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Something Wiki This Way Comes

Such a kerfuffle in the blognation about Wikis, following an article in a Syracuse newspaper in which readers were warned from Wikis much as I was warned about marijuana in high school (in other words, the article did more for stirring curiosity and interest in wikis than it did for warning anyone away).

Full disclosure: I am the director of a digital library that is the anti-wiki. We put our labor into “information you can trust,” and we’re doing that to save librarians time, to give lifelong learners a reliable tool, and in general because sifting is natural librarian behavior. Would you really want a librarian to hand you ten resources with the comment that “some of this is crap, but you figure it out?”

I don’t have an issue with wikis, but if I’m going to do the legwork to check the authority of a resource, then I’ll use an authoritative resource in the first place. That’s Ranganathan’s Fourth Law: save the time of the reader (who by proxy we represent). All information is questionable. That’s what real librarians believe. And some information is better-packaged and more authoritative than others.

I see wikis are useful in the other direction. Wikis are good tools for checking up on the “authoritative” sites, to find out the rest of the story, the other perspective, the slant you don’t get from oh-fish-ul resources. But I wouldn’t assume that the wiki is correct; I would assume the wiki is opening the door to further queries.

Finally, the TANSTAAFL principle applies. Wikis are endearing reminders of the early days of the Internet. Information Wants to the Free! Let’s Give Back to the ‘Net! And yes, many of us do want to Give Back to the ‘Net. And we’ll get around to it just as soon as we’re done with our day jobs, our paid writing gigs, our blogs, and our late-summer garden weeding projects. I do believe information is more of a conversation than it was in the past, and that librarians who fail to understand that are not coming along. (Wait until we implement user ratings in MPOW.) But a Wiki isn’t useful for its answers, but rather for the questions it can stimulate.

As Gillmor says in “We the Media,” we need more authoritative tools. I don’t know that we need more questionably authoritative tools. But I’d check a wiki the way I’d eat an olive at a cocktail party–why not, as long as I’m going to get a full meal later (said the cook).

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