Almanac-type information

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November 21, 2001, 11:30 AM -- There've been a lot of interesting lists of information added to Wikipedia over the months, and we've had a few more than usual added in recent weeks, it seems. These include lists of political parties, lists of popular names, lists of shoguns, lists of popes, lists of famous actors, etc. It's easy to make a list, and relatively hard to do the research or brain-racking that writing a detailed prose article requires. This isn't to criticize the making of lists, just to explain why they've been added so much. Lists do, of course, contain essential information that belongs in Wikipedia, and thanks to everyone who has been working on these entries. Every bit helps.

But we should bear in mind that Wikipedia is about a lot more than just making such lists. Nobody is under the illusion that Wikipedia is or ought to be just a collection of lists; but we should bear the main task in mind. In most cases, the articles pointed to by the items on the list contain as it were the "most important" content that we are developing.

Moreover, I hope we'll bear in mind that some of these lists--in particular, the lists that are constantly changing, year to year (so, not the list of popes)--are essentially almanac information, more than traditional encyclopedia information. Traditional encyclopedias have issued "yearbooks" which would contain updates to articles and almanac-type information. Moreover, you can look in any almanac and see hundreds of lists of information like this (e.g., populations of American cities, tax rates of states, popular baby names, etc.). I do think Wikipedia should contain such information, but we should be careful about adding information that we cannot easily maintain. All such lists require careful, constant updating to remain useful and accurate, and as a community, we still certainly lack the resources (in terms of personnel) to ensure that some such lists remain accurate and useful. Eventually, though, we very well might have enough people to keep such lists up-to-date.

Anyway, this is all just food for thought. I just wanted to put this list-making behavior in context, not to condemn it. Really, I think it's important work, and every bit helps. My two cautions are: remember that Wikipedia isn't just about making these sorts of lists (it's mainly about writing full, prose sentences in full, well-structured paragraphs, in complete, well-structured articles); and remember also that some information that you might be adding now in list form might need updating in six months, and if you're not around to update it, who will? That worries me.