by Travis Bonnett
More often than not, when new technologies and devices arise in society, there are those who see the new technologies as a threat, either to their values and livelihood or to their very existence. Conversely, there are those who see new technologies as a way to improve the efficiency or effectiveness of current practices; new technologies engender entire new sectors in the economy, sectors that create more work and more pay.
Wikipedia is an example of this, especially when considered in connection to libraries, librarians, authors, publishers of reference materials and the like. To critics, Wikipedia, like the Internet in general, is an unreliable resource. I agree. An online encyclopedia that allows anyone, without divulging any information about themselves, to change information makes me very wary. At the same time, I do not believe that we should require authors to provide information on their educational or scholarly backgrounds because that could lead to educational elitism directed against information and analysis that may be just as valuable as others regardless if the author never finished high school or never attended a day of college in his life.
Another problem with Wikipedia is that persons editing entries are not required to provide where they found the information they are adding or editing; for all we know, someone can be adding some bit of information that they heard from one of their friends, who heard it from someone they had met in line at the supermarket. Therein lays the real problem.
This problem notwithstanding, I am reminded that Wikipedia is one of the most visited websites on the Internet today. For this reason alone, we librarians must respect the fact that some things people find on Wikipedia are useful. For one, if someone is looking for basic information on the French Revolution – a simple one or two sentence fact – and they do not have a lot of time to spend researching, where do they go? Wikipedia. Or what if they are having these cravings for knowledge in the middle of the night when all the libraries and bookstores nearby are closed, where can they find that knowledge? Wikipedia and the rest of the Internet. Moreover, we must face the possibility that Wikipedia will have certain information that libraries do not have, such as what happened on “The Office” last week or who got kicked off of “American Idol” last night on TV. We must give credit where credit is due.
In closing, I have no sweeping declaration to make in dismay or in praise of Wikipedia; I have only a realistic approach toward some sort of peaceful coexistence between libraries, educational institutions, and Wikipedia. I hereby recommend that libraries, when appropriate, acquire more and more online reference books; that they create and enhance open access databases containing academic journals and general interest periodicals; and that they aggressively promote said electronic resources to library patrons, perhaps with the catchphrase: “The library doesn’t wish it was Wikipedia; it's actually the other way around.”