"How old is the Parthenon?"
Last week I got an email from a “researcher” in the office of the National Geographic Traveler Magazine. “Hello, Prof Beard”, it started.
The gist was that they were about to run a short article on Athens, and wanted to check a few facts. The first question was “How many years old is the Parthenon?” Others followed: “Back in the early 1900s could visitors wander the ruins of the Parthenon at will?” “Is it currently surrounded by scaffolding as part of a meticulous restoration project?”
Now, without advertising my services too widely, I am usually very happy to help people out with classical things, if they have done something to help themselves (like read a book) , or if it is a bit arcane (I’m currently having a jolly exchange with a clinical psychologist about ‘thrill seeking’ in ancient Rome).
But I get pretty cross if I’m just being used a free ‘book-substitute”. OK, she did promise me a free copy of the magazine. But didn’t the guy who was getting a no doubt fat fee for writing this article think it was part of his job to know how old the Parthenon was?
So I wrote back like this:
You don’t mention a fee for this professional advice...
Most of this information is widely available in the public domain... I am happy to help for no fee once you have done some basic researches yourself. If you are using me INSTEAD of doing that yourself, there is I am afraid a charge...”
A slightly hurt/unrepentant email came back within a few minutes.
“Since we like to double and triple check all of our work, I was merely hoping for an expert perspective to balance out the previously published information on the Parthenon. . . . I have, in fact, already done research (and have answers for those questions) but thought you might be able to easily answer them as validation of my other research. I do understand my questions are very basic, but so often available research is inaccurate (especially on the Internet), and it's great to have an expert's opinion.
Does that help? We do not offer a fee for our expert consultants, considering the number of experts we contact for each article we publish.”
This wasn’t an encouraging response. There are obviously hundreds of us out there having our time wasted being asked to “validate” straightforward factoids for the National Geographic.
But the problems runs deeper and are bound up in part with new technology. As soon as your email is out there in the world, you are prey to all those people who think “I wonder when the Parthenon was built . .. I know I’ll email a Cambridge professor, she should know.”
It’s also about internet research tools. As my hapless researcher had correctly realised, you can’t trust what you read on the web. But if you wont go to a library, how do you decide what is right and what is wrong? Well, same answer: “email a professor.”
Of course, I weakened at this point and gave a few desultory responses on the questions I could do from the top of my head (most of them). I did, however, suggest that my book on The Parthenon would have been a reliable vade mecum.
I needn’t have bothered. She had her answer ready on that one:
“Working against tight deadlines, unfortunately, means we often don't have time to attain books (that aren't already in our library), but rather must rely on experts for consultation.”
Same story again. Why take the trouble to read something, when an email will get the answer for you a lot quicker?
I mustn’t weaken next time.