Some people look at Wikipedia as a super-power of the internet, bringing people together for the sake of information sharing and keeping entries up-to-date without the hefty cost of printing thousands of pages a year. However, others worry that the crowdsourcing basis of the website makes it a worrisome place to look for valid information. Further, many in academia worry that their students used to the instant gratification of the internet age, will (and sometimes, in fact, do) stop at the first sight of information and use Wikipedia in place of research.
Some colleges have gone so far as to bar students from citing Wikipedia in their submitted assignments. An action that Wikipedia representative Sandra Ordonez supports, stating that though Wikipedia has been moving towards a focus on quality improvement, it is meant to be a place to gain a beginning understanding of a topic before doing further research and that its information should absolutely be fact-checked. Which, by the way, academic students and researchers should be doing with all of their sources.
While colleges that urge students not to cite Wikipedia on their submitted work are coming from a place of understanding the value of vetting your sources, there is concern surrounding how this plays out in the classroom. Much like the way teaching pure abstinence for sexual education is a naive approach, treating Wikipedia as the black sheep of research ignores its role and value in the research process as well as its value in teaching about good research.
In my library, when patrons have questions about topics I’m not familiar with, I often pull of Wikipedia for quick answers. I find Wikipedia helpful for basic information such as birth/death dates of famous people and brief definitions of events and topics. If I don’t know what someone is asking about, Wikipedia often helps me quickly understand their questions to better serve them. Additionally, there are times when my (adult) patrons want a big overview about a topic that isn’t really succinctly put anywhere but on Wikipedia, and when searching the internet doesn’t come up with a viable option under about 10 pages, we will print Wikipedia articles for them.
I believe that Wikipedia’s place in the library and in schools is one of valuable information, both in its articles and as a teachable entity. Millions of people work hard to fact check Wikipedia articles and add citations to information that allow Wikipedia to be the best that it can be. While it is true that people can write anything they want in a Wikipedia article, these are often eradicated by other users. The fact that citations are encouraged is another great reason to use Wikipedia as a beginning source– it can lead to much better places to find information by looking at where other people got their information.
These are approaches that good researchers utilize, and are vital for students to learn as they become increasingly independent thinkers. Research and understanding take time and effort, and we can’t ignore sources of information, but rather we must use them with keen, trained eyes, to vet sources for accuracy and accountability. We must see where the information comes from, why it was published to say what it says to determine for ourselves how factual it is. Wikipedia is an essential tool for learning the importance of fact checking and students should see their teachers and educators (and librarians) using it the way that it is meant to be used– as a place to begin research and form a basis of understanding about a topic.
As someone who will educate youth in the future (professionally or just in my own home), I intend to preach understanding, not abstinence, when it comes to Wikipedia and all questionable (so pretty much every) internet sources.