Thursday, August 2, 2012

How to solve a problem like Wikipedia

School librarians are traditionally sceptical about Wikipedia, and I'm no exception. Don't get me wrong I use it all the time. But I use it for 'fun' things, mostly: yesterday, for instance, I used it to find out more information on the Lonely Island (yes, I am a 12 year old inside for enjoying that sort of thing).

But for serious research purposes? Never! It can be edited by any Tom, Dick and Harry. It is riddled with missing citations, broken links and just plain factual inaccuracy. And what's more, I tell the girls in my school with the direst pointy finger I can conjure up, you use it as a reference source for University coursework and they penalise you for it.

Photo courtesy of Octavio Rojas

The trouble with kids today is that they're of the instant gratification generation. They want to find out things now, now, now, rather than research a subject properly and in depth. Wikipedia seemingly gives them the answers on a plate. If you tell them not to use it, guess what? They use it even more.

But Wikipedia isn't all bad. No seriously, it isn't. They do have people checking the entries frequently, and the better articles do contain links to good websites and are appended with suitable bibliographies too.

Of course, not all of them are. But getting the kids (and adults) to blunder their way through them can only sharpen their information handling skills. In short, maybe we should actually be encouraging them to use it, rather than cordoning it off as an untrustworthy source.

If they see a bad entry, then that's a good thing. They'll realise that Wikipedia can't be wholly relied upon after all, and will turn to the online resources you subscribe to, websites like these, or even *gasp* print resources like books.

If they see a good entry, then that's a good thing. Because they'll then realise the importance of verifying facts and critically assessing information by looking up the links and the reference sources.

Telling kids to not use Wikipedia is a battle you won't win. Getting them to make sure what they're looking at on Wikipedia is a good source of information (which it often can be) is a battle you can.


  1. I still can't make my mind up about Wikipedia. I am not sure the best knowledge is brought about by crowd-sourcing...

  2. It's a useful starting off point. For proper research, use your local library for its books and trusted online resources!

  3. Thanks for the balanced view, Joe. Too often I hear people dismiss Wikipedia out of hand. A lot of work has gone into refining and referencing the information there and as a free source of information, I think it has its merits. As with all research validity is the issue, and you should never take anything at face value.

  4. Quite right. Every website should be scrutinised. Except this one. It's magnificence is obvious ;)