Thursday, March 15, 2012
What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?
I remember browsing through the encyclopedia when I was young. We had an Americana, to the Britannica, which just announced that it will cease print publication, and I would spend hours reading from one entry to another. The volumes were heavy and substantial and the set of them gave a visible and tactile sense of complete knowledge. That sense, of course, was an illusion, but it was there.
The Wikipedia affords a different experience. Of course, I come to the Wikipedia as a mature adult with a great deal of intellectual sophistication; how it would appear to a bright 11-year old, I don’t know. But there’s no way to get a sense of all-knowledge-complete from the Wikipedia; you can’t see it on the shelf, you can’t handle it volume by volume. It just trails off into the ether, in many many different directions.
There is, of course, the question of accuracy and authority. I know that comparisons have been done between Wikipedia entries and, I believe, Britannica entries. And Wikipedia has come out well in these comparisons. But that’s not all there is to IT.
By IT I mean both authority and, well, accuracy, I guess. They’re closely related, but not quite the same. In the case of conventional encyclopedias, such as the Britannica, the authority resides in the institution itself. Where the entries themselves came from, who wrote them and what sources they consulted, that’s pretty much a mystery.
Not so with the Wikipedia. Every article has a Talk page, where editors, as Wikipedia contributors are called, and others discuss the article. In some cases these discussions can be quite extensive. Moreover, each article has a History page as well. This page logs every change to the article from its beginning to the present state. The change may be minor, such as the addition or deletion of a comma, or major, the addition or deletion of several paragraphs. Whatever the change, it’s logged. And, if you wish, you can view the article as it was at any stage in its history.
Strolling through that material can be very tedious, of course. The important point, though, is simply that it’s there. The article no longer has to stand alone, pretending to be a philosophical unmoved mover. It has an accessible pedigree, a visible origin. It is grounded.
THAT is an important difference. VERY important.