My family bought an encyclopedia set sometime around 1986 (yes, I realize some of you couldn’t read then, or eat solid foods…). I was pretty excited to have it sitting on the shelf in the family room, all gleaming blue leather and gold embossed font, some volumes larger than others, some letters combined, others split across two volumes. It was especially exciting for me because I am a procrastinator at heart and having the encyclopedia in the house meant I could wait later to start school reports and didn’t have to go to the library to look things up anymore. I also loved getting lost in the encyclopedia (or dictionary) while looking up one thing and spending too much time looking at other, unrelated entries too. Fast-forward 24 years…now which one do I trust more, the published volume or Wikipedia?
I’m going to have to say my preference is to start with Wikipedia. I’m not a serious, scholarly researcher; I’m just a normal person looking for information online quickly because I’m still too lazy to go to the library for research. That said, I am all for knowing how to use the Internet wisely and I always take Wikipedia entries with a grain of salt. I look to see what source material they’ve cited, then I go to the source material and read it for myself. I think Wikipedia can be a useful jumping off point, but I never feel that I want to totally trust it without verifying the information further. To me, Wikipedia is like having a reference librarian at my fingertips to point me in the direction I should look for more information.
What I like about Wikipedia (the citations) is what makes me question published encyclopedias now. Truth be told, I haven’t looked at one in many years, but I don’t think (or don’t know) what their sources are. Do they even list them? I like to be able to look at source data for myself and make up my own mind, and I feel (truthiness alarm going off here..) that Wikipedia is an easier way to do that for day-to-day activities. I think Wikipedia serves a useful purpose in that sense. I also appreciate the fact that there are zillions of articles on Wikipedia that would never make it into a regular encyclopedia. As I’ve already mentioned, I love being distracted and following links and learning new things. I can’t tell you some of the things I’ve learned about from Wikipedia that would never have been in a traditional encyclopedia. Is it book learning? No, but it’s useful to me nonetheless.
My 6th grade niece isn’t even allowed to look at Wikipedia according to her school rules. In a sense, I can appreciate that the students are being taught how to do actual research in the library, but in another sense I feel bad for her because she thinks Wikipedia is the source of all evil, instead of treating it like the useful point of departure that it is. Sure, it’s not perfect but it’s a helpful start.