You could cure a toothache or make snowshoes using the original Britannica, of 1768-71. (You could also imbibe a lot of prejudice and superstition. The entry on Woman was just six words: “The female of man. See HOMO.”) If you look up “coffee preparation” on Wikipedia, you will find your way, via the entry on Espresso, to a piece on types of espresso machines, which you will want to consult before buying. There is also a page on the site dedicated to “Errors in the Encyclopædia Britannica that have been corrected in Wikipedia” (Stalin’s birth date, the true inventor of the safety razor).
Wikipedia is an online community devoted not to last night’s party or to next season’s iPod but to a higher good. It is also no more immune to human nature than any other utopian project. Pettiness, idiocy, and vulgarity are regular features of the site. Nothing about high-minded collaboration guarantees accuracy, and open editing invites abuse. Senators and congressmen have been caught tampering with their entries; the entire House of Representatives has been banned from Wikipedia several times. —Stacy Shiff —Know It All: Can Wikipedia conquer expertise? (The New Yorker)