Wikipedia as an auxiliary reference tool

Librarians, in my experience, are mostly ambivalent about Wikipedia, and we have good reason for our ambivalence. Wikipedia is a new phenomenon, which means it requires reflection and thought in order to understand where it is valuable and where it is not appropriate for us to use. I think that for many of us, our ambivalence toward it leads us to avoid it at times when it might be useful – primarily at the reference desk.

I edited Wikipedia articles, and gave a good start to a dozen or so of them, during a period of several months a few years ago, and learned first hand about Wikipedia’s inner workings, its strengths and weaknesses. It is interesting to observe the process by which articles on controversial subjects are regularly pulled in one direction or another by editors who are there to push a point of view, or, often, how contrary viewpoints end up braided together sentence by sentence, leading to a mild form of textual schizophrenia.

Yet, I have to admit to using Wikipedia frequently. In fact, it is usually my first stop for quick information on a topic. Occasionally it satisfies my information need, but usually it points me somewhere else, usually by providing a bit of vocabulary, a name, a definition, a citation to another source, or the completion of a thought – a bit of information that I need to move forward using information resources that are more reliable and consistent.

Until recently, I had banned Wikipedia from my reference interviews, because I felt that using it at the desk did two things I wanted to avoid. I thought it would give students the idea that Wikipedia is a good source to use generally, and I thought that it would give students the idea that they know enough, being familiar with Wikipedia already, to do what we do. I’ve recently put those ideas aside, realizing that showing students how to use Wikipedia effectively as an auxiliary reference tool is as good as teaching them how to use any other auxiliary reference tool.

Part of what we do at the reference desk, especially in academic libraries, is to teach patrons better research skills by showing them our thought process. Finding a resource often involves following leads and being creative in how we think of them or discover them. Showing students how we use Wikipedia as a “jumping off point” (as one student called it when she observed how I was using it with her) can be a valuable teaching moment.

I still feel a little sheepish about going to Wikipedia when I’m at the desk. I still tend not to use it if what the user is looking for is a brief summary of a topic, the kind of thing that Wikipedia specializes in. For those kinds of questions I definitely use our reference collection, often using Reference Universe as an auxiliary. But when they want articles on a topic that’s not easy to get at otherwise (say, something new like “click chemistry” – how would you find info on that?), Wikipedia makes a great auxiliary tool.

2 comments on “Wikipedia as an auxiliary reference tool

  1. Agreed. In instruction sessions I offer Wikipedia as great way to learn the vocabularies and gain groundwork understanding of their research area – but then stress the need for relevant and published resources.

  2. For me Wikipedia is great no so much for the articles as going to the bottom to find some resources to start with.

    Finding at least one book cited by the article will usually give someone a great starting direction for their research.

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