Ok, I’m sure this subject has been covered a thousand times before, but I find it fascinating that there are many information professionals who seem to break out in a cold sweat at the mere mention of the ‘W’ word. There are a great many criticisms levelled at Wikipedia, particularly the fact that it allows anyone with an account to edit an entry and add misleading information. Whilst this can be the case, in all honesty it is fairly rare and, given the number of people who check entries, once erroneous information is discovered it is quickly removed. I use Wikipedia a fair amount when conducting research for another blog I run, and I find that as long as I stick to two fundamental rules, I won’t go far wrong:
- Use Wikipedia only as a launchpad for research
- Always check references.
Wikipedia can be a brilliant source, but it must be used carefully. If you want a overview of a particular subject, Wikipedia is a good place to start. It’s like dipping your toe in the ocean of information that is out there. Take, for example, an entry on Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili. The opening paragraph gives plenty of basic information about who he is and some basic information about how we came to power. A good place for anyone want to look into this particular figure. Further into the entry, there is a section entitled ‘2007 crisis’. This part of the entry examines a series of anti-government demonstrations within the country. However, the opening paragraph provides no references whatsoever. It does, however, provide a link to a page on Wikipedia dedicated to the ‘2007 crisis’. This is where a little more information can be retrieved. On clicking the link, there is a more substantial article with more references and links to other information sources, this is where more substantial information can be obtained. Upon checking the references, one can find numerous resources to further investigate, including the BBC and a report by Human Rights Watch. It is once these sources are investigated, that one can understand the nature of the protests in Georgia. Suddenly, Wikipedia has opened up a whole range of places where we can discover more information about this event. As I said before, it is a useful launchpad to seek out more information. Just a couple of clicks and there is a wealth of resources available to the reader to find out more about the subject matter. Without using Wikipedia as a guide, it would be pretty time-consuming to find so many resources on this subject.
There is one other aspect of Wikipedia that puts it head and shoulders above the rest: currency. With so many active users of the site, it can be updated countless times in one day. Staying with the Georgian theme, the entry on the war in South Ossetia is a good example of this. Between the 21st August and the time of writing, the entry on the 2008 South Ossetia War had been updated over 250 times. Ok, so there may be a great many little tweaks here and there, and maybe a few removals of mischievous entries, but is there another resource that is updated with such regularity? Try searching on the war in South Ossetia on the Encyclopaedia Britannica and I can guarantee it won’t be half as current as the entry on Wikipedia. With such a wealth of information added at such frequency, Wikipedia is clearly a good place to start if you want to discover the latest developments.
Personally, I am a big fan of Wikipedia (as you may have noticed) and I think it is about time that information professionals put aside their doubts about Wikipedia and started using it as an information source. As long as it is used carefully, I can see no reason why it cannot be a useful tool for the reference enquiry desk. Quite frankly, it should be the starting point when dealing with any enquiry – as long as it is not the only resource that is consulted.