A review of Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman says that in “many respects, the Bible was the world’s first Wikipedia article. So many hands have altered and edited the now lost originals that we will never know for sure what those originals said.” I don’t think that’s a very useful analogy, because it breaks down on so many levels, but it does bring up the question of authority, which librarians and scholars like, and which doesn’t seem to matter to most people, at least not in the same way. In terms of authority, how do Wikipedia and the Bible compare?
The review points out out that the Bible we have in English is a translation based on nonexistent original documents written by we know not whom, copied and recopied over several centuries in numerous manuscripts that may neither be complete nor agree with each other. This is hardly news to anyone who knows much about textual criticism of the Bible, but it seems to be unwelcome news to people who believe the Bible (and especially the KJV) is the unerring Word of God even in its details, so unwelcome that they probably wouldn’t read Ehrman’s book anyway and if they did they wouldn’t believe it or wouldn’t care, despite the fact that the reason people consider the Bible as authoritative is precisely because of its author, or at least who they think is the author — God. The Bible is an authority because it was written by God.
This is much the way some librarians would approach scholarly or reference sources. These sources have authority because of the authors.
The Wikipedia, however, is different. It can’t be judged adequately by the “authority” standard, because we don’t know who the authors are. For many people, this is enough to dismiss it as a useful reference source. The Wikipedia is often judged to be unreliable because anyone can edit it and we don’t know who really writes the entries. Because anyone can edit at any time, it can be changed for the worse, and the entries might be written by crazy people! Everyone has a favorite Wikipedia entry scandal to trot out in these discussions, even though I suspect the mini-scandals are in fact exceptions. If we apply the standard criterion to the Wikipedia (and similar wiki products), then they have to be dismissed out of hand. Is this a problem with the Wikipedia, or with our limited criteria of quality?
Librarians like to judge reference or scholarly sources by their authority. We know this book is good because the Outstanding University Press published it, or because some respected scholar at a respectable university wrote it. Professor Smith of Ivy U wrote this Encyclopedia Mundi entry, so it must be better than the corresponding Wikipedia entry in some way.
Authority is one of the tools of academic collection development and reference, a necessary tool because we don’t have the time or expertise to read and evaluate everything before we buy it, but we should be wary of using it too indiscriminately. After all, it’s not like authorities are necessarily right or true, and most renowned scholarly publications have other scholarly publications criticizing their shortcomings.
(To be fair, it’s not just librarians who have this sometimes irrelevant and medieval respect for “authority.” A lot of students of the humanities seems to have the same view of authority, and will use Derrida, for example, as an argumentative trump the way medieval scholastics might have used “the Philosopher.” I can’t count how many times in an earlier life I heard someone say “Well, Foucault says,” as if that somehow settled an argument.)
Perhaps the Wikipedia should be judged by a different standard, though, since authority isn’t relevant. Perhaps Wikipedia should be judged by some criterion of truth or usefulness. Because whatever librarians think of Wikipedia, it’s clear that people love it, and we’d be better off remembering that and figuring out how to exploit the Wikipedia than in dismissing it out of hand.