FW: Wikipedia, Wikipedia presentation TIES

From an email exchange with Nathan Rinne on his article/presentation: Wikipedia: the educator’s friend(!) (document, document (copy 2) presentation)


Thanks so much for sharing this with me.

A few comments and thoughts. One thing that might interest you is a very good presentation through Fora.tv at: http://fora.tv/2008/05/15/Jonathan_Zittrain_The_Future_of_the_Internet#chapter_01. Toward the end of his talk, he has some interesting comments about Wikipedia and The Star Wars Kid (who I did not know about at all). I think it’s around Chapter 13 and watch on from there, but the entire talk is very good.

But for my own thoughts on this, I am also involved in our Information Literacy program (where I teach the library sections). Information literacy has grown far beyond the old “bibliographic instruction” and now is arguably the underlying purpose of creating an education person. See for example, Middle States’ “Developing Research & Communication Skills: Guidelines for Information Literacy in the Curriculum” (2003) at http://www.msche.org/publications/Developing-Skills080111151714.pdf

Everything in Information Literacy is premised on the concept of “authority.” The information literate person can do several things (extracted just the parts dealing with what I will call “intellectual authority”):

  • can distinguish among the various types of resources (e.g., scholarly work, informed opinions of practitioners, and trade literature);
  • Is familiar with major reference collections in his or her discipline and selects from among them appropriately;
  • Knows how to evaluate information sources;
  • Understands what plagiarism is and some of the complexities of copyright law, the ethical use of information, intellectual property, etc.;
  • Uses high-quality content;
  • Has learned how to cite material appropriately and develop a bibliography;

So we teach them to ask: who is the author? Has the resource been peer-reviewed? etc. etc. etc. And I understand these concerns since there is a lot of superstitious blather on the web.

But if you look at it in another way, there has always been a lot of superstitious blather around. I don’t think it’s any worse now than ever before, it’s just that the superstitious blather is easier to get. Before the web, we did not have such emphasis on “authority” in the books and journals on our library shelves, and there is no real reason to think that what people read from the shelves of a library is any better than something on the web today. Format has nothing to do with correctness of information. I wrote about this in one section of my online information literacy workshop, “What is a Library?” at http://aurlibrary.wetpaint.com/page/What+is+a+Library%3F

Librarians never collected for “truth” and “correctness” but because “this is the information my users need, whether or not I, or others, think it is absolute trash.” Look at the fights over The Joy of Sex and Huckleberry Finn and all of those other books. We do this based on freedom of thought. Still, people took comfort in the supposed objectivity that “this fact was taken from a book that you too can see on the shelves of the library.” It didn’t matter much if the book was 30 years old written during the McCarthy days. We never instructed people to check up on the authors or publishing houses to determine their “credibility” and we would have known that nobody would have done that anyway since we knew that doing research takes a lot of time and nobody would ever have done all that additional work. Nevertheless, the fact that “this information” came from a book on the shelves of the library meant that it should be regarded in a special way.

In class, professors would smile conspiratorially sometimes and mention that if you want to be really avant-garde, you might want to read certain specific works. But even those were selected and “approved” too, in their own way. The materials that were not in libraries might as well not have existed at all. And some of them were, of course, very interesting and far more thought-provoking than many of the dry, dusty old tomes in the library.

But with the web, all of these “controls” are off, and a lot of the vested interests don’t like it one bit so they try to regain control. At first, the academics responded (as I did myself) by proclaiming that Wikipedia, and in fact, 99.99% of everything on the web is a big pile of doo-doo; so you shouldn’t use it and use instead these other works that have been “approved” by the “experts.” Of course, the experts means us. Then somebody went out and demonstrated that while Wikipedia and a lot of the stuff on the web wasn’t perfect, it was as good or actually *better* than the stuff on the shelves!

So, this was a genuine threat to the powers-that-be, and their response was very clever indeed: to co-opt Wikipedia to use *only* cited, verifiable information. And that meant that the basis of everything lay in the traditional tools the academics control. And that meant that the basis of everything lay within the traditional tools under complete control of the academics, and that an outsider could almost never break into.

I don’t know how long this situation will last. If the “Information Triumverate” you mentioned is correct, and I believe that it may be:

  • The medium of the internet (which stores and supplies information)…
  • The search engine of Google (which dominates the navigation of the internet)…
  • And the information source of Wikipedia (which dominates the results served up by Google)

we can get a sense of the potential power of Wikipedia, and by extension since it is based on traditional cited sources, the power of the traditional tools of information, controlled by the traditional experts.

The entire situation reminds me of the beginning of printing, with its initial joy as the populace could suddenly read so many things, and the associated promise that the Church could finally get control of all of those manuscript variants lying all over the place that fostered “misunderstandings” among the religious communities; then the shock as things were printed that the people wanted to read instead of what the officials thought they should be reading, “misunderstandings” multiplied, with the Church actually losing control of what was printed, heresies duplicated effortlessly and endlessly; then their shock turning to anger and hatred when the Church initiated the Counter-Reformation and the Index of Forbidden Books, burnings at the stake for things that had been tolerated earlier. Finally, exhaustion takes hold and the Church finally decides to capitulate (not until 1966!) when the Index was discontinued.

I wish that the emphasis in school and on the web would *not* be on citing someone in authority. The reality of peer-review is really eye-opening and often a joke. Many peer-reviewers become closet fascists, others take no concern whatsoever. We have all heard of the problems with the experts, from government, academia, business and elsewhere, who are no different from us and make mistakes (or worse) in their research.

