.

Together anyone can contribute to proofreading, regardless of personal resources and access to texts. Once proofread, anything can be checked and corrected. If, for example, you doubt a spelling, a scan of the original page is just a click away where is can be confirmed or corrected.

Added value, such as wikilinking certain terms or embedding spoken-word versions, just adds more to this already pretty solid foundation.

To Annotate or Not to Annotate?

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I have recently been reminded about the topic of annotation.

Annotation remains a vexed issue on the English Wikisource. Not all Wikisources accept annotations; English used to be one that did. After a contentious debate the entire policy ended up being blanked pending any sort of consensus and has remained that way for over a year. That just lead to a sort of no-man’s-land, with different editors doing their own, potentially contradictory things.

The main issue, of course, is whether or not Wikisource should host texts with user-generated annotations.

Part of Wikisource’s mission is to provide accessible copies of source texts. Texts that should remain as faithful and pure as possible. Wikisource does not even correct typos.

Being a wiki, however, the texts could have added depth and usefulness if they provided more information. Place names, for example, change over time and perhaps a reader does not know that Constantinople is Istanbul. It’s simple to add this to the text, in many different ways, but if you do, then the text is slightly less faithful and slightly less pure than it could have been.

That leads to the next two issues: What counts as an annotation and how much is allowed, if any. Some say that even a humble wikilink is an annotation and these must all be purged to maintain textual purity. Users have removed wikilinks for this reason in the past. Others go further than wikilinks and add new footnotes, diagrams and maps to help improve the clarity of a text. Most users are somewhere in between; I’ve done both all of the above.

A casual reader can be helped by having information put in context, or locations pointed out on maps, or have names linked to full biographies. However, if a reader wants to know what exactly a reader in the past would have read, or what a specific author actually published, then user annotations start to obfuscate matters, even if marked.

Keeping multiple copies of texts is one solution: a pure text and a clearly marked annotated version. That doubles work load, however, and presents some technology problems. Technology might be a solution, with the mooted “onion skin” Wikisource 3.0, but that remains theoretical at the moment. Hebrew Wikisource, the oldest standalone Wikisource, uses a special namespace just for annotations, although it is currently the only one to do so. If we are going to put the text somewhere else, why not a different project altogether? This does technically fall within Wikibooks’ bailiwick but will simple wikilinks be enough on that project and are they going to be happy with the buck being passed to them? Even if so, how would we stop new users coming along and putting wikilinks on a Wikimedia project?

The case continues.