Wikipedia and Libraries

What is the role of Wikipedia in academic research? You may have heard professors tell you that you can’t cite the popular online encyclopedia in your research paper, but does that mean Wikipedia is always a “bad” resource you should never use?

This month Wikipedia is hosting some cool events at libraries around the world as part of the Wikipedia Loves Libraries program. The Chicago event is going to be Saturday, October 29 at the Chicago Public Library’s Harold Washington Center. On the 6th floor participants will meet to collectively edit several Wikipedia articles concerning PresidentObama’s time in Illinois using resources available at the library.

If Wikipedia is such a “bad” resource why are the folks who write it gathering at such a scholarly place as a library to edit it’s pages? The answer is really quite simple. The information in Wikipedia as a whole is neither bad nor good, but it does fall into a category of resources that are so general they often aren’t worth citing in research papers.

Similar to Wikipedia are other general encyclopedias such as  Funk and Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia and Britannica Online (both of which the PSC Library has an online subscription to). Dictionaries are another general reference source and we have several dictionaries in print at the library including  The American Heritage Student Dictionary and Stedman’s Medical Dictionary. These are all great resources for quick, basic information about a wide variety of topics.

I have a confession to make. I am a librarian who loves Wikipedia. It’s certainly not the type of resource I would base all of my professional research on, but when I’m working at the reference desk and a student comes up with a question about a topic unfamiliar to me (and since we serve students in such a broad range of programs, this happens fairly often), I am not shy to admit Wikipedia is often the place I go to get a little background on your topic. Once I’ve picked up the basics, then it’s much easier for me to suggest the proper scholarly database or books to complete your research.

Similarly, in the early stages of a research project you may need to consult a general source like Wikipedia or its print counterparts (dictionaries, general encyclopedias and other general reference works) to give you a broad background and guide you to the more detailed resources you need to make your paper successful. Often these encyclopedias have a works cited listed at the end of each article. These are great places to find the more in depth books and article you need to finish your project.

Whether online or in print, reference works can be a real life safer by putting an unfamiliar concept or term into context and guiding you to the next step in your research process. In addition to the websites and print resources I already mentioned, the PSC Library also owns several subject specific encyclopedias offering many brief articles on a specific topic. The Encyclopedia of Hip Hop Literature and The Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology are just two more of the reference books the library has to get you started on your research journey.


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