As a child I can remember scanning the alphabetical identifiers on the bindings of the beige and green World Book Encyclopedia volumes, circa 1960, in hopes of finding a wealth of information that would help me finish a school project. Back then the complete set had an honoured place, on its own shelf, in the living room of my family home. Over time that shelf started to sag from the weight of the books and after several more years they sat on the shelf, relatively untouched, as a reminder that time had moved on without them.
If someone had told the child me that my faithful encyclopedia could contain errors I would have defended it vehemently. When I read or hear that the information on Wikipedia contains errors my reaction is considerably less passionate. When I read the results of the Giles (2005) special report that “reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively” (p.901), I even had the fleeting thought that my 1960 World Book would have certainly fared better than those Britannicas!
My childhood naiveté aside, I was a little surprised that Wikipedia stood up so well in the encyclopedia standoff, given that anyone with Internet access can edit the information. As Royal and Kapila (2009) explain, “Wikipedia uses the wiki software format, which is a collaborative development environment” and “operates under the assumption that more writers and editors are better than fewer and that the community will develop and monitor content in a manner that is improved over that of traditional information publishing” (p.139). When I consider the Giles (2005) report results and the Royal and Kapila (2009) description of Wikipedia’s operating premise I surmise that perhaps we are witnessing content monitoring that has, at the time of the available information, reached equilibrium with traditional information publishing. We must keep an eye on this space if we are to determine whether the collaborative community of Wikipedia surpasses the content accuracy of traditional publishing.
I will confess to being a Wikipedia user and I will admit to enjoying the ease of access, search ability, and extra shelf space that Wikipedia provides. Experience and scholarly training has led me to become a cautious user of Wikipedia information but the same could be said of any information I find on the Internet. Much like my old faithful World Book, Internet sources provide a starting point but not the complete story. Whether I find a few good references to follow up on or few valuable key words that I can use in a scholarly article search engine I almost always take something valuable away from a quick little Wikipedia search.
I grew up with the printed word and I still feel a strange sense of peace and comfort when I sit in a library surrounded by printed books, journals and newspapers. I smiled when I read the heading “Exaggerated Rumors of Death” and the meaning associated with that heading “Some assume that technology will allow us to distill pure information, leaving the document, as such, behind in the ashes” (Brown and Duguid, 1996). My response is centered in my personal observation of the large quantity of documents I have generated since gaining access to first a PC and now a laptop, Ipad and blackberry compared to the small volume of documents I generated prior to having access to this technology. When I consider the vast number of people collaborating to document our history, our present and our futures on Wikipedia, and like information sources, I believe the document need not fear death but rather it should celebrate its potential to outlive us all.
Brown, J. S. & P. Duguid. (1996). The Social Life of Documents. First Monday. 1, 1.
Giles. J. (2005). Special Report: Internet encyclopaedias go head to head. Nature. 438, pp 900-901.
Royal, C. & Kapila, D. (2009). What’s on Wikipedia, and What’s Not . . . ?: Assessing Completeness of Information. Social Science Computer Review. 27, 1. pp 138-148.
My overworked little laptop on a stack of my written words…ps I Googled Wikipedia Canada