I Want My Wikipedia!

As if the world of reference hasn't seen enough mayhem with the advent of the search engine so pervasive that its name has become a verb, fatigued reference publishers may be facing another challenge. What started out in 2001 as an experiment known simply as Wikipedia, 'the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,' has now grown into a full-pledged online resource whose English version alone comprises nearly one million entries. Although not as developed but certainly growing are Wikipedia's many offsprings in languages like French, German, and Italian, to name only a few; there's even an Esperanto version. The web site (www.wikipedia.org) is a wiki, which means that anyone can edit its contents by clicking on the edit links within the entries. To date, the site's coalition of the willing comprises nearly 90,000 individuals worldwide who have helped shape a total of 2.5 million entries in 200 languages. But like any form of government, democracy faces a unique set of problems: once given the freedom (to edit), will people abuse it? Most certainly. Many observers have already expressed concerns over Wikipedia's shortcomings, pointing to valid examples of editorial inferiority, yet many others have been charmed by its concept and astonished by its up-to-dateness. Some have gone so far as to claim they prefer it to the venerable (albeit not free) Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. So far, librarians - the toughest critics of reference materials, whatever their format - have remained quiet. To make sure their voices are heard, LJ has put Wikipedia to the ultimate test: three long-time reviewers specializing in popular culture, current affairs, and science, respectively, have agreed to evaluate Wikipedia's content. Their verdict? While there are still reasons to proceed with caution when using a resource that takes pride in limited professional management, many encouraging signs suggest that (at least for now) Wikipedia may be granted the librarian's seal of approval. - Mirela Roncevic

Pop culture

In the vast and variegated cyberspace marketplace, there is no more bizarre bazaar than the free and free-for-all encyclopedic magic-carpet ride that is Wikipedia. From Dickies (standard work clothes for blue-collar, lunch-bucket folks and de rigeur hipster street wear) to hickeys (ah...remember those fetching vampire-like love bites that made eighth grade so memorable) and even Mickeys (that pervasive, green-bottled, wide-mouthed malt liquor frat boys favor), the not-so-picky Wiki is a seemingly endless pop-culture cornucopia that entertains, educates, and, at times, enlightens. My media-influenced meanderings took me in daisy-chain fashion from stall to stall to sample the virtual wares of one voluptuous vendor (Traci Lords, porn poster girl of the Eighties and now a mainstream icon) after another. And, like Big Mama from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, who bought half of Europe on her and Big Daddy's Cook's tour of the Continent, I schlepped a lot of stuff home. A Wickipedian characteristic worthy of kudos is its overall effort at legitimately treating kitsch areas otherwise and often discarded as popular culture flotsam and jetsam. At Wikipedia, the wonderful world of professional wrestling currently features 20 subcategories that collectively provide an extensive amount of detailed and accurate information a hardcore fan will be hard-body-pressed to find in traditional print sources. For example, in Texas, wrestling royalty is defined by two proud and historic clans, the Funks and the Von Erichs. Terry Funk's entry is a rich and complete narrative detailing his background, family, championship belts and titles, and acting career, with references and external links. Images are provided for both his halcyon days and his current work (he's still active in his sixties). While Terry's biography is the most comprehensive, entries for his brother, former National Wrestling Association world champion Dory Funk Jr., and father, Dory Funk Sr., are far more useful and informative than corresponding citations found in McFarland's Biographical Dictionary of Professional Wrestling, the lone extant professional wrestling reference source for reliable biographical material. The tragic tale of the Von Erich family is delineated in features on patriarch Fritz; his last surviving son, Kevin; and deceased sons David, Kerry, Mike, and Chris. The pleasure and fun of serendipitous strolling is actively encouraged in Wikipedia through its extensive use of embedded links. A jaunt to the islands for the Hawaii Five-O entry to revisit the show's development, cast, and legacy inevitably took me to Jack Lord (including a picture of that archetypal McGarrett hair!) and then to aforementioned goddess Traci Lords, whose name is derived from her favorite actor, Jack. Likewise, a trip to The Twilight Zone, land of both shadow and substance, connects to the classic Playhouse 90 and Rod Serling's award-winning Requiem for a Heavyweight, finally ending (most appropriately) with the Champ, Muhammad Ali. BOTTOM LINE The public library is the people's university, and Wikipedia, verily, is the people's encyclopedia. Pop culture junkies and Cowboy Junkies (there's a great piece on the Canadian alternative rock band) will be in hog heaven and will go through time spent on the site faster than prunes through a widow woman. - Barry X. Miller, Associate Collection Coordinator, Austin P.L., TX

