Wikipedia in the Classroom

By Megan Piette

The use of Wikipedia as a source for scholarly information has been a debated topic since the website’s inception. Over at the blog of The Historical Society, Elliot Brandow, a librarian at Boston College, discusses the positives and negatives of listing Wikipedia alongside the books and scholarly journals in your bibliography. Some people distrust Wikipedia for the same reason that some people appreciate it: group think. Brandow discusses this concept as well as other thoughts about Wikipedia here.

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.