Kansas library discusses Wikipedia

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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

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A diverse group of approximately 25 people gathered at the Johnson County Library on Monday to participate in reference librarian Scott Vieira’s class, Wikiwhatia? Wikipedia.

Scott opened the session by sharing a disparaging quote from Robert McHenry (former editor-in-chief of Encyclopedia Britannica) comparing Wikipedia to a public restroom. He then shared a quote from Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur, in which he stated Wikipedia is the blind leading the blind. Scott shared Wikipedia usage data from a 2007 Pew Internet study showing 36% of adults have consulted Wikipedia and that that Wikipedia receives 10,000-30,000 searches per second. Scott also pointed out that Wikipedia now has over two million articles in English alone (over nine million articles in 250 languages). So there is a discrepancy here, lots of critics and lots of use.

Scott then shared some historical information in order to provide a context for understanding Wikipedia. This included some important names and dates in the history of encyclopedias… including Pliny the Elder (23-79 C.E.) who published 37 Volumes of Natural History, and Joachim Sterck van Ringelbergh (c. 1499-1556) who first used the term encyclopedia, and then d’Alembert and Diderot who published 17 volumes of their French Encyclopedia from 1751-1765. Encyclopedia Britannica was first published in Scotland in serial format 1768-1771.

Why history matters -- copyright and piracy, censorship, authority, organization, and content are all issues that are relevant.

Scott also discussed more recent history, sharing a photo of Ward Cunningham –who is credited with being the inventor of wiki software. Wikipedia was founded on Jan 15, 2001 by Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales. Sanger left Wikipedia in 2002 and founded Citizendium in 2007 a complementary project which now has 4500 articles.

After the historical perspective, the class moved into using Wikipedia. Everyone in the audience had used Wikipedia. The class explored the content of Wikipedia, realising there is a whole lot going on. Scott demonstrated that the article about "frogs" for example, is semi-protected. The "history of science" article was examined, including the history of changes. Discussion covered how people contribute, who contributes and edits. The group also talked about Wikipedia bots, which aid in routine tasks in a semi-automated or automated fashion.

A discussion about teachers, school media specialists and students regarding their use of Wikipedia ensued. Some teachers and school media specialists are negative about Wikipedia, but Scott's hope is that they will use it to start a discussion about the need to evaluate and critically think about information (even when it's from more traditionally reviewed and edited sources).

An unanswered question from an audience member was, "What was the first Wikipedia article?"

Discussion topics from Scott to audience were as follows:

  • Do you think Wikipedia is less accurate than published resources and how important is that accuracy to you?
  • How do we determine authority on a subject? How important is it that an article be written by an expert? How is Wikipedia changing our idea of what an authority is?
  • Currency – the ability to publish immediately – what are the advantages and what are the disadvantages?
  • What do we think about the content selection in Wikipedia?
  • Should Wikipedia be used by librarians?
  • What do you think about the future of Wikipedia?


Sources

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