Wikipedia Storm Watch

Submitted by librariankate7578 on Wed, 02/09/2011 - 13:55
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I've been reading Alex Wright's Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages, and the following quote (page 151) struck me:

[T]he Wikipedia is stirring tensions between established interests - academic scholars and publishers - and a rising populist sentiment. While Wikipedia is unlikely to spell the demise of traditional scholarship, it serves as a telling example of the power of "books about books" to challenge existing institutional systems. The Web, like the printing press, seems poised to augur long-term social and political transformations whose effects we are only beginning to anticipate. And once again, the humble encyclopedia may prove the most revolutionary "book" of all.

I remember an exercise in my Art Librarianship class where we had to compare Wikipedia with Grove Art Online. General consensus was, Wikipedia won over time for currency and accuracy. The David of reference work hath slain the Goliath of reference, at least in this case. (And Library Journal found similar results!)

In library land, one pervasive and loud belief is "Wikipedia BAD Scholarly database GOOD." Wikipedia was like a toddler temper tantrum** - loud and omnipresent. The believed best practice for it is to ignore it, for if you ignore it long enough it will go away. Wright says this isn't the case, and I am apt to agree. Rather than simplistic arguments against it, should we just indulge it slightly, just like giving that toddler the cookie or toy they want this time, but not EVERY single time? Can we point our students to Wikipedia in certain cases (i.e. ready reference, quick overview of topics) and bring them to the holy grail of library databases when it is time to go past the simple research question? (They're doing it already, in part.) Can we teach it in our information literacy classes alongside Goliaths ProQuest and EBSCO, perhaps in lessons of evaluation and accuracy? (Here's a decent looking tutorial from Williams College on when and when not to use the site.)

The title of this post comes from the ever-present (perhaps too much for us in the Northeast) Winter Storm Watch, using Wright's thoughts to liken Wikipedia to an impending storm. I wonder if it is time to upgrade the Wikipedia Storm Watch to a Warning - or perhaps just prepare, like you would any good storm?

** I have a 2 1/2 year old niece. It was the first analogy that came to mind. But for the record, I have yet to see her throw a temper tantrum.