Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Wikipedia: The Bane and Boon of Historical Research

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....


  1. Don't feel too guilty, this student of Medieval history uses Wikipedia occasionally too- though mainly as you say, for reference and clarification or dates etc.
    Citing wikipedia in an essay or assingment would be different though, as some of my lecturers have a distinctly negative view of this.

    It certainly can be useful, but, as you say, I would have a dim view of any historical novelist who had done thier research only on Wikipedia.
    I recall, I once disparagingly mentioned such in the title of the review of an awful movie that was woefully historically inaccuarate.

    1. I recently read a blog that seemed like the author was trying to do serious history. Then at the end she wrote, "The information for this article was taken from Wikipedia." It made me want to bash my head against the wall. :-)

    2. I feel like that sometimes too:) Most recently when I read a novel in which the author kept using the word 'Baronship' instead of 'Barony'.

      I once had a little...heated discussion with the reader of a series of Medieval Fantasy novels who objected to some comments I had left in a critical review about various inaccuracies in the novel, and got the distinct impression that this person was trying to make out they knew a lot about the period- or ar least more than me.

      That is until they revealed thier belief that Medieval people thought the earth was flat and in a few other misconceptions and downright absurdities to try and refute something I said.

    3. Or rather it may have been the review itself they objected to (sorry I hate misrepresenting what people have said- even accidentally).

      Either way, this persion demonstrated thier ignorance of the Medieval period quite Succinctly with the remark about the flat earth.

    4. My brother frequently throws comments like that ("But didn't all medieval people think the earth was flat?") into normal conversation just to annoy me.

    5. LOL I have relatives who have been known to say things to just to annoy me too.
      The person mentioned wasnt doing it to annoy me and actually believed it though. It was mentioned in the context of Medieval Theology oddly enough.

    6. BTW I found a review on Amazon UK which mentioned a similar issue to the one I did on 'The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England' book, and mentioned it in my reply to your pose it you have not seen it.

  2. Excellent post! It's always nice to hear how other historical novelists do their research. Wikipedia is also the first place I go for research, but it is faaaaaaar from the last.

    1. Thanks for stopping by to read my post. It is a tremendous blessing that Wikipedia exists. It can be SO helpful for a jumping off point....

  3. I love Wikipedia for quick research about a name or date, or even to generate story ideas. I actually just came up with a possible novel idea by looking for authentic ancient Egyptian names about an hour ago. And, of course, I love the resources section at the bottom of a good Wikipedia article so I can do more in-depth research.


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