U-Content: Doing It with Wikipedia

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Searcher readers do not require a recitation of sources that have criticized Wikipedia. This free online collaborative encyclopedia constantly takes heat from both the general public and scholars. One information scientist wrote, "Wikipedia poses as an encyclopedia when by no stretch of the definition can it be termed such, therefore it is subject to regulation." (1) One health professional entitled her editorial, "When searching for the evidence, stop using Wikipedia!" (2) and a Middlebury professor mandated that his students refrain from citing the wiki. (3) Conversely, one author called for scholarly publications to modernize their peer-review methods to emulate Wikipedia. (4) And in one study pitting Wikipedia against Encyclopaedia Britannica, reviewers called the clash of the titans a stalemate. (5) One writer has even reminded us that the OED began as an oldschool, paper-based wiki. (6)

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Through the Roof Usage

In April 2007, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported that 36% of American adults with computers use Wikipedia and found the site "popular among the well-educated." (7) Wikipedia may not be the No. 1 site on the web, but it's consistently near or in the top 10. Internet traffic measuring firms also rank it high--Hitwise at 13, comScore and Alexa at 8. (8,9,10) I teach library skills classes and, during the past several years, I've asked more than 600 students to compare a Wikipedia article with an Online Encyclopedia Britannica article; their preferences split right down the middle. Triangulate these numeric findings and you can easily see why academicians trying to keep the lid on student usage of Wikipedia are engaging in a fool's errand. Looking at it another way, imagine what it would be like to contribute to some of the most widely read articles in the world. Imagine writing for an audience of well-educated computer users who potentially access your English Wikipedia contributions 5.4 million times a month. (11, 12)

If you consider that Wikipedia holds a great deal of potential, you're in good company, because no less than Joseph Janes, American Libraries columnist and founder of the Internet Public Library, agrees with you. (13) Similarly, if you subscribe to the "Got lemons? Make lemonade!" maxim, you can count yourself among many others who urge us to use Wikipedia as a point of departure for inculcating evaluation skills to our clientele. The late Roy Rosenzweig, American historian at George Mason University, went one better by not only calling upon his colleagues to use the encyclopedia to teach students better research skills, but by inviting them to make the existing free resources better. (14) And that is exactly what some librarians have been doing.

Doing It: The University of North Texas Libraries

Dreanna Belden works at the University of North Texas Libraries, which offers the digitized collection called the Portal to Texas History. Methods of outreach being what they are, she observed that librarians are often consigned to promoting their materials via newsletters, press releases, and workshops. Considering these vehicles somewhat less than optimal, Belden had a quintessential "the emperor has no clothes" moment when she asked, "Are we just kidding ourselves?" (15) In her article she states, "Social networks provide powerful mechanisms for connecting libraries with information seekers." Though it's undecided whether social networks in general can facilitate user/library connections (The University of Wisconsin's Digital Collections Center, described below, rejected Facebook and YouTube), Wikipedia stand outs as a resource with which libraries can cooperate.

The University of North Texas Libraries began its involvement with Wikipedia in October 2005. Belden noticed that if she executed Google searches for subjects in the Portal to Texas History, she usually encountered a Wikipedia article on the subject in the first page of results. …