The Wikipedia

March 15, 2007

While growing up, encyclopedias held a particular allure for me. I loved how they looked on a bookshelf, and I loved taking a book out and looking something up. Or I’d just take out a volume and let it fall open somewhere, and I’d read about the Mayan civilization, or Border Collies, or Chicago, Illinois, or wherever random chance leads me. My family never owned an encyclopedia (at least, that’s my vague recollection — isn’t that right, Mom?), but I had plenty of opportunities to indulge in my Encyclopedia fetish (ahem, tech blog here) elsewhere.  [EDIT 3/15/07: from my Mom: “I think we had an encyclopedia AND the Great Books too! love, mom”]

Wikipedia wordThat’s exactly how I feel about “the” Wikipedia. It’s one MASSIVE encyclopedia. Not just massive; it’s humongous. It currently has 1,687,775 English articles. Yes, over a million and a half. It also has over 4 or 5 million articles in other languages as well. (In comparison, the present-day version of the Encyclopedia Brittanica has about 700,000 topics — both long and short). And best of all? It’s free. Wikipedia calls itself “the free encyclopedia.”

Wikipedia staff doesn’t do the writing or updating of entries. Instead, just about anybody — including you and me (and yes, you too, Mom) can create new encyclopedia entries or update / revise current entries. Wikipedia logoLet’s say you live in Peoria, Illinois. You look up “Peoria” via the search box on the left column of just about all of Wikipedia’s pages, and you’ll get a choice of Peoria’s all over the U.S. (Who knew there are so many Peoria’s?!) Click on “Peoria, Illinois” and then you’ll be viewing a page with complete and indexed information. As you read the article, you may realize that it doesn’t mention your favorite (but small) museum under the Culture subheading. So, you click on the little “Edit” link just above the “Culture” section and insert the name of your favorite museum somewhere in the list of museums already there. You don’t even have to sign up and create a Wikipedia account, although I strongly encourage you to do so. And if anything happens in Peoria, say, a huge storm that sends a tree through the courthouse, chances are that within days, nay, minutes, someone will add a reference to this to the Peoria article. So, “will it play in Peoria?” Definitely, yes.

Of course, the fact that just about anyone (and you too, Mom) can create and edit entries can lead to abuse and vandalism. And it often does. Wikipedia recognizes this, and has special editorial controls in place to revise articles whenever this happens. As Wikipedia says on its About Wikipedia page:

Because Wikipedia is an on-going work to which in principle anybody can contribute, it differs from a paper-based reference source in some very important ways. In particular, older articles tend to be more comprehensive and balanced, while newer articles may still contain significant misinformation, unencyclopedic content, or vandalism. Users need to be aware of this in order to obtain valid information and avoid misinformation which has been recently added and not yet removed. (See Researching with Wikipedia for more details.) However, unlike a paper reference source, Wikipedia can be constantly updated, with articles on topical events being created or updated within minutes or hours, rather than months or years for printed encyclopedias.

So, what are you waiting for? Go read about the wonders of the Mayan Civilization, look up whether border collies make good pets (they do), or do your school report on Chicago, Illinois. Or click on the “Random Article” and see wherever random chance leads you. (I just did that and ended up on the Arcadia College page. Did you know that it opened and closed several times, and finally closed in 1971 — and that the grounds are now used as a bed and breakfast inn?)


One Response to “The Wikipedia”

  1. […] 20th, 2007 Remember my post from a while ago praising the wonders of the Wikipedia but warning also about abuse.  One of my […]

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