Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Wikipedia

If you don't know what the Wikipedia is, it's time for you to catch up.

Among librarians I work with, there has been some bemused conversation about the Wikipedia. Some flatly reject it as a reference source, since it is not formally reviewed or written by "experts." Others I know believe that it is an authoritative reference, since its entries can be corrected instantaneously by anyone around the world.

What formal library research has been done on the Wikipedia? One might think that several reviews and articles would have been written and published in library research journals, full of interesting analysis about its potential (or not) as a reference source. However, I ran a search this evening in two of the primary library and information science indexes. There hasn't been much discussion, unfortunately:

Library and Information Science Abstracts: 7 articles (2 of those peer-reviewed)
Library Literature: 7 articles (4 of those peer-reviewed)

The Wikipedia itself contains an incomplete list of academic papers and presentations on/about the Wikipedia. Interestingly, it also contains an incomplete list of academic works that use the Wikipedia as a source! (It would be interesting to look at those papers now and compare the Wikipedia articles they cite.)

I haven't made up my mind as to whether I would, at the reference desk, consult or recommend to a person the Wikipedia as a reference work. I think the best bet, as in any research, is to use as many sources as realistically possible to confirm known facts. That is, use two or more works to act as checks on the other(s).

As a final thought, I think reference librarians must remember that "authoritative" reference works have their flaws. The "long-awaited publication of Oxford University Press's updated Dictionary of National Biography," published "after 12 years of research," "contains more than 50,000 biographies and costs £7,500." But as this article in The Observer notes, this reference work contains errors in biographies as basic as those of Florence Nightingale and Jane Austen! Note that, if this had been instead published as a Wiki, the errors would have been corrected, and the library wouldn't have spent £7,500 on a massive work with errors.



Mort said...

The Wikipedia is interesting, not so much as an authoritative reference (although it is usually accurate) but as a way to stimulate thinking. Regarding the accuracy of the Wikipedia, I fully agree that patrons should interrogate it for factual errors. What assumptions does the Encyclopedia Britannica rely on? How is it organized? How is it biased? What does it exclude? Students should be thinking about that.

When I ask a reference librarian a question, I try to provide as much information about my project as possible in the hope that the librarian will suggest a brilliant new direction that I had not thought of. Sometimes this works great -- librarians are particularly good at ferreting out interesting online archives and such. However, I wish that more reference librarians would refer me to sources that are good at stimulating creativity, such as the Wikipedia. Provide some glitter, particularly in early stages of research!

I am teaching a class this summer, and one of the librarians will be teaching my students about resources in our collection. I think that she will do a great job. And, I know that she will show them the Grove Dictionary of Art. This is a great encyclopedia. It is fact-checked and comprehensive. It is also one of the most EXCEEDINGLY BORING reference books that I have ever read! It reeks of the status-quo. I hope that students refer to the Grove, but not as a first resource. The Grove will just feed them tired opinions that have been in circulation since the 19th century. I hope that people look at the Wikipedia some original and critical thinking. The Wikipedia, for example, is the only source in English that synthetically describes the archaeological, pornographic, and exploratory career of the 19th century character Jean Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Frederic_Waldeck). And, it is the place where the allegedly haunted buildings of Gustavus Adolphus College are most fully listed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustavus_Adolphus_College).

Barbara said...

This is a fascinating issue. To simply say "the Web is unreliable" leaves people with the implication that printed sources always are. It takes a complex issue and reduces it to a silly binary that isn't remotely true! Yes, any reference source (however carefully constructed and edited) will have errors. Every printed source has to decide what is included and excluded and how to present it. Hey, we need to get hip to what physicists figured out in 1927: how you look at a phenomenon always has an effect on what you see. And that's true no matter what the format.

The fact that a wiki can be updated and improved (good) also makes it vulnerable to people producing certain kinds of spin (bad). That's life, folks. The fact is, we need to be critical (in the best sense of the word) of everything we read (in the most postmodern sense of the word - this include the ABC Nightly News) and try to get as much context as we can to make good judgements.

BTW, I wrote an article on this topic (not on Wikipedia, but on the foolishness of treating the Web as if it's a unique category that needs critical scrutiny) that came out in Simile a while back. Simile is a cool journal, by the way - at the intersection of communication studies and librarianship. It's published by the U of Toronto Press and is peer-reviewed, but electronic and (wow!) free. You can browse it at http://www.utpjournals.com/jour.ihtml?lp=simile/simile.html