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Wikipedia

Last week I was one of four people interviewed about Wikipedia for a pilot show for Open Source, a new radio program for Boston’s WGBH produced by the inimitable Christoper Lydon and premiering Monday, May 30. Actually, to call Open Source a radio program is a gross understatement; it will have a web and mobcasting presence, as well. Andy Carvin of the Digital Divide Network has a great summary on his blog, better than the over-busy program producers have developed at this point.

I had a great time on the show; I love to talk about information and the Web. The show also spurred me to give more thinking to information and its uses. Lydon seemed disappointed, after the fact, that “dissers” of Wikipedia were stronger presences on the radio than Wikipedia leader “Jimbo” Wales. Lydon found that the two “dissers” had “weak” arguments, and then remarked that Wikipedia needed a stronger defender to “summon up the appropriate awe for so grand an accomplishment.” I’m glad I didn’t know going in that the show’s host had so thoroughly drunk the KoolAid on one side of an issue he was covering; I said what I believed, well or not, you decide.

Perhaps radio is not my genre, so I’ll expand on my thoughts here (and may now prove that blogging ain’t my thing either). I am not an anti-Wikipedian. As a librarian, I’m not “anti” any book (or book-like object, website, intellectual entity, blah blah blah). But I have some thoughts and observations about Wikipedia that are informed by where I come from as someone dedicated to connecting people and information.

It’s not always easy to share these thoughts, because the moment a librarian or academic breathes the slightest concern about Wikipedia, some people shut down completely. I’m no longer a person with an informed opinion: I’m a gatekeeper.

Merriam Online offers two definitions for “gatekeeper”:

1 : a person who tends or guards a gate
2 : a mottled brown Old World butterfly (Pararge megaera)

I’d rather be confused with a mottled brown Old World butterfly, which sounds elegant and pretty, but I know that in this context I am labeled as someone tending or guarding a gate, if not the very keys to the entire dominion of human knowledge. But in thinking about it, particularly with respect to Wikipedia, it ain’t all bad to be a gatekeeper. It all depends on what you’re guarding and tending.

As I have said repeatedly, with respect to information, let a thousand flowers bloom. When I worked in public libraries, I willingly provided patrons with books touting the magic of garlic, vinegar, and honey (the books always came back fragrant and sticky), or with copies of the Protocols of Zion, or with books by Dr. Laura or Michael Moore, and often both to the same reader. As Ranganathan said, “Every book its reader, every reader his book.”

Now I direct a library without books or walls. Our users rely on us to broker information on their behalf. It’s not that they are stupid or lazy; just the opposite. They are often very intelligent, very busy people who would rather not sift through millions of websites or do the background work we do in evaluating websites. They like the idea that they know we have vetted the websites for their use. They also like to know that there is a better-than-average chance that when they recommend a website to someone, the site will still be high-quality the next time the person views it.

Librarians are very open to all kinds of information, but when librarians recommend books, databases, websites, or other resources to patrons who are looking for specific information, we look for information we can trust. Because of this, our gardens need tending (gatekeeping, if you will). Librarians go through book collections routinely to get rid of books on, for example, East Germany, and at the website I manage, we ruthlessly purge one website for every three we add. I consider it the highest praise when a user complains about a site to say “it’s not up to our usual standards.” That means not only do we internally think we have standards, but our users do too.

However, when gatekeeper is used as an epithet, as in “you anti-Wikipedian gatekeeper, you,” it doesn’t mean someone who is tending, but someone who actively prevents people from accessing information. So I’m prepared for that label when as I have done in the past I bring up my concerns about about Wikipedia.

I won’t bring up old points; you can find them on my blog. Instead I’ll bring up one small diagnostic hint and then talk about several other issues as well as a larger one, the so-called neutral point of view.

Taglines are important for websites. At the website I manage, we have evolved from “By Librarians, For Everyone” (o.k., but the question becomes “what?”), “Information You Can Trust” (better, but vague), to the forthcoming “Websites You Can Trust” (hits the nail on the head, though as soon as the Internet provides a new protocol, we’re back to the drawing board). Our tagline tells you what we deliver: not the most websites, not the biggest site, but surely the most carefully vetted general-use portal in active use today.

