Brave New Reference

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A UW scholar weighs the credibility of Wikipedia.

Some might be mourning the death of the print edition of Encyclopædia Britannica this year, but UW history and geography professor William Cronon ’76 has already identified a far more comprehensive and detailed replacement: Wikipedia.

Like many of his colleagues, the current president of the American Historical Association was initially skeptical about the online encyclopedia.

In an essay for the association’s magazine, Cronon recalls questioning whether Wikipedia would be able to capture the breadth, depth, and nuance of typical reference books, which are backed by the scholarly training and rigor of the professionals who wrote them. The history department at Middlebury College went so far as to bar students from citing it in their papers.

But all that has changed. Wikipedia has exploded to feature more than 19 million articles in 270 languages, with 6 billion individual page views each month.

“I myself use it on a daily basis and am pretty sure most of my colleagues and students do, too, even if they won’t admit it,” Cronon writes. “Wikipedia is today the gateway through which millions of people now seek access to knowledge—which not long ago was only available using tools constructed and maintained by professional scholars.”

Because Wikipedia invites contributions from anyone interested in a subject, it offers a scope that is unmatched by typical encyclopedias.

And for events happening in real time, Wikipedia is far more nimble, creating a standard that even newspapers struggle to match, he writes.

“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” he concludes, encouraging his students and colleagues to write for Wikipedia themselves. “All one needs is to open oneself to the possibilities and give up the comfort of credentialed expertise to contribute to the greatest encyclopedia the world has ever known.”

Published in the Summer 2012 issue

Tags: Research, scholarship, Social sciences, Students, Teaching and learning

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