The world of academic scholarship -- particularly the field of history -- has at times had a strained relationship with the massive collaborative project that is Wikipedia. In 2007, for example, the history department at Middlebury College banned citations to the encyclopedia. How could the free-for-all of the web produce a reliable source? It was thought to be too susceptible to inaccuracy, whether as the result of malicious or ideological manipulation or just pure sloppiness. Although some of the Wikipedia skepticism was fueled by a gut distrust of anything without a scholarly seal-of-approval, much of it was simply a reservation-in-judgment until the upstart could prove itself.
Now, about a decade in to this great experiment in collaborative creation, Wikipedians efforts are resulting in increased credibility among academic historians, signaled most recently by an essay by the president of the American Historical Association William Cronon in the association's publication Perspectives on History. Cronon writes:
My initial skepticism is now proof of how little I understood what Jimmy Wales grasped far better than I. Wikipedia exploded from an initial 20,000 articles in 18 languages during its first year to more than 19 million articles in 270 languages (3.8 million of them in English alone) written or edited by 82,000 active contributors. Whatever reservations one might still have about its overall quality, I don't believe there's much doubt that Wikipedia is the largest, most comprehensive, copiously detailed, stunningly useful encyclopedia in all of human history.
I myself use it on a daily basis, and am pretty sure most of my colleagues and students do too even if they won't admit it. . . . Wikipedia is today the gateway through which millions of people now seek access to knowledge which not long ago was only available using tools constructed and maintained by professional scholars.
Wikipedia, Cronon goes on to say, is not perfect, though nothing is. But its imperfections are far outweighed by its strengths: its breadth, accessibility, and -- perhaps its most under-appreciated feature -- its ability to remain current with updates that reflect even just-breaking news. Partly, Cronon writes, this is the result of the medium of the web -- even obscure topics can take up all the space in the world, if there's someone out there who has the knowledge and will to expand the entry. These sorts of obscure entries, Cronon notes, tend to be quite strong, as they are often authored by people with particular knowledge, interest, or experience of them.