I get Belle’s reaction in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast when she first stepped foot into that enormous library. Growing up, I spent many hours curled up in a corner at the end of the hall in my childhood home dreaming of having that for myself someday. At the end of that hall stood a short bookshelf filled with nothing but encyclopedia volumes—the wisdom of the ages. Ok, I may have gotten that from my dad, who used to share stories about spending hours perusing the set they had in his one-room school house when he was young.

Each year we had the option of buying a volume that updated the information found in the other dozens published in the now out-dated volumes. Trouble is, when the shelves got full, we stopped buying the updates. With a 3-foot by 3-foot shelf unit, that did not take but a couple of years.

Some see print copies as an archaic system that is thankfully going the way of the dodo bird. First came Encarta (CD-based encyclopedia), then came the open-source web-based Wikipedia to banish our ignorance. Scholarly noses curled. Intellectual gatekeepers sniffed dubiously. But the unruly mob pressed on for change. “What we need less of is the kind of holier-than-thou attitudes that so many in the traditional publishing world – including Britannica’s editors – have shown toward the digital world in recent years” (Gillmor, 2012).

It is true that print encyclopedias are heavy and expensive. They are not easily searchable, or updatable. Print versions quickly fell behind simply in the sheer number of articles (aka web pages) that they could physically contain versus their online counterparts. And in case you’ve forgotten, Wikipedia is one of many online encyclopedias, which they graciously list on a page called “List of online encyclopedias.”

Numerous external reviews have tested the reliability of Wikipedia articles. You can explore a synopsis of comparative studies conducted from 2005 through 2014. There are also the 249 referenced articles (many of them legitimate scholarly ones) on the “Reliability of Wikipedia” page.

Wikipedia is my first go-to place when starting a new research project. Just as I did with that outdated print version, I can

  • Get a quick overview and grasp of the fundamentals.
  • Find keywords to use in advanced Boolean search queries.
  • Find a ready-made outline to inspire my own paper’s organizational strategy.
  • Find a pre-screened/ready-made list of scholarly sources, which I can locate the full text for in a subscription-based (scholarly) database.

Don’t just take my word for it. A growing number of scholars agree with me. Many of them are also Wikipedia contributors and volunteer peer-reviewers to improve and maintain accuracy in those articles.

Researchers and academics contend that while Wikipedia may not be used as a 100 percent accurate source for final papers, it is a valuable jumping off point for research that can lead to many possibilities if approached critically.

We should not dismiss Wikipedia entirely (there are . . . [fewer] inaccuracies than there are errors of omission) but rather begin to support it, and teach the use of Wikipedia as an education tool in tandem with critical thinking skills that will allow students to filter the information found on the online encyclopedia and help them critically analyze their findings. (Polk, Johnson, & Evers, 2015).

We live in the Information Age with the wisdom of the crowds. The catch is that without those select few gatekeepers, we must all take responsibility for what we consume mentally. I’ll take that risk. Wikipedia is the ginormous world-class library just down the hall—just as I dreamed of as a child, Now, can we learn to love the indominatable human spirit inside that beast?

Your writing coach,

Beth

References

“Beast gives his library to Belle BatB clip.” (2017 April 12). Belle & Beast. Youtube. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/PUjn7iPZ6yk

Bell, David A. (2012 March 18). “What we’ve lost with the demise of print encyclopedias.” New Republic. Retrieved from: https://newrepublic.com/article/101795/encyclopedia-britannica-publish-information

Gilmore, Dan. (2012 March 14). “Encyclopedia Britannica in the age of Wikipedia.” The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2012/mar/14/encyclopedia-britannica-wikipedia

Polk, T., Johnston, M.P., and Evers, S. (2015. “Wikipedia use in research: Perceptions in secondary schools.” TechTrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning. 59(3): 92-102. Doi: 10.1007/s11528-015-0858-6

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