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Conan the Wikipedian

The website Wikipedia is one of the great success stories of the Internet. A free, online encyclopedia, it has gained its widespread prestige and usefulness from the fact that it can be edited by anybody, at any time, as often as needed. This allows an expert in any field to create and maintain entries describing the subject of their expertise, even ones far too esoteric to make it into any regular encyclopedia. As entries pile up (as they have at a ferocious pace ever since Wikipedia’s debut in 2001) other experts can flesh out and correct what has been posted. Entries grow longer, more detailed, more accurate…and before you know it, the world’s largest, most comprehensive encyclopedia has been typed into existence, open-source style. All free, forever. Pretty cool, especially if you have childhood nightmares of desperately rushing to the library before closing time to copy a page from an encyclopedia — usually because your kid brother had used the family copy as a skateboard ramp.

The result of this experiment, on the whole, has been enormously positive. Wikipedia has its share of entries which are heavily disputed and fought over, as various experts with differing political points of view strive to wrest hot-button topics from the grip of other partisans. But for the vast majority of entries, Wikipedia has become a reliable and incredibly deep resource for just about anything you would care to learn. Over one million articles have been posted, many of staggering complexity and detail. For many current Internet users, the first thing they do online when confronted with a new person, event, or subject — even before Googling it — is head over to Wikipedia and look it up.

But crucially, all Wikipedia entries are not created equal. Some are sparsely and poorly written, others give only one side of the story. Unfortunately, the entries for Robert E. Howard and his work currently fall into this category. Howard’s main entry is threadbare and heavily slanted toward the de Campian viewpoint that predominated twenty years ago. His biography takes up all of six paragraphs, the bulk of which concerns his suicide. The rest is on the whole pedestrian and shallow, failing to achieve the level of a genre encyclopedia entry, like the one in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy.

To add insult to injury, many other Wiki entries for famous authors, such as the one for H. P. Lovecraft, are far more comprehensive. Even the entry for L. Sprague de Camp dwarfs the Howard entry, containing a long list of de Camp’s books and much other information.

But remember, this is Wikipedia — poor entries do not have to remain that way. As the website proclaims, “On Wikipedia, and its sister projects, you are welcome to be bold and edit articles yourself, contributing knowledge as you see fit in a collaborative way. So go ahead!” Any Howard fan with the time and inclination can add to Howard’s entry, scrap whole sections and replace them with better ones, and build additional entries for all of Howard’s characters, stories, biographical compatriots (Tevis Clyde Smith, Truett Vinson, etc.), and so on.

With more readers taking advantage of Wikipedia and making it a major stop on the information superhighway, it behooves us Howard fans to make his entry a shining light in the cyber-gloom. If a dozen people each added one story entry a week, soon every one of REH’s stories would have its own page, easily expandable whenever more information rolls in.

In addition, there are Wikipedia “sister sites” that need more Howard contributions. Wikisource is similar to the website Project Gutenberg, which archives texts of original documents — stories, letters, poems. Some Howard items are already there, but it could use a lot more. And just like with Wikipedia, if you see errors in the text, you can edit them out of existence. Wikiquote houses famous quotations, but Howard is represented by a mere three. Why not spend a few moments to post your favorites? Entries on words such as “Cimmerian” could possibly be tweaked with a Howard slant at the Wiktionary. There is even a Conan Wiki, which is setup to act as an information repository for anything and everything about the famous Cimmerian, whether you’re discussing the one from Howard’s original stories or the ones from the various pastiches.

For years, I have often fantasized about designing a Howard database on the Internet, one holding everything we could think to include about the author. Story summaries, character lists, concordances, lesson plans for school, pictures, video, e-texts. With Wikipedia we have the next best thing, or perhaps even a better thing: a place for Howard information that can be accessed and improved by anybody. So if you have ever had the urge to write about Two-Gun Bob, head on over to Wikipedia, punch up “Robert E. Howard,” and get to work. Let’s see if, between the lot of us, we can make Howard’s entry into something special.