Exploring the world of social media

WEEKLY #7: Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedias

I’ll never forget my first major research project. It was 5th grade, and we’d learned all about using note cards to capture facts, how to organize facts into paragraphs, and how to create a bibliography page. Each student had to choose a difference U.S. state as the subject of their research paper. I chose Georgia — a choice that made great sense to me, because my 20-year-old brother was a Bulldog at the time, and I couldn’t have looked up to him more.

In those days, the primary source for research was the traditional encyclopedia. The school library had a 1992 volume of Work Book encyclopedias for everyone to use. I, however, was one of the lucky students who had a set of encyclopedias at home — or so I thought.

As it turned out, the set of encyclopedias I had at home were purchased for my older brother. Yeah, that same brother who was 10 years older than me. As a 10-year-old, I had little understanding of the fact that information about Georgia from 1984 was probably a whole lot different than information about the state in 1992. I learned there was quite a big difference when I got my paper back and was told that I had to re-write it. I made sure to use those 1992 World Books the second time around.

In later years, the research process improved. Encarta was a tool that seemed to change my life! I can still remember logging onto Prodigy and popping my Encarta CD-Rom discs into the computer. The ability to type in a search term and generate an entry (most of the time) was incredible. But today, Encarta, a Microsoft product, has been discontinued. And what do you know? Shutting down Encarta was directly related to the growth of this thing called Wikipedia.

Created by founder Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia is an online, free encyclopedia that can be accessed and edited by anyone. (This WIRED article provides great background on the development of  Wikipedia.)  And it’s hard to imagine that anyone who uses internet search regularly hasn’t come across a Wikipedia entry about the subject he/she is researching. The breadth of Wikipedia is amazing. At the time of this post, Wikipedia reports that it hosts 3,238,343 articles in English. I can’t tell you how tempted I was to link to Wikipedia articles when including the terms “bulldog”, “Prodigy,” and “Encarta.”

But in the past, there have been questions about whether or not Wikipedia is better than traditional encyclopedias that are written by trusted sources. And anyone who has used Wikipedia on multiple occasions can attest to the range in quality  that one might find from entry to entry.

Yes, Wikipedia has its shortcomings. But ultimately, its benefits outweigh those flaws. And those benefits ultimately make Wikipedia better than traditional encyclopedias. Wikipedia is available to anyone with internet access. It isn’t limited by a finite number of printed pages like a traditional encyclopedia, so it’s able to contain millions of entries, as opposed to just tens of thousands. And as Clay Shirky describes in his book, Here Comes Everybody, Wikipedia allows users to self-organize in such a way that brings real value. Yes, there are times when people “vandalize” an article on Wikipedia, but within the network of users, there are enough concerned individuals who will correct those mistakes. And finally, there’s the speed. Learning about Georgia today is vastly different from the days when I depended on a set of encyclopedias from the past decade. And as I think back on that experience, all I can think is that that’s a very good thing.


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