Wikipedia, LibriVox & a Librarian

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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 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.

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:

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

a friendly paypal for podcasts

Why do so many of my posts start with: Mike from ISF was talking about … anyway:

Mike from ISF was talking about micropayments, so I throw out this thought to the wind: PayPal’s sort of annoying and I don’t really trust them. I don’t know why. I just don’t. But having some form of super-easy, co-op micropayment scheme, geared to the diy net crowd, could be a really neat thing for podcasters and vidcasters, and musicians too. OK and bloggers.

Here’s how it would work:
-any website (podcast, blog, vidcast, music band) is allowed to join the micro-coop, which creates a free “account” and gives them a button for their site that says: “micro-pay-me!” or something.
-surfers can get a free account with micro-coop …
-it’s a pre-paid thing, or it could be linked to credit card like paypal, maybe
-so I put in say, $20 – which I can disperse as I wish to any member of the coop
-as I wander around the net, I listen to podcasts and watch vids, and say, wow I’d like to support podcastbob!
-I click on the “micro-pay-me” button on podcastbob’s site, and an easy dialog comes up
-I log in
-the system says: how much do you want to pay podcastbob?
-I put $0.02 or $0.25 or $5 or $100 or whatever I feel like paying
-the amount is transferred from my account to podcastbob
-podcastbob gets a monthly statement, which can be transferred to a bank account if/when he wishes – or transfered to his own micro-coop (paying) account.
-some percentage is taken from the transaction, to pay for server space & management etc.
-micro-coop could be a non-profit coop, (or a for-profit company?) – but not like paypal.

Now why not paypal? Because no one likes it, and no one is inspired to use it. microcoop would be nicely-designed, easy to use, and really be targeted to this do it yourself internet media market, unlike the flashy e-commerce crap you usually see.

Anyone interested in hleping me build microcoop? I seem to be overflowing with ideas these days, unfortunately I have not the skills nor the time to implement them all.

Free Mountain – on Reading Montreal

I was asked to write an article in Reading Montreal. Go check out the site. But here’s the text, and a photo (by Nika Vee):

In the mid 1840s, Sir James Alexander proposed that Mount Royal should be turned into a park, and twenty-five years later, 1869, the City of Montreal amended its charter to approve a $350,000 loan to purchase the land. At the time Montreal, population 112,000, was confined to ten city blocks by the river, and many city councilors argued that the Park was too far from the border of the city to be useful. But Mayor Aldis Bernard pushed for the project (as well as Ile St-Helene, and Parc Lafontaine), and the land was purchased, with a final bill of $1 million, an extraordinarily hefty sum for the time. The park wasn’t inaugurated until 1876, by which time the city had expanded significantly. A few decades later, the park was surrounded by houses and development: if the city had waited, the land would have been too expensive to buy. If Montreal had waited, Mount Royal would be a condo development, and not a park.

mount royal - by nika veeYet the value of the Park, however you want to define the word value, is incalculable. The value to ordinary citizens, the values of properties near the park, the value to the city as a tourist draw, as a hallmark of world-class status. If you could quantify the economic returns from the park, I’m certain you would find it had paid for itself many times over. And if you just measured its value as benefit to the people of the city, that million bucks would be a trivial steal.

We are currently at a turning point in the history of human knowledge, and clear battle lines have been drawn. On one side (let’s call it EVIL) you have those who think information should be controlled and parceled out based on various criteria: money, for instance, and the ability to pass entrance exams at certain universities. On the other side (we’ll call this side GOOD), you have the people who think information should be available to anyone who wants it: the wikipedians, the audiobook makers (disclosure: I am one) and their text-based ancestors, the creative commoners, and the free software crusaders who did much of the philosophical and legal thinking behind this exploding movement of internet do-gooders.

Web2.0 is one of those marketing-phrases that doesn’t mean all that much, and annoys those who have been citizens of the net – not just consumers, but creators – for years. But fundamental things have changed: everything got easy, everything got free, bandwidth all of a sudden got cheap, and kind folks made hosting space available for those who wanted to give their content away. All of a sudden we have blogs, and wikis, podcasts, vidcasts, and scanned books. We have universities committing to put everything online; we have scientists dedicated to explaining complicated issues properly, in public; we have communities writing text-books; academic journals opening themselves up to the world. Among thousands if not millions of other wonderful projects.

What had been the internet mall (or you could call it Web1.0) was opened up to the people, and they said: we want a vibrant city (Web2.0). And this isn’t just about the internet, it’s about all the sources of information you might imagine. It’s about Universal Access to All Human Knowledge. We’re just starting to see what this new city might look like, but certainly it will be a vibrant place, because, so far anyway, it’s got a big park in the middle of it. And the value that creates – economic or otherwise – will be, like Mount Royal, incalculable.

Yet there are forces pushing in the other direction. Forces who wish to influence our governments away from letting the internet be a park, and a market, and a sidewalk, and a home, and everything else a vibrant city is. There are forces who want to keep it as a mall.

London and Paris, Rome, Hong Kong, Sydney Australia, New York, and certainly Montreal, offer a mix of commerce, food, art, parks, public space, business, transport, relaxation, all in one place. The components of one add to the others, and make an integrated whole. Each of those cities have their own particularities (the pubs and pin-stripes of London, the Bistros and buildings of Paris, the cafes and churches of Rome, the butchers and chaos of Hong Kong, the taxis and galleries of New York, the terasses and staircases of Montreal). But all these cities give the sense that life is happpening, before your eyes, that you are in the midst of a place alive. Either by design or history, life is encouraged to happen in public.

In his book, The City After the Automobile, Moishe Safdie writes at length about Le Corbusier and other architects of the 20th century city, who laid the foundations for our lifeless, particularly North American cities, designed for cars, not people; arranged around unusable and unused public space, parking lots, highways, and commerce; the desire to close the formerly public within private walls; and the separation of the different bits of life into their component parts. That is, confine big commerce within malls (with no natural light to distort things!), with few controllable entrances, and no life to speak of outside; keep the schools over there and the churches over here, the business parks isolated, and the housing developments somewhere else altogether. And certainly no small shops anywhere near where people live.

In other words, among other things, the design of these cities took all the component bits of life, separated them, removed the “need” for public space, and sterilized everything, killed everything. The result everyone knows: cities no one likes, but which provide relatively large yards.

Public Space, and Public Domain improves life for everyone — even the rich who can afford to finance their own, sterile versions of life as they wish it. This is why vibrant immigrant neighbourhoods (such as Montreal’s Mile End) attract artists and students, and subsequently the rich. People like to live in places where life is happening. And life happens where there is public space for all the elements of life to intersect. New York’s East Village, for instance, is an astounding place (increasingly less-so, it’s being mallified slowly), and nothing is more wonderful than the those spaces squeezed between two tenement buildings that have been transformed into tiny community gardens, some of which have become the home to chickens! In downtown Manhattan.

The planners of Montreal were smart enough to buy Mount Royal when they still could. It was a fantastic amount of money at the time, yet Montreal is unimaginable without Mount Royal – just as New York is unimaginable without Central Park. These public spaces are the foundations on which the wealth of these cities is built. Today, we all need to be vigilant with our politicians, our governments, and with ourselves, to make sure we keep the internet a vibrant city, and not let it become a strip mall. Again.