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ITI Cross Links: Wikipedia and Britannica—The Kid’s All Right (And So’s the Old Man)

Posted Mar 3, 2006
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There's an awful lot of discussion these days in K-12 LMS circles about Wikipedia, its value and validity as a research tool and information resource, and, if it's found lacking in that regard, then its value for students as a sort of laboratory where students can hone their information literacy skills.

The concept of Wikipedia is getting kicked around, metaphorically, in wider circles as well, of course. Over at Barbara Quint's Searcher magazine, information professional Paula Berinstein has written an article, Wikipedia and Britannica—The Kid's All Right (And So's the Old Man), that delves deeply into both those products … who uses them, who writes for them, what they're trying to be, how their articles are produced, their reliability, and more. On reliability/authority, we love this paragraph:

As it is difficult to hit a moving target, so is evaluating Wikipedia's authority. One minute an article may be flawed; another, it may be capable of satisfying most experts. Users who rely on Wikipedia as a sole source are playing roulette, even if they check and recheck entries.

We recommend you read the article! You'll enjoy it, including the very Britannica-like statements of her source there and the very Wikipedia-esque statements of her source there.

Need a further teaser? Here's how Berinstein starts out:

Many Searcher readers, especially those of us who went to library school, remember the hushed reverence with which the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the last published in the U.K., was spoken. Here was a classic work of scholarship that was so definitive, so monumental, that it was still unmatched decades after its completion in 1911.

So it is perhaps with mixed feelings that we regard the upstart Wikipedia. The bottom-up, dynamic, nonprofit, Web-based encyclopedia continues to mushroom in popularity (about 2.5 billion page views per month) and size (more than 873,000 articles and 43,000 contributors associated with the English-language version, and more than 89,000 total volunteers working on over 2,550,000 articles in more than 200 languages). And as it grows, a battle of sorts has emerged between it and the iconic Britannica (which now contains over 65,000 articles and 35 percent updated content in the 2005 print edition and more than 120,000 in the online edition). The Britannica also now appears online as well as in hard copy, DVD, and CD-ROM. The most blatant symbol of the battle is Wikipedia's page devoted to correcting errors in Britannica.

The primary question for info pros is, of course, reliability. Can "the public" concoct and maintain a free, authoritative encyclopedia that's unbiased, complete, and reliable? If not, then Britannica may rest on its laurels and its good name, although with the Web so free and accessible, it's been taking licks for some years. But if the answer is "Yes," what happens to that shining beacon of scholarship, its publishers, and its academic contributors? Is encyclopedia publishing a "zero sum" game?

Still reading this MMIS Xtra ITI Cross Link? Click HERE to go to Paula Berinstein's article in Information Today, Inc.'s Searcher magazine.

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