Wikipedia is an online free-content encyclopedia that is open to contributions by the general public. Its co-founder Jimmy Wales has described it as "an effort to create and distribute a multilingual free encyclopedia of the highest quality to every single person on the planet in his or her own language." Wikipedia is huge and comprehensive: it's available in more than 250 language versions, and the total number of articles in all language versions is 15 million. It's also very popular. Currently, Wikipedia is the fifth-most-read website in the world.
Who owns Wikipedia?
The articles in Wikipedia are collaboratively written and have been released by their authors under an open source license. This means they are free content and may be reproduced freely by anyone, without permission, under the same license. Wikipedia is managed and supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. It is supported by donations. There is no advertising on Wikipedia.
How does Wikipedia work?
Any Wikipedia reader can click the "edit" link on top of pages and edit an article. Obtaining formal peer review for edits is not necessary, since review is a communal function and everyone who reads an article and corrects it is a reviewer. Essentially, Wikipedia is self-correcting and self-improving – over time, articles improve from a multitude of contributions.
Anyone can edit Wikipedia. How can it claim to be accurate?
It's true that anyone can edit Wikipedia, and when it first started in 2001, it wasn't very comprehensive or broadly useful. But over time, Wikipedia has gotten bigger and more comprehensive and higher-quality. That's not just our anecdotal experience; it's been proven by a number of external third-party studies. For example, in April of 2007, Hewlett Packard released a study that found that the longer an article has been around, and the more people who have edited it, the better it gets. HP said that validates the basic premise of Wikipedia – that mass collaboration, over time, will produce high quality material. And in December 2007, the German magazine Stern released a study concluding that the German Wikipedia was more accurate, complete and up-to-date than the longstanding print encyclopedia Brockhaus – the Encyclopedia Britannica of Germany.
In general, all the studies we know about conclude that Wikipedia is remarkably high quality – certainly, its quality is comparable with traditional encyclopedias. And of course it has many advantages over traditional encyclopedias – it is much, much bigger and more comprehensive; it is updated hundreds of times every minute; it is easily searchable, it is free to use and free of commercialism, and it's accessible from any internet-connected computer.
How common are mistakes on Wikipedia?
Because Wikipedia is editable by anyone we can't guarantee you won't stumble across a mistake. But mistakes are fairly rare. External studies have suggested they occur at about the same rate they do in traditional encyclopedias. One thing that is great about Wikipedia is that it allows anyone to correct a mistake. A printed encyclopedia will need to wait for its next edition for a mistake to be fixed. On Wikipedia a mistake can be, and often is, fixed instantly.
How common is vandalism on Wikipedia?
It is pretty common for people – often schoolkids just playing around – to try to vandalize Wikipedia. This normally takes the form of trying to erase entire articles, edit Wikipedia to make fun of other kids, or insert joke material into articles. (There is some good discussion of attempted vandalism in this lovely article about Wikipedia by novelist Nicholson Baker.)
However, Wikipedia has a variety of filters and bots designed to prevent vandalism before it's completed, or revert it immediately after it's done. So, most vandalism is never seen by anybody.
In general, Wikipedia is inherently resistant to vandalism. All previous revisions of an article are saved and stored, which means that when vandalism is committed, anyone can instantly revert it. This ease-of-reversion is the cornerstone of Wikipedia's response to vandalism, and is supported by a large number of volunteer “vandalism patrollers.”
Having said that, we can't guarantee that people won't stumble across vandalized pages on Wikipedia. It is possible that they will. Most vandalism is removed within hours, but some vandalism and errors may persist for weeks or even months, especially on articles that are rarely visited.
Will the people who use my library find material on Wikipedia that's objectionable, or unsuitable for children?
There is definitely material available on Wikipedia that is potentially objectionable, or that people might find unsuitable for children. For example, we include images of Mohammed, considered offensive by some, and media featuring explicit sexual activity. Over the years, we have received many requests to delete material from Wikipedia, on the grounds that it is objectionable to a particular religion, culture, nation, ideology or individual.
