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Questions of quality: Google, Wikipedia, and traditional reference

It’s good to see some serious discussion about the quality of information, about how facts, and scholarly agreement or the lack thereof, about less-than-certain topics should be presented. I’m not sure it’s wise for Encyclopedia Britannica to undertake its current campaign to prove its superiority, given that it isn’t quite the standard bearer it was in years past, but I guess that that position is what EB is about, and the 7,000-word rebuttal to Nature magazine is very much an EB response. (You have to be a subscriber to see the article: “In a War of Words, Famed Encyclopedia Defends Its Turf,” Wall Street Journal, 24 March 2006. Not even the first few sentences are free! BTW, I’ve switched to the Financial Times because it’s more international, and less blindly conservative.)

I was even more intrigued by yesterday’s New York Times op-ed about Google and information illiteracy , because the author’s test search was for “world history.” Wikipedia had a weak article, and EB had nothing. The problem here, not addressed by the author, is that the best content on the subject is not available free, and isn’t even searchable at the moment (though various people, Berkshire included, are working on that).

Here’s the opening of “Writing World History” by Marnie Hughes-Warrington, a tremendous and unique overview article included in the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History (about which the Booklist reviewer wrote, “A masterful title that weaves together social, scientific, anthropological, and geographical influences on world history, the [Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History] will be the benchmark against which future history encyclopedias are compared…[and] belongs on the shelves of all high-school, public, and academic libraries.” We’re also working on a way of getting it into the hands of students and general readers, in print and on the desktop. Professor Hughes-Warrington sets the stage in this way:

“The term “world history” describes one of the oldest, most persistent, and most pliable forms of history writing. No simple methodological definition is possible, for world histories vary widely in style, structure, and scope. Furthermore, a wide assortment of labels have been used to describe them, including “universal history,” “ecumenical history,” “regional history,” “comparative history,” “world systems history,” “macrohistory,” “transnational history,” “big history,” and the “new world” and “new global” histories. Despite terminological differences, however, world histories share the purpose of offering a construction of and thus a guide to a meaningful “world”-a “realm or domain taken for an entire meaningful system of existence or activity”-by historians or people in the past (Hughes-Warrington 2004, 4). Thus in this sense all histories are world histories. Where histories differ is in the degree to which the purpose of world construction is explicit.” Email me if you’d like a copy of the whole article.

Another fascinating and important form of world history is “Big History,” a subject closely associated with our friend and editor David Christian, author of the remarkable Maps of Time.

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