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.

11 Comments

  1. Posted May 14, 2009 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I used Wikipedia a lot this year talking to First Year Experience classes. I would ask them how they would start researching a topic. If they said “search the web” or something similar, I would use Google and often get Wikipedia as a top hit. We’d look at the article and talk about the difference between satisfying one’s own curiosity and satisfying their cranky old professor. I’d liken reading a Wikipedia article on, say, Wittgenstein, to asking their friend the philosophy major “hey, what’s the deal with Wittgenstein?” It’s a perfectly valid move, you just can’t stop there if you want your prof. to take you seriously.

  2. Posted May 14, 2009 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    With the teaching I do, I’ve been using Wikipedia as a way to teach keywords. For my business students who are trying to create business plans on topics they know very little about, this technique is helpful to them: start with the open web, use Wikipedia to get an overview of a topic, drag keywords that spark your interest to our paid databases to find authoritative texts. This gives me the opportunity to mention that “since you can’t say ‘according to anonymous who writes on Wikipedia’ in a business plan” when I start talking about why you even want to search the library’s resources.

    Thanks for the rant. :)

  3. Posted May 14, 2009 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the defense! I may not have had the “sex talk” with my daughters, but I have had the Wikipedia talk with them and now I don’t sit up late at night wondering if they are plugging it into their bibliographies. I’ve also had to talk some teachers down during class research visits. For kids who can’t tell me the basics about their subjects, I say, “hey, let’s start with Wikipedia.” They turn white, say “teacher won’t let me,” and we go from there.

  4. Laura H.
    Posted May 14, 2009 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    *raises hand* I’m yet another librarian who will start at Wikipedia. I clearly remember helping a student find information about the history of the celebration of Christmas by checking Wikipedia and checking its sources (we had awful luck in the catalog with subject headings).

    I am in complete agreement with you. Wikipedia *is* the correct tool for many information needs, and it can be quite useful as a starting point for more sophisticated information needs.

  5. Posted May 14, 2009 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Amen.

  6. Posted May 14, 2009 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    I used Wikipedia in a class on information resources for an assignment the intro engineers do. Basically told them it’s good for understanding a topic before you do your ‘real’ research (like any encyclopaedia really). I showed them the top of the page and pointed out the footnote numbers and the references at the bottom of the page — it was a good lead-in to the concept of citing.

  7. Rebecca Merz
    Posted May 15, 2009 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Great post — thanks! If I’m asked about Wikipedia in instruction sessions I teach, I always tell students it makes a good jumping-off point, a place you can get a sense or overview of the topic, find some keywords to use in the databases, etc. Love Steve Lawson’s analogy in comment #1 — totally going to steal that.

    Oh, and hi, BTW. :) Happened upon your blog recently and have enjoyed reading it!

  8. Posted February 1, 2010 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s an AMAZING assignment to actually REQUIRE your students to edit a Wikipedia entry. Wikipedia maintains a list of “stubs” – entries the need work. Give your students a list of appropriate stubs for your course and tell them to add to the entry. Two good things about this assignment- First, you know they can’t use Wikipedia to complete it!! But more importantly, they learn something about the editorial process and citation requirements of the site.

  9. Nathan
    Posted February 4, 2010 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Great post!

    I recently did a presentation on “Wikipedia: the educator’s friend (!)” and I come to many of the same conclusions.

    Here is the paper I wrote that undergirds the presentation:

    http://eprints.rclis.org/17452/

    -Nathan Rinne

  10. Colleen
    Posted September 4, 2010 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Help Ban Wikiedia

    http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/ban-wikipedia/

  11. Catherine
    Posted September 6, 2010 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Just popping in here to mention that I’m not going to delete the previous comment, #10 by “Colleen,” who linked to a petition to ban Wiki[p]edia.

    It’s not spam; the link is to a legitimate petition that, as of this writing, has 30 signatories, though it should be noted that a large percentage of those who signed it seemed to have done so in jest.

    I should also point out that as evidence of Wikipedia’s “sinister agenda,” the unnamed author[s] of the petition note that the content of the site is “almost 100% entirely inaccurate” and that this content is generated by “at best mischievous, and at worst despotic individuals or groups who seek to create chaos and spread lies throughout the world.” That’s about all the evidence s/he/they can muster.

    I invite you all to address the petition with your very best information literacy skills.

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