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David Crystal

Address to convocation

Friday, Oct. 21, 2011

When I was last here at your university, in March 1999, it was to give the George M. Story Lecture in the Humanities. My subject was encyclopedia editing -- something I was much involved with at the time, as general editor of the Cambridge University Press family of encyclopedias. We had been publishing these books for a decade, and a fourth edition of the big flagship volume would appear in 2000. We discussed the possibilities for an encyclopedia of Newfoundland. The future looked very rosy for encyclopedias.

A decade on, and how things have changed. The Cambridge encyclopedias are no more: they stopped publishing in 2000. The baton was taken up by Penguin books, for whom I edited general encyclopedias and factfinders until 2006, but then they stopped publishing too. In less than a decade, the one-volume paper encyclopedia, with all its quality controls, became virtually extinct.

It has been a remarkable decade, by any standards. Think back to 1999. Google had only just been born. Wikipedia was still two years in the future. No blogging. No text messaging. No instant messaging. No Facebook. No YouTube. No Twitter. In the world of reference, there has been a battle between traditional reference books and the Internet, and the Internet has won.

What we have to do now, accordingly, for all the subjects that are represented in this room today, is ensure that the Internet develops the same notion of academic responsibility as was routine in the era of traditional reference publishing. My colleagues and I devoted huge amounts of time to checking and rechecking. Nobody was allowed to add information to the database without it being scrupulously followed up. Quality control, in a phrase. How do you spell the name of the leader of a country? Ask its embassy. How do you summarize the findings of Voyager as it passed the outer planets? Ask NASA. All over the world, there was a tone of weary desperation as my office telephoned. It's those British encyclopedia guys again!

In house, it was the same. At the beginning of a new working day we would read over what had been written the previous day. And that is when you discover the evil effects of the typo gremlins that creep into your computers at night and change stuff. Thanks to our quality control the world was saved from many embarrassments. "Beethoven was handicapped by deadness." "In 1848 in California they discovered God." Thanks to quality control, there is no longer a "World Wart," a "Wet End" of London, and a "Puking Opera."

You will have noticed my repeated reference to "quality control." In the Internet world of today, you don't need me to tell you that it pays, oh how it pays, to become an activist in quality control. There is only one mantra that works, when you are obtaining information from the web: it is the advice Robert Graves, in the novel I, Claudius, puts into the mouth of his character Herod, as he speaks to the new emperor: "Trust no-one, my friend, trust no-one." The Internet is a wonderful place for browsing, but never trust what it tells you.

Let me illustrate from the world I know best: me. I don't know who originally wrote the Wikipedia entry on me, or who revises it from time to time, but over the years I have watched with some amusement as my life has changed, quite literally, in front of my eyes. I have had varying numbers of children, and wives. I have been described as a speech therapist, and a supporter of all kinds of causes I know nothing about. My nationality has changed -- sometimes Irish, sometimes Welsh, sometimes English, sometimes British -- never yet, as far as I know, Canadian, though that may change after today. The number of books I am supposed to have written has varied by a factor of hundreds. I have been knighted and un-knighted. And once an error is there, it spreads. Nothing travels faster than a retweet.

There were no errors about me in today's oration. Our orator plainly used reliable sources, for which I thank him.

It is early days. The Internet seems to have been around for ever, but it is less than a generation old. These are growing pains. I am sure that, as time goes by, standards will improve. We will see more of what, in our world, we call academic rigour. But this will only happen if you take the lead. Online sources like Wikipedia are well aware of their limitations: they often ask for help. It is you who can provide this help. Do not forget, therefore, when you use the Internet, as readers or writers, to implement the rigorous standards, the concern for accuracy, that you have been taught during your time at St John's. It is people of your generation, not mine, who will shape the Internet of the future, and turn it into a medium driven by respect for knowledge rather than by carefree opinion. In an increasingly electronically mediated world, this is your greatest challenge.