Reference Books and Wikipedia

I inherited from my dad a love of books and knowledge and over thirty years or so I assembled an impressive personal library of reference books consisting of encyclopedias, atlases, great works of literature, almanacs, dictionaries and gazetteers.  If I wanted to know something or carry out a piece of research I had a bookcase full of scholarly volumes that would almost always provide the information and the answers.

I still have the books but add to the collection less frequently now because if I want to know something now I almost always use the internet because somewhere here is lurking the answer to absolutely everything and my favourite is Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia that went online on 15th January 2001.  The name is a combination of the Hawaiian word for quick, ‘wiki’, and ‘encyclopedia’. It is actively updated in over one hundred languages, the English language Wikipedia contains over one and a half million articles and there are eleven other language editions with over one hundred thousand articles each and over fifty languages with over ten thousand articles each.  This absence of language barriers, and the fact that anybody with an Internet connection and a web browser can edit its contents, has Wikipedia termed as a ‘sum of public human knowledge.’

It is one of the most popular websites on the internet (Google is top) and is used by around sixty-five million people each month and I think I use it almost every day.  A very common criticism of Wikipedia however is its inconsistent and unauthoritative submission framework because, dangerously, the encyclopedia allows anybody to edit its pages, even anonymously.

I have been caught out myself by this and to be safe all information from Wikipedia really needs to be cross referenced and independently verified because citing Wikipedia as a reference work is usually frowned upon in most academic circles as my son Jonathan discovered when he was at University.  But it is not only Wikipedia that can sometimes be inaccurate and in  2005 the scientific publication Nature performed a comparison of the accuracy of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica and it found that the amount of errors per article in Wikipedia and Britannica were roughly the same. However,  the severity of errors in Wikipedia were considered worse because although Encyclopedia Britannica suffered mostly from fact omission, Wikipedia suffered from inaccurate information, mischief and lies and  the open nature of the online encyclopedia has lead to some embarrassing and damaging instances in which article pages have been edited or revised to contain false information. The entry for Tony Blair for example was edited to state that his middle name was ‘Whoop-de-do’ and I always thought it was ‘lying bastard’.

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