December 11, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Can We Make Peace with Wikipedia?

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Every day, librarians around the world turn to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as the definitive resource. This trusted authority, however, has a shocking secret—the venerable OED began life as a wiki. Well, sort of. Thousands of volunteer readers back in the day composed more than 400,000 definitions by submitting slips of paper with quotations that detailed word usage. Lacking wiki software meant organizing over five million slips to form this collective intelligence project, a process that lasted from 1857 until 1928. Today, Wikipedia’s volunteers have published about five million articles worldwide in just six years. So these two projects appear to be distant cousins of sorts.

While librarians universally worship the OED, we, as a profession, reject Wikipedia. (See “Wikipedia, the Review,” March pp. 82–83) Many librarians distrust the online work—if anyone can contribute information, the articles will be inaccurate, they say. So many media specialists have banned using the site. There are two problems with this. For one, study after study has found that Wikipedia is, in fact, reasonably accurate as a general knowledge source. And students are just going to use it anyway. My May 2006 column for SLJMySpace Can Be Our Space” (p. 30) explored the futility of attempting to ban a wildly popular Web site. Even if you filter Wikipedia and its typically prominent results on Google, students will just use it at home.

In an April 2007 study, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that over a third of American homes with Internet access are using Wikipedia. Moreover, Wikipedia users are predominantly college graduates (50 percent versus 22 percent of high school graduates). So if a child comes home seeking help with a research project, it’s likely that Mom and Dad will turn to the online encyclopedia. Even if they don’t, a basic search on Google for single word topics almost always includes a result from Wikipedia. Doing a country project on France? Wikipedia’s entry is the first hit on Google. State project on Wisconsin? Again, the wiki article comes out on top.

Many schools have prohibited citing Wikipedia as a source in research papers; and Wikipedia fully agrees with this policy. After Middlebury College’s ban, Wikipedia’s Sandra Ordonez told InsideHigherEd.com that, while “Wikipedia is the ideal place to start your research and get a global picture of a topic, we recommend that students check the facts they find in Wikipedia against other sources.” Ordonez added that, although Wikipedia is a great place to check on something, it is “not a valid resource for scholarly research.”

These are the same concerns that I hear from high school librarians. We cannot, however, continue to reject Wikipedia because we aren’t comfortable with the wiki process itself. Our students and their parents are just fine with it. To be quite frank, continually bad-mouthing Wikipedia to the very people who use it—successfully—makes us look a bit daft. It would be much more productive to teach colleagues, students, and parents how to best use Wikipedia. Instead of appearing to be “behind the times” when it comes to new information sources, librarians can foster educated, high-end users who verify Wikipedia entries using the history and discussion tabs. If we can’t beat ’em, let’s join ’em—as leaders in promoting the proper use of Wikipedia. As such, here are three “rules” regarding the wiki that also serve to enhance research overall:

1) At least three sources are required to verify research.

2) General encyclopedias like Wikipedia are a great place to get started, however …

3) Serious research projects cannot cite general knowledge encyclopedias.


Author Information
Chris Harris is coordinator of the school library system of the Genesee Valley (NY) BOCES.
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