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Weighing Wikipedia


'Wikipedia' by Chris JohnstonRecently the library I manage received a 40 box donation of books from a religious house that had just closed in rural New South Wales. Four of the boxes carried a complete ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1875–89), unmarked, in near perfect condition.

This set must have been carted into the intense hinterland at the time by the German nuns, then referred to more or less continually for over a century. It is called the Scholars Edition, because a vast range of university experts made contributions, raising the Britannica to a new level of intellectual input and expectation.

It is not the most popular edition among buffs. That is the special preserve of the 11th edition, produced on rice paper in leather bindings, with contributors like Baden-Powell on kite-flying, Arthur Eddington on astronomy, Edmund Gosse on literature and Donald Tovey on music. Many of these entries are still read for pleasure and information today, though for some this is a way of spending the whole afternoon in 1912, which is apparently meant to be a safer and nicer world than 2012.

Libraries though are intended for more than historical diversions. Our 1889 acquisition will be catalogued then stored quietly in a stack room: some of the theology was avantgarde for its time. 

Nothing has quite shaken the conventions of reference like the internet, and in particular its know-all eldest child, Wikipedia. Until ten years ago the great publishing houses with reference lines were expected to produce new, authoritative, concise volumes on subjects major and minor, every year. This expectation no longer holds, even if outstanding works of reference, often more niche than normative, keep reaching the shelves.

When confronted with the sesquipedalianest of all words, we are less likely to get out the dictionary than copy it into the search line of our computer. Now even figuring out how many esses there really are in a word leads us to the screen rather than the page and this reliance on Google to answer all questions has become an issue, even if most users aren't aware of it.

It is not just laziness, or an unthinking adherence to the false nostrum that if it isn't on the web it doesn't exist. Its permanent availability and the sheer scale of ready information it provides have become a comfort, even an addiction.

It took me ten seconds to find out who wrote for the 11th Britannica, because it says so on Wikipedia. I even learnt in less time that it takes to recite the alphabet, that this edition will soon be online: all those words, so little time.

In fact, many librarians are obsessed (three esses) with the reading habits, print and digital, of modern readers, which is why reference in particular is of deep concern.

There are teachers who will send students off on internet exercises in the hope of broadening horizons, while others threaten to fail their students if they even cite Wikipedia in an essay. Why is that? Wikipedia is the largest compendium of knowledge ever assembled under one title, with millions of entries, but authority control is based on the honesty of those who enter the data. This has been one of the secrets of its success.

Yet when vying claims for 'possession' of the knowledge come into play then we inevitably ask, who speaks with authority? Somedays Wikipedia looks like the most extravagant love letter to the humanist project, other days like the biggest ragbag of unsorted intellectual capital.

The author Sam Vankin has identified six sins of Wikipedia. It is opaque and encourages recklessness. It is anarchic, not democratic. Its editorial policy amounts to might is right. It is rife with libel and copyright violations. You can judge for yourself the seriousness of these sins. The two that interest me most are that Wikipedia is against real knowledge, and that it is not an encyclopedia.

Britannica had to up its game in the 19th century because its readers wanted dependability. It could no longer afford to be the preserve of amateur encylopedists.

The Victorians became dedicated to historical principles, so for example the Oxford English Dictionary had to be more than lists of words with definitions pulled from a file in one's head. Usage through time, shifts in meaning, spelling and sense were collected to provide the reader with the subtle historical description of each word. This required scholarship. Anyone of mature years could send in words, but only a committee of experts could discern how to select and edit the material.

This principle of expertise was also at work with Britannica, but is not so with Wikipedia. The fevered opinions of a new convert to a subject can displace the erudite judgements of an immortel of the Academy, with one clatter of the keyboard.

This is why encyclopedia is merely a term of convenience when describing Wikipedia. It is really an international collective of every kind of fact, and non-fact.

What is truly amazing is the sheer scale, even excess, of information. If everything on Wikipedia were reprinted in heavy leather volumes like the 9th Britannica it would fill a library of Borgesian proportions. Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian poet and blind librarian, once confessed that 'I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,' but one wonders if this what he had in mind. He would not have been impressed by the volumes full of stubs.

For me, Wikipedia is astounding as a reference work for where it leads you next. The availability of links to other places online is awesome and serves as a reminder that much of the best information about a subject is not on Wikipedia, but the sites that its pages send you to via those myriad of little blue letters on the pages, especially the ones at the end listed under External Links. Often now, that's the first place I go when searching for the best in-depth and reliable knowledge on the subject.

Is online really the source of all knowledge? Actually, no. I would advise that the specialist reference works in your library supply a massive amount of information that is not online and never will be. Even if it is online, you find it quicker by going to the book than surfing till sundown on the net, pleasurable as that may be to some mousers.

And it is well to remember why the ninth Britannica is in stack: information dates. There is nothing new under the sun, which is why we must treat Wikipedia's currency with the same caution we would for any purported fund of completest knowledge.

Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is Eureka Street's poetry editor and head of the Carmelite Library of Spirituality in Middle Park, Victoria. 

Topic tags: Philip Harvey, Wikipedia



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Existing comments

Interesting. I have the 1963 edition of the Britannica, as well as my much beloved Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia, and nothing replaces - to my mind - the stable image of the physical page, easily turnable - and the sense that all the pages are already "open", unlike the sensation that they are "hidden" behind the screen. Some years ago, one of my daughters and I had great fun rushing off, at the introduction of a novel idea or query, to the Britannica for an answer (we invariably found one) with the cry "Let's Boogle!" And so now, looking up the Britannica (or another Book) is "Boogling"! Try it, it's liberating.

