FAQ For Librarians

Wikipedia invites you to imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. Today, hundreds of millions of people read Wikipedia every month, and they represent a wide diversity of ethnicities, nationalities, ages, socioeconomic conditions, sexual orientations, religions, values and attitudes. We are proud of that, and we consider it proof of Wikipedia's broad relevance and utility. We believe that Wikipedia is valuable and important, and we would like educators to join us in helping make it even more useful.

What is Wikipedia?

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.

Quality Control

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.

Wikipedia Works With Libraries

How can I, as an individual librarian, help make Wikipedia better?

Here are a few simple suggestions:

  1. Librarians generally make excellent Wikipedia editors, because they are typically fast and sophisticated researchers, and are used to summarizing and synthesizing information. Librarians also generally share the same mission and goals as Wikipedians: we all want to make high-quality information freely and easily available to the general public. Wikipedia would love for you to join us as a volunteer editor.
    If you are interested in becoming involved in the editorial community of the English Wikipedia, there is a project for librarians at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Libraries which anyone interested can join; this is a good way to meet other editors with similar interests and get ideas of projects to work on.
  2. We encourage librarians to stage workshops and classes about Wikipedia. For example, you might stage a workshop teaching library users how to use Wikipedia, in the same way you might teach them how to use the internet generally, or how to use search engines. This has been done successfully, for example in the United States. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedia_at_the_Library If you want to do that, it may be possible for you to find a Wikipedia editor to come help with the class. You can find out more information about how to do that, on this page about best practices in teaching library classes about Wikipedia.
  3. We encourage librarians to stage workshops and classes that use Wikipedia as a way to teach media literacy skills. This has been done successfully in Germany. You can find out more information about how to do that, in this journal article about using Wikipedia to teach information literacy.
  4. We encourage all educators to assign their students to write new Wikipedia articles, or improve existing articles, as part of their classwork. A number of educators have done this successfully, for example in Germany, Canada and Israel. You can find out more information about how to do that, on this page about best practices in assigning Wikipedia as coursework.
  5. A quick note for technical services: Check your local cataloging. Often, Wikipedia is listed on subject or resource guides, or sometimes even fully cataloged. Unfortunately, due to the dynamic nature of this resource, these records are very often outdated or wrong. It is probably best not to list a specific article in the record, but rather provide a basic description from Wikipedia:About. Note particularly that Wikipedia is not published by the Free Software Foundation as stated in some OCLC records. Instead, as of Dec. 2008, Wikipedia is published by The Wikimedia Foundation, San Francisco, California. The official title is "Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia," and the general link to the English-language Wikipedia is http://en.wikipedia.org/; a general link to the portal page is http://wikipedia.org.

Why should I help Wikipedia?

We'd like you to help Wikipedia because we believe we share the same mission. We want to make as much information as possible freely available and accessible for people everywhere around the world, and so do you. We probably share some basic values: we believe information is powerful, we believe that access to information will help people lead more informed lives and make better decisions for themselves, and we believe it's important that information be available that's free from commercial considerations, both in its production and dissemination.

We also believe that Wikipedia is enormously influential. Hundreds of millions of people are getting their information from Wikipedia, which we believe is itself a good argument for educators getting involved with us. Your goal is to ensure people have access to high-quality information – it seems to us that improving Wikipedia is directly in line with that goal.

Does Wikipedia have experience in cooperating with libraries?

Yes, the Zürich Central Library, for example, cooperates with the German Wikipedia as well as the Swiss chapter, Wikimedia CH, a partnership that has been very successful, since March 2008, to improve articles related to Zürich and other main program points of the central library. They contribute with their own staff (see User:Zentralbibliothek Zürich), take part in events related to the project, and knowledge is distributed in both directions.

Wikimedia UK has been collaborating with the British Library as part of the GLAM initiative.

Where can I find information about Wikipedia projects at other universities and schools?

Here is a page about Wikipedia projects at schools and universities.

Getting Started

I would like to get much more information on becoming a Wikipedia editor. Are there any books you can recommend?

The largest source of how-to materials about Wikipedia can be found in the help pages of the site itself (the main help pages are here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:Contents), but there have been a few books published about the projects in various languages, and many hundreds of articles. The "further reading" section of the article about Wikipedia is helpful: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia#Further_reading.

Further Reading

Can you point me towards other people's views on Wikipedia – either supportive, or critical?

Here is a page about criticism of Wikipedia, and here is a page of praise for Wikipedia.