Wikimedia policy has never called for material to be deleted purely on the basis that it is, or may be, objectionable, and our projects contain caveats to that effect. We believe that individual adults are best placed to decide for themselves what information they want to seek out, and we see our role as making available all knowledge, not solely such knowledge as is universally deemed acceptable.
How can I keep children using my library from stumbling across material that is not suitable for them?
While there are many commercial 'internet filters' available we are probably not best-suited to help you with this issue. As a librarian, you probably know a lot more about it than we do, and you probably have resources available that are more authoritative than anything we could tell you.
If people ask me whether Wikipedia is an appropriate resource for students and researchers, what do you recommend I say to them?
We believe that Wikipedia is an excellent starting point for research, and can be particularly useful for getting a quick and reasonably accessible overview of a particular topic area. Wikipedia can also be remarkably detailed and comprehensive, particularly in subject areas such as technology and science. But we don't believe that anyone should accept what they read on Wikipedia (or anywhere) uncritically. We encourage readers to explore topics further, by clicking on the article footnotes to go the original information sources or using the further reading recommendations and external links.
What is Wikipedia's position on academia? Does Wikipedia want help from academics?
Definitely, yes. One fairly common misconception about Wikipedia is that it's hostile to experts. That's not true. Many Wikipedia editors are academics, and most editors have a deep respect for people who dedicate their lives to educating others. Wikipedia editors tend to consider themselves as part of an ecosystem of knowledge-sharing that includes people like librarians, academic researchers, public broadcasters, archivists and museum workers, and the like. Wikipedia editors welcome anyone who wants to help, and it's obvious that academics have relevant, useful skills for our work.
Why do I read sometimes that Wikipedia is closed to outsiders, or resistant to help?
It's true that becoming a Wikipedia editor is not always easy or intuitive, although it is gradually becoming easier. One barrier is the editing interface itself, which has been extremely difficult to use. (In May 2010, we launched a new interface that is significantly more user-friendly than the old version. It solved some glaring usability problems, but there are still quite a few that need to be fixed.) Another barrier is the policy learning curve: in order to edit Wikipedia successfully, new people need to first read and understand quite a bit of policy. (We actually don't think that's much of a problem for academics, since they are already familiar with many of the core concepts that go into editorial production work, and they are fast and skillful readers.) Another barrier can sometimes be the tone of debate and discussion on the wikis: Wikipedians tend to be very blunt, which can sometimes be interpreted by new people as unkind. Really, it's rare for a Wikipedian to intentionally want to give offence. Communications online inherently offer limited scope for warmth or nuance, and Wikipedians may sometimes be struggling to express themselves across language barriers. We advise everyone to assume good faith.
Wikipedia on the reference desk and evaluating articles
Wikipedia is a useful resource in many reference situations: to get a quick overview of a topic, to provide a starting place with relevant links to other websites that have been vetted by editors, and to get further terminology for searching. Wikipedia's multi-lingual nature means that articles in different languages are linked together (under the "languages" link on the left-hand sidebar) which can be useful if translations of key vocabulary are needed. Particularly for pop-culture or non-traditional encyclopedic topics, Wikipedia may be the quickest, most accessible source of information for many patrons and students. This extends to librarians as well: Wikipedia can be a very useful tool for doing collection development or basic research in unfamiliar areas.
Of course, Wikipedia's quality is not uniform, and evaluating articles is important. There are a few resources to guide you in evaluating articles; the basic steps are to:
Since authorship and editorial quality is not automatically vetted on Wikipedia, unlike in traditional publishing, a much higher burden is placed on the reader to determine if what they are looking at is useful, accurate information. Wikipedia can provide an excellent springboard for teaching these ideas of information literacy as applied to many different sources and the Internet at large.
How do I cite a page from Wikipedia properly?
For those who want to cite Wikipedia articles, go to the article you want to cite, then click "toolbox" on the left-hand side, and then "cite this page." Citations in several standard formats, with permanent links to the version of the page you are looking at, are provided.