I’ve kept putting off writing this article, because I go on believing that one day people will realise that Wikipedia is both an encyclopedia and a huge bunch of ongoing discussions, and should be treated as both of these things. In fact, only a select number of librarians seem to be aware of this seemingly obvious fact. Instead, I hear endless wailing about how terrible Wikipedia is and how no self-respected academic should even think about using it for research.
No, you shouldn’t cite Wikipedia. You shouldn’t cite encyclopedia Brittanica either. That by no means implies that Wikipedia is useless as a research tool. Not only is it as useful as any other encyclopedia; it teaches you far more, because of its transparency. So, I’m getting it off my chest: five things that Wikipedia is good for, and how to make best use of them.
- Common knowledge on a topic, so you’re ready to read specialist literature – Wikipedia sometimes lacks breadth, but can be excellent due to the unlimited space. Check the talk page before investing time reading a long entry; talk pages usually have ‘Wikiproject’ boxes at the top, which grade the article for quality based on peer review.
- Find citations of the specialist literature and key texts, so you know where to go for the important reading – Wikipedia’s biggest problem is lazy writers who don’t add citations. A good netizen adds tags to things lacking citations. An even better netizen comes back a few weeks later and adds citations from their own research. Again, if you’re short on time, check the talk page first, as it will indicate quality of citations.
- Contentious issues – Wikipedia is uniquely good at revealing controversy. A regular encyclopedia will conceal debate for the most part, showing you only the final fudged compromise, but talk pages are a great way to learn what parts of the discourse about a topic really get peoples’ goat. Thinking creatively and analytically about this can yield excellent, unique responses to a subject.
- Background information – what came before the event or object you’re studying? What came after? What other theories are similar to this one? All this is plainly indicated at the bottom of the article, and there is little room for fatal inaccuracies.
- Connections both valid and spurious – here the beauty of wikiality really sets in, and careful reading can lead to fascinating results. An article might claim, for example, that alternate reality games are linked to psychogeography, which in turn is linked to the notion of the flaneur. It might not make such a clear statement, but simply leave links in ‘further reading.’ So, read on and ask yourself – why are these linked? Was this editor justified in putting this link there (often a topic of dispute on talk pages) and why might someone believe that they are? Perhaps a connection used to exist that is no longer as apparent?