The emphasis in all of this should be on questioning by using and always developing the power of reason in each individual, and using the powers of the web for a genuine *post* peer review process, so that somebody can understand clearly that the book about communism published by Yale University Press during the McCarthy era is both out of date and necessarily biased. They might even find a reference to something more useful. The earlier book may be useful for many things, but is most probably not the best source for a discussion about communism.

So, to come full circle, this is my entire problem with information literacy and how Wikipedia sort of encapsulates it all: it is based on accepted “authority” instead of on reason. In the place of a Church-sponsored Index of Forbidden Books, Wikipedia is using an Index of Approved Books. The final result seems to be precisely the same.

Perhaps I’m being unfair in my criticisms of these things, but the criticisms must be made first before they can be accepted or rejected, and any adjustments made.

Anyway, thanks for a *very interesting* article that has made me think.



You said:

“We never collected for “truth” and “correctness” but because “this is the information my users need, whether I, or others, think it is trash or not.””

At the same time, there has always been a bit of a “culture war” about this, no? It seems to me, from my reading of the history of libraries in America (Clifford Nelson, I think?) that public libraries at least, have often compromised, giving persons a mix of what librarians and elites might think they need, and what “the people” themselves thought they needed and wanted (given they would make such distinctions)…

As Francis Miska put it:

Original focus of the library movement:

“to deliver the best books by the best authors to a public, who by reading them would become mentally cultivated.”
Not giving books to people because they “can do something with it” (practical use), but because of “what a book would do to them.”

(Francis Miska, “The Genius of Cataloging”, audio program)

“So, this was a genuine threat to the powers-that-be, and their response was very clever indeed: to co-opt Wikipedia to use *only* cited, verifiable information. And that meant that the basis of everything lay in the traditional tools the academics control.”

Jim, do you have a source (reliable! 🙂 ) where I could read more about this? I thought that “verifiability” was one of the original pillars of Wikipedia, and that Sanger had introduced it…

“I wish that the emphasis in school and on the web would *not* be on citing someone in authority. (I actually know lots of these people now, and realize that many do not have the brains that God gave a goose)”… Wikipedia sort of encapsulates it all: it is based on accepted “authority” instead of on reason.

I agree (so long as the definition of reason is sufficiently broad: i.e. not necessarily saying a priori that miracles are impossible, that reason is synonymous with science [focus on evidence] but not philosophy [focus on coherence], that scientific naturalism should not only be used as a method in the hard sciences [where it has produced quite useful results], but should act as a “univeral acid” [Dennet], etc) Of course, trusting in, relying on, and citing authorities is also part and parcel of life – one that is intractable, in fact… and reason in its truest form should acknowledge even this!


Hi Nathan,

A few points. The one of Fran Miksa (my former cataloging professor), is correct as far as it goes. That sort of “civic improvement” attitude changed with the inclusion of librarian ethics, with the growth of ALA. : http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/oif/statementspols/codeofethics/codeethics.cfm, particularly:

  • We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.
  • We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.
  • We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.
  • We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.

So, if somebody is intent on going to hell, I cannot stop him or her, whether I think they are geniuses or fools. If they come to me for bibliographic advice however, that’s another thing. But, being responsible for the library’s budget, I can’t get only what I want to get; I can’t get only what I think my patrons *should* get to “improve” them, I need to concentrate on what fulfills their information needs. That’s not the same thing.

It’s important to note that this is not the same as the traditional focus of academia, based on “academic freedom,” which is more concerned with a professor’s (or university’s) requirement to teach what he or she considers to be correct instead of the librarian’s ethic of being unbiased.

You ask about the history of “verifiability” in Wikipedia, and I can’t find anything per se, but I am not saying that there is any kind of “conspiracy” here. There is no need for one. It’s a natural outgrowth of the power structures of our society, just as it was during the origins of printing. If the Church hadn’t reacted in the way they did, it would have been strange, because no entity with power will just lay it down without a struggle.

It’s the same today, with the public questioning academic integrity(!!!), of plagiarism, the general usefulness of the academy, questioning tenure, and now with the economic crisis, there’s more and more outcries from people who say they have been rooked by universities: those who have spent tens of thousands for a B.A. in art or English and can only get jobs selling underwear or flipping burgers.

Again, I think we are entering some heady times. Lots of these problems we are discussing have been coming to a head for decades, e.g. the underlying problems besetting the publishing industry have been going on for a long, long time; the problem of universities taking fabulous amounts of money “preparing” people with skills that are not useful once they are out of school, for jobs that don’t exist. This is similar to the corruption in the Church: it did not happen overnight but developed over centuries. The printing revolution merely intensified the argument and brought it into such focus that it couldn’t be ignored anymore. I think the greater ease of communication among all different strata of society is having a tremendous impact and we are only seeing the beginning of it. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it should prove to be “interesting.”


Thanks again for the interaction. I understand how you are saying attitudes changed a bit, but of course some attitudes have changed more than others and many might like to think that their attitude changed, while in reality, they just are not so conscious that they still mother people with their choices of books and with thier ideas about what is and isn’t appropriate… (we all do).

Of course, I think the code is admirable, just talking about how it is complicated, and can actually make us think we are being more objective about things when in reality, we are just hiding from our many unconscious assumptions and presuppostions…

That said, of course we all should meet the needs (and wants) of our users, otherwise we will find ourselves not very appreciated… : )