Wikipedia: A New Community of Practice

Charles Oppenheim (Market Harborough, Harborough, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 16 August 2011




Oppenheim, C. (2011), "Wikipedia: A New Community of Practice", Library Review, Vol. 60 No. 7, pp. 624-625.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Do not be misled by the title. This book is nothing to do with Communities of Practice despite its title. So, if you are someone who is heavily into knowledge management concepts, the book is not relevant to you. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating book, which is well worth a read. It is not made clear who the author is, but a check on Amazon showed there is a Dan O'Sullivan who writes history books. The author of the Ashgate book may be the same person, as this work has a heavy historical slant.

The first half of the book looks at a number of historic co‐operative efforts at improving humankind's knowledge, discussing in separate chapters the library at Alexandria, the Royal Society, Diderot's Encyclopaedia, the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and the Left Book Club (which thrived in the UK in the late 1930s). For each example, the author provides a well‐written and accessible potted history of the efforts, and the impact that they had on society at the time. I noted some errors in the discussion on the Royal Society. The author claims that in the 1660s, Aristotle was still revered as the unquestioned authority in science, and that therefore the people who founded the Royal Society were revolutionaries. By the 1660s, Aristotle's views on how science should be conducted were well in decline in fact. The author also implies that the founders tried, but failed to get a royal charter from the start, when in fact they succeeded. The author also fails to note that the publication of Philosophical Transactions was a money‐making effort by Henry Oldenburg to supplement his meagre salary. The author could have noted in his discussion on the Left Book Club that its most important effect was to discredit those who had promoted appeasement in the 1930s, a legacy that remains to this day.

The second half of the book examines various aspects of Wikipedia, and provides, in essence, a sociological analysis of why people contribute to it, and whether what it has produced is reliable knowledge, within a series of short chapters. Although the concept of “the wisdom of the crowds” is mentioned in passing, it is surprising that O'Sullivan does not explore it in depth, because this is the fundamental basis of the entire concept of Wikipedia having authority. It is also surprising that the author does not explore in more detail the fact that it was decided from the outset that everything on Wikipedia would be available free of charge under a creative commons licence. The author could have explored in depth, but failed to, the reasons why Wikipedia is so popular, or the philosophy of its founders.

The author has developed a useful methodology to evaluate Wikipedia articles, and provides a practical example of its use. However, he fails to explore in depth the research that has been undertaken comparing the factual accuracy of Wikipedia with Encyclopaedia Britannica, or indeed any of the research in the LIS literature on Wikipedia. There is a too brief chapter on how to contribute to Wikipedia before some brief conclusions.

The book is supported by a relatively small number of references, mainly books. I did not find a single Wikipedia reference – maybe the author did not have confidence in that source? I noted just one typo – an incorrect bibliographic citation at the bottom of page 32. Also, the claim that the 1911 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica is out of copyright is controversial. Some of the contributed pieces will probably still be in copyright. The book has a very basic and somewhat incomplete index.

To sum up: despite the reputation of Ashgate as a publisher of serious tomes, this is in fact a popular book about Wikipedia, more suited as a paperback in airport bookshops than as a reference work, but it is priced as a reference work. It tells a good yarn well, but I am dubious about its value for money.

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