Wikipedia, and the librarians who hate and fear it

There’s been another 10-librarian pileup on the ILI-L in the last couple of days concerning Wikipedia. This kind of thing happens every few months on ILI-L: someone starts it by reporting a funny story about Wikipedia, or asking how others use (or don’t use) it in our teaching, or what have you. This time it was the story of how a number of journalists have been caught by the short hairs for copying a bogus quote about composer Maurice Jarre1.

These are usually good for several things: 1. they clog up my inbox for a day or so, 2. someone usually says something amusingly ill-informed about Wikipedia, 3. I find some awesome Wikipedia articles on things I never dreamed I’d be curious about, and 4. I get some good ideas from how others are using Wikipedia as a teaching tool that I might be able to use in my own teaching.

This time, though, I was surprised and a little dismayed at the tenor of the conversation: there were enough librarians saying essentially, “I can’t believe librarians are using this awful tool, and actually recommending that their students use it, when there are so many other good tools they could be teaching”.

Some librarians countered with reasoned arguments about using Wikipedia, and to be honest the tenor of the discussion has moderated quite a bit since I initially got the bee in my bonnet to write this post. But early on, other librarians actually came back with (and I’m paraphrasing here) “I tell students not to use it, and I’m disappointed that all the rest of you don’t, also.”

And then, one librarian likened telling students not to use Wikipedia to telling medical students not to use the theory of humors when diagnosing a patient, and I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut any more.

Leaving aside issues of the reliability or validity (note that I don’t say “authority”) of Wikipedia as a source, I don’t think it’s at all helpful to tell students, “these are good sources; use them. Those are bad sources; don’t use them.” Whatever happened to teaching our students to fish? Sure, we recommend sources to students all the time, but a) in doing so, I don’t think we’re drawing a black-and-white line between “good” and “bad” sources, and b) there is no black and white line between good and bad sources. They’re all shades of gray, and even the crappiest ones teach us something.2 If nothing else, they give us a barometer for what a bad source truly is.

And then there’s Wikipedia itself. Sure, there are probably better sources for getting an overview of a topic like Archbishop Oscar Romero or the guillotine (two articles I’ve used to help actual students with actual research), but are they available to your students online 24/7 in a format they’re already intimately familiar with? (NetLibrary books need not apply.) For the guillotine question, we found more information, and more references to additional sources, in Wikipedia than in any of the print sources at our disposal, including the Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, the Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, the Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice, the Encyclopedia of European Social History, and Britannica. Beat that with a stick.

Oh, and by the way, as of 8:00 am EDT on May 14, 2009, neither Biography Resource Center nor Oxford Music Online had updated their entries on Maurice Jarre to note his date of death. The man passed in late March, and these are online sources, people, not print.

One librarian closed her defense of Wikipedia by tossing off the line, “where else can you find a exhaustive article on World of Warcraft?” Indeed. Lots of topics are covered, and covered comprehensively and accurately, in Wikipedia that are not in any standard reference source and may never be.

I don’t generally talk about Wikipedia in my teaching because of the constraints of time and faculty members’ requests for what they want me to cover. When you have 50 minutes to cover everything students need to know about library research, you just can’t spend time on Wikipedia. But sometimes students (or faculty) ask me about it in class, and I always give my frankly honest opinion, which goes like this:

  1. I love Wikipedia and use it every day. (This usually gets some interesting facial expressions in response). But not for anything having to do with money or health.3
  2. Wikipedia aspires to be truly encyclopedic. (This is usually met with varying degrees of shock and surprise, including by the faculty member.)
  3. Wikipedia aspires to have every statement in it documented with “reliable sources.” (This is also met with varying degrees of shock, especially by the faculty member.)
  4. Wikipedia’s definition of “reliable sources” is remarkably similar to the criteria we teach students for evaluating information — any information, not just information on the web. (Definitely cue the shock and surprise.)
  5. The sources, references, and external links in Wikipedia articles can be gold mines of good, solid information — or not, but it’s certainly worth checking them out.

When I asked if she’d checked Wikipedia, The student I helped with the guillotine question said she was “afraid” to look at the article there. I gave her my standard spiel about Wikipedia, and then we looked at the article together. As I wrote above, it turned out to be more useful for her than any of the print ref sources we’d consulted up to that point. I’d hope that, regardless of whether they use it or not, whether their professors accept it or not, students aren’t afraid of any source of information. If we’ve taught them that, we’ve done them a disservice.4

  1. See the ILI-L archives for May 13 and 14, 2009; look for the subject line “Wikipedia and journalists.”
  2. Good gracious, even the kilogram isn’t a constant. If we can’t rely on international standard measures for “truth,” what is there? And yes, I realize I’ve linked to the Wikipedia article there, but show me a better source for explaining the issue in lay terms. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
  3. This is not precisely true. If all I need to know is which kind of diabetes is Type 1 or Type 2, then I’ll use Wikipedia. But it’s a useful shorthand for “not for anything really really important.”
  4. I should also link to Kathryn Greenhill’s brilliant post on a similar topic here. She says much the same thing, but better, shorter, and with visual aids.