Wikipedia, LibriVox & a Librarian

by admin

Repost from librivox.org:

Below is a paraphrased sample of an email we occasionally get from librarians and teachers, as well as my response to the email. I have paraphrased the email.

***

To LibriVox,

LibriVox is a great web site. I hope to help my students to use the audiobooks. However I am concerened by the link to Wikipedia you have on your site. We teach our students that Wikipedia is not the best source of information, since anyone can edit it, and we suggest they critically evaluate the site (just as we suggest they evaluate any web site). Wikipedia markets itself as an encyclopedia and many people think it is “tried and true” as a source of information. This is especially a problem in yourger people who have not developed the skills to properly evaluate. I suggest that you should consider taking the link to wikipedia off of your. There are many other sites on the internet maintained by credible sources that could be included instead. Thank you.

XYZ,
Librarian
XYZ Secondary School

Date: Wed, 18 Jan 2006 14:47:46 -0500 (EST)
From: librivox Subject: Re: Wikipedia link

Hello XYZ,

Thanks for the note, and your feedback much is appreciated. I hope you enjoy the LibriVox audiobooks, and perhaps your school would like to do a recording project for librivox?

re: Wikipedia, I am about to launch into a (long) defence of wikipedia, so be warned! No offense meant. But I would be very happy if you take the time to read my thoughts on wikipedia itself, and its relationship to LibriVox. I would be curious, if you have the time, to hear your response to mine. Again, please don’t be offended, but I am passionate about this issue.

BEGIN DEFENSE OF WIKIPEDIA
I must say that I could not disagree more with your evaluation of wikipedia, and I think you are making a grave error in warning your students away from this wonderful educational resource. Here are some reasons why:

-the wikipedia does not claim to be “tried and true,” in fact just the opposite: it recognizes that it will have errors, and asks that users edit them, whenever they see them. So it is certainly not tried and true, and this is a very important thing to learn about *any* single source of information – especially on the internet. *Nothing* is tried and true, and wikipedia encourages users (student or otherwise) to be careful and critical about the information they find there. It is recognized as an excellent first source, that should be checked. Perhaps that would be a good thing to teach your students: use wikipedia first, check elsewhere, and then make corrections if there are any mistakes in wikipedia!

-the wikipedia is very often the best first source for any topic on the internet. For instance, I wrote much of this article:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feathered_dinosaur

I challenge you to find another source of information on the internet that has as much detailed accurate information on the topic as this article. And I double-tripple challenge you to find another FREE source. It is not my experience that, “There are many other sites on the internet maintained by credible sources that could be included instead.” Which ones? Are they free? If you can find me another resource that has the breadth of detailed information that wikipedia has, for free, I would be very excited indeed! And I wrote large chunks of the article above for precisely this reason: I could not find a single source on the internet that had all the information. It seemed to me that since I had hunted down and found the information from various sources, and since I had used wikipedia previously, that I should give back. It was easy. I just wrote what I had learned, and presto! Now there’s a nice accurate article about feathered dinosaurs, that anyone can read for free, where before there was none. (I note there’s a repeated section in there, which I should edit, unless someone beats me to it).

Note also that lack of of information in a single place is a particular problem for the topics of Authors and Literature, our bread and butter at LibriVox. It is just not true (in my experience) that there is another single source of information on the internet about Authors and Literature with as much accurate information (can you show me one that is free?). And I offer another challenge: can you find a single error in ANY literature articles on wikipedia? If you can I will send you a DVD with all LibriVox books for free … and then I will go correct the error! But I bet you will not find an error.

-wikiepdia also encourages your students to share their knowledge in an open way, to participate in bringing more knowledge to the world. The principle of wikipedia is much like a library, where the idea is that everyone should have access to books. Wikipedians believe that everyone should have free access to knowledge, and they participate in bringing knowledge to the world every time they make an edit, or add a new page. So as a librarian, some of the questions you should ask yourself (among others), are: do you think that knowledge should be free or owned? Should people be encouraged to share knowledge? If you think it should be free, what is the best way to help knowledge be free? What do you think are the effects of discouraging your students from using a source of information, created by volunteers all over the world, who share their time and expertise with the lofty aim of providing a free encyclopedia to the world? If I were one of your students, I would think you were telling me: volunteering to share my knowledge is bad; promoting free access to knowledge is bad; and that I should not contribute to increasing knowledge in the world.

-sometimes articles in wikipedia have incorrect or misleading information – sometimes even hurtful information. This cannot be denied, nor is it denied by anyone. But the amazing thing is how quickly most errors are caught, and edited. The average time between, for instance, “vandalization” (making nonsense, or derogatory edits) and restoration to accuracy is in the SECONDS. Some errors stay longer-usually because no one is reading them. But there is an army of volunteers who care passionately about the objectives of wikipedia — free information for all — and they are incredibly vigilant. Still, they don’t catch everything. But neither does the New York Times.

-errors: Britannica v Wikipedia: although this is, to me, beside the point, an analysis done by Nature magazine found that on scientific topics, Wikipedia has slightly more errors than Britannica, but not significantly more. This despite the wikipedia articles being on average TWICE as long as their Britannica counterparts.

Finally, to wikipedia and LibriVox: wikipedia was one of the prime inspirations for LibriVox. The idea that a group of volunteers could take on a project so useful, so wonderful, so ambitious, and so good for the world – and do it so successfully made me think: maybe people could do the same with audiobooks? Like wikipedia’s editing policy, we accept anyone as a reader, and we make no judgments about the quality of their recordings. And like wikipedia, we say to our listeners: if you do not like how a recording is done, please, make another one, and we will be happy to include it in our catalog.

Finally, and, again, just a silly aside: every time we complete a LibriVox book, we go to wikipedia to add a link to our recording, so that people will know that not only can they go to their library, take out the book for free, but they can also listen for free with LibriVox recordings. We get many hits a day from people who have come from wikipedia. Do you think Britannica, or any other resource would let us link so easily? I bet not.

I hope you did not fall asleep reading that long-winded essay, but I was saddened to get such an email from a Librarian. I have always thought of librarians as defenders of everyone’s right to free information … which is exactly what wikipedia is trying, with all its flaws, to deliver.

In short, we won’t be taking down those link to wikipedia!

Best regards,

Hugh McGuire, Founder
http://LibriVox.org