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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Researching with Wikipedia: The Experiences of Experienced Librarians

A quote from 'Many hands make crappy work' New Jack Librarian's blog: "Its largely unsaid, but Wikipedia is thought to improve by means of a strange evolution-like process...
1. Anyone, irrespective of expertise in or even familiarity with the topic, can submit an article and it will be published.
2. Anyone, irrespective of expertise in or even familiarity with the topic, can edit that article, and the modifications will stand until further modified.
Then comes the crucial and entirely faith-based step:
3. Some unspecified quasi-Darwinian process will assure that those writings and editings by contributors of greatest expertise will survive; articles will eventually reach a steady state that corresponds to the highest degree of accuracy." see also: Read about Griefers. Then be one

This post is based on what was discussed by some participants of the collib-l@ala.org forum. Many voiced their concerns, happiness, and / or tragic experiences, and came up with solutions that would probably work-well. It is hoped that some of these annecdotes will be useful in the area of evidence-based librarianship. Otherwise, are we willing to agree with some who say: today's librarians do "less complex work."

Following is some of that discussion reproduced with the permission of the respective voices.

"I warn against citing Wikipedia as the credibility of the author is, by definition, unknown." Michael Simmons, Reference & Instruction Librarian, James Addison Jones Library, 815 West Market Street, Greensboro, NC 27401

I'd like to say that I do everything in my power to scare students away from Wikipedia in the instruction sessions I lead.


I do make it very clear to the students that no resource is perfect; there will always be the occasional error. But, this is entirely different from Wikipedia, where "errors" are often intentional. Look at the need to lock controversial topics such as "The Holocaust," "abortion," and "evolution." I tell my students that any information they glean from Wikipedia for academic use must be confirmed in another, more reliable resource. So, why in the world would they double their work? I've had one or two pro-Wikipedia students respond that the errors are caught and corrected. Well, sometimes they are and sometimes they aren't. But, what if a student uses the article prior to an error (intentional or not) being corrected? Yes, there are occasional errors in professional/academic encyclopedias and other resources. But, these errors are rarely -- if ever -- intentional. If a student uses a reputable resource such as Britannica or Academic Search Premier and there is an error in the article, that is not the student's fault. But, if a student uses an article from Wikipedia, which is in no sense a reputable source, then the majority of blame is on the student (and will no doubt be placed as such by their professor). I tell my students that if they're curious about the history of the yo-yo, or want to learn more about Darth Vader, then feel free to use Wikipedia. But, if they need the information to be the slightest bit reliable or in any way scholarly, then never go near Wikipedia. I strongly feel that just because students are familiar with a source and therefore comfortable using it, that doesn't mean we should teach it in our instruction sessions. I am surprised at how many librarians are so open to using Wikipedia. I don't understand why so many librarians countenance the use of such an unreliable (sometimes intentionally so) source.

I disagree entirely that the logical conclusion here is to scare students away from search engines. Search engines are creatures altogether different from an amateurish, unreliable encyclopedia anyone can create articles for or alter in, unless of course said articles have been locked because too many people have already been altering them maliciously.


We do indeed provide guidance when it comes to search engines. But, I think it's entirely within our bailiwick to do our best to steer students away from unreliable, mostly useless resources such as Wikipedia. I suppose if one wants to show students an example of a very bad resource, then Wikipedia serves a purpose. But, why not concentrate on providing them with good resources?

With regard to instruction sessions, I have lost count of the number of subject faculty who have thanked me for reinforcing what they already tell their students with regard to Wikipedia. One professor, in fact, told me outright that he would have serious reservations with regard to bringing in a class for instruction if he knew that Wikipedia was being mentioned as a viable information resource. He tells his students right up front that any paper citing Wikipedia will be returned ungraded and won't be accepted until all uses of Wikipedia are removed.

Robert Daniel Vega
Reference Services Librarian
Christopher Center for Library and Information ResourcesValparaiso UniversityValparaiso, IN 46383Ph: 219-464-5023
Fax: 219-464-5972

In answer to ... question -- I guess the biggest difference between Google, et. al. and Wikipedia would be that Wikipedia professes a certain authority, while most people know information gathered from Google is kind of a toss up.


This is an interesting discussion and I can see both sides: On one hand there is good evidence of Wikipedia’s unreliability (i.e. the well-documented John Siegenthaler and Diebold Co. incidents as well as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales posting false biographical information about himself.) Wales , by the way, earned some startup money for Wikipedia by running a porn portal called “Bomis.” And then there was Massachussets Rep. Martin Meehan whose staff was caught deleting unflattering information from a biographical site about him, and on and on – so many that someone had to invent the “Wikiscanner” to root out false information posted by companies and individuals. (I urge you to read “Wikipedia and Beyond.” By: Mangu-Ward, Katherine, Reason, 00486906, Jun 2007, Vol. 39, Issue 2.)

On the other hand – Wikipedia seems like a grand venture linking vast numbers of bits of knowledge contributed by millions of individuals in the quest for truth and wisdom. I use it a lot, but always seek verification from other sources and that’s what I advise my students to do as well. I also tell them it’s a good place to start, but like any encyclopedia, it is not an appropriate source for college-level work.

In the end, I hope Wikipedia succeeds with providing great information, but am pessimistic because it is falling prey to vandals and greed.

