RootsTech 2014

Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Genealogy and Wikipedia

One of the most remarkable phenomenon of the rise of online computing is the huge reference website called Wikipedia. With 4.5+ articles in English and millions more in other languages, this giant wiki has grown into the premier resource for timely and accurate information. For those of you out there who are Douglas Adams (1952-2001) fans, this website is beginning to look like The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

From time to time, I hear statements about how school teachers are discouraging their students from using Wikipedia for a variety of reasons. I also commonly find that because of the older demographic of the genealogy community, there is both a lack of awareness of the resource and a skepticism about its accuracy. What many do not realize is that Wikipedia is an immensely useful resource for genealogists. I have written a lot in the past about wikis and their unique value to genealogical researchers, but it seems that Wikipedia seldom gets mentioned by bloggers, conference listings or any other publications in the genealogical community.

There is a smattering of mentions of the FamilySearch Research Wiki as it has grown into a valuable resource and I find, as I teach classes, that there is a marked increase in the number of genealogists familiar with this particular wiki. But that familiarity does not usually extend to Wikipedia.

There are certain topics in Wikipedia that are directly part of genealogy, other topics are of a peripheral interest but constitute valuable tools for genealogical research. The categories of articles that are helpful include the following:

  • History
  • Family history
  • Genealogy
  • Geography (searching for specific towns, counties, states or provinces and countries)
  • Famous people
  • Genealogy websites
  • and so forth
Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean.

Let's suppose your family came from a town called Bedrock. Where would you go to start finding such a place? There are several equally as good answers for this question. I would suggest Wikipedia. If I search Wikipedia for "bedrock wikipedia" I always add the "Wikipedia" word after my search term, I am looking for general locational information. With this search, I am going to get several options or as it is called in Wikipedia "disambiguation." I need to choose the alternative for geography and I find an article on Bedrock, Colorado. The reality is that nearly every populated place in the entire world now has a Wikipedia article. The important thing about these articles is that they give the geographic coordinates of the place and sometimes, a lot of information. Wikipedia opens the geographic door for genealogists. 

Another example. If you wanted to know some of the basics about genealogy as a subject, you can look it up in Wikipedia. See Wikipedia: Genealogy. You would find a good short introduction to the subject with about 100 or so links to other websites, including additional related Wikipedia articles. You can use this Wikipedia-type search for almost any conceivable topic. 

There is a tendency to question the reliability of cooperative-type works such as Wikipedia when the same skepticism is not evident when the work has only one author. As it turns out, in the few instances when people have challenged the reliability of the Wikipedia articles that they are, at least, as reliable as other multiple authored works. See Reliability of Wikipedia. My own experience is that, in the areas relied upon by genealogists, there is little controversy and the articles are very reliable. 


  1. I often Google place names to get information and I find that I almost always go to the Wikipedia link, because it is the most thorough and useful. Maybe I need to look there for more things.

  2. Wikipedia is currently the 6th ranked website on Alexa. It strains credulity that the FamilySearch Research Wiki would be better known in the familiy history community than Wikipedia.

    1. Better known does not mean better used. I find few of the people in my classes have ever used Wikipedia for their genealogy.

  3. Good points about the use of Wikipedia. Outside of genealogy, I have run into others hesitating to rely on Wikipedia--coaches when my daughter participated in high school debate, for instance--and often the reason given was lack of reliability.

    However, in addition to the explanatory link you provided, I have read analysis from authors and other researchers independently confirming the reliability, precisely because of the crowdsourcing aspect.

    In addition to your thoughts on application to genealogy research, I have run into one other possibility. Just as many may Google their ancestors' names, I've done so on Wikipedia for those of my ancestors with any modest claim to fame. I have actually run across some ancestors who have a "stub" on Wikipedia, coupled with the editorial plea for someone to round out the picture. My goal, in this case, is to adequately complete my research on that ancestor so that I may add the information to the "stub" as a Wikipedia volunteer, myself.