Personally, I like Wikipedia. When researching something I know nothing about, a good Wikipedia article can give me some background that can help me formulate a search, and often has a full bibliography of sources that can't be changed by a bored 13-year-old.
Wikipedia is great for finding sources. It is never an acceptable source.
Last winter, I read Say What?: The Weird and Mysterious Journey of the English Language because it was a Cybil's nominee. I found it interesting, but seriously flawed. When I saw that the author used Wikipedia as a source, it shut the book down for me. There was no point in going through all of its flaws when it had such a major and completely unacceptable one.
One commenter told me "You were going to write a long review, so you must have found some enjoyment in this book. Instead you see "wikipedia" and throw a wobbley. You shouldn't be reviewing books if that's all it takes to sway your opinion."
I responded "If any of the elementary school students I help with their research ever quoted Wikipedia, they would automatically fail the paper. I'm sorry you have such disrespect for children that you think their nonfiction books can be held to a lower standard than their own homework. Why waste the time of my readers with writing a much longer review examining the books other flaws?"
Frankly, the comment pissed me off almost as much as seeing Wikipedia cited as a valid source. Students aren't allowed to cite Wikipedia, but their sources are? What the hell kind of message are we sending about authorative sources and research methods? But no, because I care so deeply and have standards, I shouldn't be allowed to review books? $%^# that.
Even worse, someone nominated it to be a an example of excellent nonfiction for middle grade and teen readers! It was also an "vetted" nominee for the YALSA award for Excellence in Nonfiction, which means you can stick a big ALA-approved sticker on it.
This hit home again this weekend as I was reading The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy by James Cross Giblin. I was really excited by this book. I'm obsessed with McCarthy (I mean, until a few years ago, my hometown had a larger-than-life bust of him in the lobby of county courthouse.) I also loved Giblin's Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth.
I was about half-way though it, and really enjoying it, when I glanced through the back matter. Wikipedia, wikipedia, wikipedia, wikipedia, wikipedia. WHAT THE WHAT?
The School Library Journal Review mentions it and criticizes it, but it still was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize.
In introducing his sources notes*, Giblin states "In my research you'll see that I made extensive use of the Internet, especially Wikipedia. But I accompanied it with parallel research in the Columbia Encyclopedia because I still put more faith in a traditionally edited and cross-checked encyclopedia than in what maybe a more loosely-assembled Internet source."
Let's not touch the fact that he relies heavily on an encyclopedia (I stopped being allowed to cite an encyclopedia in 7th grade, being told to use more in-depth sources instead.)
Giblin instead conflates "Wikipedia" and "Internet" (for, as far as I can see, Wikipedia is the ONLY interent source used.) He uses quotations found on Wikipedia with no other source listed. And yes, some of the information he only used Wikipedia for is correct. But, he surely could have found another source to say that Nixon became President, opened up relations with China, resigned due to Watergate, and died in 1994. Wikipedia doesn't have an exclusive on that.
And maybe it's because Giblin relied on Wikipedia that he gets somethings just wrong about China. On page 18 "the Japanese invaded northern China proper and occupied key cities of Tientsin and Beijing, then called Peking." Later on the page he mentions "Mao Tse-tung (now spelled Zedong)."
Beijing wasn't then called Peking, it was then spelled Peking. The Chinese has always been 北京 (but, during WWII, the city was called something completely different.)** The same transliteration system change that changed Tse-tung into Zedong changed Peking into Beijing. It didn't change the Chinese at all, it just changed the spelling to more accurately reflect how the words are supposed to be pronounced. (He also fails to mention that Tientsin is now spelled Tianjin.)
But Giblin instead relied on lazy and shoddy research. Usually it didn't hurt him, but at least in this instance, it did. He's just WRONG.
I'm not going to finish the book.
I will spit if it wins any awards.
But I feel that others will think I'm "throwing a wobbley" because I think that Wikipedia shouldn't be cited as a source in nonfiction.
Am I alone here? Is there a reason why we should allow this to be ok? Should we accept Wikipedia as a source in our nonfiction? (And, if we do, should we allow students to start citing it in their research? because if we allow the first, we have to allow the second.)
And what's the best course to take when we see such research being published and awarded? What can we do to demand better standards for our youth?
*Ok, so at least he had source notes. So many other nonfiction books for younger readers, especailly those that are "young reader editions" of adult titles don't have any source notes or bibliography at all. But that's a different rant.
**And you may think this whole naming/spelling thing is petty but... let's also look at the fact that during WWII, the city was called 北平, which is transliterated as Beiping or Peiping. For "jing" means capital ("bei" means north) and during the Republican Era, the capital was in Nanjing ("nan" meaning south) and so Beijing (Northern Capital) was changed to Beiping (Northern Plain) and changed back to Beijing when the Communists declared it their capital. (Nanjing, "Southern Capital" got the stay Nanjing.) It's worth knowing this, because the US only recognized Taiwan as being China and for the next few decades refused to call the city "Beijing" and insisted on calling in "Beiping."
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