Is Wikipedia better than other encyclopedias?

I recently encountered the question: “Has Wikipedia surpassed the quality of traditional encyclopedias?” Here’s my answer:

Absolutely, yes. Wikipedia has established ways of thinking about encyclopedic “quality” that never existed before. Oh, a few ideas off the top of my head — before Wikipedia, nobody would have ever thought it might be possible to find, in a single general interest encyclopedia:

  • Easy ways to fix or expand the content
  • Links to articles on the same topics in hundreds of other language editions
  • Basic information local government, including state legislators, landmark legislation, etc.
  • Endless insights into the thinking of the people building the encyclopedia
  • Extensive lists of links to more authoritative or in-depth sources
  • Access to other people who share your interests and may be able to answer your questions, or help you figure out how to pitch in on building the encyclopedia

etc. etc.

There are of course some ways in which the traditional model is superior; they are worthy of attention. But in my opinion they are very much the footnote, not the headline.

To directly answer the final part of the question: no, Wikipedia — like traditional encyclopedias — should never be regarded as an infallible source. The main function of an encyclopedia has always been as a starting point, that can help a reader find his or her way to more reliable information. The fact that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone is its great strength; in addition, it serves as a continual reminder that we (as readers) should look more closely before taking what we read for granted.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here: wikistrategies.net/pete-forsyth
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