I [Still] Want My Wikipedia!

Over 11 years ago, I co-wrote and edited an article for Library Journal with three librarians (during my days as Senior Book Review Editor for the magazine), whom I asked to test Wikipedia as a bona fide research tool at a time most scholars were adamantly resisting it. This article was published some five years after Wikipedia first launched, which was in 2001. In the article, I Want My Wikipedia!, a younger version of me wondered, “But like any form of government, democracy faces a unique set of problems: once given the power (to edit), will people abuse it?”

To give the article more balance, I recruited three librarians and subject specialists whom I had worked with on other LJ-related endeavors—Barry X. Miller (pop culture), Karl Helicher (current affairs), and Teresa Berry (science)—and asked each to give their verdict on the source’s authenticity. After reading their lengthy reviews, I concluded that “while there are still reasons to proceed with caution when using a resource that takes pride in limited professional management, many encouraging signs suggest that (at least for now) Wikipedia may be granted the librarian’s seal of approval.”

These were the ‘Bottom Line’ statements by the three librarians:

Barry X. Miller: “The public library is the people’s university, and Wikipedia, verily, is the people’s encyclopedia. Pop culture junkies and Cowboy Junkies (there’s a great piece on the Canadian alternative rock band) will be in hog heaven and will go through time spent on the site faster than prunes through a widow woman.”

Karl Helicher: “I was pleased by Wikipedia’s objective presentation of controversial subjects…Because of its up-to-date information, Wikipedia will attract high school and college students. However, as with much information floating around in cyberspace, a healthy degree of skepticism and skill at winnowing fact from opinion are required.”

Teresa Berry:  “Despite its flaws, however, Wikipedia should not be dismissed. Although the writing is not exceptional, good content abounds. It is encouraging that some Wikipedians have attempted to organize the writing and impose a standard format through various WikiProjects devoted to specific areas of science… Since Wikipedia often appears on the first page of results in a Google search, it is one of the first places users look. But when it comes to science, it should not be the last.”

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Fast forward some 11 years, Wikipedia is a force to be reckoned with, even by academics. Especially by academics. And librarians, at least according to my conversations with them, have even more positive things to say about it than in the past. And while many teachers still do not allow students to cite from it, a growing number is finding ways to incorporate it into research. I can attest to this as a parent who often sees the site displayed on my kids’ screens while they work on their homework assignments.

An article just published on EdSurge, Once Reviled in Education, Wikipedia Now Embraced by Many Professors, points to a growing number of professors worldwide embracing Wikipedia as a research as well as teaching tool. The article also includes an interesting interview with a professor who is a proponent of using Wikipedia in the classroom, Robert Cummings (University of Mississippi). He is the author of a book on the topic, too: Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia.

Here’s an excerpt from the article just published on EdSurge that caught my attention and struck a chord, as it points to the shortcomings of traditionally copyrighted textbooks usually carrying a very high price tag and containing content students never need or consume. This argument actually points to one of several key advantages of Wikipedia (others are also discussed in the interview with Cummings, which may be listened to on EdSurge  or read on the same page.).

“When professors use a traditionally-copyrighted textbook, the publisher has tried to put in as much content as they possibly can to make sure that there’s no teacher out there that wouldn’t want to adopt that text. It becomes a very large kitchen-sink approach. The faculty member has usually become very accustomed to taking chapters here and there that fit their particular approach to that class. What we’ve forgotten over time is how confusing that is for a learner because you’re already in a state of confusion because you’re introduced to new concepts, but when you have to follow them through a textbook to get to the information you need, it’s an additional barrier.”

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As a professional writer/editor and researcher, and as a person who still writes emails that resemble letters (rather than brief ‘notifications’), I remain drawn to it precisely for the reasons others still dismiss it (and Cummings addresses this in the interview as well): lack of visual stimulation and multi-media. Yes, it’s text heavy in ways other sites are not, and there is something very 1.0 about it, but that suits me just fine. I still want it and think it has done (and will continue to do) more good than harm for education, research, and, most important, democratization of education and learning.

2 thoughts on “I [Still] Want My Wikipedia!”

  1. I LOVE Wikipedia. It’s the best reference around. I use it frequently every day in compiling phrasebooks and dictionaries for my publishing company (Treasure Chest of Languages). Where else can you find such detailed descriptions of plants, birds, bicycle mechanisms, snowboarding stunts, rivers, cathedrals – you name it. Is there anyone else doing this? If so, I haven’t found them. Viva la Wikipedia!

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