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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Wikipedia vs. Britannica

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, October 8, 2006



Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica represent opposite ends of the encyclopedia spectrum.


Wikipedia is a community-edited online encyclopedia, established in 2003 as a freely licensed work on the Internet.


Encyclopaedia Britannica, with its British spelling, began publication in 1768 and today offers a print version as well as an online version.


Librarians have been discussing which is better since Wikipedia appeared on the Internet scene.


Recently, Internet vandals have attached Wikipedia, and its accuracy has been questioned.


Other studies have found little difference in the two encyclopedias in the area of science.


Jimmy Wales, founder and chairperson of the Wikipedia Foundation, operator of Wikipedia, states that it has comprehensive coverage and a rich content since anyone can contribute to its online text.


Dale Hoiberg, senior vice-president and editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., notes that more than 4,000 scholars and experts contribute and advise the content of Britannica.


Perhaps the two of them answer the differences between Wikipedia and Britannica.


Wikipedia is open to anyone wanting to contribute, whereas Britannica is a closed text publication edited by one organization.


The weakness of Wikipedia relates to everyone contributing and overwriting what someone else has written.


The weakness of Britannica relates to the time it takes to edit and produce a publication.


My experience has been that Wikipedia has great information relating to specific events and history, but information about current events is a "mess" with different views trying to overwrite each other daily.


It would be hard to use Wikipedia as a source for information, as that information could change overnight and disappear or change as someone else contributes to the article.


As a traditional librarian, would I recommend information from Wikipedia to someone?


No, not as a first source.  After reviewing various possibilities, I might use Wikipedia as one source, but not the only citation I provided someone on a subject.


Actually, that is the basis of information searching and verification, various sources cited to confirm data.


Using local information from Wikipedia, I also have concern about poor writing by contributors.  Several articles about local history, although correct, are poorly written and have been overwritten by others making the writing worse.


The Internet presents an information review problem to everyone.


The user of the Internet needs to be able to read and evaluate the information, and decide its validity.


Or, you can contact your local library, as always.