Monday, August 14, 2006

Wikipedia: " the context of knowledge held in common"

Wikipedia is much in the mainstream press right now. Lately there were articles in the New Yorker, Know It All : Can Wikipedia conquer expertise? by Stacy Schiff; and in Atlantic Monthly, The Hive : Can thousands of Wikipedians be wrong? How an attempt to build an online encyclopedia touched off history’s biggest experiment in collaborative knowledge by Harvard academic Marshall Poe. (Poe by the way is also author of the charming and self-deprecating article, Note to self: Print Monograph Dead; Invent new Publishing model).

Earlier there was a lot of flapping in the news media about how it is sometimes nececessary for certain Wikipedia articles to be locked down to break up editing wars. The media stories were divided between those who said, 'See, people behave badly and they have to be controlled; Wikipedia doesn't work,' and those who said, 'See, out of the more than a million articles, only this handful need to be protected; Wikipedia works.' (See list of protected pages.)

Do reference librarians use it? Some say, "Well, if you want to know what other people think about it..." and might well bypass Wikipedia links that come up in a search. Others of us, depending on the topic, might use it as a starting point, or a sufficient piece of general knowledge, or a pass-through to good links (the carbon emissions chart from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at Oak Ridge National Library which we gave you last month came via a link in a Wikipedia article).

On the Public Librarians email list, PUBLIB, we were discussing Wikipedia recently. Joe Schallan, a librarian from the Phoenix area, posted the following: "Again I make my plea that the best way for librarians to understand the Wikipedia phenomenon is to participate in it. I've launched pages on nine topics and done heavy editing on 16 more. I've done minor edits -- fixing typos, spelling, punctuation, and so on -- on hundreds of pages. Not only will this give you an idea of how Wikipedia authorship and editing works, but it will make you appreciate just how difficult it is to write a entry that is accurate, clear, and well referenced. It will make you appreciate the work of encyclopedists of the past. It may even start you wondering about the nature of truth in the context of knowledge held in common. "

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