Skip to content

Is Wikipedia Replacing Libraries? A Response to Wikipedia Redefining Research

I recently came across this infograph outlining the ways Wikipedia is impacting student research.

 

The anonymous author argues Wikipedia is redefining how students conduct research because it is now the first point of access for the majority of students to information, instead of other traditionally used resources and institutions. I agree with the author, Wikipedia’s crowdsourcing web 2.0 model beat the status-quo of authoritatively researched Britannica.  I myself utilize Wikipedia in initial research, and it is increasingly becoming a reliable online reference tool due to the tightening editing standards and articles being cited with more credible sources.

Where the author loses me is his or her implication that libraries are declining because of Wikipedia.  Haphazardly selecting vague statistics and placing them next to each other does not mean such statistics are linked nor have causality.  Not only that, but the statistics fail to prove the infographic’s assertion that libraries are doomed, under closer scrutiny.   Libraries are not “losing” to Wikipedia because students and scholars utilize multiple sources from both in conducting scholarly research.  In fact, academic librarians should embrace Wikipedia as an opportunity to teach better information literacy and research habits, improve the web and prevent poorly researched infographics like the one above.

Students Use Wikipedia More than Libraries: Poor Grammar and Poor Research

The infograph falls short with poor grammar, and poorly researched and misleading statistics.   I completely agree with blogger,Joyce Valenza, that the statistics cited fail under closer scrutiny and she debunks many of them on her blog.  To give a few examples:

  • Students use Wikipedia more than libraries: Only 25% of students visit the library but 8 in 10 students turn to Wikipedia for their first source of research

The first sentence is grammatically incorrect implying students use Wikipedia more than libraries use Wikipedia.  Never mind that, what students in what country are the statistics referring too?  Are we discussing college, high school or middle schools in the United States, Europe, Asia, etc.? Upon finding the article, I learned that the statistics cited refer to American college students and, if the author actually read the article, it was counter to his or her point.  The article stated that while a majority of college students utilize Wikipedia, they do so to give their research a jump start by “obtain [ing] background information or a summary about a topic” and “primarily in the early stages of coursework”.  The article then quotes the researchers of the study: “college students use Wikipedia, they do so knowing its limitations–it has some credibility but not deep. Our findings also lead us to believe that support and solutions from multiple outlets, not just one tool, service or individual, may work the best.”

In writing scholarly academic papers, my peers and I consult an array or resources including Wikipedia, academic articles from our library’s databases, books from the library catalog and other resources from interlibrary loan. Honestly, what college professor would accept a research paper with only one cited source, whether it be Wikipedia or another reference source from the library?

  • Library use is declining by 11% annually. And the amount of books is declining by 12%.

The statistics are taken  from a local newspaper specifically about the Concord Public Library, and do not represent American Libraries as a whole.  Ms. Valenza accurately assessed that the same Concord newspaper article put the statistics into context and stated that according the American Library Association, libraries across the nation have seen more people using their services in recent years due to the recession.  Also, last time I checked, many other types of libraries existed besides the public and don’t college students use their academic library for research over the public library? Therefore, wouldn’t it be more honest to utilize a statistic about nationwide academic library use over a local public library statistic? Also, the author is limiting library use to physical visits which is not the only way students utilize the library.  Academic Libraries increasingly are incorporating digital materials and resources into their collections which can be accessed remotely from anywhere, while reducing print collections to make room for collaborative spaces and computer labs.  I further agree with Ms. Valenza that the rise of the ebook and audio book industries, along with print on demand portals like Amazon, the growing number of e-reader devices sold, and the rise of the self-publishing (plus libraries investing in espresso book machines) somewhat counters this.

  • 1.59 visits to the library annually. 5.7 billion visits to Wikipedia annually.

What types of visits and what type of library is the author referring to?  Again, are the statistic referring to school libraries, academic libraries or public libraries?  Furthermore, is the author defining visits as only limited to physical walk ins of a library’s building ?  What about statistics on visits to academic online reference tools such as databases or online catalogs that students often access remotely to conduct research? Why don’t virtual visits count, especially as you can only access Wikipedia virtually?  This statistic are from an IMLS study which compared 1.59 billion library visits to 5.7 billion visits to Wikipedia for a 2009 survey. It is unfair to compare only physical library visits, and discount visits to the library’s online resources, to Wikipedia visits.

I understand the author must brief in an infographic, but that does not excuse taking statistics out of their original context in the articles.  Before creating an infographic about redefining research, the author really should have first been taught the basics of how to conduct credible online research.

Wikipedia and Libraries Teaching Information Literacy = Success

I don’t believe there is a feud between Wikipedia and libraries for students.  Wikipedia is great for quick reference, it is convenient and can be extremely current because the research is crowd sourced.  College and Research Libraries, on the other hand, rule because we provide access to academic sources and databases,  citation and research aids, and physical space student communities need to create well researched and collaborative scholarly papers. Wikipedia is a staple in the way information is produced, consumed and shared in web 2.0.  Instead of hostility or falling into elitism, let’s embrace what our student communities are using, teach students how to better use Wikipedia and work to improve it.

I wholeheartedly agree with William Badke, who stated, “When professors are writing the articles or guiding their students in article production and revision, we may become much less paranoid about this wildly popular resource. Rather than castigating it, we can use it as a tool to improve information literacy.”   Wikipedia contains often questionable sources and therefore, Badke argues that there is no better places to start teaching students information literacy and how to distinguish the “trite from the brilliant and to check their Wikipedia information against other sources.”  Academic libraries should have programs, events and resources which encourage healthy online information literacy habits.  So, fellow academic librarians, lets get over the hate, and start collaborating and improving web information literacy to prevent bad infographics like the one above.

Dorotea Szkolar

I am an alumna of the iSchool MLIS program and am mainly interested in writing about technology and libraries. Contact me at doroteaszkolar@gmail.com or @doroteaszkolar if you would like to chat.

More Posts