Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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The Dangers of Wikipedia

When I was in high school we weren’t allowed to use the library without a special pass. No amount of begging could get you in without that signed slip of paper. I once walked in during lunch and begged them to allow me to sit there and read a book. My request fell upon deaf ears and I was turned away at the door. High school librarians are a species unlike any other. That library was the most behind-the-times place on earth. The only thing older than the librarians were the books. Then there were the computers. Two of them were online and those students interested in using them were watched under the hawk-like scrutiny of a librarian with an uncanny resemblance to Yoda. It’s good to see that things haven’t changed.

In an article from Wednesday’s Syracuse Post-Standard, Al Fasoldt, the author of a past article suggesting people use Wikipedia printed the words of warning he had received from a librarian who had read the article:

“As a high school librarian, part of my job is to help my students develop critical thinking skills,” Stagnitta wrote. “One of these skills is to evaluate the authority of any information source. The Wikipedia is not an authoritative source. It even states this in their disclaimer on their Web site.”

Wikipedia, she explains, takes the idea of open source one step too far for most of us.

“Anyone can change the content of an article in the Wikipedia, and there is no editorial review of the content. I use this Web site as a learning experience for my students. Many of them have used it in the past for research and were very surprised when we investigated the authority of the site.”

What makes an authoritative source? What is she protecting her students from? While I agree that students need to understand that they shouldn’t trust everything they read, writing off Wikipedia is not the right approach. From my own experience, the information on Wikipedia tends to be better than the information found in many encyclopedias. While I’m not overly surprised that a librarian would be threatened by a site like Wikipedia, it bothers me nonetheless. The idea of socially collaborative software, like Wikipedia, is one that stands in opposition of what a library stands for. Libraries are the home of a whole bunch of books whose authority tends to rest in its binding, rather than the information inside it. All the information found inside Wikipedia is up for revision; if anyone finds incorrect information they can go ahead and correct it. What happens when someone finds something incorrect in a book? (Dare I mention that some books are imperfect?) They are left to try to find a publisher to print their retort? In the end I guess should never expect a librarian to get along with a tool like Wikipedia, but it upsets me that these people guard the connections to information for America’s children.

August 26, 2004