Dangerous Waters

“I’ve been a librarian for ten years and I have to tell you, I feel like a fraud. I don’t really know where to start when it comes to figuring out whether a site is believeable or not.”

Wikipedia. The word that makes many librarians (and teachers and academics) tremble, or snort, or turn up their noses. I’ve been reading a fair bit recently about wikipedia and how we’re supposed to react to it, to think about it: there’s the Wikipedia Lesson Plan for grade school classrooms, which, while interesting, seems designed to underscore that the Wikipedia is essentially untrustable and of poor quality as a source of information; there’s the sad mewling at the Chronicle of Higher Education forums, where one academic says,

Having found a fairly serious problem on Wikipedia, I contacted the owners of the site. They were less interested in the problem than I was (they were violating copyright) and one of them argued with me about it. I don’t know what they did about it, but their attitude convinced me that these sites are not vetted carefully and while they might provide some useful information, they are not academic and should not be given even the slightest nod by academics. We could be sending our students into some dangerous waters.

The basic principle I glean from my library school education and from all of the discussions around Wikipedia is this: for a source to be creditable, we want it to pass through the hands of a third party, for-profit company. That is, essentially, the mark of success according to the old rules. Sure, we say we’re looking for peer-review, and most of the time that’s true, but it’s not always true. Do reference works pass through peer review? Not really. They are collected by an editor, but they don’t need to be peer reviewed the way an article does. Or the way a monograph does. I’m fairly sure the Oxford English Dictionary didn’t go out to 3 un-named reviewers before it releases updates. Many of these sources are simply prepared or written by people of some repute, people that other educated people respect. Sources that have been published by one of the Old Boys are waters free from danger, right?

Not to say that there isn’t some validity to the old rules. Having to pass through to a third-party publisher means that at least one other person has read over this work of yours and find it worthy. That vetting process is very important to academics; while so many seem to prize the ancient practice of thinking and writing alone and uninterrupted, they prefer the results of that work to pass through the hands of others. Communal acceptance is one way to divine truth, and since communal acceptance finds its hallmark in publication by one of the Old Boys, that’s one way to provide validation. That’s one way to sort out the truth without engaging with the subject matter.

I understand the fear a lot of people have around Wikipedia, I do; in principle, it’s chaos. Everyone can edit these webpages, and no one is entirely sure who did what. Anonymously imparted information sits there on the page alongside information provided by a known quantity. We can’t tell who has a phd and who doesn’t. We can’t tell who has published books on this subject and who is a construction worker by day and a Pliny fan by night. In the traditional world we want to draw big lines between those people and be able to have a mental picture of the author before we read the work. We want to know if the University of Smart Folks has endorsed this person or not. We want to see the Mensa membership cards before we decide whether or not what you say has value.

Because here’s the problem: while people are upset that Wikipedia isn’t authoritative enough and is likely to contain errors, we largely ignore the fact that the sources we hold so dear, the ones published by the Old Boys , vetted by all the right people, are filled with errors too. Encyclopedia Britannica was proved wrong by a 12-year old boy. There are reportedly numerous errors in the new Dictionary of National Biography. We don’t trust Wikipedia because there might be errors in it, but we have no problem referring patrons to these stalwart pillars of the community, errors and all.

There is a growing disconnect between the traditional conceptions of knowledge we inherited from the Enlightenment and our current understanding of valuable information. As David Weinberger so gracefully points out in his talk to the Library of Congress, Everything is Miscellaneous, the difference between the Encyclopedia Britanica and the Wikipedia is that that one is theirs and this one is ours. And librarians don’t trust ours. There are too many of the unwashed among us. We can’t account for them all.

The ironic thing is that the Wikipedia is the best example we have of pure peer review. There is nothing posted on the Wikipedia that is not vetted by a cast of thousands, including lots of accredited Smart Peopleâ„¢. Writing in the Wikipedia is like writing an article at a conference, with the document itself open and projected on the wall, and everyone in the room shouting out responses as you type, grabbing the keyboard from you, arguing about your facts and interpretations. The errors found in the DNC and Britannica would have been corrected rather than reported had they been wikis rather than paper publications. The problem with Wikipedia is that we don’t trust everyone.

The advantage of the traditional, print reference materials we work with is that we’re used to working with them. We know that they were produced by intelligent, qualified people who may sometimes make mistakes or overlook something or may not be able to remember every single little factoid. They are few and human, after all. But they are humans who have passed through the refining process of graduate school, of the interview and hiring process, the tenure system, and then, finally, through the final sieve of the peer-reviewed print publication process. We rely on all of those steps to create authority for us. We don’t want to look at a source and see if what its saying is reasonable, we don’t want to have to judge a source on what it actually contains. We want to judge this book by its cover. That’s our comfort zone.

But we need to move beyond that. We’re not living in a positivist state anymore. We can’t be objective, we can’t efface ourselves from the catalogues we produce or the reference advice we dispense. We can’t be the 19th century matrons who tell people what’s good for them and keep the stuff that will rot their brains out of the library. We just have to give people the tools to think critically, to ask questions of the sources we help them find. And if we do it right, we help produce the paradigm shifters, the ones who question even the people with millions of publications, with a research chair at Big Whoop Dee Doo University, and a sizzling article in Very Expensive Quarterly. And in spite of all our fetishes around academic publications and citations, that’s’ exactly what we want.

4 thoughts on “Dangerous Waters”

  1. I just ranted on my blog about how right you are. I do get my kicks out of finding the holes in peer reviewed work. Not that I look for it, but when you trip over it you just can’t but stop to giggle.

  2. having heard a librarian/wikipedia “overseer” give a presentation at the last MLA conference about the contribution/peer vetting process, i feel that the only thing that has changed in the world is that when you cite your references, you might want to put a time of day as well as day/month/year.

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