Monday, August 23, 2010

I Love Wikipedia

I grew up with the World Book Encyclopedia, 1966 edition, and it looked just like the set above. My parents' meager grandmother-subsidized incomes would not permit a set of Britannicas, so this is what I was educated with. I loved it. I loved the pictures, the easy-to-glance graphics and layouts, the short articles. It was written for school children more than for the basic reader.

Today, everyone bashes Wikipedia. My academic colleagues are very divided over it, with some like me who love it, and others who forbid their students to use it.

Yesterday, I looked up something that I know I could never have found in my old World Books, the Tang dynasty Emperor Taizong. Wikipedia had a detailed biography of the Emperor, discussion of his reign, his domestic and foreign policies, a list of his ministers, his family tree, the spellings of his name and titles in traditional and simplified Chinese, pinyin and Wade-Giles transliterations. There was a long list of footnoted references and external links. The old World Book had nothing like that. Just as good, I didn't have to pay a penny for any of it. When Wikipedia is good, it is very good.
I had a similar experience with the Florentine guild system. Someone had gone out of their way to photograph examples of all the guild emblems in Florence, and to sort out the guilds in order of importance from the Arte Maggiori to the Arte Piccoli. I was impressed. Their articles on artists are very good and certainly would be useful for my students.
Something else that the World Book never had, and I doubt the Britannicas had, is lots of articles on popular culture. It's fun to open up the discussion sections and to read the movie and music mavens arguing with each other. I don't remember Britannica having sections for scholars, experts, and mavens to argue publicly.

As for biases, I look back at my old World Books and I think, "My! What a lot of Cold War propaganda!" You should read the articles on Communism and socialism in the old 1966 edition. They are anything but fair and balanced. The religion articles slanted heavily toward Christianity with anything other than Protestant Christianity presented as something very exotic. Articles on women were very pre-feminist. Articles on African Americans began with the word "Negro" and had nothing on African American literature or history.

The old encyclopedia was a very inflexible format. I remember that World Book revisions came out every year in the "Yearbook." An online encyclopedia is much more flexible, and responsive to changes in history and scholarship.

Wikipedia gets a whole lot wrong. I notice the most problems in articles on celebrities, and in articles on political and historical issues that are still very contentious. That is a risk that any project that lets people come in and edit or contribute to the article must take. If it was up to me, I'd confine editing decisions to a board of editors, and keep arguments and dissensions on a public discussion page, with a red flag indicating to the reader that there is controversy. Usually Wikipedia is good about warning readers.

I agree with that basic mission of Wikipedia, to democratize knowledge, to keep it from becoming a commodity, more gist for the profit mills. I also agree with their mission to shrink the distance between expert professional and amateur expert. So much of academic jargon is intended not to clarify, but to obscure, to establish the bounds between the initiated and the uninitiated. It is good to see experts and expertise made accountable. This runs the risk of all kinds of abuse with rumors transformed into "facts" and superstition become science. But, it is better to see reason battle it out directly with ignorance in public and open to discussion. Usually in this country we see reason retreat into an academic cloister. Intellectual life is not always very public here the way it is in much of the rest of the world. I've always said that universities and colleges in the USA play the role of inoculating the public against new ideas by locking them up in academia like a tuberculosis germ. Perhaps the web will help to crack open that shell.


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

I agree. It I have any critizism it's that the Wikipedia often unreflectingly represents the mistakes of the grandparents teachers...

But so do any university book.

Myself I have found the German Wiki very useful for history and biographies... Some blatant errors persist there from High Medieval Church Propaganda (Frankish Feud, and so on)... But on the whole, quite useful.

Wilfried said...

I grew up taking a letter of the World Book to bed. "Maybe there's something good in 'K' tonight." Explains a lot, doesn't it?

JCF said...

I think it would be fruitless (if not foolish) to not permit students to use Wiki.

My policy was just that they could not cite it (or plagiarize it, but that's another story!) in their papers.