Dare I say the word? There are plenty of purists out there who ridicule it, claim to never look at it and if you quote anything from Wikipedia it must come with a qualifier of where you found it, casting doubt on its voracity.
I said at the outset of this blog that I’m not a scholar and not particularly “intellectual” but I read a lot and I have never found any glaring inaccuracies in Wikipedia. At the risk of sounding dreadfully plebeian and middle class I confess I love Wikipedia. Here’s why.
In the absence of card catalogs and omniscient librarians Wikipedia is a great spring board for…
- Time Lines–Sometimes you just want to confirm the order of the kings of England or of great European wars. Sure if your sqeamish double check other sources but at least you know what to double check.
- A Starting Point— when you know absolutlely nothing about a subject. For example I wanted to know about 19th century female architects and Landscape architects, but where to start? Wiki to the rescue it gave me several names and books to reference. Now I have a folder of more “reliable” links and a list of books to investigate.
- Niggly bits of info like when did NYC switch from gas to electric lights, it has an amazing amount of detail on this. All I’m saying is the person who wrote it must work for the power company or something.
- Dates—When did Beethoven compose his 5th symphony? When did Charles Dickens die? Was Wives and Daughters published yet when my character was 15?
- Photographs and Images—particularly of famous people, places and plants. Okay the last part has nothing to do with historical research and everything to do with sourcing unusual ingredients for dinner. Just today I needed to know what maitake mushrooms look like; Wiki to the rescue.
Wikipedia is one of the things I love about the computer age, that and Google. When writing historical fiction, even my simple stories that are big on heart and small on earth shattering history, there are a million things I want to know. You should see my search history.
I spent an entire evening trying to find a readable map of New York State railways in or around 1885. Haven’t found one yet but I’ve learned lots of interesting things about Grand Central Terminal (aka Central Station)
Authors of historical fiction have a duty to their readers to try and get the details right, to really make the people of the past and their world come to life and jump of the page.
I don’t recommend Wikipedia as the be-all-and-end-all of your research, and I have it on good authority not to use it in your bibliography for your high school report, but it’s a great place to start.