Stephen Kellett | 16 January 2012  

Nevertheless, is it not a matter of wonder that so much of wikipedia is accurate. You wouldn't go to it for opinion, of course.

Frank | 16 January 2012  

"... but authority control is based on the honesty of those who enter the data. This has been one of the secrets of its success." I suggest that those who volunteer their time are not hampered by well-meaning authorities who may introduce all sorts of checks before anything is published. How much more inviting be one's own boss than to constantly have to go through several different bosses to get something done?

SK | 16 January 2012  

Easily the best and most perceptive and informative piece I have ever read about the Book of Wiki. Kudos. Also an essay with the word sesquipedalianest is a winner, seems to me.

brian doyle | 19 January 2012  

Nice bit of self-reflexiveness: I was already in the process of googling the definition of 'sesquipedalianest' before I'd finished reading the sentence and hence your prediction, that 'we are less likely to get out the dictionary than copy it into the search line of our computer'. Very nicely done.

Charles Boy | 19 January 2012  

Critics of Wikipedia who aren't also contributors miss the point. It's a community project; if you don't like it, for whatever reason, it's open to you to get in there and fix it - on multiple levels, from the very basic editing of a single article all the way up the organisational chain. Talk's cheap!

Patricia Fraser | 20 January 2012  

Thank you for your responses to my thoughts on Wikipedia and reference. The accuracy of the majority of material in Wikipedia is not in question, but the completeness and authority of the entries has to be questioned. A serious reader will be testing facts anywhere, not just on Wikipedia. Also, the intellectual and literacy levels of many entries often leaves much to be desired. Frank says you wouldn’t go there for an opinion, a remark that in fact touches on the vast issue in reference of what is subjective and objective knowledge. For example, the most widely reported incident on Wikipedia is where one contributor gave their version of Kennedy history in American politics. The Kennedys threatened and the entry was changed, but who is to say whether the contributor was staying close to the truth or just giving an opinion? Although Patricia argues for readers to get in there and update entries, the point is that Wikipedia is consulted by millions of people for what they don’t know already, not what they do know. This is the dilemma. If we know that Wikipedia entries can be faulty, poorly worded, and inaccurate, we know we have to consult and quote from it with caution. The expression ‘talk’s cheap’ is ironical in this discussion, as it is actually the free relay of ‘talk’ on Wikipedia that is both its strength and its weakness. Nor would I style myself a ‘critic’ of Wikipedia, by the way. I am an avid seeker after true knowledge and hope for the best from those who claim to provide it. Coincidentally, this week saw Wikipedia pull the plug for 24 hours in protest at anti-piracy laws before the US Congress.

It seems governments aren’t the only ones capable of removing huge objects from the internet when they want to, and the company’s action raises troubling questions about the stability, availability and permanence of information on the world wide web. We would all rather have Wikipedia than not have it, we all want a better Wikipedia, but this week revealed the gap that can exist between company interests and the beliefs of the ‘community’ of contributors.

PHILIP HARVEY | 21 January 2012  

"Authority" is a matter of opinion. Perhaps 40 years ago, if you consulted an Australian school history book about the British colonial past in India, you would have gotten a whole different slant to how the Indians themselves saw it: you would have learnt from the Australian book about the "black hole of Calcutta"; about the bastardry of the Indians (whether the story is wholly true is open to debate); about the benevolence of British rule; but not about anything remotely tyrannical concerning British imperialism.

When I bought an electronic version of a certain "well respected" encyclopaedia some years ago with the hope it would be useful for my children's education, I did a quick check and found some facts about Australia (including population and some other key facts that I don't now recall) to be incorrect.

My conclusion was that just because so-called experts have been engaged to "select and edit" the content of a book does not necessarily mean it will be correct.

Therefore I don't think it is safe to blindly assume that either one or another source (encyclopaedia written by "experts" or Wikipedia written by knowledgeable amateurs) is correct.

Frank S | 21 January 2012  

Philip Harvey is right. However, as a retiree of 68, with couple of univ degrees and a rewarding career behind me, I use Wiki if I just want some very basic info about something or someone. Just an introductory idea regarding a topic or issue. I am very concerned about young students and other young people though, who, in this age of super, amazing technological appliances at their fingertips, are skipping, and missing loads of other expert opinions, when studying for learning, and widening young minds. Wikipedia does not have it all. It is only one opening to an endless wealth of knowledge out there.

LouW | 22 January 2012  

Thanks to Philip Harvey for his discussion of Wikipedia. However his concern that Wikipedia's "action raises troubling questions about the stability, availability and permanence of information on the world wide web" is partly met when it is known that the Wikipedia Blackout page included a link to information on the continuing indirect availability of all Wikipedia content.

It is also worth noting that all revisions of wikipedia entries (including Kennedy famiuly history) remain accessible through a "history" tab at the top of each wikipedia webpage.

Further info on the rationale of the blackout are available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:SOPA_initiative/Learn_more including a link to video in which "Professor Clay Shirky explains in [a] 14 minute talk how SOPA and PIPA would damage the kind of commons-based peer production that makes Wikipedia possible".

Gary Schliemann | 22 January 2012  

Here is an article that illustrates one of the problems with using Wikipedia as a source. http://chronicle.com/article/The-Undue-Weight-of-Truth-on/130704/

PHILIP HARVEY | 21 February 2012  

After 244 Years, Encyclopaedia Britannica Stops the Presses: http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/13/after-244-years-encyclopaedia-britannica-stops-the-presses/?scp=1&sq=britannica&st=cse

PHILIP HARVEY | 14 March 2012