Category Archives: Wikipedia

Curiouser and Curiouser: Guiding Students through the Information Wonderland

This week I taught a research instruction session for a learning community that pairs an introductory English Composition course with a Speech course. I love teaching this class because I get to work with colleagues in our English and Humanities Departments with whom I’ve long collaborated; we have a good rapport in the classroom and the students always seem to get a lot out of the class. Because the library session runs for twice as long as usual — we use the class periods for both classes — we always have lots of time for students to practice doing research. Because the students are usually more engaged in learning communities and there are 3 instructors in the classroom, we also typically get into discussions about topics in information literacy that we often don’t have room for in the other sessions I teach.

This time around we found something very interesting. The students were researching the Brooklyn Theater Fire, an infamous late 19th-century disaster that happened just steps from our college’s campus. We’d been using the library catalog to look for books on Brooklyn and New York City history, talking about the kinds of keywords that work best for broad or narrow topics, the usual. Recently I’ve noticed that during the internet research part of my instruction sessions students sometimes find books on commercial sites like Amazon, so I’ve started to suggest that students note down the author and title of books they find on those sites and search for them in the library catalog. I recommended that to this class, too, and a student called me over to help him do the search in our library’s catalog for a book he found on Barnes & Noble.

The student was trying to search by ISBN in the keyword search field, but that wasn’t really the problem. The problem was that our library (and our university system) doesn’t own the book. And, actually, we’ll never own the book, because the book he was looking for was a book of Brooklyn historical information pulled directly from Wikipedia. It took a few minutes of poking around on the B&N website to figure that out, and then we all (as a class) found a long list of books “published” by the company LLC Books:

llcbooks

(Hey, at least they’re relatively inexpensive, right?)

This phenomenon is not new, nor is it restricted to Wikipedia content — I remember hearing a few years ago about a similar “publisher” printing up and selling dissertations without their authors’ knowledge. And it’s pretty easy for us to discard these kinds of books from our own searches online. The listing the student found actually cites Source: Wikipedia as the author, but even those that don’t are highly suspicious: they’re on a huge variety of topics with very similar covers each with an image of a flower on it which is not at all relevant to the book’s content. Red flags everywhere, right?

But first year undergraduates are not librarians, and the student I worked with was, I think, legitimately confused by this book, especially seeing it in a set of search results that included traditionally published, “real” books. We ended up having a great conversation with the entire class about who owns the content on Wikipedia (and an introduction to open access and Creative Commons-licensed content), how print-on-demand publishing technology is changing information production, and why it’s important to evaluate information in all formats, not just online.

It was a great class; I left happy that we’d been able to cover such complex topics and hopeful that the students will continue to think critically about information the way they did in the class. However, I worry about other students, the ones in all of the classes that don’t have an extra-long library session, in which we don’t have time to get to print-on-demand Wikipedia scam books as well as everything else we need to cover. While not about library sources, I think this is important content that’s well worth discussing in our classes. But it’s tricky to accommodate all of the nuances of the information landscape in our instruction, especially when it’s both/and: real books both in print and electronic (both in the library and on the internet), and fake books, and… How do you incorporate new (and evolving) information literacy issues into your instruction?

Waiting on Wikipedia

Recently while I was teaching a class the instructor asked me whether I thought that Wikipedia would ever come to be considered a generally trustworthy, credible source. I always talk about Wikipedia in my one-shot instruction sessions, especially with first year students, but this was the first time I’d ever gotten a question along those lines. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

In my classes I point out to students that most of us — students, faculty, librarians, everyone — use Wikipedia all the time. My usual strategy for talking about Wikipedia in library instruction is likely similar to many librarians: I show students how to use it for brainstorming and background information, suggest that they mine the references, and point out the View history link to show them how the entry has changed. I end by noting that Wikipedia is a great place to start but that students shouldn’t cite it in their assignments because it’s much too general, just as they wouldn’t cite a general print encyclopedia. Instead, they should use Wikipedia to point them to other resources that are more appropriate for use in college work.

But I do wonder when Wikipedia will cross the line into acceptable-for-use-as-a-cited-source territory. Will it ever? Has it already?

