This is a short address I gave to an International Women’s Day Wikipedia edit-athon on 8th March 2017 at the university where I work, on why Wikipedia matters.
We used to say in libraries that if something doesn’t appear on the first page of a google results page, it may as well not exist. I think a similar thing could be said of Wikipedia. That’s why events like today’s IWD Wikipedia edit-athon are so important: to make sure that Wikipedia reflects the contributions of women in our history and our society. And of course all the other marginalised groups who get overlooked.
Now, in my line of work, we spend a lot of our time talking to students about why Wikipedia might not be the best source for an academic essay. Then we show them an expensive and user-hating database that they will probably only have access to during their course of their study. It is unlikely their future employer will have access, even less likely the public library will have. Their future is with freely available resources, like Wikipedia. After all, peer review is not a cheap process.
That’s why we should be teaching skills rather than demo the trillions of different platforms available to them. Our students need to become information literate, they need to understand how information flows, that it has value. We aren’t priming them for the workplace but we are priming them for life.
And Wikipedia is a useful tool for teaching skills. The way academic conventions and publishing work are a mystery to most students. Wikipedia lays it all bare. You can see the edits, you can make edits! You can develop stub articles with the appropriate referencing. You can clearly see where authors have linked to evidence or sources, and find them easily for yourself. You can read discussions about neutrality and standpoint; the controversies and debate within an academic field. It makes us ask vital questions about authority and how we construct authority. It demystifies the academic, making transparent that scholarship is dialogic, collaborative, questioning and messy.
Wikipedia can aid our understanding of scholarship but it is also an invitation to scholarship. Whilst Wikipedia is still a reflection of our world, it fulfils the founding aspiration of the world wide web. After all, we couldn’t have spent International Women’s Day adding women to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, now could we?