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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Wikipedia Interest

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, October 2, 2005

I recently wrote about Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia available on the Internet.The subject has interested many people; so let me share more information about this resource.

Wikipedia is a Web-based, free-content encyclopedia written collaborately by volunteers and operated by the non-profit Wikipedia Foundation in St. Petersburg, Florida. Development of information systems around the world first yielded the ability to "download" information from a computer system located someplace in the world.

Today, the information is traveling both directions.  "Uploading" of information to computer systems is now almost as common, as the Internet is allowing free and open sharing of information worldwide. This was actually the purpose of the roots of the Internet in 1969, when a Defense Department computer was established to foster the sharing of research data among projects.

Wikipedia was launched on January 15, 2001 as an English-language edition of Nupedia.The name was derived from the Hawaiian work "wiki" which means "quick." That source allowed people to upload information, which would be reviewed by editors before being added to the online encyclopedia.  Nupedia's servers were turned off in 2003 as Wikipedia survived. The founder of Wikipedia is Jimmy Wales, who describes the source as "an effort to create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language." There are 110 language editions represented, with the English version having 733,798 articles, as of this month.

The policy of Wikipedia is that the articles represent a "neutral point of view" under which literature is summarized without an attempt to determine an objective truth. That is a lofty goal, likely unattainable.  Wikipedia has been criticized for a lack of accountability and authority when compared to traditional encyclopedias.

Wikipedia's articles are licensed under the GNU Free Document License.  That permits the redistribution of content provided by authors.   In reality, there are 13,000 users who do consistent editing, a lot of people who use the resource. Any visitor may edit an article, with the belief that collaboration among users will improve the articles over time.

To test this premise, I searched for information about our local area.  Articles about most area communities contain the basic U.S. Census data, which must have been uploaded in mass for all American geographic areas. Jefferson County information was the same, with a boilerplate text about counties in Ohio and what they do. The Dean Martin article described Steubenville as being on the "Ohio-Pennsylvania" border, showing a geographic error. The problem with Wikipedia was clearly showing with one county community whose Census information had been enhanced with a poorly written history, and the comment that "the town today is quite poor." It went on the list "local sights" as various bars and the police station.

One source commented "no librarian would recommend using Wikipedia as a source of information." I would use Wikipedia to located specific information that couldn't be found in other sources, as its content wouldn't have led to its publication; but otherwise, no I wouldn't use it for general information. What scares me is that Wikipedia is currently one of the most popular reference sites on the Internet.  Even more concerning is that Wikipedia is the most common source for the news media. They often quote Wikipedia due to its GNU copyright license, and cite information without checking sources, which usually cannot be done with Wikipedia.

Think about the demise of Nupedia in 2003, it ended when they "turned off the servers."  There is no paper volume to place on a remote library shelf to be checked in the future, it is dead and gone forever.