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.
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:
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.