By Jack Kessler
It is a starting-place for research, only, like any
encyclopedia… And it can be incomplete and uneven and
at-times-eccentric to the point of being quirky, although again
like any encyclopedia… It offers great “pictures”…
More importantly, though, Wikipédia is becoming the premier
research “starting-point”, the first resort, on French subjects:
for students and researchers of all types, on both sides of the
Manche, both sides of the Atlantique, elsewhere — just ask
them… Why? Because it is right there on the laptop or even on
the handheld: _that_ is “access”!
But what is the “quality” to be obtained thereby: the breadth,
the depth, the accuracy? Well, that is changing: all reference
resources change over time, but unlike the others Wikipédia is
changing very rapidly, and it seems always to be getting better.
A few Wikipédia examples:
* Jean Bodin — This Wikipédia article currently offers several
concise screens’ worth of information, on the 16th c. savant.
One learns, instantly and easily, who Bodin was and where he
“fits” — that he was a contemporary of Montaigne and Nostradamus
— that his ideas had something to do with “sovereignty”, also
with “sorcery”… Instant links are provided, to other Wikipédia
articles on these topics, and to other websites, and famous
quotes and bibliography are included. It’s all in French, but
links to similar — perhaps done worse, perhaps done better —
are provided too, to other Wikipedia “Bodin” articles in 18 other
That last is extraordinary, I think: it reminds me of the old
“polyglot” bibles, which squeezed only 4 languages in.
So, if the professor, of law or politics or international
relations — anywhere, including in France — teased the class
today by announcing that next week’s lecture will be about “Jean
Bodin”, and if you can’t remember much, or really have no idea…
Well, it’s easy: out comes the omnipresent wifi-enabled laptop,
and this excellent Wikipédia starting-point conveniently appears.
No, don’t “cite” Wikipédia in your thèse d’état… But then you
wouldn’t cite a printed encyclopedia, either — one which you
laboriously have dug out of a far-off library reading-room. Both
simply are research starting-points: one just happens to be a lot
more convenient, nowadays, and with its links far more supple,
than the other.
A second example:
* Révolution française — The Senior Partner’s spouse is on his
way to a tony Paris “cocktail”… He has texted you desperately
from his limo that his French is OK but he can’t remember how
“The Mountain” figured in their revolution, or exactly what its
adherents were called, “and someone is sure to ask!”… He is an
insecure and anxious type, and She is not along this time to
The Wikipédia article on his topic, which he can reach and read
easily en route, on his own handheld, can advise him: “Quand les
_Montagnards_ arrivent au pouvoir, la République connaît des
périls extrèmes…” etc. — and as “Montagnards” is linked he not
only learns the exact French term he sought but also he can point
& click to an article providing great detail about the group…
this to a limo crawling through Paris traffic… via an
intermediary — you — who might be located currently on a bus in
San Francisco, or beneath a tree in Tasmania…
It is a Brave New Information World… but at least Wikipédia is
here, to help the francophone part of it, anyway…
A few more instances:
* glaucome — Linked from the article in English… the French
Wikipédia article not only provides the subtly-different French
spelling of the principal term, it also offers reminders of
ancillary terminology and faux amis — “humeur aqueuse”, “la
pression intra-oculaire”, “corps ciliare” — useful review for
one’s own limo-, or maybe taxi-, ride to that professional
conference out at La Défense.
* Lyon — Suppose it’s a student paper on Roman Gaul… The
Wikipédia article: ah, “Lugdunum” — link to an enormous detailed
article on the old Roman capital, rigorously annotated and
copiously linked. Sheer magic, those Internet links…
Illustrated, with full bibliography: the inquisitive student’s
* and, finally here, chaologie — oops no, faux ami alert,
Wikipédia says that should be “chaos quantique” — let’s see…
Again, the Wikipédia article appears to be very complete: an
introduction, starting-point only, but who among us honestly can
say we’d need no such overview / introduction to such a subject,
particularly to its French aspects and terminology, if we were
asked to “report on” or “attend a conference regarding” same?
All this is introduced by a well-designed and interesting
— which explains how the specifically-French Wikipedia site is
constructed, and offers characteristically-French resources for
plowing through it — “portails thématiques”, “image du jour”, etc.
The general Wikipedia effort has developed into one of the
world’s outstanding digital library resources. To date there are
over 2,218,000 articles in its version in English alone; plus
over 705,000 in German, 468,000 in Polish, 466,000 in Japanese,
410,000 in Italian — and such Wikipedia versions are offered now
in over 250 languages.
The range of quality in the articles can be enormous: from very
bad to extremely good, again like other reference resources…
But in Wikipedia’s case there is one outstanding difference: the
good articles can be really good, and the bad articles constantly
— 24/7 in a continuous and truly-globalized effort — are
getting better and better.
This last is a key to Wikipedia, as it is to so many online
digital library undertakings: change — Wikipedia is dynamic,
constantly-changing — this can be unsettling, to someone seeking
immutability, permanence, in their “authoritative” reference
resources — but it is how Wikipedia grows, so rapidly and so
enormously, and it is how it gets better and better.
Other reference resources by comparison are immutable, literally:
they just stand there, still, until their next publication date,
which may be years away. That can be a good thing but also a bad
thing, just like Wikipedia’s changeability…
To anyone interested in information science — interested in
digital libraries — perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the
Wikipedia effort is its tranparency: the minute history and
ongoing log of the design and development of each article may be
viewed by any registered member, on the article’s “historique”
and “discussion” tab pages — to register simply click the link
in the upper right corner of any page, “Créer un compte”.
The Wikipedia in French — “Wikipédia: l’encyclopédie libre” —
— currently offers over 621,459 articles, available from nearly
anywhere, 24/7, on your nearest laptop or iPhone, with nice
pictures and active links, plus links to same-topic articles in
nearly any language.
Jack Kessler, email@example.com
Sent from my iPhone — The Future will be Handheld
FYI France (sm)(tm) e-journal ISSN 1071-5916
| FYI France (sm)(tm) is a monthly electronic
| journal published since 1992 as a small-scale,
| personal experiment, in the creation of large-
| scale “information overload”, by Jack Kessler.
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