In the early days of the World Wide Web, there was a perception that "everything is available on the Web free of charge." Of course, today's more sophisticated Web surfer understands the economic realities. If an organization spends thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in collecting information and placing it online, someone has to pay the bills. A few have tried to pay bills by selling advertising. However, that usually does not generate enough income to meet the expenses of a commercial organization. As a result, most of the better online sources of information can only be accessed by a paid subscription. Examples that pop to mind include the Wall Street Journal, Consumer Reports, and the Encyclopedia Britannica as well as genealogy sites such as Ancestry.com.
This economic reality has forced Encyclopedia Britannica Online to charge $11.95 per month for unlimited access. MSN Encarta is another online encyclopedia that is available in two versions. The stripped-down free edition is rather good and is used by thousands of students for their homework. However, Microsoft charges $29.95 a year to access MSN Encarta Premium, with more than 60,000 articles, 25,000 videos, audios, and more.
I find it intriguing that one online encyclopedia has more than 1.3 million articles in English, nearly twenty times that of MSN Encarta Plus and the Encyclopedia Britannica Online combined. It also contains another million or so articles in more than a dozen other languages. This encyclopedia is growing daily. If you ever find anything that is missing in this encyclopedia or an article that needs improvement, you can even add to it yourself. Best of all, this online encyclopedia is open and free of charge for all.
Wikipedia is an open-content encyclopedia that was started in January 2001. In the succeeding three-and-a-half years, Wikipedia has grown into a major online service. It is now one of the most visited websites in the world. In the opinions of many users, Wikipedia now offers more information about a wider range of subjects than Encyclopedia Britannica Online, MSN Encarta Online. And all the other encyclopedias combined!
The goal of Wikipedia is to create an information source in an encyclopedia format that is freely available. Wikipedia grants free access to content in the same sense as free software is licensed freely. This principle is known as copyleft, an interesting play on the word, "copyright." One of the most important reasons why creators or authors might want to make copyleft applicable to their work is that, in doing so, they hope to create the most favorable conditions for a wide range of people to feel invited to contribute improvements and/or elaborations to this work. As a result of this "free and open" encyclopedia, Wikipedia content can be copied, modified, and redistributed, so long as the new version grants the same freedoms to others and acknowledges the authors of the Wikipedia article used. Wikipedia articles, therefore, will remain free forever and can be used by anybody, subject to only a few common sense restrictions, most of which serve to ensure that freedom.
In other words, YOU can contribute data to Wikipedia, as long as you abide by the rules. You can also use the information found on Wikipedia, again with certain rules, for new information you create. For instance, I can legally copy-and-paste information from Wikipedia into articles in this newsletter, as long as I attribute the source and do not claim those words as my own. I also cannot place any copyright claims on top of the information I copied-and-pasted although any additional information that I write may be claimed as copyrighted material, should I choose to do so.
So how well does this free and open encyclopedia work? Surprisingly well. This "open content" encyclopedia indeed has a very polished and professional appearance. It is a worthy competitor to the commercial offerings. In fact, I own a CD-ROM copy of Encarta but have stopped using that, preferring Wikipedia in its place. I find that Wikipedia is faster (on a broadband connection) and typically has more information available. In addition to standard "encyclopedic" knowledge, Wikipedia includes information in the format of dictionaries, almanacs, and gazetteers. It also covers current events.
I first went to Microsoft Encarta and searched for the word "genealogy." I found a 390-word article that barely covered the topic. I then went to Wikipedia and searched for the same word: "genealogy." I was pleasantly surprised to find a 5,000+ word article that describes genealogy techniques rather well. Of course, the fact that an article is longer doesn't automatically mean that it is better. However, I suspect anyone who reads both articles will agree that the Wikipedia article is much, much better than the Microsoft Encarta article on the same topic.
The Wikipedia article about genealogy starts with an introduction that quickly debunks the claimed ancestries that are considered by modern scholars to be fabrications, especially the claims of kings and emperors who trace their ancestry to gods or the founders of their civilization. For example, the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers traced the ancestry of several English kings back to the god Woden. Not true, according to Wikipedia.