Current affairs

Wikipedia has been the source of some controversy because it allows users to edit existing content. Even with the caveat that 'content must be verifiable and must not violate copyright,' some unethical edits have called into question the site's authority. On January 30, 2006, aides to Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Massachusetts) removed some of the representative's policy positions they found potentially harmful. And on November 29, 2005, John Seigenthaler, former assistant attorney general to Robert Kennedy, protested biographical information that possibly implicated him in the murders of both John and Robert Kennedy. Unlike print and broadcast corporations, electronic entities like Wikipedia are protected from libel suits by federal law. I decided to explore controversial historical and current events, hoping to find glaring abuses like these two. Happily, I didn't, despite investigating such volatile issues as Hurricane Katrina, slavery reparations, social security privatization, Abu Ghraib, and Guantánamo Bay and such controversial figures as President George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Bill O'Reilly, and James Carville. The most contentious entry was Abu Ghraib, which carried the warning, 'The neutrality of this section is disputed.' Included in the voluminous entry was a picture of an abused prisoner; in an accompanying 'talk page,' readers vented about the entry's objectivity. The information on Guantánamo Bay was less volatile, for now. While the George W. Bush entry provides straightforward information, it includes the caveat, 'editing disabled because of vandalism.' This also serves as a warning to librarians who recommend Wikipedia to tell users to check the sources for the information included, which is easily done by clicking the footnote link. The Bill Clinton entry is noncontroversial, with even the information on his impeachment presented dispassionately. Conservative pundit Bill O'Reilly receives much exposure, and an extensive list of his controversial remarks is included, notably an alleged racially insensitive remark made in April 2003. James Carville, a Democratic counterpart of O'Reilly, is discussed in a much shorter and less critical entry, possibly because he lacks O'Reilly's widespread notoriety. The discussion on slavery reparations relies significantly on conservative writer David Horowitz, who here is less aptly called a neoconservative. The entry on social security privatization (here described as social security debate) provides an unemotional and detailed description, which nicely relates the pros and cons. The treatment of Hurricane Katrina and weapons of mass destruction are similarly well documented and informative. BOTTOM LINE I was pleased by Wikipedia's objective presentation of controversial subjects. The talk pages may be frequently biased, but they do offer spirited commentary much like that of the public book reviews posted on Amazon.com and other book sites, where the reader must also beware. Because of its up-to-date information, Wikipedia will attract high school and college students. However, as with much information floating around in cyberspace, a healthy degree of skepticism and skill at winnowing fact from opinion are required. - Karl Helicher, Director of Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA


In a recent study comparing the accuracy of science entries, Nature reported that Wikipedia's level of accuracy is close to that of Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. However reassuring these results may be, Wikipedia remains a questionable source for scientific information. The report also serves as a reminder that even the most venerable and trusted resources are not perfect. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Wikipedia is the inability to ascertain the contributors' credentials. From reading the discussions and the revision histories of various articles, one gets the sense that Wikipedians are students or simply people with an interest in the topic rather than subject experts. Writing outside one's field is not necessarily a disadvantage, but it might explain why the descriptions and uses of some scientific terms are sometimes imprecise - a problem that can confuse or mislead the reader. In fact, the reviewers in the Nature study used the term misleading several times in their critiques. The lack of editorial control and peer review is also bothersome. Collective editing should improve the content and writing, but the quality varies widely. With several authors contributing a paragraph here and there, the text can become an assemby of loosely connected topics rather than a coherent article. The quality of the references and the external links is inconsistent, and sometimes they are the most useful component. 'Methylphenidate' (Ritalin) links to some resources that may have an element of bias, a real danger in this atmosphere of open editing. 'Density' lists no external sources, so the reader does not know the original source of the data. On the other hand, 'Prostate Cancer' provides an extensive list of medical journal articles and reliable organizational sites. BOTTOM LINE It is difficult to characterize the caliber of the site because there is so much variation. Despite its flaws, however, Wikipedia should not be dismissed. Although the writing is not exceptional, good content abounds. It is encouraging that some Wikipedians have attempted to organize the writing and impose a standard format through various WikiProjects devoted to specific areas of science such as biology, chemistry, biology, mathematics, medicine, and physics. With the recent publicity associated with the Nature article, one hopes that more scientists will become involved, thus raising the level of quality and accuracy. Since Wikipedia often appears on the first page of results in a Google search, it is one of the first places users look. But when it comes to science, it should not be the last. - Teresa Berry, Associate Professor/Science Librarian at the Univ. of Tennessee Libs., Knoxville
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