Wikipedia is ubiquitous. It's at the top of your Google results, of course. And since 2012 it's in the right-hand sidebar of your Google results, dubbed the Knowledge Graph, as well. With this year's Apple iOS7 upgrade, when you ask Siri factual questions, those are Wikipedia entries you'll be offered in response. Even some library systems, like Serials Solutions' new Summon 2.0, can include Wikipedia entries alongside your list of books and articles.
It's also our dirty little secret. We know that students use it, but faculty use it, librarians use it, we all use it. Why? We like it for the same reasons that we've always liked encyclopedias: it's fast access to basic information on a topic you know nothing about. It gives you an overview in language written for a novice, offers you key terms that are helpful when you proceed with your search to more scholarly resources, and it increasingly cites some of that scholarly material right there in the references and external links sections. But it's the unmatched breadth and currency that makes Wikipedia invaluable: entries on wide-ranging--often esoteric or technical--topics, and near instantaneous updates in direct response to news and world events.
So why do we tell students not to use Wikipedia (which doesn't stop them) and why do we groan just a bit when we admit that we found that fantastic resource by checking the Wikipedia entry, not by searching the library catalog or databases, as if our find is a bit less valuable for the scandalous way we discovered it? Because these are articles born on the Internet, compiled by unemployed, underwear-clad slackers! No one checks it for accuracy and anyone can add and delete whatever they'd like!
Of course this isn't true--there are clear guidelines about editing Wikipedia, there are human and automated methods of stopping careless and intentionally destructive disregard of these policies, and the entire site is built on software designed to record every change, easily allowing you to compare versions and to revert as necessary.
There are other problems with Wikipedia, however. Some of them were recently in the news. But they have to do with the need for more editors not less. Wikipedia is based on an idealistic model of crowd-sourced collaboration. Early criticism focused on a belief that specialized expertise was more valuable than the wisdom of crowds. But recent concern about Wikipedia's decline is focused on the fact that not enough experts are joining the crowd, especially experts who aren't middle-aged white males. Wikipedia needs more editors, more diversity of thought, and it needs more people willing to navigate the sometimes intimidating philosophy and etiquette of the site.
Wikipedia has made several recent efforts to expand their community, especially to tap into the subject expertise of academia. They have encouraged editathons focused on specific underrepresented areas of the encyclopedia. They have created sample syllabi and assignments, offered volunteer ambassador support to deal with technical hurdles, and designed course page templates in an effort to encourage faculty to build class assignments around improving the encyclopedia.
These assignments help address the subject deficits in Wikipedia by building upon short or nonexistent articles on interesting academic topics. But they also offer students a wonderful opportunity to create a writing assignment that lives beyond one semester and one set of faculty eyes, and offer faculty an alternative to receiving the same term papers semester after semester. They also help students improve a very specific type of writing valuable in any field of study: collaborative writing for the web.
And whether the students continue to edit Wikipedia or not, these assignments offer them a new understanding of what's under the hood of their go-to encyclopedia. Wikipedia is demystified--no longer a monolithic source of all factual knowledge nor a horrible morass of unverified conjecture and politically motivated vandalism. It's a website built and monitored by a community of volunteers. It can be edited or reverted with a few clicks, for better and for worse. And you can explore the history of changes on any page or the rationale for those changes just as easily.
As a librarian, I'd love to see us remove the stigma of using Wikipedia by modeling when it’s useful to go there and teaching how to use it effectively in tandem with traditional resources—moving seamlessly between the two. I can't think of a better way to start than by taking Wikipedia up on their offer to create class assignments to improve specific entries. Numerous faculty are already embracing this idea, building engaging classes right on the site. The largest and most ubiquitous encyclopedia ever created is here to stay. We want it to be more accurate and complete, and they need us (and your students) to make it happen.
Elliot Brandow (@ebrandow) is the senior reference librarian/bibliographer for history at Boston College.