Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Just like the word Google, the word Wikipedia has become a regular verb in our vocabulary. If I don't know about something, I'll go "Wikipedia" it. I'm as big a fan of Wikipedia as anyone, but I still cringe when I see a history student or a historical novelist cite Wikipedia as the source of their information.
Why is that? Have I imbibed the ivory tower snobbery of academia? Do I think all valid historical perspectives must be vetted by peer-reviewed journals?
Wikipedia is an excellent and (usually) accurate reference guide for finding out basic facts. It is a summary of readily available information on a given subject. But for someone doing historical research, it is more the starting blocks than the finish line. Just like any encyclopedia, it will acquaint you with basic dates, names, and events, and (hopefully) point you in the direction of books and articles that will give you a fuller discussion of the topic.
The trouble comes when people begin to see Wikipedia as the end and not the beginning of their research. If a history student's paper is simply a summary of Wikipedia's summary, he has presented nothing new to the world. He may have interacted with the viewpoints of a few historians, but only the ones deemed relevant by the anonymous writer of the page he viewed. He may have seen pieces of primary sources, but reading Wikipedia's excerpts is not substitute for understanding them in the context of the entire work . By basing a paper on Wikipedia, the student has shown his ability to read and condense an article. He has not shown any ability to research, analyze, or synthesize.
This same truth applies to the historical novelist. Although the research in a historical novel is subservient to the story and should not be included simply for its own sake, it is still the bones keeping the body of fiction from flopping about like a jellyfish. The historical novelist who only culls information from Wikipedia's paragraphs, is someone satisfied with a pelvis, a humerus, half a cranium, and a few vertebrae. It's not exactly the complete skeleton, but still enough to give some semblance of the human body. By neglecting to do deeper research, the author will be hard put to produce a book with any kind of depth.
Of course, it is not just the history student or the historical novelist who can use Wikipedia as the end-all and the be-all of research. Readers who are history enthusiasts sometimes fall into this trap as well. It's always mind-boggling when a reader informs the world that he fact checked a book by Wikipedia-ing it--and then assumes that whatever historical plot points didn't show up on Wikipedia were fabricated by the novelist.
I should certainly hope that there are things in my book that you won't find on Wikipedia! And many of those things I didn't make them up--I found them out by reading *gasp* source material! If you really want to fact check, I've appended a several page long bibliography at the end of each of my novels. You'll find books by eminent historians, translations of medieval chronicles, guides to period costume, but the one thing you won't find is a bibliography entry for Wikipedia. Did I ever use it for research? You bet! But I'm far too embarrassed to admit it....