10 June 2008

Wikipedia in IL: a perspective anyone and everyone should edit?

Like many librarians, I belong to a number of listservs. And often times, I don't read threads thoroughly or at all. But ones that relate to Wikipedia...those spark my interest.

A new librarian recently posted to the listserv a request for good starting points for research. Specifically, she wanted to know if members of the listserv would recommend Wikipedia as a start for research to undergrads.

Another librarian took a hard line:
While your goal of building or strengthening critical thinking and evaluative skills is an admirable one, we usually have so little time with the students that it's best to stick with useful, trustworthy resources rather than bad resources such as Wikipedia.

The Sheck couldn't sit quiet (she has that problem). Here is my response to the initial query and my thoughts about the "badness" of Wikipedia.
We encourage our students to use Wikipedia as a starting point for their research papers. As you said, it provides students a general overview of a topic, an opportunity to identify keywords, and in general, offers them a place to jump off from. A link to Wikipedia is included in our Subject Guides with a disclaimer that Wikipedia is not considered a citeable source for a college level research paper.

Three things I include in my Information Literacy sessions:
1. I ask students why they are told they can't use Wikipedia. Invariably, they respond that it "anyone can edit it" or it is "unreliable". My response, I tell them, is that it is not about information anyone can edit but rather using an encyclopedia of any sort as a citation in a college level research paper. At the college level, you should be delving deeper than an encyclopedia. I qualify my statement by using examples of subject specific encyclopedias (Eliade's Encyclopedia of Religion, for example). But in large part, the grumbling stops. They see my point.

2. We then discuss the difference between a Works Cited page and a Bibliography. This is a great way to introduce students to the value of these resources. Once they see the usefulness of them, they tend to be amazed at how many resources they have available to them in one place! Then it is easy to get them into databases...they have something they actually want to find.

3. Show your students the “Researching With Wikipedia” page
If you look at the Overview and Article quality sections, it looks an awful lot like the writing process students are going through, especially those first year students that are rely so heavily on Wikipedia. It’s a process!

As for Wikipedia being generally "bad", I couldn't disagree more. Wikipedia is changing: it is different today than it was two years ago and it will be different in two years than it is today. Between Wikipedia’s recent Sloane Grant, linking to other online projects (like the Open Library), and its own efforts to be clear about what it is and what it isn’t, Wikipedia is dynamic, fluid, and frankly, engaging people in learning and knowledge, something libraries should embrace and applaud.

But more importantly, a key component to creating information literate students is asking students to know which sources are appropriate for their situations. When they graduate, many students access to databases and the “good” resources we offer them are dismantled. What kind of lifelong learners are we creating if we don’t talk to them about what they can use that’s free, available, and ubiquitous? We should be including sources in our information literacy sessions that students regularly use in order to help them recognize what “good” is. The information you need depends on what you want to know. Sometimes, you can find good information in Wikipedia and Google. And sometimes you can’t. I want my students to identify their expectations for information so they know what to look for in the vast amounts of information and choice that they find every time they look at a screen. Only then will they get past wanting the first thing in favor of the best thing.

My faculty supports that effort because they see it as a direct application of the skills and knowledge they are teaching their students in the classroom.

There it is. Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions? Links that take the argument further or that shatter it?

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