Next, a few paragraphs discussed modern genealogy research techniques. The following section described the use of records in genealogy research, followed by a long list of links that point to additional information about every type of record listed. A short section then discussed "Sharing data among researchers."
Best of all, the next section was a long one entitled, "Reliability of Sources." This five-paragraph section did an admirable job describing the reasons that genealogical "facts" can be unreliable. Finally, a long list of links points to addition sources of information that are external to Wikipedia.
Just for fun, I did a search for the often misspelled variation: geneology. That immediately took me to the correct page with the correct spelling: "genealogy." It was the same page that I just described.
On any page of Wikipedia, you can click on DISCUSSION and join in any existing discussion or start a new one relevant to that page. There were only a few comments on the genealogy page. For longer and somewhat more interesting discussions, go to Wikipedia, and perform a search on George W. Bush!
The first time I visited the "genealogy" page on Wikipedia, I noticed one glaring omission in the links to other online genealogy resources: Cyndi's List was not mentioned. I clicked on EDIT, which opened up a text editor for the links section, and I added a link to Cyndi's List at http://www.cyndislist.com and then clicked on SAVE PAGE. That's all that is required. Cyndi's List is now listed in Wikipedia. The change that I made was instantly visible to everyone else as soon as I clicked on SAVE PAGE. I later noticed a typo error in the description for RootsWeb, so I corrected that as well. Likewise, anyone can modify or add to my corrections in the future.
To be sure, one does have to edit the pages in Wikipedia's text editor; but, I found that easy to learn in a minute or so by looking at other entries. Here is what I entered to add Cyndi's List to the listings:
* [http://www.cyndislist.com/ Cyndi's List - A categorized directory of tens of thousands of genealogy web sites]
I could have easily created an entire new article, as long as I paid attention to the text editing requirements as found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:How_to_edit_a_page. Wikipedia also provides a "sandbox" at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Sandbox where you can practice these editing commands without danger of impacting "real" pages.
Probably 99% of the pages on Wikipedia are modifiable. The Wikipedia owners do have the capability to "freeze" a page, not allowing any more updates. However, they have found very few occasions to use that. A few social issues, such as gay marriages, right to life, and other emotionally charged topics of the day have occasionally been "frozen" because of user abuse. However, these are rare exceptions; almost all the pages on Wikipedia are open and can be edited by anyone at any time.
That brings up an interesting question: "What happens when someone abuses this freedom and enters improper information?" The answer is, "Not much happens." The next person who encounters that page can click on "Edit This Page" and change it. That removes the incentives for online "graffiti." Why would anyone want to mess things up when it is so easily repaired by so many people? Such mischief inconveniences no one.
The thing that fascinates me is that Wikipedia was formed initially by five people who were then joined by a handful of others. All are part-time, and it appears that most of them are unpaid. Wikipedia is open and free of charge to everyone. It is funded exclusively through private donations. There is no advertising, and there are no "corporate sponsorships" promoted on Wikipedia pages.
Wikipedia is not a genealogy offering on the Web. Even so, genealogists will find a lot of assistance here finding information about where their ancestors lived, the historical events of the day, and much, much more. Of course, if you have a famous or semi-famous ancestor, you might find information about him or her in Wikipedia. I found a brief article about Lorenzo Dow, a non-ancestor but someone in the outer branches of my family tree. I wrote an article in this newsletter about Lorenzo Dow that was longer and more detailed than the Wikipedia entry. I updated the Wikipedia information on Lorenzo Dow, using information from my earlier article. A few months later I returned and found that the article had been about tripled in size as other people contributed their knowledge. Best of all, I found more information about this early American preacher that I had never known before. Collaboration works well!
This is one site that you should bookmark. If you have children or grandchildren who need occasional help with their homework, you probably can relax. Most schoolchildren already know about Wikipedia.
To see the online Wikipedia for yourself, look at http://www.wikipedia.org. You may also be interested in Wiktionary, an online dictionary at http://en.wiktionary.org, Wikiquote, a free online compendium of quotations available at http://en.wikiquote.org, and WikiBooks, a project that plans on developing and disseminating free open content textbooks, manuals, and other texts, at http://en.wikibooks.org.
So what does "wiki" stand for in the name Wikipedia? The answer may be found, of course, in the online Wikipedia. Look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki.