Limits and Uses of Wikipedia

As a student, I have had countless history professors admonish me that, “Wikipedia is NOT a source!”  Until I began this class, I would have placed myself firmly in that camp, but my view now is more nuanced.  After watching the presentation by the creator of Wikipedia, I began to see how using only academic-track research shut so many people out of the circle of knowledge.  I firmly believe in the adage “knowledge is power”, and to that end, those who do not have access to knowledge therefore are shut out of the process of power.  This view softened my critique of Wikipedia as having no academic purpose.

When I went on Wikipedia and searched “Silk Roads”, I did so with a new eye and different viewpoint.  What I found was adequate, sufficient for a hobbyist of history.  The entry placed a heavy emphasis on the contribution of China, nearly to the exclusion of the Central Asian nomads and nearly every other actor, except Hellenistic Greece.  I also found the approach to be quite linear.  As I am currently taking a course on the Silk Roads, I am learning that any analysis must necessarily be with an understanding that many different peoples and places were interacting simultaneously and with a dialectic that is often lost.  The author(s) of the entry seem(s) to have a particular bias and a somewhat old fashioned approach, with the result being that one loses the nuance and overlap of multiple layers of culture and interaction happening on both sea and land over thousands of years.  Additionally, the representation of the “Silk Road” as a constructed effort by the Chinese to build some sort of mythical “highway of the past”, is troubling.  However, if someone had no knowledge whatsoever about the Silk Road and was simply curious, this entry would do nicely to provide a jumping off point for further research.

Currently, I view Wikipedia somewhere in between a complete waste of time and a credible source.  My view now is that if one is unsure where to start in a search for knowledge on a particular subject, Wikipedia can provide a starting point.  If you don’t know what you don’t know, then you have to start somewhere.  This can serve as the purpose of Wikipedia, with a word of caution:  do not believe everything you read. Wikipedia can be used as a starting point, but any genuine historical analysis must utilize legitimate sources to give an argument credibility and weight.

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