Encyclopedias aren’t journals (and that’s OK)

By Evan Meehan

Wikipedia received a lot of hate constructive criticism in the readings this week.  Created by a guy whose background was running a pornographic web portal, its frankly remarkable that Wikipedia offers anything of intellectual merit to the world.  But, clearly Wikipedia is ill prepared to serve as a medium for the generation and proliferation of historical thought.  Wikipedia’s stance against using primary sources is antithetical to historical research.  Further, the emphasis on facts and lists fails to lend itself to good synthetic works of historical analysis.

And that’s OK.

Ah, so you clicked past the jump.  That either means you are my professor, tasked with reading my ramblings, or you want to know more about why this is OK.

If one were to go through the readings this week and employ a find/replace macro, switching ‘Wikipedia’ for ‘Encyclopedia,’ one would wonder what the big fuss was all about.

  • The editors of an encyclopedia were against using primary sources.
  • The editing process of an encyclopedia resulted in stodgy, stilted verse.
  • The encyclopedia isn’t entirely up to date.
  • This encyclopedia has slightly fewer/more/different errors than this other one.
  • This encyclopedia slandered or libeled someone.

None of these issues are shocking, and none of these issues are unique to Wikipedia.

  • Historians don’t publish their newest, most cutting edge findings in encyclopedias.
  • Encyclopedias, while better written than the group-speak garbage found on Wikipedia, are not paradigmatic works of English-language greatness.
  • Encyclopedias are always at least a little out of date.
  • Encyclopedias always contain errors.
  • Encyclopedias can and do employ slander and libel. (I’m looking at you Algernon Charles Swinburne!)

So, why is everyone making a big deal about Wikipedia?  I think the answer lies not within its problems (of which it has plenty) but within its mythology.  Wikipedia is supposed to take knowledge and move it to a transcendental place where all points of view are neutral and all properly cited facts are included in their proper place.  More than democratization of information, we feel that Wikipedia should bring life, liberty and fraternity to information.  Yet, democracy and liberty are forces that frequently run in opposition to one another.

Historians want an open-access portal for dissemination of new research – and this may be Wikipedia’s greatest contribution to the historical profession.  Historians want to have this.  But they need to realize that Wikipedia is not this portal.

However… if any historian who runs a “erotic photography” site on the side wants to branch out – it sounds like Nupedia might just have been ahead of its time.


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