Opinion | To Learn the Truth, Read My Wikipedia Entry on Sichuan Peppers

It started with my spice cabinet. I’d been in a quarantine cooking rut, and while searching online for different things to do with the various jars and tins at my disposal, I found myself on the Wikipedia page for Sichuan pepper. Not a shocker. Wikipedia is frequently the first or second result of a Google search. Plenty has been written about the rise of anti-intellectualism, but the worldwide popularity of Wikipedia reveals that most of us still itch to know things.

But what could I learn from the Sichuan pepper entry? It was littered with the note “citation needed,” and the entire section on names was flagged as misleading. I was annoyed, excessively so. It wasn’t that I needed to know the scientific names and localities for every variety of Sichuan pepper. I had a jar of red peppercorns already. The error-ridden entry didn’t inconvenience me, but it bothered me just the same. It bothered me to see bad research.

Before the pandemic, waylaying bad research was my job. I worked as a reference librarian, which meant that on any given day I might help someone uncover what business their ancestor was in, the story behind the name of a neighborhood park or the relationship between two historical figures. Researchers arrived with their own hopes and hypotheses, which the truth often wiped out. (“I’m sorry, sir, but it appears that your great-grandfather was not a cosmopolitan golf pro. He was a mailman.”)

Many researchers left disappointed — in their families or their heroes or the nature of the world. But more often than not, weeks or months later, an email would chime through: They’d continued along the path we’d uncovered together and needed more help. The truth isn’t always what we want it to be, yet it remains compelling, by nature of being true.

I loved my job. But in libraries, as in so many fields, careers have been shaken up again and again by the pandemic, like a high-stakes game of Boggle. I was laid off, then un-laid off thanks to a Paycheck Protection Program loan. My job description changed because we couldn’t retrieve archival material when working from home. Grant funding didn’t come through and I lost my job again.

I had a baby, a dog and seven open browser tabs of mediocre job descriptions, so I had plenty to keep me busy. But I didn’t feel useful, not in the way I had been.

This feeling of uselessness was exacerbated by the fact that we were coming up on an election. People were scrambling for some truth to cling onto in a sea of hasty, sloppy, sometimes deliberately misleading research. The crazier the world gets, the more it needs librarians — I really believe that — but I seemed to have lost my powers when I lost my job. What good would it do to pedantically offer sources as the 300th commentator on some dumb article about QAnon? I tried anyway, cringing in anticipation of blowback, but nobody even noticed.

Then, while reading lazy half-truths about Sichuan pepper at my kitchen counter, it was as if I received some librarian version of the bat signal, a single round peppercorn outlined against the night sky. Here, I was needed. Here, I could do something.

It was easy to begin. The barrier to entry for editing Wikipedia is low, and I already had a Wikipedia account. I hadn’t done much with it beyond creating a short entry for the South Oxford Tennis Club, which was at one time the only Black-owned tennis club in New York City. “Why doesn’t anyone know about this?” a library patron had asked me after we stumbled across an article about it. I’ve heard this question so many times! Yet clearly people do know about these things — they write the articles and books in which we make our discoveries. I think what people really mean when they say, “Why doesn’t anyone know about this?” is “Why isn’t this information super easy to find?” or more succinctly, “Why isn’t this on Wikipedia?”

So that’s where I put the South Oxford Tennis Club. And it was so much work, even beyond the research and formatting: Is my phrasing too opinionated? Do I trust a scholar’s word over a source that claims to have been there? To that point, what is my role as a non-Black person starting a record of a Black institution?

I was reminded of all this as I shook the dust off my account to edit Sichuan pepper. The effort of Wikipedia had been a headache when I had a full-time job, but now I could better appreciate how extraordinary it is that such detailed concerns should be standard on a volunteer production. Every single entry — from “99 Bottles of Beer” to “Human” — has an accompanying “Talk” page, where editors and readers dissect it.

In the past I’ve had to remind student patrons that you can’t cite Wikipedia on research papers, and if they asked why, I never had a great answer, just something along the lines of, “Um, it’s kind of lazy, don’t you think?” But now I’d advise them to visit a Talk page or two to understand what research is. It’s not just looking online for stuff; it’s a process of assessment, of re-searching through what you’ve found to determine what’s superfluous, what’s missing and what requires thought. The nakedness of this process on Talk pages makes it accessible. Professional researchers can be precious about our work, but research is a skill we can and should all acquire, given the abundance of information and misinformation mixed up at our fingertips.

Plus, it feels great. Few things are as satisfying as uncovering a hard gem of truth in the shifting sands of opinion, politics and legend. I worked my way slowly through the Sichuan pepper entry, unraveling the truth of an assertion while waiting to hear back on job applications, adding a citation while my baby slept.

As someone who’s never lived in China and doesn’t speak Mandarin, I was especially concerned with finding sources from regional experts. Sichuan pepper, like the South Oxford Tennis Club, belongs to a culture different from the one I grew up in, and quality research requires primary sources — people who know what they’re talking about because they’ve lived it. In almost every instance, uncovering truth means hearing the words of people who aren’t you.

I finished the Sichuan pepper revisions, I mean as much as research is ever finished, which is to say that people are still out there improving on my improvements. But I couldn’t stop. I haven’t stopped. Even as more profitable work has come my way, I still find time for an edit on the béchamel sauce entry, a citation on the La Llorona entry, a sleepless hour dedicated to one of the many, many other entries tagged as “Wikipedia articles with sourcing issues.” It’s something of an addiction and something of a benediction, an act of love for a world that, as messy and misleading as it can be, still contains the most beautiful truths.

Mary Mann is a librarian and the author of “Yawn: Adventures in Boredom.”

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