Why librarians should use Wikipedia and three ways to get started
March 14, 2023
By Laurie Bridges, Linda Willems
In the second of this two-part series on the platform, Laurie Bridges explains how it can support key library goals and shares tips on leveraging it
In her dual role as Instruction and Outreach Librarian / Professor and Liaison Librarian at Oregon State University (OSU) in the US, Laurie Bridges co-teaches a two-credit course about Wikipedia that she launched back in 2019.
In part one(opens in new tab/window) of this article series, she ran through how she came to use the platform in her information literacy teaching and how her students have embraced it.
In this article, she runs through the rewards that libraries and students can reap, and shares ideas on how librarians new to the platform can incorporate it in their roles.
Wikipedia’s potential to improve information literacy skills
One of the first things that Laurie teaches her students are the steps required to critically analyze a Wikipedia page. For example, they learn to look at the history pages on Wikipedia articles “because the more often something is edited, the more accurate it's likely to be. And I tell them to look at the talk pages* because that's where the debates about articles take place.”
Importantly, she also teaches students how they can use Wikipedia in their assignments. For example, a common question they ask is how they should cite it in their assignments. Laurie’s answer is simple: “They shouldn’t, because it is an encyclopedia, and any good encyclopedia is just a summary of content that’s somewhere else. If it’s a well written summary, then it has good sources, and it’s those they should use and reference.”
And she describes to students the types of sources they should use when they edit or create a Wikipedia page. “They need to find at least three, and they need to be good, reputable ones so that no one questions where the information comes from. And they learn the types of references that Wikipedia prefers; for example, it only accepts ‘secondary’ sources.”
Understanding the terminology
Wikipedia(opens in new tab/window) is a multilingual free online encyclopedia written and maintained by a community of volunteers. Since its creation in 2001, it has become the world’s largest reference website, attracting over 1 billion visitors each month. It currently has 60 million+ articles in more than 300 languages and 121,681 people actively contributed to articles in the past month alone.
An edit-a-thon(opens in new tab/window) is an event during which editors of online communities, such as Wikipedia, edit and improve a specific topic or type of content.
Wikipedia as a tool to drive societal impact and equity, diversity and inclusion
As a public institution, Oregon State University seeks to positively impact the community around it. According to Laurie, Wikipedia supports this mission in a variety of ways. For example, OSU Professor in Ethnic Studies, Natchee Barnd, is working with his students to improve Wikipedia pages on indigenous women, as part of a wider Smithsonian project.
And the library hosts annual edit-a-thons to improve Wikipedia’s ‘information gap’ on Black history in the Pacific Northwest. For these sessions, participants turn to the websites of two local initiatives - the Oregon Black Pioneers(opens in new tab/window) and The Oregon Encyclopedia(opens in new tab/window). “By citing their content on Wikipedia, we give them more coverage,” says Laurie. “And because we add links back to the sources we use, their websites get more visitors.”
OSU faculty and staff, who are the primary participants in the edit-a-thons, also add their own knowledge and expertise to the pages, increasing their understanding of Wikipedia in the process.
Wikipedia’s role in protecting freedom of information
For Laurie, Wikipedia also has an important part to play in combating restrictions on information and personal freedoms. “I’ve learned that many young people in the LGBTQ+ community across the world use Wikipedia to get information about their identity – that makes sense because the platform isn’t censored in any country but China right now. So, if you are somewhere where you feel isolated, or you're in a country where your sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal, then Wikipedia can be somewhere you go to do research. As you may know, in the US there are book bans happening, and there's real history that isn’t being taught in the school system right now. People can ban or try to censor textbooks, but the information remains on Wikipedia – and while it exists there, history can't be buried.”
How librarians can get involved in Wikipedia – Laurie’s top 3 tips
1. Include Wikipedia in your teaching
In addition to dedicating a course to Wikipedia, Laurie also mentions the platform in her other teaching work; for example, when she’s talking about lateral reading (looking up the words/ideas featured in an article as you read it). “I train the incoming instructors for OSU’s introductory writing course, and I often show them a video from the Teaching Lateral Reading course(opens in new tab/window) offered by Stanford History Education Group, which explains how fact checkers use Wikipedia. Librarians can advise their students that Wikipedia is just one of the sources they can use to look up journalists, people mentioned in reference material, as well as the sources themselves.” The Wikimedia Foundation now offers a free training program – Reading Wikipedia in the Classroom(opens in new tab/window) – advising teachers and educators on how they can leverage the platform as a pedagogical tool.
2. Become a Wikipedian
One of the unique aspects of Wikipedia is that anyone can edit it – these editors are known as Wikipedians. As Laurie points out, there are multiple ways to engage with the platform. “For example, I love to start articles; these are called stub articles. Another person I know hates starting articles, but she likes to improve them. Then there are people, like a co-worker of mine, who like to copyedit,” she explains. “Most Wikipedians edit things they're passionate about, so librarians can start by finding something that interests them.”
If no particular topic comes to mind, Laurie has some suggestions:
Book and author pages: “Librarians in the Basque region of Spain have a program that focuses on improving information about authors and their books. I would love more American librarians to do this, because if you look up a book or author in the English language Wikipedia, the information is usually patchy. This is particularly important for the books that have been banned – they need accurate, and up to date information on what's happening with the ban, what's contained in the book, but also what's happening to the authors, because you can see in the news that they're being harassed.”
Pages linked to the institution’s community or local history.
Media source pages: Another Wikimedia project is WikiProject Newspapers(opens in new tab/window), a site dedicated to creating well-sourced, in-depth articles on every notable newspaper. Laurie says: “To help other Wikipedians know that the sources referenced in a Wikipedia article are reputable, librarians can make sure there is an article about the media source. So, for example, during our Black history edit-a-thons, we come across many Black-owned newspapers that are out of print, and we can create a Wikipedia article for each one.”
But Laurie also shares a word of warning: “Librarians shouldn’t edit pages about their own libraries – it’s actually a conflict of interest.”
3. Organize an edit-a-thon
These can be a great way to engage stakeholders across campus, while also improving Wikipedia pages that align with institutional goals. Laurie has some tips for getting started.
Find an experienced partner: “We have worked with the nonprofit AfroCrowd(opens in new tab/window) for our Black history edit-a-thons.”
Look online for best practice advice. According to Laurie, nonprofit Art+Feminism(opens in new tab/window) has some easy-to-follow how-to guides on their website.
Virtually attend an edit-a-thon organized by another university to pick up tips.
Check out social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, to connect with other librarians engaged in Wikimedia work. For example, Facebook is home to a Wikipedia group for librarians(opens in new tab/window) with almost 3,000 members.
Find out more about edit-at-thons on Wikipedia!
* Each Wikipedia entry has a Talk page/tab where editors can discuss improvements or leave comments.
Discover how Elsevier and the Wikimedia Foundation are collaborating to provide Wikipedia editors with trusted scientific content and training.
Wikipedia’s role in information literacy is one of Laurie’s research interests. View her publications and presentations on the topic(opens in new tab/window) on her website.