Monday, July 30, 2012

I Have Written Off Wikipedia Completely

Up until about five minutes ago, I've been an avid supporter of Wikipedia. Obviously you can't cite it as a source in your homework paper, but you can get a general overview on any topic you want. It's always been the first place I go for information.

Not anymore.

I set a Google alert on "Vestal Virgins," which sends me an email every time someone online mentions the Vestal Virgins. That way if there are any new pictures or information, I find out. It doesn't seem to be working very well, though, because it never sends me links to my blog.

Today I followed a link that led me to the main Wikipedia page for the Vestal Virgins. I hadn't been there for five years, so I looked it over. As I was skimming through, I read this paragraph that wasn't there before: 

"At its peak the College of Vestals consisted of 18 girls and women, though only the senior-most 6 were termed Vestals and were full priestesses; the junior 12 were child-novices and maiden acolytes. During the Republic and Empire, 3 new novices would be chosen every five years upon the retirement of the 3 senior Vestals; these novices were almost always prepubescent girls."

There were only six Vestal Virgins.

My mouth dropped open because one of two things had happened: either one, I was the worst researcher in the entire world and was wrong about there only being six, or two, that entire paragraph was false. 

While I don't believe I'm the worst researcher in the world, it was enough of a possibility to make me panic for about five minutes. I skimmed through my books, looked up some sites, and whew! Everything says there were only six Vestal Virgins.

I found only two other websites that say the same thing about there being eighteen: here and here. Neither page cites any sources. T. Cato Worsfold, on the other hand, cited Plutarch and Dionysius saying there were only six.

You might think this isn't a big deal. I might read the Wikipedia article and gain some false information, but then I'll just read a book that'll clarify things for me. No harm done, right?

The problem is I've noticed in my research that whenever I run across two pieces of information that contradict, I always favor the first thing I read. All the information I have builds a picture in my head, and I try to make the rest of the information fit - sometimes, without even thinking about it, this means tossing out valid material only because it's unfamiliar.

I am a firm believer in being careful with the first place you research. Skimming the web is good at first because it sparks interest, but if you're serious about a topic, I highly recommend turning the computer off and getting a good book as soon as possible.

Even then, you're not safe. I've read some books on Marie Laveau that aren't just wrong; some of their facts don't make logical sense. (Yes, Tallant, I'm pointing a finger at you.)

When you start your research, I have three pieces of advice:

1. Be open.
2. Be suspicious.
3. Be thorough.


  1. You say you were an avid supporter of Wikipedia, but that doesn't fit what you've written.

    If you want to support Wikipedia, fix mistakes when you find them, and cite reputable sources for your changes, rather than being a fair-weather friend and dumping it the minute you find a minor error.

    It's easy enough, and there are lots of help resources.

  2. You must contribute to Wikipedia! It only works if people roll up their sleeves and get stuck in when they see errors. I do it all the time!

  3. I never go to Wikipedia for information What terrific tips you've provided. Thank you. I think books are the best source of information. Internet is fast and convenient but like you said, if you want to be thorough, turn it off and find a book.

  4. I see your points about contributing, but what's the point of contributing to a website I've written off?

  5. I'm quite grateful that my writing very rarely needs research. I have used Wiki in the past, but mostly for very small things, and I normally have a back-up check on the go too. Books always seem to be more valid though. Glad your original research was correct.

  6. I go to Wikipedia not for the text of its article, but for the references it cites at the bottom. THOSE babies have led to some excellent reading.

    I don't contribute or edit Wiki articles because I see editing wars all the time and I don't have the time or emotions to spare. If people want to be ignorant, nothing I can do will change it. Instead, I offer up my own blogs, which have risen to respectable altitudes in Google searches. ;)

  7. I would fix the error. If not for yourself than for others who may be led astray. Wikipedia is a useful collective resource, often a great starting point, though never a good ending point.

    Also, I'm confused about what the actual error is because my reading of that paragraph is that they are saying that there are only six Vestals but that there were other acolytes, not called Vestals, but still part of the college. I am no expert on this particular area of religions as practiced in Rome, but it conforms with other things I have read.

    You would be doing us all a great service if you were to clear it up.

  8. Yeah, I probably should fix it. Stephanie, Vestal Virgins were selected by lottery between the ages of six and ten. They were required to serve 30 years, after which they could choose to leave the priesthood or stay. The theory is that the Romans wanted their service to overlap the years they were fertile. They almost always stayed. The first ten years were spent in training, so that children weren't responsible for carrying such important duties. There were six vestals total, including the ones being trained. That doesn't fit the description on wikipedia at all.

    Does that make sense with what you've read? I'm curious about your research, since we studied the same topics.


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