Saturday, September 6, 2008

Wikipedia and the community

Most people I know (including librarians) don't like Wikipedia.  Some people complain about the uneven quality of articles, while others even more vociferously object to policies which they perceive as bordering on facism.  There is a great deal of truth in both of these criticisms, and yet, loads of people use Wikipedia.  I use it as part of work sometimes, because it's a fast and easy way to find information which I know I can supplement with more authoritative sources.  (I also find there is lots not to like.)

Information Today has an article on the phenomenon, Putting the Library in Wikipedia by Lauren Pressley and Carolyn J. McCallum.  The authors go further than other writings I've seen.  They say we've got to embrace Wikipedia, because library websites are losing hits since no one suspects there to be much content on them.  Thus we should put our content on Wikipedia - and goes on to describe an abortive attempt with a lesson.

I've been a strong voice of the same feeling, not because I feel our websites are under-visited (although I'm sure they are), but because by getting ourselves entrenched in Wikipedia, we can better direct information about our unique holdings.  I've systematically put in entries for our many archival collections in the appropriate articles, and on a few occasions, have created articles so I can include mention of an important collection.  (While the individuals may not necessarily be important, what is important are the links to and from other articles.  That is what raises the significants of topics - just ask Google.)  Some of the information I've put there are the products of research done in response to reference questions.

Oddly, when I've tried to suggest engaging Wikipedia on e-mail lists of musicologists and music theorists I get either no comment, or agreement without any follow-up.  One anonymous Wikipedian began a WikiProject devoted to music theory.  Even though I announced it on the list of the Society for Music Theory, SMT-TALK, which has over 1,000 people interested in music theory (including many students), not a single one of them signed up.

Why the lack of interest?  I think it has less to do with the idiosyncracies of the Wikipedian community and more to do with the vacuum in which certain types of professions operate.  If I may resort to armchair psychology:  music people need to spend a lot of time just listening and thinking about music (not to mention practicing instruments).  It is not a profession that easily welcomes external forces.  So I suspect the lack of Wikipedia engagement reflects a more troubling aspect of the practitioners of the music profession.

I don't have enough experience serving the (non-music) academic population at large, but I suspect that this isolationist behavior is typical of many academic fields of study.  It's easy not bothering to look up additional sources or citations.   As librarians, it's in our interest to counteract this apathy and closemindedness by reaching out and populating places like Wikipedia.

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