Garet Nelson, Director
Samuel Read Hall Library
Lyndon State College
Lyndonville, VT 05851
( 802.626.6446

A year or so ago, I decided to learn about Wikipedia by contributing to and significantly expanding a short article. The subject of the article (a person) was one about which I have written a scholarly (and published) book. The person, dead for some time, is still of interest to many people, since he was a religious figure. To make along story short, "my" article was rather quickly hijacked by a person who has contributed and edited a great many Wikipedia articles having to do with Christianity, and he (I've always assumed it was a"he") has a clear conservative bias.


We argued through the discussion section for some months, generally about how this figure should be presented. He had enjoyed some fame before he became religious, and over the course of his life he became a cultural hero of sorts; I wanted to present that part of his influence. Nope; only the subject's theology and conservative credentials were important to the hijacker. Over and over I had to refer the hijacker to the source literature to back up something I had written that he disliked; it was apparent that he had not read agreat deal about the person before then. Eventually I just got worn out, and I gave up and declared defeat in the "edit war." Since Wikipedia is anonymous, I never revealed that I was the author of one of the books that I cited, and the hijacker never revealed his identity either.

I remain displeased with that Wikipedia entry. Although it is lengthy and there is a lot of good information in it, there is also extraneous material that doesn't contribute to our understanding of the subject, and a very important facet of the subject's life isn't discussed. I don't consider the article to be as useful a presentation of his life, influence, and importance in American culture and history as it could be.

An article can be long and reasonably well written and still not beas informative and/or as objective as we assume encyclopedia articles should be. There are Wikipedia contributors who are bullies, and there are contributors who have an ax to grind. (Perhaps I have an ax to grind, but I'm not much of a bully.) Although it is possible for anyone to correct an inaccuracy, it is also possible for those corrections to be deleted or corrected again. Inaccuracies are in the eye of the beholder.

The moral of this story is......Democracy is a messy business. Town meetings are great political instruments, but the discourse is messy. Caveat emptor.

About Wendy Knickerbocker


  • Jack Kessler:

  • Wendy Knickerbocker,
    Your good story of misadventures with Wikipedia echoes my own experience.

    Fan that I am, I first dipped my toe into the Wikipedia morass in order to test it. I set up several articles, and so as you did I quickly learned my limits regarding both technique and my chosen topics. Only they were wrong about the topics: I did know a great deal about those...

    Like you, then, I discovered several things about democracy. First, I learned that Wikipedia is _not_ one. There even is an article asserting and explaining that, on Wikipedia itself.

    Also I was reminded, several times brutally, that pure democracy is not necessarily a good thing, that republics can be better, that separation of powers and tripartite government and regulatory bureaucracy all are needed, that all systems require transparency -- and that Wikipedia neither addresses nor even acknowledges any of the above, yet.

    That's all for my next article on the Wikipedia effort, the one I'll write when I've calmed down from my anger at anonymous know-nothing nuts and meddling power-mad administrators who messed me up the last time, there...

    I encourage you very much to write up and publish your own Wikipedia critiques as well, Wendy, relating and elaborating upon the frustrations you describe below: if you get one done please send me the cite, as I'd like to read it.

    But the pressing issue for you and me and most of us now, I think, is how to define and grapple with the Wikipedia beast as it now presents itself, current warts and all. It is extraordinarily useful, and extraordinarily well-used: we need to understand it.

    One day, or perhaps over time, we all may have a chance to improve it, to alter its direction: that is Jimmy Wales' ultimate hope, I believe, and if so I share it -- Wikipedia appears to be growing beyond the size and scope of anything he or any small group might control, like so many other things about the Internet, so perhaps We The Users ultimately will run it after all. Democracy, then.

    In the meantime, though, that's not it. Nothing democratic or really otherwise, in the way you and I and others have been roughly handled, by the current -- interim, maybe -- Wikipedia administrative structure or lack thereof.

    So what exactly happened, to us and to others, and by whom was it done, and with what authorities? Wikipedia needs many articles on such questions, if it is to improve as it grows: I hope you will write some.

    To just sit & stare, though, or to deny the very existence of the rough & slouching & new Wikipedia beast -- as some in the information (!) professions apparently do -- to me seems at best unprofessional. Librarians, and professors in all disciplines, are in the information professions: students should learn about all information sources -- if only to criticize and even dismiss them, perhaps, but at least they should learn -- and to me it seems incumbent upon librarians and professors to teach them.

    And to try them out... Just the way you did, Wendy: homo faber, homo ludens -- try out authoring a Wikipedia page or two and get some real-life / hands-on experience with the thing, play with it a bit -- _then_ a student can sit back and criticize, maybe, but not until.

    I bet that Valparaiso prof never really had used Wikipedia himself, just heard about it from others and grandly diss'ed the idea en principe. I once tried showing the then-very-new Internet to a group of very-grand professors, by encouraging them to sit down at the keyboards and try it out themselves: most did eagerly -- professors are curious types, usually -- but one particularly-haughty individual drew himself up and announced, "Personally I do not type, I employ *staff* for that..."

    Caveat lector,
    Jack Kessler, About Jack:
    FYI France (sm)(tm) is a monthly electronic
    journal published since 1992 as a small-scale,
    personal experiment, in the creation of large-
    scale "information overload", by Jack Kessler.

    Bottomline: I myself, a Wiki victim, and a pessimist in dealing with WIKIPEDIA (i.e., embeded with tonnes of space: open-for-all and free-for-all), and yet a compassionate disseminator.

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