Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia, written
and edited by volunteers. There have been many debates about the
relative value of the Wikipedia and commercial encyclopedias. Most
of the focus has been on the fact that the structure of the
Wikipedia (like any other wiki, or collaboratively-created
document) allows anyone to change an existing article and, with some
limitations, to create a new article. Fortunately, the Wikipedia is
"tended" by a number of editors. People
who have authored articles may also
monitor changes to their material, which serves as a quick
correction to changes that are wrong or malicious.
More background on how the Wikipedia works may
be found in this Wikipedia
article. And this month's issue of Wired magazine has an
article on the Wikipedia.
While I take
anything I read in the Wikipedia with a grain of salt, I do the same
for any other reference source. I had a project a while ago that
involved the market for tungsten. Turning myself into my own end
user, as Linda would say, I realized I first had to figure out what
the metal was, and how it was used. I headed over to
Wikipedia, and bingo! The Wikipedia article gave me plenty of background information,
so I could head off to other sources to get the information my
There's a lot of intelligence
built into the Wikipedia. I was looking for information on a breed
of dog that a friend thinks may be part of my puppy's very mixed
parentage, so I typed "viszla" in the search box. Happily, I was
redirected to the article on
Vizslas, a Hungarian hunting dog. And if you search for "Mercury,"
you will be shown a "disambiguation" page, which
lists several entries for the term,
Mercury, including the planet, the element, the car, and even
the singer, Freddie Mercury.
But be warned: The
Wikipedia is addictive. Each article is full of links to related
concepts, and once you start clicking, there goes an hour of your
The other ready-reference site I use
frequently is Answers.com, formerly the fee-based GuruNet. While the
site offers some plug-ins that I don't use,
its main strength is in providing quick answers.
Interestingly, just today they announced a new feature,
which lets you query it without going to
the search page. Just
enter the URL in the
browser address line, followed by the topic you want to
search -- for example,
The tungsten entry includes:
dictionary definitions, along with an audio
A brief entry
from the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia,
article on tungsten,
of the word into 14 languages, and
A link to a
"best of the web" site, pointing you to a relevant page from
one of the U.S.
Department of Energy labs.
And a search for Boeing retrieves:
A brief company profile,
Links to 10 recent articles on the company,
Stock price information,
The Wikipedia article on Boeing, and
Links to "best of the web" sites.
Curiously, no link
to Boeing's own site appears.
Answers.com works best for quick look-ups --
aggregated information on a city or a company,
for example; or for finding out how
to pronounce a word. Since much of its content comes from the
Wikipedia, if you need more in-depth information, you are better off
just going directly to the Wikipedia.
And finally, for really quick look-ups, I
frequently use the search engines' "Shortcuts" -- quick,
pre-packaged search results. For example, if I need to find out what
the current time is in Sydney, Australia (I can never keep track of
when they go on "summer time"), I enter
time in Sydney in Yahoo!'s search box, and the first result will
give me an answer to
the question -- the current time in
See the following pages for more
information on the shortcuts of some of the major search engines.
© 2005 Mary Ellen Bates all rights reserved.