– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

Thing 14

Thing 14 for 23Things for Research is Wikipedia.

Well, we all know and use Wikipedia. I think it’s a great thing – but like most powerful tools, it’s a good servant but a bad master. That is, if you don’t know anything about the subject you are using it to research, you had better be armed with very good critical skills.

Wikipedia may have a strong citation policy, but I very often find that the citations are either without value, very biased or simply broken links. However, when it works it can be very useful.

I find Wikipedia most useful for quick guides to a subject about which I know nothing at all, to give an overview of aspects I should probably be aware of, and to provide a few links for other places to look that are likely to be relevant. I would give it credit in a bibliography as one of the sources consulted, because that’s only the truth. But I would never quote its content – nor take seriously anything that did! We all know the old chestnut about a giraffe being a hrose built by a committee. So I thought I’d check an article on a subject that isn’t one I work on directly, but which interests me and about which I already know something – from printed academic sources – to see whether cracks appear. I’ve combined this with another favourite function of Wikipedia – its cross-language article links.

For instance, lately I’ve been investigating the early documentation and translation of the revelations of St Birgitta (Bridget) of Sweden. There isn’t much about this online in English; logically, a lot of it is in Swedish. I read Swedish, and I know something about Birgitta and medieval text translation. But for this particular subject, I don’t know the specialist terms in Swedish that would get me good search results. So I started by looking up ‘Birgitta of Sweden’ on Wikipedia. Turns out she’s listed as Bridget in English, and the neutrality of the article is disputed. I don’t think it’s a particularly well-organised or helpful summary of her life, works or reception, and there aren’t enough footnotes or links. And, major omission, there isn’t a description in this article of, or a separate article about, Birgitta’s Revelations, her body of written work – at least not in English. In fact there’s very little about her writings at all. There isn’t even a link to the English translation of her Revelations that somebody has put into Wikimedia Sources. And that’s a whole other can of worms in itself.

The articles in different languages are definitely not translations of each other – in this case at least they are not organised in the same way and they emphasise different aspects of her life, works and influence. It was worth looking up the French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, Norwegian and Danish articles for sections on iconography, a chronology, lists of scholarship on the subject in different languages, and even different facts about her historical and political position. The articles vary widely in their length, structure, content and focus.

I find the talk (editing discussion) pages are often full of rather cranky and pointless back-and-forth.

The English article on Bridget of Sweden is one I’d be tempted to ‘improve’ if I had time – maybe after I’ve learned more about the subject myself. This was a test case for this post, but I have found similar problems with articles on other European saints before, many of which are stubs or orphans.

Wikipedia is a good place to gather information on a subject and set out a general introduction to it, preferably in a clear, structured way, before sending the reader off in other directions of more in-depth investigation with (more or less vetted) links to further reading. Wouldn’t it be great to have a list of surviving copies of Bridget’s Revelations in Latin and various European vernaculars – manuscript and early printed editions, of course – with links to the holding institutions and to online images or critical apparatus where available! This is exactly the kind of thing that needs researchers and curators from different countries to contribute, while not needing to formally collaborate. But by nature it isn’t coordinated, and it’s highly fallible. If I were marking student essays, I’d start the course with a notice in large red letters saying that any essay with actual Wikipedia citations would be sent back with the advice to do some real research.

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