Wikipedia and Sue Gardner

One of my favorite programs at ALA Annual was Sue Gardner‘s talk on Wikipedia. Gardner is the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit behind Wikipedia, and she is an incredible speaker: dynamic, enthusiastic, and prepared. She answered questions in a direct manner (and she’s quotable).

We are getting to the point in academia where Wikipedia is becoming accepted as a reliable reference tool. It is a great jumping-off point. You wouldn’t cite it in a paper – but then, you wouldn’t cite any other encyclopedia in a paper, either, after about third grade. Its value is in its currency, relevance, and most of all in its citations.

Gardner said that Wikipedia is an “inherently radical” nonprofit, supporting the idea that “people have a right to access to information.” She described the “virtuous circle, by which participation leads to quality, which leads to a broader reach, which leads to greater participation. There is “no such thing as perfect accuracy” – even recognized authoritative sources such as Britannica have errors, and those can’t be corrected as quickly as Wikipedia can, and they aren’t as widely or frequently monitored, either.

Wikipedia is a “credentials-neutral environment – some people need to be anonymous.” However, unlike communism, which looks good in theory but breaks down in practice, some problems for Wikipedia are theoretical rather than practical: “Wikipedians are fierce defenders of editorial integrity,” so while self-serving articles are a concern in theory, they are not so much of a problem in practice.

One of the main goals of Wikipedia, said Gardner during the Q&A, is “to get information to people so they can make informed decisions about their lives.” Gardner – former director of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s website and online news – also encouraged questioning the nature of “authority” – “Is Fox News a ‘reliable source’?”

Journalism, Gardner said, “is not really a profession, it’s a job for curious people.” Also, it seems, a job for students and librarians: part of a recent public policy initiative encourages teachers and professors to assign students to write for Wikipedia. There are over 100,000 Wikipedia editors worldwide; these editors work for free, because they enjoy it and believe in it. The average Wikipedia contributor/editor is 25 years old, a STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) grad student – and male. Wikipedia contributors skew male; librarians skew female. Gardner’s message was clear: “We want you as Wikipedians.”

It was a galvanizing talk – read the American Libraries write-up here – and I’m excited to be attending the first Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit tomorrow.

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