I’ve got an inbuilt fondness for the encyclopaedia. As a child from a family with a pretty modest income, but one which valued books, Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia took pride of place on the bookshelf. Whether there was a school project, a trip to the museum, a holiday or a family argument, one of the encyclopaedia volumes was sure to help. It’s hardly surprising then that I’m a Wikipedia fan. At the start of its existence Wikipedia was tantamount to vanity publishing and anyone who wanted could put up blatantly flattering pieces about themselves. But it has grown to be more genuinely encyclopaedic.
I regularly go to Wikipedia. I come across something I can vaguely remember or I haven’t heard of at all, and Wikipedia provides a bit of a definition, a snippet of a history and a few clues about where to follow up. This is generally enough for me to decide whether I want to pursue whatever-I’m-looking-for or whether it’s a not-what-I’m-looking-for. Wikipedia kicks off a process, or gives me enough information to stop bothering.
I’m far from the only one. The eminent Prof William Cronon, President of the American Historians Association also also advocates its use.
Wikipedia is today the gateway through which millions of people now seek access to knowledge which not long ago was only available using tools constructed and maintained by professional scholars. Whatever the reference tools we consulted—dictionaries, almanacs, encyclopedias, books of quotations, finding aids, bibliographies—we did so because their contents had been carefully scrutinized by professionals with appropriate scholarly training.
No longer. Wikipedia and its kin have changed all that, and those of us who inhabit the world of scholarship need to ponder the ongoing role of professional authority when traditional disciplines can no longer maintain the kind of intellectual monopolies that their members once took for granted. No one needs a PhD in a subject, or even a baccalaureate major, to contribute or modify Wikipedia entries. Although the wide-open Wiki world sometimes harbors howling errors, even outright fraud, the overall quality of Wikipedia content is remarkably good. If one’s goal is quick consultation for information one can check in other ways, or a brief orientation to an unfamiliar topic, then it’s hard to imagine a more serviceable tool than Wikipedia. I even have an app that downloads to my iPhone the entire English-language contents of the site—over four gigabytes—so I always have it at my fingertips even when I’m offline.
So Wikipedia may have actually woken the academy/us up to the need to ensure that we – and those we work with – are able to deal critically with any online information available to us. We scholars wouldn’t assume that any single source of print information was sufficient. We would always assume print sources were partial – not complete, particular, written from a point of view – and situated – written in a particular time and place. We are trained to read not only for what a source says, but also what it doesn’t say, what it might emphasize, what it might have in common with other texts and where it might differ. There is no reason that reading Wikipedia or any other online material should be any different.
I agree with Cronon’s argument. As more and more information moves on line, our scholarly critical reading processes must move too.
Blogs, just like Wikipedia, contain useful information, but none of what is written is value free or comprehensive. Blogs of course generally don’t pretend to be anything but the writer’s views, and it is perhaps the commonality of the ‘pedia’ in encylopaedia and Wikipedia that makes us think that the material is somehow above and different from any other source. But it seems pretty clear that, regardless of the scholarly source – print or digital, Wikipedia or blog – we need to be on the lookout for: the origin of the material; the currency of the information; the author, their credentials and their sources; the reliability of the material and the capacity to check what’s on offer; and the point of view or agenda through which the information has been provided.
I’m still fond of this old Howard Rheingold talk on crap detection. Riffing on Hemingway, it is aimed at people who are unfamiliar with the web and social media. However, the basic points that Rheingold makes about crap detection are pretty applicable to all of us, no matter how deep into the digital we are or whether we are or have children, or not.
Rheingold suggests that we all need to find a community of people who provide trustworthy information. And I particularly like his notion of a community of scholarly crap detectors and the kind of mutual obligation we have to be trustworthy in the information we provide. That seems pretty helpful advice for people reading and writing Wikipedia, but also for those of us who blog. It is perhaps one of the ethical principles that I/we bloggers might adopt – I will not knowingly write crap…