Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Why Love Wikipedia?

My love affair with Wikipedia grows more with time. I suppose everyone is familiar with the problems of Wikipedia: the vandalism, the impossibility of seriously citing it as an authoritative source, the risk of well-intentioned - or otherwise - misinformation presented as truth.

In the 1970s my parents bought Encyclopedia Britannica. I was on my own then, but I did move back in with them a couple of times during the '70s and like my father had discovered, I could lose myself for hours at a time reading almost randomly in the volumes. I suspect my mother, no intellectual slouch (quite the contrary), was more focused, and would go to them with more specific goals in mind.

Such an investment was out of my reach. And it was out of the reach of about every one of my peers. I never met anyone my age who had a set that I knew of. We mostly went to college and had information coming out of our ears; too much to idly seek general knowledge very often. And of course I was a reader of fiction. Wonderful fiction.

For a long time also I've been aware of a sort of textbook mafia. In college one is of course appalled at the price of textbooks, and one reads of the big companies that seem to control the public school textbook market too. (No doubt private schools buy from the same sources as well.)
Lobbyists, state boards, salespeople: all jacking up the prices for books. And the university-oriented periodicals: $50 - $100 a year for a single subscription to any advanced journal in any field.

Until Wikipedia, there was only one alternative: a drive to the closest university library. Which I did on occasion when my profession indicated. Later came the interlibrary loan system, in which the community libraries promised to get me any book I desired. I confess I never took much advantage of this, for several reasons: a reference book is not much use when one has only a month or so to peruse it. And I tend to be hard on books. I read while eating, while at the beach, where dogs and children jump on me, even in the tub. It's not responsible citizenship to ruin a public book.

And the news archives. Looking up something that I saw in the newspaper years before required another drive to the public library and getting comfortable with the microfilm reader machine. I did that some, too. Even just for idle curiosity; if something nagged at my mind enough and I knew I could find out by viewing the archives, I'd go down there and look.

Wikipedia also appeals to my understanding of the circumstances of people in the wider world. Textbooks are even more expensive, relative to poverty, for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Wikipedia, for all its flaws, is revolutionary: nowadays, for the cost one tenth of a single set of encyclopedias, (a small reader) offers access to far more general knowledge than ever before.

The same philosophy also leads me to support the "$100 laptop," the Kindle, and all the various lower cost clones of these.

My own pleasure in simply finding stuff out is, of course, why I started my other website More Best of Wikipedia.

1 comment:

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