Full disclosure: I cited Wikipedia in a scholarly journal article I wrote last year. I had what I thought were (and still think are) good reasons. I was writing about using games in information literacy instruction, and I used Wikipedia to define several specific genres of videogames. I felt that the Wikipedia definitions for those types of games were more current and accurate than definitions I found in other published sources. In this case the fluidity and impermanence of Wikipedia were assets. Genres and micro-genres can evolve and change quickly, and I think that most Wikipedia entries on popular culture (in which I’d include videogames) are probably written and edited by fans of those topics. There’s an argument to be made that those fans are the subject experts, so it’s the information they’ve put together that I was most confident in citing. While one of the peer reviewers did note the Wikipedia citations, the journal editor and I discussed it and agreed to keep them.

Of course, Wikipedia won’t always be the best source. Right now I’m working on writing up the results of a project and needed to find the construction dates for campus buildings at one of my research sites. After scouring the college’s website with no luck, I stumbled upon the information in Wikipedia only to come up against a dilemma I’m sure our students face all the time: the information seems true, it’s not blatantly, obviously false, but there’s no citation for it. In this case I didn’t feel comfortable citing Wikipedia so I emailed the college archivist for more information, which she quickly and graciously provided. But what do our students do in a situation like this? There won’t always be a readily identifiable person or source to check with for more information.

According to this recent article in the Atlantic, Wikipedia seems to be moving into a more mature phase. The rate at which Wikipedia articles are edited is decreasing, as is the rate for adding new articles. What does this slowdown mean for Wikipedia? Is it really “nearing completion,” as the article suggests? And when Wikipedia is finished, will it then become a citable source?

Finding Footnotes and Chasing Citations

This week’s New York Times Book Review includes an essay by Alexandra Horowitz straightforwardly-titled Will the E-Book Kill the Footnote?, in which she laments that footnotes become endnotes when books move from paper to screen. Horowitz suggests that while this change means that the main text of a book may be more easily read from start to finish, something is lost when the intrusive interruption of a footnote morph into the more easily ignored endnote. After all, how many people actually read endnotes?

This article reminded me of one published last year in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about link rot and footnote flight (paywall alert), which made some of the same points for academic texts that Horowitz makes for popular books: electronic writing may suffer from both losing footnotes as well as from link rot, in which hyperlinks go dead over time as the site or page linked to is moved or abandoned.

Both the conversion of footnotes to endnotes and link rot can affect anyone reading a text, scholars and students alike. For scholars, I have to assume that if the information is valuable enough to be used in a research project, the researcher will have the tenacity to track down the necessary sources, whether that means jumping back and forth between endnotes and the main text or searching for the new home of a page at the dead end of a link. While it can sometimes be annoying to have to spend time chasing citations, I think many scholars actually enjoy this kind of work (or maybe I’m just looking at the task through my librarian-glasses?).

Students are busy, so I’d bet that they’re less invested in reading endnotes in electronic texts (and even footnotes in print books), and more likely to see them as an aside or as unnecessary. Of course students are very familiar with jumping from link to link on the web, and now that web browsers support tabbed browsing the process of moving between hyperlinks and the main text can come very close to the experience of reading a print volume with footnotes. And what about Wikipedia, where hyperlinks and endnotes abound? It’s easy to draw parallels between the Notes and References at the bottom of most Wikipedia entries and the same in scholarly texts. Maybe electronic texts can effectively be used to encourage students to chase down those citations and read those extra words in footnotes and endnotes.

Where’s The Real Discussion On Our Discussion Lists

Though they may seem a bit behind the times, e-mail discussion lists (since “listserv” is a registered name the proper generic term is “discussion list” – it’s like using “xerox” instead of “photocopy”) are still important to academic librarians. In his Chronicle article about the status of discussion lists, Jeffrey Young writes that “the time of scholarly e-mail lists has passed, meaningful posts slowing to a trickle as professors migrate to blogs, wikis, Twitter, and social networks like Facebook.”

I would agree with the academic librarians quoted in the article who express their ongoing interest in and dependence on the discussion list. On the other hand I’d agree with Young that they are no longer a forum for scholarly exchange. But were the discussion lists of academic librarianship ever about exchanging scholarly ideas? I don’t think so. Take Collib-L for example. You may disagree, but I never saw it as platform for the exchange of scholarly ideas. But I can recall, prior to the advent of blogs, more discussions about philosophical topics and more responses to postings that raised questions about what we ought to be doing as academic librarians about different issues in higher education. Think back, for example, to Chronicle articles such as Carlson’s piece on the deserted library or Wilder’s essay on information literacy. In the aftermath of those posts there were some great exchanges on Collib-L with much back and forth conversation, good debate on the issues, and folks from many different institutions joining the discussion. It was quite lively.