Wikipedia has a tagline on its main page: “the free-content encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” That’s an intriguing revelation. What are the selling points of Wikipedia? It’s free (free is good, whether you mean no-cost or freely-accessible). That’s an idea librarians can connect with; in this country alone we’ve spent over a century connecting people with ideas.

However, the rest of the tagline demonstrates a problem with Wikipedia. Marketing this tool as a resource “anyone can edit” is a pitch oriented at its creators and maintainers, not the broader world of users. It’s the opposite of Ranganathan’s First Law, “books are for use.” Ranganathan wasn’t writing in the abstract; he was referring to a tendency in some people to fetishize the information source itself and lose sight that ultimately, information does not exist to please and amuse its creators or curators; as a common good, information can only be assessed in context of the needs of its users.

Among the librarians of Ranganathan’s day, the fetishizing manifested itself in closed stacks that only librarians could browse, locked shelves, or collections skewed toward the interests of librarians. (One library early in my career had twelve reference books about cats and none about dogs. I bring this up because I know it is anomalous.) Among newfangled Wikipedians, the fetishizing manifests itself in an unwillingness to step back and ask, “Now that we have invented Wikipedia, how do we make it an information source people can trust?” That’s too bad, because Wikipedia is far too young to have hardened arteries.

What I often hear when I raise the issue of data quality is that “the user must do more work.” What this means is that it’s up to the user to judge the value of the information. It always startles me, because my professional ethos teaches me that my goal is to make it easier to use information. That’s Ranganathan’s Fourth Law: “Save the time of the reader.” A librarian would never claim that anyone should do more work or that it is a good thing to request them to assume this burden. Should a single parent with two jobs do more work? How about a child still developing critical skills? How about a busy librarian? How about someone who needs information in a flash? Must we wet the reeds of the musician, or can it be a good thing that some play and some listen?

Then there is the question of Wikipedia’s quality. I remember about ten years ago I had a strange physical symptom and (so help me, it is who I am) I went on the Web. After sifting through the usual blather, I reached a website by a professional medical association that said in essence “if you have these symptoms, get off the computer immediately and go to the hospital.” I did, and I was hospitalized overnight. It all turned out all right, and I had a clean bill of health, but based on my symptoms and my family history, it was a good call by everyone involved.

I think about that incident when I look at Wikipedia. Call me a gatekeeper, but I can’t recommend Wikipedia to users. How do I say you can trust an information resource whose riding claim is that anyone can edit it? How do we judge a Wikipedia entry edited by “Angus” and WoohooKitty?” Why does it make me an authoritarian evil-doer to say that brokered, vetted information reviewed and tended by information specialists is in many cases a better product than that which is not? Let’s face it: what makes Wikipedia fast and fun undermines its data quality.

Then there is the question of scope and balance. I can find John McPhee, but only a brief reference to Gretel Ehrlich in a citation mentioning this famous essayist as a “neo-Luddite.” A quick browse of the Web at large is enough to make me skeptical of that assessment. A quick search in the Gale Literature Resource Center, available through my university account, yielded four thorough discussions of Ehrlich. I haven’t even touched the massive article databases I could reach through my public library or university card access.

Even if a fully fledged article about Gretel Ehrlich appeared immediately, as often happens when specific omissions are pointed out, this still stands as a oft-repeated observation about Wikipedia. It’s fun, it’s interesting, but like nearly all single works, it reflects the interests of the people creating it. That’s not an indictment. That can be said of any intellectual endeavor. But it does underscore that even if it had an intentional collection policy, Wikipedia would always have some bias. Every single work does.

This leads into my contention, in the radio interview, that Wikipedia is really a throw-back. That’s partly because of the world-view of a website oriented around its creators and not its users, which stands in opposition to Ranganathan’s First Law, which is “Books are for use.” But I also say that because of Wikipedia’s other major flaw, which is the mythical “Neutral Point Of View.”

