Many news outlets picked up with apparent glee a story that (gasp!) Wikipedia had a number of facts wrong about Ken Lay’s death. Most accounts had a fingerwagging tone, (see! Wikipedia is not to be trusted!) but reader comments pointed out correctly that news networks often make similar mistakes and take longer to correct them.
For a more in-depth examination of Wikipedia, Rory Litwin of Library Juice points to this article by Roy Rosenzweig, Professor of History and New Media at George Mason. Rosenzweig’s piece discusses the differences between professional historians and amateur wikipedists, Wikipedia’s obsession with Neutral Point of View (NPOV), and compares Wikipedia to Microsoft’s Encarta and the American National Biography Online. Rosenzweig points out that it’s not only accuracy that is problematic for Wikipedia (a problem for all encyclopedias), but poor writing and lack of scholarly subtlety and nuance. Yet he also points out the strengths of Wikipedia–it’s free and available to everyone, unlike the subscription products in our libraries. He raises the good question, why aren’t scholarly projects like American National Biography Online freely available? He’s amazed that Wikipedia can get so many volunteers to work on entries, and contends contributors have varied motivations for doing so, including self-education and self-improvement.
He asks if professional historians should be more involved in Wikipedia to improve its accuracy and writing quality and concludes that they should be, without being naive about questions about how such activity would count for tenure and promotion. What about librarians? Should we get more involved in improving the quality of Wikipedia?