Thursday, March 13, 2014

Wikipedia Comes of Age?

It does not seem that long ago that the very idea of accepting Wikipedia as an authoritative resource for any scholarly pursuit was regarded as a risky, if not totally undesirable, proposition. I therefore found it interesting that, in the conclusion of a letter appearing in the current (April 3) issue of The New York Review of Books taking issue with Freeman Dyson's review of the book Brilliant Blunders by Mario Livio, Michael Konrad's account of errors in Dyson's article concludes by advising the reader to consult "Wikipedia to get a far more insightful (and correct) history" of the careers of the scientists Dyson had discussed. Bearing in mind that any biographical account of the intellectual pursuits of an individual involve a hazardous minefield in which an opinion disguised as fact that can blow up in your face (consider Peter Brooks' "The Strange Case of Paul de Man" in the same issue), I still take this as an indication that there is value in Wikipedia as long as it is not used as some kind of all-purpose crutch.

Two years ago I even wrote a post suggesting that the free service provided by Wikipedia is preferable to the one provided by Encyclopædia Britannica, and I have yet to consider drawing upon the latter since then. Indeed, my articles for frequently use hyperlinks to Wikipedia for those readers who do not have access to the fee-based Grove Music Online. Going even further, in a recent piece about Carlo Grante's project to record the complete keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, I even advised by readers to consult "a very valuable Wikipedia page that cross-indexes the catalog numbers provided by Kirkpatrick and Pestelli, as well as the earlier version by Alessandro Longo and an even earlier (and not particularly thorough) one by Carl Czerny."

The bottom line is that scholarship tends to involve a lot of grunt work, and most scholars realize that making the results of that effort readily available to the rest of the community advances the progress made by all. Where music history is concerned, the results have been not merely satisfactory but downright impressive. There is still the risk of using Wikipedia as a crutch, but that is true of just about any resource. Perhaps it is time to recognize that Wikipedia is now playing a valuable role in furthering many scholarly pursuits.

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