[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….