More on Academic Libraries and Wikipedia

Tim wrote here recently about how the library at his home institution, the University of Cincinnati, has (mis)handled its approach to Wikipedia.

I’m proud to report that librarians at my undergraduate alma mater, Carleton College, seem to have a much more balanced attitude. As the local paper here reports:

Reference librarians are making their peace with Wikipedia. Colleges say they have conducted both school-wide conferences to hammer out guidelines, like Carleton did last year, to find the teachable moment to get students to think critically about the sources of all their information, online and offline.

The Carleton guidelines point out both advantages and disadvantages to using Wikipedia. Meanwhile, over at Concurring Opinions, there is some good discussion about stability and citability in Wikipedia, especially in the comments section.

6 Responses to “More on Academic Libraries and Wikipedia”

  1. Another example that may interest you: the University of Washington has been adding links from Wikipedia articles to relevant UW digital collections. See the abstract of a briefing from the recent CNI meeting: Using Wikipedia to Meet Information Searchers at Their Point of Need. Apart from the authenticity and accuracy issues, many of us (academic librarians) see in the popularity of Wikipedia another clear sign that users want information that is as barrier-free as possible, legal, financial and technical barriers. Easy to find and use. It definitely should have our attention as an extremely successful access model, if nothing else.

  2. Since I was barely able to shut up at Tim’s post, I can’t be expected to avoid chiming in here, too. The Carleton page and the CO discussion are both very good, indeed. I will only quibble about the assumptions about the work of librarians implicit in the TwinCities story. The story suggests that “librarians are making their peace with Wikipedia” and that one “might think someone like [a 62-year-old academic reference librarian] would eschew Wikipedia.” My quibble is that librarians have not been at war with Wikipedia. We’ve resisted the hype, as we have generally over the ‘net and the WWW when they are naively touted as information cure-alls. We also, for that matter, remain skeptical about the inappropriate use of print resources and the risk of their abuse. Before Wikipedia, librarians and teachers were already well aware of the risk of plagiarism from, for example, Encyclopedia Britannica. I’m sure the reporters at the local paper wouldn’t be surprised that we “eschewed” its use for such a purpose. I hasten to add that it’s not the business of librarians to approve a particular use of any resource by an individual, but we do take seriously the obligation to understand the values and limitations of our collections.

    The example proffered by Claire in her comment before mine illustrates not only the importance of access, but also the power of the collaborative model underpinning Wikipedia, and the wealth of (free) digital resources available from the library. There is a down side, however, affecting the ease of use of an encyclopedia–designed presumably to synthesize for easy digestion the mass of literature dealing with each of its entry topics–when one of its defining features is this ability to refer back to the multitude of relevant resources comprising the literature. Overwhelmed readers can, of course, elect to ignore them, but their proliferation nevertheless poses another sort of barrier. The CO discussion touches on a related problem when–splendid irony–the goal is to publish a static version. But in any case, librarians are going to work to optimize the utility of such a tool, a process that includes considering when its use is most appropriate, not merely to decide anxiously whether or not to eschew it altogether.

  3. Claire and Dean:

    Thanks for the excellent comments! I am the son of a reference book editor and the brother of a librarian, so I concur. Some minority of librarians may have felt threatened by the internet (and Wikipedia), and perhaps a few “believed the hype,” but I think most recognize that in this information-rich era, we need our guides now more than ever!

  4. Thanks for the conversation. You might be interested in this brief article (see link). It takes a historical approach, drawing some parallels between Wikipedia and the 18th-century French Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert.

  5. Sorry–here’s the link: Click on the Spring 2007 issue.

  6. When I use the term “scholarly source”, I mean a source that is peer reviewed or published in a recognized scholarly source, like a journal or a university publisher. There are some scholarly journals that publish a web version, and in some cases they only publish a web version. The fact that the journal is on the web should not necessarily detract from using it. The real issue is still the scholarly process it has gone through.