In November, there was a lot of buzz about a particular librarian in New Jersey and her anti-wikipedia campaign. I read about it in one my favorite blogs, Dangerously Irrelevant. Around the same time, I was up against a very small battle with teachers regarding wikipedia. The argument against wikipedia is valid. The articles can be modified by anyone, creating an opportunity for inaccuracies. Teachers who are against Wikipedia want to take the extreme position that the site should be completely avoided. I find that once we discuss the format of the site including the features of wikis in general, safeguards put in place to prevent all out vandalism of articles, and the Nature Magazine study comparing the results to Britannica the tone of the discussion usually changes. I can usually convince teachers that Wikipedia is a fine place to start gathering information, particularly if one needs some basic background information. After all, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia never intended for the site to be used for “serious research”. When teachers complain that students should never check Wikipedia because the content is created by “anyone”, they are missing the point. “Anyone” includes experts in the fields, graduate students, professionals (like teachers), and people who care a great deal about the content of the article because the subject matter is their passion. Just as we would never want students to use an encyclopedia article as the only source in an essay or research paper, we could recommend that if Wikipedia is used, the student must add a resource to their list of sources sited. In addition, high quality Wikipedia articles include a bibliography, from which further research can be done. I can make a really good case for using Wikipedia and I’ve even had a few workshop attendees sign up for an account and begin an article about their own school or parish.
Here’s the weird thing - with lots of discussion about how “dangerous” it is to ask the community or the public to write articles for one of the most widely used online encyclopedias, why don’t we hear an equal amount of caution about asking the community/public to tag and comment on the photos from Library of Congress’ Flickr collection? I see no caution that the public will negatively impact the integrity of the project with inappropriate comments or irrelevant tags. By the way, Library of Congress sounds ecstatic over the results of their pilot so far.