Most of that discussion has, I think, migrated to blogs and the comments to blog posts. Now, the real value in Collib-L is as an exchange for what works and what doesn’t work. Need to know how to get involved in Facebook? Ask on Collib-L. Need to know if you should convert that remaining Dewey Decimal collection to Library of Congress? Ask on Collib-L. Wondering how you can get your provost to look more favorably on tenure for librarians? Ask on Collib-L. What people to take your survey? Ask on Collib-L. And it seems that the more mundane the topic, the greater the number of responses to it. But these days it seems the more challenging and thoughtful questions, the ones that could lead to a debate and the exchange of many different views, are the ones that die a quick death with little response.

When Bernie Sloane recently pointed to a new Chronicle study that stated “There is very little that students cannot find on their own if they are inspired to do so” he asked Collib-L subscribers what they thought of that statement. Did they find it a “kinda scary contention from a librarian’s perspective, especially since it’s in a research report from the Chronicle of Higher Education.” There were all of two responses (and another one or two “I agree with what he said” posts) to Sloan’s post to the list, and yet this was a fairly thought provoking question that should have elicited a good many responses and perspectives. Why so little response? Are list subscribers just too busy to think about their response to a question like this one? Are they thinking “That’s an interesting question but I’ll leave it to the bloggers and Twitter crowd to deal with that one.” It certainly is easier and less time consuming to rattle off a response to a concrete “how do you do it at your library” question.

I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with the exchange of such grounded, day-to-day practice questions. Collib-L remains a thriving community of academic librarians who are there to help each other do a better job; the sharing of information is great. Well, when you get to the 20th or 30th response to a question about whether you stamp your library’s name in the front or back of the book, maybe it’s not so great. But I can’t help but feel academic librarianship suffers a loss of some sort when our discussion lists become void of real discussion and devolve into forums for the most practical types of information. If this is what the e-mail discussion list has come to perhaps Young is correct when he says they need to “change or die”.

Faculty Blog Round Up: Teaching with Technology

Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago we put out a call for someone to be our new faculty blog correspondent. With this post I’d like to introduce Laura Wimberley, the librarian we’ve selected to keep us up-to-date on what’s happening in the faculty blogosphere. Laura works at the Medical Center Library at the University of California San Diego. In addition to her MLIS – which she just completed – she also has an MA and PhD in Political Science. Her research interests include information policy, scholarly communication, and collection development. In addition to her posts here, you can read her at Libri & Libertas. We look forward to Laura’s future posts.

Much of what’s going on with faculty is very similar to what’s going on with librarians: Conferences are great, highly specialized, but exhausting! Or: Why, oh why, do students not cite sources after we work so hard with them? These experiences, we know.

What we don’t usually observe is the teaching, and this is one of the parts we need to stay in tune with. Here I’ve highlighted three posts with really innovative technology teaching techniques – ideas that you might not have thought about how to support from the library. Or maybe you’re dying to include blogging, Wikipedia, and gaming, and you didn’t know how to find faculty who are doing it, too. Either way, here’s a sample.

Acephalous is the blog of Scott Eric Kaufman, who teaches English at the University of California Irvine; he also contributes to the faculty group blogs The Valve (mostly literature) and Edge of the American West (mostly history).

SEK is blogging with his students in his undergraduate writing course the Rhetoric of Heroism. Because the course relies so heavily on detailed analysis of film and other visual iconography, a blog with embedded images seems like a wonderful way to communicate the material. I expect they’re watching and discussing the films together in class, but images are usually not the kind of thing students are accustomed to taking notes on (especially in the dark).

Jeremy Boggs, who blogs at ClioWeb, is a graduate student in American history at George Mason University. He’s also creative lead at the Center for History and New Media, so it’s not too surprising that he’s willing to take on the bete noire – Wikipedia. In his undergraduate American History Survey course, he assigns students to not just use, but create, Wikipedia articles, including citating sources, monitoring for follow-up collaboration, and writing a reflective essay. One of his students wrote the article that developed into the entry for Living Newspapers.

Another history professor, Rob MacDougall of the University of Western Ontario, blogs at Old is the New New (with a charming original steampunk blog theme). Rob uses the game Civilization to frame the course Science, Technology, and Global History. He asks his students to write an essay that reconceptualizes technology not as a serial, linear progress of development – as the game depicts it – but in some other way. How could we play a game that thinks of history as more contingent or branching or cyclic?

In this assignment, the game is laying bare a lot of social assumptions we carry around without realizing, and making them something students can analyze. If you ever need to justify a games collection in your library, this kind of work is a stellar example of such a collection could do.