The other day I saw a meme that made me pause. It read “The Dark Ages began with the closing of a Library”. It took me a bit by surprise because I wasn’t sure what the point of the meme was. Was it intended to make me stop and think, to chuckle, to praise libraries, maybe all of the above? I also had no idea what library they were talking about; it couldn’t be the Library of Alexandria – that was long before the Dark Ages. So I hopped on Wikipedia.
According to the Internet, the library the meme refers to is the Library of Constantinople. And, like most memes, there’s a lot that isn’t mentioned in that meme. For example, the library of Constantinople burned 4 times. The specific closing the meme may be referring to happened in the 5th century, the first time that particular library burned.
Full disclosure, I love Wikipedia. I love it so much that I took a 9 week immersive course through OCLC on Wikipedia and Libraries my first semester of Library School in addition to my regular classes (mostly because I’m a masochist). I planned a University wide Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon the next semester, and I’m presenting on the event at my regional Library Association’s annual conference in October. I. Love. Wikipedia. So my heart broke a little when a librarian friend told me that she wouldn’t let her kids use Wikipedia, stating that all bad high school history papers cite Wikipedia articles.
Something else you should probably know about me: I hate the phrase “according to the Internet”. I used the phrase a couple of paragraphs ago; do you remember what your reaction was to the information that followed? Did you immediately forget the information, or mistrust it? “According to the Internet” is not a helpful phrase, particularly for librarians, and it’s profoundly elitist. There is a lot of hard work, and a lot of great research, that happens on the Internet, and the phrase is dismissive of all of it. The Internet brings us Open Educational Resources, and answers to our most basic questions.
You may be asking yourself right about now, “what is this woman ranting about?” Well, I’m ranting about information really, and the dissemination of information. Librarians are, of course, all about the propagation of accurate information for general consumption. Which means that the Internet should be the Librarian’s god. Yet many of us in Information Sciences are more leary and distrustful of the Internet than most, and we aren’t afraid to show it. After all, fake news, public library closings, the loss of jobs, Wikipedia, and the general information panic that plagues this era are all to blame on the Internet. Still, the Internet is bringing us a fleet of new tools that our ancestors tried in vain to develop. From instantaneous citation gadgets, to article filing systems, to annotation programs, the Internet is democratising knowledge. And then there’s Wikipedia.
Personal opinion, Wikipedia is next to godliness. Some philosophers believe that god is simply a collective unconscious that we all come from and go back to when we die. If that’s true, then the combined thoughts, ideas, and events that make up humanity presented on Wikipedia is the closest thing to a conscious representation to god that we will ever reach. There’s a very good case that the online encyclopedia is the greatest collaborative effort in human history – and it’s nothing but a bunch of electrons floating through servers. It also democratizes knowledge, and that makes all of us better. Sure, there are growing pains with Wikipedia. As with most online platforms of a public nature, Wikipedia can be abused or used as a platform for hateful, abusive opinions. Even Wikipedians aren’t afraid to admit it has faults. But there are those who are so in love with the information they tend they jump into action whenever they see misuse of the system.
As a librarian, you can use it to teach information literacy, research strategies, bibliography harvesting. You can illustrate bad data manipulation and visualizations, good data manipulation and visualizations, even mediocre manipulation and visualization. You can create programs in online collaboration, publication, and composition. I use it to teach GIS, plagiarism, and rhetoric. Use it to investigate the difference between primary and secondary resources, original research, and the importance of citation. You can teach public library patrons how to check it for fake news (or to double check fake news), and you can teach college kids how to edit for clarity. During the Edit-a-Thon we even used it to plumb the depths of the University archive.
The best thing about using Wikipedia to teach information literacy of all types is that the students already know it. Not only do they know it, but they will use it (whether they technically “can” for a paper/project or not). That means that everything you teach them with Wikipedia will stick; every time they go back to that platform, they will be reminded of the time they met with that one librarian in college or at the library. That is a lasting impact on the patron’s you serve.
I get incredibly excited every time I think about the Internet. I grew up in what is likely to be one of the more exciting eras in human history. I remember the first time my family got dial-up, and I know what Encarta was like. Almost overnight, our way of life, our views of the world, our connection to each other, and our information consumption changed. Children born in 2000 are 18 now, and they grew up in a world that always had the Internet. We are in the midst of an extreme revolution in human information – and librarians should be at the heart of this change. It may take awhile, but one day “according to the Internet” may be as highly regarded as “peer-review”.