Sunday, 15 April 2007

Wikipedia again

I mention this topic again because I am part of a panel at one of the Jimmy Wales seminars - Challenging How Knowledge is Created - that is organising. You can find out all about them here. Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia.

I also mention the topic because I have to start thinking about it, the Melbourne seminar being on 27 April (there are also seminars in Perth, Adelaide and Sydney).

Naturally, I would appreciate your ideas. I offered to represent ALIA on a panel, and got the gig due to the absence of competition, as is so often the case. It is a busy week for me, mostly in Canberra - a meeting of the board of the Australian Digital Alliance, an AICTEC (IT in education) interoperability jamboree on Tuesday, the National Library's very popular Innovative Ideas thing on Thursday, and a meeting of Picture Australia contributors on Friday.

What to say? What to avoid saying? Let me know. I will be representing libraries, and I am currently operating on the principle that the Wikipedia is the best thing since the invention of the library two millennia or so ago.


Rebecca said...

Hi Derek and all

Congratulations on the birth of your new grandson!

I've made a comment on Wikipedia before on this blog and I’d like to follow it up here. Though I’ve said before that I'm critical of Wikipedia as a serious reference tool because of the absence of proof of authority / integrity in its contributors, I also think it's a great tool for the dissemination of (general knowledge-type) information. It’s a representation of the kind of information democracy we as librarians wish to encourage; we don’t want to be seen as tyrants reluctant to release the keys to our information holdings and desperately clinging to our bibliographic databases as the only upright source of information. And the more we criticise Wikipedia and its equivalents, the more out-of-touch we seem as a profession. This is already a problem, as mentioned in previous posts.

We librarians are at a bit of a crisis point in terms of our image; we consider the name ‘librarian’ with its clear link to print material outmoded. We don’t want to be seen as information gatekeepers or gateways, and we don’t want to fade into the distant past of tweed, twin-sets, steel-rimmed glasses and pearls … (Thanks for your support, Dana: 4/4). But at this stage, we haven’t really come up with an alternative. We’re so busy emphasising what we’re not that we’re losing sight of what we are. Whatever we choose to call ourselves, Derek is right to appeal to us (11/4) that we need to recruit other information specialists into our debate on the future of information retrieval. We need to embrace the ‘I’ in ALIA. Otherwise we might simply cease to exist.

Wikipedia is a positive symbol of the trend towards librarians assisting users to seek information themselves, rather than us finding it for them, as used to be the case. In a world increasingly overloaded with information, we ALL need to be able to retrieve basic information on a variety of topics, and we won't always be able to rely on traditional channels of communication for this (though I might still ask Mum: 27/3). Those who elect to stand aloof from technology will eventually find themselves going the way of the dinosaurs. And that’s not an appealing thought.

Wikipedia seems ideal to fill the new Web-based role of easy access to general information, and to bridge the gap between education and entertainment. For those who remain sceptical about the quality of information available on Wikipedia even for trivial use, consider the fact that a quick-and-dirty Google search has become many people's prime source of information.

That should put things in perspective.

Whether academics, professionals, students or bored teenagers, those engaging with Wikipedia, either as readers or as contributors, are making an investment in knowledge. And isn't encouraging the generation and dissemination of knowledge what libraries have done for the past two millennia?

If information sharing and cultivation is our mainstay, then Wikipedia represents the reason libraries and librarians exist.


Dana said...

Not exactly a positive, but you may wish to be aware that Larry Sanger, Wikipedia's other founder, has said that Wikipedia is "broken beyond repair". According to that news article he believes Wikipedia content is "frequently unreliable" and that the community is dysfunctional (perhaps because the purported peer review system is failing?). He has just launched an expert overssen version of wikipedia, called "citizendium" -- and of course this will seem quite appealing to many people.

The downside of expert review of course is that there is a certain amount of evidence that there is "wisdom in crowds" (see Jmaes Surowiecki's book on the topic). More than that though, Citizendium's "editors" (the people who can approve an article) are volunteers, and require no small qualification for their positions -- tenure track degrees for academia, and degrees plus experience for professionals. In my mind, this will lead to two potential problems -- academic bias, and relative sluggishness compared to Wikipedia; depending on how much time the editors put into the project, Citizendium could become nothng more that the equivalent of any other online encyclopedia. Only time will tell, I guess.

trr said...

Wikipedia works very well as a web application due to its low barrier to contribution. To contribute to Wikipedia, you don't need to go through any hassles such as 'signing up for a free account' let alone authenticating yourself.

This low barrier to participation is the reason it has been so successful. In Wikipedia's case it means that the actual amount of information on Wikipedia is just insane compared to any information source that is supported by more hasslesome content processes. Anybody with a little spare time can and will contribute to pages which they're interested in. Where else would you find such comprehensive information on topics of interest to so few people?

The open license (GFDL) applied to all the information is also quite admirable; it makes me feel good about contributing knowing that a single organisation can't hold my contributions ransom - I can borrow anything I want and republish it where I want.

Applying the same standards of accuracy to Wikipedia as to something peer reviewed is a bit silly in my opinion; I don't think we've had anything before that is written by so many people, has so much information, and is so rapidly changing. It's kind of a new category.

Fiona Bradley said...

@trr: it's not so that anyone can edit Wikipedia. Common error message:

"This account or IP address has been blocked from editing. [...] because it is an open proxy."

I do have an account and have contributed to a few articles, but I am a little disenchanted with the overzealous editing and deletion policies.

That said, it is especially good for computing, gaming, and science - if you don't know a subject area at all Wikipedia makes it easy to find the concept you are looking for.

I think Chaser did this well.