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A Genealogist's Love/Hate Relationship with Wikipedia

A Genealogist's Love/Hate Relationships with Wikipedia

Do you use Wikipedia for genealogy? Or do you believe it has no place in research?

There are many people firmly in the camp of “don’t use Wikipedia, it’s not a source.” And with good reason. Wikipedia is a wiki which means it’s a collaborative effort between those who know what they are writing about and those who think they know, with a few people thrown in who just want to plant incorrect information.

Those who say, “of course! Use Wikipedia!” see it as a source of information that should not be ignored.

So what should you do?

When I search online to see what others are saying about using Wikipedia I get the same message over and over “do not use Wikipedia…it’s not considered a scholarly work...” And I agree.

I also wouldn’t tell you to use online family trees as a “source.” Online family trees whether an individual or collaborative effort are notorious for misinformation and errors.

So why do we continue to use online trees? What do they provide? They provide a hint. In some cases, someone who has been doing the research longer or has access to something you don’t, has added information to an online tree that you can then use as a hint in your research. It may or may not be true, that’s for you to discover, but it’s a hint and why wouldn’t you take a hint when available?

I see Wikipedia in the same way I see an online tree. There’s no doubt that information on Wikipedia isn’t the greatest. But I’ll tell you that I love Wikipedia to use as a finding aid, to find information on historical people and places, and as an introduction to genealogically relevant sources I had no idea existed.

So yes, I do use Wikipedia, with caution. I also think you should. The Fitchburg State University Library explains that “Wikipedia is useful for:

  • Getting background info on a subject, just like any other encyclopedia... just be careful to confirm facts and avoid citing Wikipedia.
  • Getting familiar with the technical language or subject jargon -- perfect for finding terms to use in keyword searches.
  • References at the bottom of the page are a good place to confirm information and find out more.”[1]

I think Wikipedia provides useful information for family historians for example:

Using it as a hint, Wikipedia provides information that you can then follow-up on. It also provides links that serve as a finding aid to places like archives and libraries.

There are sources online that explain how to evaluate what you find on Wikipedia including this research guide from Wardman Library .

Do you use Wikipedia for your family history? I do, but with caution. You shouldn’t use a source without analyzing it and you shouldn’t assume everything you find online is correct whether it is an online tree or an online encyclopedia. Use the information as a hint and then follow-up with sources.

 

[1] “Academic use of Wikipedia: All about Wikipedia,” Amelia V. Gallucci-Cirio Library (https://fitchburgstate.libguides.com/wikipedia: accessed 12 April 2020).

 

Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.

 

Comments

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Thank you, Gena.
People who are snooty about using Wikipedia will happily take as gospel a book written in 1854 which contents were collected together over several years from anecdotal stories and poorly written documents.
But it is 170 years old, so must be true.

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