Resource Commentary: Wikipedia for ClassicsMay 20, 2010
There are increasing numbers of actual studies of both student use of Wikipedia and its accuracy and reliability when compared to traditional, edited encyclopedias. Wikipedia remains a hot-button issue with many librarians and faculty, however, with some reactions emotional as well as considered.
I use Wikipedia daily, in both my personal and professional information-gathering (how else can I figure out who Justin Bieber is?). One of my major jobs at work is staffing our instant message/chat reference service. In that context I am frequently helping students do research in fields like biochemistry or financial derivatives, in which I have no formal training and only the background that a curious NPR listener and New Yorker reader has gained over the years (my household subscribes to Scientific American, too, but I only read their anthropology and archaeology articles). Wikipedia is often my first stop, allowing me to get at least a sketch of an issue, and to get a sense of what the standard professional jargon is, pinpointing keywords for searching article databases. (I should note that instant messaging reference takes place at a fast pace, too fast to consult print resources, and anyway, my base library is a digital library, with almost no print collection to hand.)
I like to think that my basic level of information literacy is high enough that I can judge the quality of any given Wikipedia article pretty well, and take things with a grain of salt. As a librarian, I am most fond of the Wikipedia articles with excellent scholarly bibliography and links out to, for example, digitized original documents hosted at University libraries. And there are lots of those!
When I give presentations to classes about conducting research for an assignment, I generally devote a decent amount of time to Wikipedia in the 1000-level (introductory at UGA) classes. I discuss the differences between a formally edited and crowdsourced encyclopedia, introduce the basic rubrics for evaluating any information source (authority, accuracy, objectivity, audience, currency), and show them how to look at the edits to a Wikipedia page and the “discussion” page to highlight controversy, if there is any. I encourage them to compare a Wikipedia entry to Britannica Online (UGA subscription) or, if relevant, to a subject-specific encyclopedia either in print or online. And I remind them what an encyclopedia – any encyclopedia – is for: finding one’s feet in a new subject, identifying keywords, and getting basic bibliographic leads, NOT for citing as a resource in a college-level paper. For upper-level classes (4000/6000, and all graduate classes), I generally skip or hastily skim Wikipedia as a topic and go straight to the subject-specific reference works and database searching.
In Classics, as in all topics, I find Wikipedia articles vary in quality. For ancient authors and texts, they are often excellent; when I am looking for an online version of an ancient text, I tend to go first to Wikipedia, and usually find an external link to Perseus, Lacus Curtius, or another scholarly site at the bottom of the page. For mythology, on the other hand, Wikipedia is not a very good quality resource, often pointing the user to general-interest websites on myths rather than highlighting ancient textual references and images.
I am fascinated by those faculty who have used Wikipedia as an assignment, asking their students to adopt a page and improve it (see discussion at stoa.org, and this article at Inside Higher Ed) or write an essay answering, “Does Wikipedia Suck?”. From a librarian’s perspective, this is a wonderful education for the students (and faculty!) in topics in information literacy and online discourse. Such assignments also provide excellent content knowledge to the student, and a public service, by means of the improved Wikipedia article! If I were teaching, I’d be tempted to take on this challenge myself.