Recent decades have seen growing power of crowdsourcing. Wikipedia, which has been around for ten years now, is based in part on this notion: the combined research efforts of many people of varying backgrounds and opinions can provide better information than a single expert can find. That has proved problematical in practice. Libraries have become part of the solution to at least one problem, as Wikipedia has recently sponsored dozens of editing marathons (editathons) in libraries nationwide (and also more in Great Britain).
Originally, crowdsourcing meant that Wikipedia and other similar organizations invited a broad spectrum of the general public to write and edit articles. It didn’t matter if they were recognized subject experts or not. I recall (but can’t find) a study several years ago that compared Wikipedia to Encyclopaedia Britannica. In scientific articles, it suggested that both have factual errors, and that on the whole the information contained in them is equally reliable.
In principle, Wikipedia’s editorial procedures should find and correct errors more quickly than those of a traditional encyclopedia, even the online edition. Wikipedia will also have articles on current events that no traditional encyclopedia could ever consider. No wonder Wikipedia has become one of the most-consulted online brands in the world.
At least two problems have kept Wikipedia controversial, however. It is too easy for small groups of highly opinionated people to hijack an article and skew the information and its presentation. I remember reading of editing wars between partisans in various controversies. Not only would the articles in question undergo constant change (an intended feature of crowdsourced work), but their viewpoints and the facts they contained would change from day to day or even hour to hour as one group would delete what the other had just done! I haven’t heard much about that lately.
The other problem turns out to be more pervasive. Most of the information in Wikipedia articles comes from other online sources. There is a great deal of wonderful, valuable information on the Web that deserves use as sources for encyclopedia articles. Even for very contemporary topics, there is much, much more information that either can’t be found online at all or can only be found in expensive databases available only by subscription.
On October 22, 2011, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts hosted one of the editathons specifically to add articles to Wikipedia and update existing ones about musical theater. For six hours, dozens of people gathered in the special collections area, a closed-stack collection of published material (programs, sheet music, newspaper clippings, etc.) and unpublished material (correspondence, manuscripts, stage designs, etc.), as well as various recordings etc. that probably represent both categories.
On average, 20 researchers from college students to retirees were at work there at any given time. They did not work separately, but collaboratively. At least three different kinds of advantages resulted from this one project:
- Wikipedia benefited from the depth of information made available in the new and updated articles.
- The participants benefited from learning both how to edit Wikipedia articles and how to use the resources of a closed-stack special library collection. Many of them may not have even been aware that such a treasure existed before they actually went to work there.
- The library benefited from the number of new patrons they had that day. The editathon resulted in approximately double the normal number of call slips submitted. The library also benefited from the number of links from the articles back to the library’s web site.
During the same month, other libraries hosted similar events, each devoted to a different single topic. Each undoubtedly enjoyed their own version of the same three kinds of advantages.
Collaborations between libraries and Wikipedia are a natural fit. The 2011 editathons are not the first such, only the largest. Many participants and organizers hope it will become an annual event.
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