Living in a Digital World, part 5 — Help me, Wikipedia! You’re my only hope.

As you may have noticed, on Wednesday, 18 January 2012, Wikipedia didn’t work.

Male with black tape across mouth bearing words "content blocked"

Image cc license from Flickr user brianjmatis: http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7145/6723758731_f8a9f8c7ab_b.jpg

Wikipedia and a wide range of other sites including blogs like BoingBoing went black and many other sites including Google and Flavorwire used censored logos and content in protest against legislation proposed in Congress to protect copyright.  The two pieces of legislation, SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act), would ostensibly block sites that illegally provide copyrighted content for free, but would also have a detrimental effect on access to websites and information legally and legitimately available on the Internet.

On Wednesday morning, I received one request from a colleague for clarification on why Wikipedia wasn’t available.  For another user, I tried unsuccessfully to track down the posts I’d seen the previous day about how to make one’s blog go dark;  the posts themselves were difficult to find because the blogs supporting them were on strike. For my own benefit, I found myself visiting sites I knew were down, simply to see what was up in place of the usual content.  A couple library-themed online comics and most of the library-related blogs I follow had messages in protest and links to resources for learning more about the laws and contacting government representatives. I eagerly read the information posted on the website of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and thoroughly enjoyed the LOLcats protest video with appropriate lyrics set to the tune of Don McLean’s signature song “American Pie.”

Returning to the Internet on Thursday and Friday mornings, I discovered from the wrap-up and recaps following the protest and strike that the effort had made quite an impression. Congressional representatives changed their stances, more sites and sources joined in than I had ever expected, and some rather amusing Tweets came across from people who did not know what was going on and students unable to do their homework without Wikipedia.

The widely-held view, back in the olden days when I was writing papers for college courses and later when I began editing and proofreading papers for college students, held that Wikipedia was a completely unreliable resource, less accurate than the edited and published encyclopedias like Britannica.  In the intervening time, more and more articles and reviews have been written evaluating Wikipedia as a reference resource  (such as Paula Berinstein’s 2006 article in Searcher) and also whether students rely exclusively on Wikipedia or keep going to other resources to further their research (such as a 2010 article in First Monday by Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg).

On Thursday, 19 January, LISWire posted “Reference questions while Wikipedia down?”, in which readers were asked whether any reference questions were asked as a result of Wikipedia being down.  At our library, I did not receive any reference questions as a result of Wikipedia being down. Our encyclopedias did not see more action than normal, nor did the dictionaries. In our office, it seemed that little attention was paid to the protest and blackout.

However, Wednesday’s blackout reminded me how important a resource Wikipedia is out there in the world.  It’s not only students (some of whom are likely not allowed to cite Wikipedia as a source in their coursework, according to discussion at LISWire), but also librarians who use this resource. For instance, when trying to track down the scientific article announcing the discovery of a new species of arachnid, I went to Wikipedia to find out what on earth a “solifugae” is (warning: if you are afraid of spiders, you will want to skip the Wikipedia page); armed with that knowledge, I could then better focus my search and interpret the results. Wikipedia is a tool, like any other: there are inaccuracies, there are grammatical and factual errors, but it is an incredible and powerful resource just the same.

References

Berinstein, Paula. (2006) “Wikipedia and Britannica: The Kid’s All Right (And So’s The Old Man).” Searcher, 14(3). Retrieved 22 January 2012.

Head, Alison J. and Eisenberg, Michael B. (2010) “How Today’s College Students Use Wikipedia for Course-Related Research.” First Monday, 15(3). Retrieved 22 January 2012.

For further information…

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