Every time I discuss NPOV I am “corrected” by a “Wikipedian,” which in some ways proves my central point about this concept. I continue to stand my ground: the opposite of Brittanica is not Wikipedia. The opposite of Brittanica is as many high-quality points of view as possible.

(N.b. Re “Wikipedian” as an appelation: it’s also telling when information specialists identify themselves by their formats, akin to Andrew Abbott’s famous observation that the railroads saw themselves in the train business, not the transportation business. In my profession, most specialists describe themselves by who they serve; you never meet a children’s-book librarian, only children’s librarians.)

There is nothing neutral about a monolithic point of view, no matter how fair-n-balanced it tries to be. No one single page holds the truth. You know that if you’re female, or gay, or a person of color, or disabled. You remember how the monolithic truths of the past held you down. You remember when women couldn’t get credit cards without their husbands’ signatures or when the almost-universal “NPOV” about interracial marriage was that it was wrong.

History teaches us that the only truly neutral point of view is the point of view that is not clobbered into place by the loudest, most persistent voices, the hegemonic, patriarchal model of days of yore. The only truly neutral point of view is a prism, not a diorama. That’s just one reason why librarians fume over students who “take their assignments from the encyclopedia.” It’s also the reason that there are many, many libraries with millions of books and only one or two encyclopedias. Librarians understand the hopelessness of an encyclopedia as an organizing principle for information. Quick if hardly neutral “facts” about a well-known person, place, or thing? Yes. The sine qua non of information? It has never been so.

During the radio interview, Lydia and I were asked if we didn’t sometimes miss the long, prosey encyclopedia essays that were magnificent pieces of literature unto themselves. Well, first, we can still find these essays, if we need to, since encyclopedias are still in widespread use–though primarily online, not in print, where they are updated daily and not yearly. (In fact, throughout the United States, many people have access to more encyclopedias, databases, and other quality resources than they realize, because in thousands of communities librarians license these tools on their behalf but do a bad job marketing their availability. Think if the efforts going into Wikipedia were redirected into user education and promoting existing high-quality information sources!)

Second, the interviewer inadvertently pointed up the limitations of any encyclopedia, whether vetted by subject experts such as Brittanica or “edited by anyone” such as Wikipedia. Yes, those essays are beautiful. But they are just that: essays, presenting the author’s world-view, not a final Truth. I use these essays carefully, starting from the bottom (where the citations are) to see where the author comes from. I’m cull a few facts from the grand statement and then start digging through article databases and the Web to build a more complex picture of the subject (albeit one colored by my own world-view).

Librarianship is really a subversive profession. One reason many of us became librarians was in rebellion with the one-truth model choked down our throats in public schools. Society says education will happen at this and that point in your life, doled out in didactic spoonfuls; libraries say learning can be lifelong and at your pace. Society says to use these textbooks and those measurements; librarianship says there are no textbooks and measurements, only the information you want and need. Society says education is to be endured through endless hours in dolorous classrooms; librarianship says reading is a joy. Do it in the library, in your home, on a streetcar, on a blanket at the beach. Read novels and histories and joke books and newspapers and People and American Scholar. Read blogs all day. Write blogs all day. Read the last page of every John Cheever story. Play podcasts backwards. Read two books a day or one a year. Go for it! Information is not a nasty-tasting medicine but a lily of the field. Ehrlich made reference to her nascent ideas as “crystals in the air, beginning to congeal.” The world is filled with such crystals. Ranganathan saw them, too: his fifth and last law was that the library “is a living organism.”

Because I am a librarian, a proud and persistent peddler of the wide world of information, I’m not “against” Wikipedia, but I do stand in subversive opposition to some of its claims and goals. I know I will be corrected, told I am wrong, wrong, wrong, painted as a Luddite and, of course, a gatekeeper. I wear that last label proudly, a golden G on my forehead. The gardens we tend, all of us–librarians, Wikipedians, writers, journalists, bloggers, artists–are worth keeping well.

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