Friday, September 15, 2006

Does Wikipedia's history make the grade?

A data-driven comparative analysis of the usefulness and reliability of Wikipedia as historical reference source. The verdict: it's pretty decent, unless you care about good writing.

Compare, for example, Wikipedia’s 7,650-word portrait of Abraham Lincoln with the 11,000-word article in American National Biography Online. Both avoid factual errors and cover almost every important episode in Lincoln’s life. But surely any reader of this journal would prefer the American National Biography Online sketch by the prominent Civil War historian James McPherson. Part of the difference lies in McPherson’s richer contextualization (such as the concise explanation of the rise of the Whig party) and his linking of Lincoln’s life to dominant themes in the historiography (such as free-labor ideology). But McPherson’s profile is distinguished even more by his artful use of quotations to capture Lincoln’s voice, by his evocative word portraits (the young Lincoln was “six feet four inches tall with a lanky, rawboned look, unruly coarse black hair, a gregarious personality, and a penchant for telling humorous stories”), and by his ability to convey a profound message in a handful of words (“The republic endured and slavery perished. That is Lincoln’s legacy.”). By contrast, Wikipedia’s assessment is both verbose and dull: “Lincoln’s death made the President a martyr to many. Today he is perhaps America’s second most famous and beloved President after George Washington. Repeated polls of historians have ranked Lincoln as among the greatest presidents in U.S. history.”

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