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Just the Facts

Thanks to online search engines and such sites of Wikipedia, reference books are going cheap at second hand bookshops these days. In fact I might go so far as to suggest that the book dealers are almost giving dictionaries of biography, atlases, and encyclopedias away. These books may be going for a song but are they worth even that? I guess a lot depends on how much reliance can be put on the information a person finds on the internet. Even Wikipedia has problems. Self-appointed guardians of the truth, often former lecturers at such hallowed halls of academia as Coventry University, can wreak havoc. Oh, don't get me started on how Margaret Thatcher kept her promise of widening access to a university eduction by allowing technical colleges to call themselves universities. But back to how reliable the internet is. When I was researching Scottish Military Disasters, book after book named a Commando regimental sergeant major who took charge after all the officers in his raiding party in 1941 were killed or incapacitated as Campbell. But I also stumbled across a website set up by the son of one of the soldiers who fought in the same battle and it named the sergeant major as Tevendale. That was a red flag that I paid attention to and further research found the website was correct and the books were all wrong. It turned out that one author had got the name wrong just after the Second World War and his mistake had been repeated again and again by nearly every subsequent author. As a young newspaper reporter I soon became aware that just because a dozen people all said the same thing, that didn't count as corroboration of the facts if they all got their information from the same single source. Anyway, the moral of the story is that while those who supply words to usually reputable sources of information are often held to a higher standard of fact-checking than some enthusiast writing for their own website, they are not infallible. A copy of the BlankBlank Dictionary of Biography for a pound is a good deal, but run the relevant entries through an internet search engine too. That's what I think anyway.

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