Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The Real Book 5!

[Wikipedia cartoon from xkcd cartoon site]

The last book on my list of the five that have contributed most towards my research for The Black and The White is a bit of a cheat because it’s not a book at all. It’s Wikipedia.

In all the current debate – and doesn’t it rage? – over online versus print sources of information there seems to be a prevailing assumption that people engaged in some kind of serious endeavour will always prefer print over web-based information. I think that’s misguided, or at least simplistic. After all, haven’t we all read books that were ill-informed, badly written and just didn’t provide the kind of user-friendly information we actually wanted? Maybe they skated over the details we were after or told us stuff we’d already read a dozen times elsewhere.

I’m not saying that the internet is fool-proof. Far from it. As far as Wikipedia specifically, is concerned, I know there have been gaffes aplenty, but I don’t take uncritically the unreferenced things it says, any more than I’d take those things uncritically from print media. But where the articles are carefully footnoted, I’m prone to take it reasonably seriously.

Where it’s not footnoted or where it has one of those ‘citation needed here’ notes, obviously, I try and check the facts and see if I can find them quoted elsewhere. But you can come a little bit unstuck here. On dozens of occasions, I’ve been checking out a second source of information on another website, only to have the feeling of déjà vu. When I flick back to the wikipedia entry, I see that what I’ve been reading on the other site is quoted, word for word, on the wiki entry. Either the same person is responsible for the information on both sites or the article from one site has simply been lifted and pasted into the other. So you do need to keep your wits about you when verifying facts and not simply think ‘OK, good, this says the same things as Wikipedia’. Helps to have a good audio-visual memory, of course.

That all sounds as if I’m writing a cautionary post instead of a celebratory one, but I think it’s important to recognise any source’s shortcomings as well as its advantages.

So, why do I like Wikipedia so much that I’m citing it as one of my top 5 sources for my book?

Well, what other single source could give you information about things as diverse as these:

  • The exact form of words used in the prayers said for the dead in the fourteenth century.
  • Ditto the ‘hail Mary’ – different prior to some Vatican pronouncement which I’ve now forgotten in the late fifteenth century as it lacked the ‘Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death’ element.
  • The history and geology of tiny villages nobody’s ever heard of if they live more than ten miles away. (Don’t forget, my main character was travelling on foot from the west country to the eastern edge of England.)
  • Particular battles that took place in the Hundred Years War.
  • How charcoal is made
  • The difference between ‘bloomer’ smelting of iron and the later blast furnace technique (I ended up not needing to know this but found it fascinating)
  • The history of the Pilgrims’ Way.

I could go on and on.

Of course, a lot of those things were on numerous other websites as well but the beauty of Wikipedia is that it gives you references and links so that you can read up elsewhere about the subject. It’s a great jumping off point and often gives you and overview of a subject so that once you hop on to another site, you’ve already grasped the basics of the subject and are ready for more information.

Have I got shares? I wish….


Frances Garrood said...

That was really interesting, Alis. I've tended to avoid Wikipedia because someone told me it was unreliable, but presumably if facts are endorsed there and elsewhere, it's sufficiently reliable to be a useful tool. And as you say, there's the "jumping off point" angle, too.

Verification word: springup. If that's saying something about the weather, bring it on!

PS How's the research going?

C. N. Nevets said...

Wikipedia is handy because you can search it so quickly and so effectively. When I'm doing serious work I try to follow the breadcrumbs through the footnotes so that I land on a source I can verify. It's a great resource, though, and te nice thing is that you can correct the flaws you find.

Alis said...

Hi Frances - I think when it's talking about celebrities and things that are very current, it's maybe not so accurate. When I was reading up about Basingstoke there was a whole section from the moderator about why he'd taken down some content that somebody with what you might call an 'anti-chav' agenda had put up there. It was most entertaining!
As far as the research for the next book is going, it's slowing down as I'm keen to actually write something and I don't want to start on the book in the absence of any word from the potential agent. So I've started a radio play instead. Great fun.

Alis said...

Hi Nevets - I've not yet braved actual contributions but perhaps I should!

David Isaak said...

Wikipedia is handy, especially for following links. There are some very ugly tings going on there lately--for example, a group of people led by a Wikipedia editor have conspired to systematically remove anything added to any article that criticizes Colin Campbell's book "The China Study." (This isn't just a paranoid theory of mine; plans to do this were laid on various forums--well, fora--outside Wikepedia, and are there in black and white.) There are a number of other instances where Wikipedia has acted to supress opinions that didn't happen to agree with a coterie of people on the inside.

Jimmy Wales thought problems of this sort would be self-correcting, but he was wrong. Yes, arbitrary actions at the editorial level can be disputed, but it requires a huge amount of work.

I have sometimes contributed to articles myself, and haven't yet been suppressed (which probably means I haven't contributed anything really interesting).

Tim Stretton said...

What I like best about Wikipedia is the "tangentability" of it. The cross-referencing makes it easy to skitter hither and thither in a way printed media simply don't allow.

I got entire novel out of it - The Last Free City grew out of an entry on the history of Dubrovnik which I encountered serendipitously.

Alis said...

David - as I've just said over on the MNW blog, there are always unscrupulous people who'll play any system to hand for their own advantage. As long as Wikipedia users are aware of that hopefully we won't come unstuck.

Tim - Tangentiability - great word and it's one of the big advantages of it for me, too.

Akasha Savage. said...

If it wasn't for online websites I wouldn't have been able to research
Erzsebet Bathory as fully as I have, of the few books I have managed to find devoted to the Countess only a couple were actually helpful, the others were badly written and uninformative. I do to try to go down the book route first whenever I research anything, but invariably I end up googling...it's easier and only a click away.

David Isaak said...

Yeah, I understand what you mean. But I get disturbed when when, Soviet style, people come through, rip pages out of books in the library, and replace them with something else. And it's all too easy to do on the Internet.

At least with printed books, we can hide a few when the book-burners come through. Get everything onto the web and there will come a day when all of recorded history can be changed at the click of someone's mouse...with no backup.

Paranoid? Me? No. Just realistic. As Kafka suggested, in the battle between you and the world, you should back the world.

Alis said...

Hi Akasha - yes, when you're researching something as niche as Bathory I'd guess books are thin on the ground. How are Katy's auditions going, by the way?

Hi David - that's one of the best arguments for the continuing primacy of physical books that I know.

Akasha Savage. said...

Katy's first audition is on 7 Jan at the Guildhall Drama School in London...it's the one Orlando Bloom went to so she would love to earn a place there...trouble is 2000 audition for just 24 places.
She's learning monologues like mad!!