Wikipedia: Librarians' Perspectives on Its Use as a Reference Source

By Snyder, Johnny | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Wikipedia: Librarians' Perspectives on Its Use as a Reference Source


Snyder, Johnny, Reference & User Services Quarterly


Wikipedia has had a rocky ride over its first decade of existence. As one of the largest knowledge repositories on the web, Wikipedia holds a top-ten position with Internet users, sharing this list with sites such as Google, Facebook, and YouTube. Wikipedia's reputation has been fueled by negative reports in the media (the Seigenthaler case and the Essjay incident being examples) that lead users to be skeptical of the site's content. Lesser known are the positive outcomes (no more anonymous article creation, protected pages) which have been Wikipedia's responses to problems in its policies.

These negative reports and Wikipedia's responses in editing policies have led users, in particular, librarians, to hold fairly strong viewpoints about the information quality in Wikipedia, prompting much discussion on how to manage this knowledge resource in the age of the web, specifically in the age of Web 2.0 (user generated content) tools.

Librarians are information seekers, both for themselves and for library patrons. Usage of web resources has become commonplace in the twenty-first century, so information literacy (being able to locate and evaluate the quality of information) on the web becomes ever more critical in an information-based society. Librarians, as public guides to the information highway, need to understand the types of resources available to the public online, and need to understand the pros and cons of these resources, to better assist their patrons in becoming information literate.

The popularity of Wikipedia on the web has been well documented. (1) How librarians are using Wikipedia in their work environment has not been heavily studied. This paper examines librarians' perspectives on Wikipedia and benchmarks usage statistics and awareness of positive and negative issues concerning Wikipedia for a librarian study group.

LITERATURE REVIEW

A more exhaustive literature review of issues surrounding Wikipedia, the history of Wikipedia, and current research threads concerning Wikipedia can be found in the paper: "Wikipedia as an Academic Reference: Faculty and Student Viewpoints." (2)

Maness recognized that Web 2.0 technologies were altering the information literacy landscape and defined "Library 2.0" as a new paradigm for librarianship. (3) This definition included web-based technologies and web-based library services such as synchronous messaging, streaming media, blogs and wikis, social networks, tagging, RSS feeds, and mashups as tools for today's libraries and librarians. Wikipedia is specifically mentioned as a site that librarians are cautious about due to its open editing policies. However, Maness also states that "this of course does not eliminate their value, it merely changes librarianship, complicates collection development and information literacy instruction." (4) Maness advocates for using Wikipedia, but also warns that librarians need to understand Wikipedia and be critical in using it.

Shachaf compares Wikipedia's reference desk services to traditional reference desk services using the SERVQUAL quality variables: reliability (accuracy, completeness, and verifiability), responsiveness, and assurance. (5) The study revealed that "the Wikipedia Reference Desk provides answers that are as accurate as those that traditional (and digital) reference librarians provide." (6) Shachaf concludes with the statement "perhaps social reference is one of the 'Web 2.0 world [that] can and should appear as a part of formal library and information science courses.'" (7) Anderson agrees, expressing concern that information education (library science) is threatened with becoming irrelevant, partly due to the rate of change occurring in digital environments. (8)

East, in a paper discussing subject encyclopedias in the digital age, writes, "Educators became increasingly concerned about the dubious quality of the information that their students were using, and librarians began to see a new role for themselves in teaching the evaluation of information found on the web" while discussing information retrieval on the Internet. …

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