Wikipedia and Why Librarians Make Good Wikipedia Contributors

I’ve recently gotten into Wikipedia as a contributor, as Jessamyn West noted recently. She encouraged me to start editing articles during the ALA Midwinter Meeting back in January, but I didn’t start doing it until the head of reference where I work assigned me to learn about it so that I could teach the other reference librarians here how to do it. Initially I didn’t see much of a connection between librarianship and Wikipedia editing, because working on an encyclopedia seemed to me to be more of a writer’s or a researcher’s pastime than a librarian’s. As I got into it, however, I realized that the standards for writing a Wikipedia article are similar to a reference librarian’s approach to answering a reference question, especially in relation to one of the main “pillars” of Wikipedia: the “Neutral Point of View,” or NPOV, policy. The NPOV policy is frequently misunderstood by new editors and those unfamiliar with Wikipedia as being the same as journalistic or historical objectivity, but it really has much more in common with the librarian’s ethic of neutrality. According to the NPOV policy, the goal is to present, in as balanced a way as possible, a range of views on topics where there is disagreement by referring to published examples, and to also provide sources when providing factual information. In Wikipedia, just like in librarianship, what’s presented is either factual information or a description of what others say, rather than an author’s perspective on a subject.

Now, the NPOV policy is an ideal, and its realization is limited (to an extent) both by the human character of contributors and, I think, by some inherent conceptual holes. Wikipedia contributors are often attracted to topics that they’re passionate about, and can find it difficult not to promote a point of view, whether grossly and overtly or subtlely and unconsciously. Being really NPOV in Wikipedia takes actual effort. The inherent conceptual holes have to do with the difficulty of establishing what really constitutes neutrality. That is: when is a point of view or a fact about a topic significant enough to be mentioned and how do you tell, and how much “ink” does its significance warrant? What constitutes a “reliable source” and how do you know? Ultimately, in practice, debates about NPOV reach a point where they are not easily resolveable by facts alone, and the outcome is determined by a consensus whose basis in reason (as opposed to a shared or contested subjective “sense” of where the center lies, which is what I think we have) is not easily establishable. The same difficulty underlies librarianship’s ethic of neutrality.

My main goal in writing about Wikipedia right now is not primarily to problematize it so much as to get librarians interested in it. So, to that end, here are some links to pages in Wikipedia that are intended for use by contributors, to sort of give you an introduction to what is involved:

The Contributing FAQ

The Wikipedia Glossary

Wikipedia’s Policies and Guildelines, which are really much more interesting than you might think

The Wikipedia Community Portal

A quick introduction to editing pages

The WikiProject Librarians, where librarian Wikipedia editors get somewhat organized as a group.

Wikipedia’s Countering Systemic Bias project, aimed at countering the acknowledged built in bias stemming from the demographic characteristics of Wikipedia contributors.

Wikipedia is not without critics of course. Many librarians view it as basically worthless because of the process by which it’s created. Indeed, I think getting into wikipedia as a contributor and watching the way pages develop has really made its weaknesses as a reference source – in terms of reliability – more clear to me. So librarians who see contributing to Wikipedia as a complete waste of time may have a valid point. However, I think it depends on what activities you’re comparing it to. Compared to doing original research for publication in Library Quarterly – yes, it is probably a waste of time. But compared to putting one’s personal book collection into LibraryThing or blogging internet quizzes that tell the world what character from “That 70s Show” you are, it’s relatively productive and helpful. So, really, it’s a matter of perspective. For librarians who by force of habit or whatever else are going to spend a good deal of their free time online, contributing to Wikipedia can be a productive project where our skills are useful.

One warning: Editing pages on topics that are important to you can be frustrating, because people who know less or who are ideologically motivated might not care. If you are somebody who finds himself getting stressed out by internet debates, you might want to stick to topics that you’re not passionate about, or create some rules for yourself to keep your blood pressure low. Jessamyn warned me about this, knowing that I’ve had my share of online scuffles in the last ten years or so, and after a couple of months I certainly know what she’s talking about, but find it very manageable.

Have fun with it!

5 comments on “Wikipedia and Why Librarians Make Good Wikipedia Contributors

  1. As usual, your writing is of high quality and well worth the read. As one of the librarians contributing to Wikipedia, it was nice to see your post.

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