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Wikipedia Angst Still Alive and Well

I was reading The Sheck Spot this morning and thinking “Yes! My thoughts almost exactly!” when I remembered the surprising and recurring sub-theme at the Midwest Library Technology Conference:* Wikipedia angst. Wikipedia was mentioned in the first keynote and then became the dominant discussion theme during the question period. Then it resurfaced as a discussion topic during the question period after the second keynote. And it wasn’t that the discussion about Wikipedia was bad or inappropriate, it’s just that I was surprised at how little I’d expected that, of all things, to be the recurring theme after talks centered around how to leverage the power of millions of social web participants, how to develop systems that learn from and supplement user behavior, and the future trends in technology.

Part of my surprise stems from my own views on the tool, which go something like this: a) Students will use it and telling them not to won’t help because b) it’s not all bad, and students know that so they’ll disregard other things I say if I say that. What they don’t know is c) how it fits into the wider world of reference sources and d) how reference sources can and should be used appropriately in scholarly work. And inasmuch as e) reference sources are best used to point you to other sources, f) Wikipedia is becoming a better and better source as more links to authoritative sources end up in its citation lists. Sure, there’s always the caveat that g) vandalism and flat out stupidity still exist there. But if you’re using Wikipedia as a reference source, with the idea that it should point you to more authoritative sources, then these things won’t have a huge effect on your learning anyway.

Another part of my surprise probably exists because of the company I keep. Libloggers seem to have gotten bored with writing about Wikipedia some time ago, which isn’t to say that there isn’t still good stuff to write about it. It just fell out of vogue as a blog topic. So in an environment where I don’t hear much about the tool every day, it’s easy to think that people in general don’t talk about it, which just isn’t true. Libloggers are only a sliver of the profession, and it’s a sliver that gets bored with some topics very easily.

So while I was a little surprised at the force of Wikipedia Angst in evidence at the conference, I’m still unclear about whether I’m uncomfortable with that theme for good reason. Is it glib to say that we should just get over it already? Is it dismissive to wonder if this discussion is a little behind the times? Have I just decided that this is one of the many things I can’t change and must therefore work with, and has this caused me to effectively throw up my hands and decide not to worry about it? If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that if the majority is worried or fearful, it behooves me to take that seriously and see whether my lack of worry is, in fact, founded. And on this issue, I still haven’t decided.

* And yes, I realize I haven’t written that conference up, which is a shame because I learned really cool things. I hope to get to it sometime… I really do.

2 thoughts on “Wikipedia Angst Still Alive and Well

  1. Well, I fall into the “just get over it” camp, so no, not glib at all. ;-)

    But Wikipedia has been being discussed on collib-l the last two days, so the topic is definitely not dead yet. The first post was a legit question from a new instruction librarian, with the responses a mix of anti-Wikipedia vitriol and points very similar to yours.

  2. Hmmm… maybe I’ll have to go check out the collib-l goings on.

    I guess I see my job as bridging the gap between where my students are and where I’d like them to be by the time they’re scholars. And if I’m building a bridge, that means one side of it has to delve into the ground where the students are now, otherwise the bridge will not stand. So if I just say “your ground is bad,” I’ve doomed my project to failure.

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