Two Cheers for Wikipedia

The Wikipedia seems to be the reference source reference librarians love to hate. Unfortunately, the rest of the world loves it, and they don’t pay any attention to reference librarians anyway.

Marc Meola (down the road from me at TCNJ) argues on the ACRLog that the Wikipedia has no place in academia because of its lack of accuracy or reliability, and that’s an understatement of his position.

Edward Zalta, editor of the outstanding open access Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, told a group of librarians at the ACRL Philosophy, Religion, & Theology Discussion group a couple of years ago that he could never support an encyclopedia that anyone can edit, which is generally the librarian criticism of the Wikipedia as well. If anyone can edit it, there’s no authority in the sense we librarians like to have.

Last year Jaron Lanier wrote a scathing (and in my opinion overblown) attack on the Wikipedia and similar things as examples of the “hive mind,” “digital maoism,” and a “new online collectivism.”

The Middlebury College History Department banned it as a source in history essays (though I have to wonder why encyclopedias are showing up at all as scholarly sources in essays).

There’s even a website called Wikitruth, dedicated solely to lambasting the Wikipedia. I found out about this site when I discovered that in their zeal to attack the Wikipedia, they had taken a quote from me in our school newspaper out of context. The tag on Wikitruth is “the truth hurts,” but apparently they’re willing to sacrifice truth and accuracy to score points against their nemesis.

And most famously, perhaps, Stephen Colbert attacked the Wikipedia with his notion of “wikiality,” or “truth by consensus.” (Since I don’t watch television, I had to find out about that one on the Wikipedia.)

The New York Times a couple of weeks ago published an article about how a Wikipedia article on a current news event was created by, in the words of someone commenting to me about it, pudgy, Mountain Dew-drinking adolescents. It turns out they were very dedicated Mountain Dew-drinking adolescents, and if the adolescents are anything like some of the ones I see in classes at Princeton, there could certainly be worse people writing for the Wikipedia.

I want to go on record as saying that I like the Wikipedia, and I use it a lot, especially for information where I don’t care about accuracy. Does that sound heretical for a librarian? Perhaps, but let me point out some of the things I like about it.

First, I like the way it takes advantage of dispersed knowledge. This is not the same as a “hive mind” or “online collectivism.” I’m no fan of hives or collectives or that sort of thing. But, despite being surrounded by experts on numerous subjects, I also don’t think expertise rests solely with tenured professors and PhDs. Wikipedia takes advantage of the expertise of hobbyists, obsessives, fanatics, and dedicated pudgy adolescents and makes it easily accessible to everyone.

But it’s easily accessible crud! I’m not so sure about that. Based on my own reading in the Wikipedia and tests I’ve read about, most of it isn’t crud, and so it escapes Sturgeon’s Law. 90% of the Wikipedia is probably fine. The problem is distinguishing which 90%, which granted is a serious problem.

The Wikipedia realizes this, and one of the things I like about it are the built-in signals that you should beware the content. You see notices at the top of pages that “this article cites no sources” or other clues that it may not be reliable. In a sense, the Wikipedia is doing for its readers what reference librarians try to get all readers to do: question the accuracy of sources and go to more than one place to verify facts.

In practice, I’ve found it isn’t really that difficult for an experienced searcher to tell when information might be problematic, but even if it is, the Wikipedia is still a good place to begin an information search. Articles often do cite sources, and I’ve gotten to other more “authoritative” sources saying the same thing as the Wikipedia article faster than I might have otherwise.

Also, considering that the alternative to Wikipedia for many people is simply a Google search, not the in-depth techniques of advanced reference librarians, which is it better to begin with, Wikipedia or Google? Unless you’re shocked by the revelation that there was a factual error found on the Internet, would you necessarily think Google is any better place to begin than the Wikipedia for a general web search for certain types of information, especially factual information of the sort encyclopedias traditionally provide?

That’s exactly when I use Wikipedia the most, when I want that sort of information quickly. Why search Google or Ask when you can plug the query into Wikipedia and often find an article with citations and external links? For certain queries, it cuts down the search time considerably to just start with the Wikipedia.

I should admit, though, that there are times when I rely almost completely on the Wikipedia. I rarely go elsewhere when I really don’t care about the accuracy of the information, and when the information is on a current popular culture topic, and those are often the same thing.

But when wouldn’t I care about the accuracy of the information? Does this even make sense for a reference librarian? What can I say. I’m not always a reference librarian. For example, say I want to find out more about Monty Python. I could read any of the several books about them, but I’m not that interested. I certainly wouldn’t find out much in the Britannica (less than 200 words). I might find out a lot on various fan pages around the Internet, but I’d have to do a lot of sifting. But if I go to the Wikipedia, I find easily accessible about 10,000 words on Monty Python, including:

  • Multiple references
  • Info on all the Pythons, including Carol Cleveland, the “seventh python”
  • Brief descriptions of each of their films
  • A listing of their albums
  • A listing of the shows they worked on in various partnerships before Python
  • Hyperlinks with longish biographies of all of the cast members
  • Link to another page about the show proper (5000 words on Monty Python’s Flying Circus)
  • A link from there to an episode list and guide (3000 words)
  • Plus information on Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus and individual pages on a large number of the famous sketches.

But, you say, this information on Monty Python could be completely bogus! Highly unlikely. Even so, I don’t really care. I just like the TV show, I’m not writing a dissertation on it. I just want to find out a bit more about it, and if a few of the details are erroneous, I just don’t care. I’m not going to quote them, and I probably won’t even remember them.

Recently, I was also looking on information about German-style board games, because I was looking for more board games to play with my daughter after I’d taught her a dozen or so abstract strategy board games. There’s a website called BoardGameGeek which isn’t bad, but I found out more information more quickly on Wikipedia about German-style games, board games in general, abstract strategy games, tables games, the Spiel des Jahres, and specific games such as Carcassonne or the Settlers of Catan than I did anywhere else. And as a single source for information on specific proprietary games, the Wikipedia seems to be unrivaled, even by such excellent sources as the Oxford History of Board Games, and it’s better than most of the sales websites trying to describe the games or fansites raving about them.

Is some of this information unreliable? Perhaps, but what I can verify isn’t. Is it likely to be in Britannica? No. Is it likely to be in a more “authoritative” or “scholarly” source? No. It might be scattered around the Internet, but no source will gather this sort of information as thoroughly as the Wikipedia.

For certain types of current or popular culture information, especially the kind that is usually overlooked by scholars, the Wikipedia is likely to be as reliable and useful as any other source, and more so than most. It’s not a matter of obsessives overtaking experts. It’s taking advantage of the dispersed knowledge of ordinary people about subjects unlikely to be covered well or at all in standard sources.

Obviously Wikipedia isn’t perfect as a reliable source for information. Since anyone can edit, it might be wrong, or right one moment and wrong the next, which is even worse. So even if it’s generally right, and I would concede that it is, academic qualms about using it as a source are understandable and justified. Along with Marc Meola, I wouldn’t recommend this as a reliable source for any students.

But it can get us to more authoritative sources more quickly, and often more quickly than a simple web search. And for some topics, such as popular culture topics or very current information, it’s often more comprehensive than comparable sources. And when we want just a bit of information, but don’t really care if some of the details are accurate, it’s a quickly accessible and navigable source of information. For these reasons, I’d give two cheers for the Wikipedia.

2 thoughts on “Two Cheers for Wikipedia

  1. I trust Wikipedia, except when I can see that a particular political or academic angle is being pursued by the author. Of course, there are clever writiers who can do that without the reader becoming aware of it.

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