Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wikipedia: a Librarian's Take

You may have seen a few videos for the gateway project written and performed by Summar Library about Wikipedia. The videos are embedded below and so I wanted to make a more in depth statement about Wikipedia. In a recent list of, "things to unlearn" published in The School Library Journal Scott Mcleod listed, "Wikipedia is bad, or less-than-good, in all contexts" as the #3 thing to unlearn! That then jogged my memory of an article entitled "Know it All", published in The New Yorker on July 31, 2006 about this growing encyclopedic phenomenon known as Wikipedia and how Wikipedia might just "grow up" and became an accepted place for information. 

Today librarians are raving about the benefits of open source journals and open source software. One of the strengths of Wikipedia, often criticized as a weakness, is the fact that it is an open and collective effort. Human knowledge usually becomes greater when we build on the knowledge of others. This is the same principle that I explained in my post on Google Books in which I referenced Sir Isaac Newton and the idea of Standing on the Shoulders of Giants. 

Sure Wikipedia could potentially be less than reliable but for what it lacks in reliability it makes up for in scope. I mean Wikipedia has detailed, up-to-date articles on everything. For example, late on Monday night Rafael Nadal won his first U.S. Open title. By tuesday morning there was a lengthy update to Nadal's Wikipedia entry concerning Nadal's success in the 2010 open. In today's world of immediate information expediency is at a premium and Wikipedia can provide that on a broad range of topics. 

You might ask what that has to do with an academic library since most of us don't study sporting heroes. But Wikipedia has entries on a host of topics that are academic in nature and at times more lengthy then Encyclopedia Britannica's counterparts. You may have often heard from librarians not to cite Wikipedia in a research paper but that is a no brainer and one is not to cite Britannica, or any encyclopedia as a legitimate source, either. I think back to Sophomore year in college when I was chastised for citing Britannica's entry on Henry VIII for a history paper. Let us then, compare for example Britannica's entry on Augustine of Hippo with that of Wikipedia. Most of us do understand that consulting an encyclopedia, peer reviewed or not, isn't the research itself but only an introduction to help one get started with researching a topic. Not only is the Wikipedia entry lengthy, free and useful but just take a look at the citations. There is a lengthy list of works on Augustine from such publishers as Fordham Press, Oxford University Press and the University of California. Peter Brown of Princeton University's authoritative work on Augustine, Brown, Peter (1967). Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-00186-9. is also included with links and ISBN #. There are also links to free digital books on Augustine and useful websites such as and a link to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article about Augustine. One of the first thing that a librarian might advise a student to do when researching Augustine is to use WorldCat to find books on the church father and Wikipedia provides a link to WorldCat on Augustine as well.

In conclusion, as a librarian I would tell students never to cite Wikipedia but that it might be a nice way to start your research, use the citations and take the information in Wikipedia with a "Grain of Salt." So with no further ado, here are the videos:

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