It’s about knowledge, not format

5 Apr

John Naughton retells the story of some great encyclopedias in The Observer. The rise of and fall of Britannica, then Encarta and the present debates over Wikipedia.

The debate is only partly about accuracy of content; it's also about suitability of format. For centuries, books were the only suitable format for a comprehensive encyclopedia. For a few short years (the Encarta age), CD-ROM publishing seemed to be the future. Now we know that it was replaced by the web.

"Of course Wikipedia has flaws, of course it has errors: show me something that doesn't. Of course it suffers from vandalism and nutters who contribute stuff to it. But instead of complaining about errors, academics ought to be in there fixing them."

2 Responses to “It’s about knowledge, not format”

  1. Kevin O'Hare 05/04/2009 at 10:31 pm #

    Surely the real problem that academics have with Wikipedia is that it challenges their authority. Which academic has never made a mistake or printed a book without any errors in it? Wikipedia goes through more peer reviews than every academic article and is reviewed continously. Also, I have never read an academic article which admits that it needs more citations to give it credibility. We are alredy at a stage where most people reach for Wikipedia as a first choice encyclopedia; will academics soon be in the very small club in the world that doesn’t use Wikipedia? How will that strengthen their authority?

  2. Richard Bailey 06/04/2009 at 9:31 am #

    I think this is just the point, Kevin.
    It was easy to see that monks were important intermediaries in the Middle Ages, when they almost uniquely knew how to read and write (and when only one book mattered). Monasteries were the original universities.
    Some academics are indeed trying to cling to a past when they were the intermediaries between students and the knowledge that resided in libraries.
    Academics always had an advantage over students because they had inevitably read more widely. But students in principle now have much greater expertise in search than their teachers.
    Yet, in practice, it’s disappointing how quickly students give up if their first search doesn’t produce results.

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