October 27, 2010

Wikipedia and Me: It's Kind of a Long Story

When I was in fourth grade I was double-promoted to fifth grade. This practice, commonly known as "skipping a grade," while lauded in some circles, did nothing but exaggerate the social misfittedness of my adolescence (which was later corrected when I went to library school). My first day of fifth grade was October 27, 1986, and every year on this day I reflect on the relative worth of that move.

I don't believe in entering into the dicey calculus of what might have been, but I do believe the whole grade-skipping affair launched me into a life of know-it-all-itude. It didn't take me all the way 'til library school to correct that one, though. That one flew out the window during my Peace Corps experience, and whatever was left after that evaporated when I took on a humbling masters program in linguistics that was my most challenging academic undertaking. (I did finish, but not with flying colors).

At one point during my first graduate school adventure, I attended a meeting of a student environmental group that was using some weird thing called a "wiki" to organize its content and calendars. This was 2003, and to put this in proper historical context, imagine that Arnold Schwarzenegger had just been elected Governor of California---during a World Series playoff game in which the Cubs scored 8 runs. (I was there, and it's one of my favorite memories.) I had not yet heard of Wikipedia, and didn't find out about Arnie on it; I heard someone shout it out in the packed corridors of Wrigley Field as heartbroken fans filed out after 11 dizzying innings.

When the leader of our student group said we'd be using a website that anyone could edit, I put my still-thinking-I-knew-it-all hand up and asked how we would control the website if anyone could edit it. His answer was, "The community will govern." Indeed, he was right.

I've never been a very good hater of Wikipedia. I probably made a half-hearted attempt at some point to be one of those librarians who frowns on folk sources, but it never stuck. It's partly because Wikipedia was not my first exposure to a wiki. I got schooled on the wiki ethos long before I went looking for data about the Dixie Chicks when I first saw Shut Up and Sing. I had no doubt I would get a good estimate when I wanted to find out how old Kirby Dick is, and I fully enjoyed reading along about the history of Paranormal Activity while I was watching it. Suffice it to say that outside of IMDB and the print version of People magazine, Wikipedia is my favorite go-to resource on matters of pop culture.

I trust that the people behind the Dixie Chicks entry were at each other's virtual throats to appropriately document all sides of the controversy. But I'm a librarian. People look to me for guidance on reputable sources, and lurking in every conversation or reference question is the notion that there may be a Wikipedia entry leading the way to a bunch of resources, or providing valuable information itself. What's a girl to do?

In my first semester of library school I heard a panel discussion in which one alum proudly announced that she sported an "I hate Google and Wikipedia" T-shirt at the middle school library where she worked. Surely this is not a solution. Later I had a great class in which the professor said, "Wikipedia is a fact of life," and encouraged us to use our library skills to fact-check and improve its articles. That sounds more like it.

Since the Facts of Life lecture, I have come to embrace Wikipedia as more than just a competing resource that my colleagues are tempted to consult before asking me a reference question. I'm coming around to it, and starting to have more courage to speak out about it. Several experiences have made this possible. One was hearing Cory Doctorow speak at ALA this summer. He said something along the lines of, "How many major newspapers alert you that an article has incomplete citations or contains information that's currently being debated?"

Another turning point for me was reading Daniel Pink's account of Wikipedia's creation in his book Drive, and reflecting on the importance of this in explaining new theories of human motivation. A third experience was reading Chris Guillebeau's manifesto, in which he laments the days of old media: "People would sit in front of the screen and watch 'the news' presented in a hierarchical fashion based on what a small group of media barons and editors thought was important."

In Guillebeau's "alternative graduate school" proposal, one of the things he recommends it to set your internet browser to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Randompage and read the article that comes up each day. I've been doing this for two weeks and it is both more entertaining and possibly more educational than reading a whole GAO report every month.

One last memory: it was unsettling to say the least when, on the morning of April 16, 2007, I first heard of the Virginia Tech Massacre by reading its Wikipedia page. The page was a single scroll at that point, with a rudimentary timeline and no links. It was set up before major news outlets had picked up the story and was sent to me by a coworker. This was a revealing moment in our history. The lesson here is less technical than sociological: more people are creating and sharing information. And, even though I learned in library school that, "90% of anything is crap," I think having a mass historical record created by many minds is inherently a good thing (especially when it's so well organized).
We should go forward and evaluate Wikipedia articles with the same rigor we would any other resource--no more, no less.

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