Learning patterns/Digital information literacy with Wikipedia for public library staff

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Digital information literacy with Wikipedia for public library staff
problemHow can you use Wikipedia in libraries to facilitate digital information literacies?
solutionUse Wikipedia to connect convenience-oriented, information-seeking habits with the rich offerings of libraries--whilst encouraging critical thinking skills.
created on06:28, 1 February 2018 (UTC)

What problem does this solve?[edit]

Library staff in public libraries regularly facilitate formal/informal research and information literacy instructional sessions with colleagues, patrons and educators. Many library staff, however, are unfamiliar with Wikipedia. They may not incorporate the online reference source into these reference workshops or trainings. At the same time, a high percentage of information searches begin away from the library using internet-connected devices, search engines or Wikipedia. English Wikipedia is the 5th most visited platform globally. What can library staff do with Wikipedia to effectively use instructional reference sessions to bridge literacy about online information sources, such as Wikipedia, with library resources?

What is the solution?[edit]

Based on learnings from the Wikipedia + Libraries: Better Together project as of January 2018, this learning pattern describes features of Wikipedia that may serve as conceptual bridges for library staff to use to link convenience-oriented, information-seeking habits with the rich offerings of libraries--whilst encouraging critical thinking skills.

Wikipedia showcases stages of collaborative, distributed encyclopedia writing[edit]

Wikipedia is an online community made through a wiki platform. Since 2001, the many participants in this community have developed and solidified best practices in the joint authorship of articles and in the administration of an online encyclopedia. The principles and policies guiding contributors are summarized in Wikipedia’s Five Pillars. As an online community, more experienced editors have set and seek to uphold standards to ensure verifiability and neutrality. New contributors are tasked with adhering to core content policies of notability, verifiability, neutral point of view and no original research in order to create and edit encyclopedia articles. Additionally, Wikipedia has conduct guidelines editors should consider, including treating others with fairness. All content on Wikipedia is free to use, edit and share. All content is saved and every previous version of an article is available for others to view.

Features of a quality Wikipedia article are:

  • A clear, easy-to-understand lead section
  • A clear structure
  • Balanced coverage of many aspects of the subject
  • Neutral coverage, written without bias toward a particular point of view
  • Reliable sources are cited throughout the article

However, at any given moment, articles can be changing. The View History page and set of associated tools can help library staff share with patrons the evolution of an article. The Good and Featured Articles, denoted by assessments available on the Talk page (as well as small icons of a green plus and a gold star on the front article page for an unregistered viewer) can demonstrate what makes an excellent quality Wikipedia article.

Suggested activities:

  1. Start a research project by comparing Wikipedia Good and Featured Articles with other reference sources on the same topic in the library. If the researcher is beginning a study on a topic that does not have a Good or Featured Article, use the next suggested activity on this list.
  2. Guide patrons to train their focus on evaluating the authority of the reference materials. What references form the backbone of the article? Who are the authors, their publisher, and are they independent and authoritative sources? For references that are dead links, use the Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine to track backwards. Refer to any community conversations (e.g. Merge or Deletion discussions) accessible via Talk archives and the View History pages to assess how an article has developed over time and the conversations editors have had about the article to gain further clues about the article’s reliability.
  3. Use citations to analyze information retrieval methods; add or edit citations to model best practices and different forms of citing.
  4. Use Wikipedia to discuss concepts in open access and open source.
  5. Look at the development of an FA article over time using View History to discuss the research and writing process; not every great article starts out that way!
  6. Discuss the ways that the core content policies and Five Pillars of Wikipedia, as a ‘free’ encyclopedia, resonate with the values of librarianship and the mission of your library.

Further resources:

For an example from Librarians who Wikipedia:

  • Allison Frick (Glendale Free Library) has hosted a one-hour information literacy session that begins by discussing how to access web browsers and includes evaluating Wikipedia articles and how patrons can use the online encyclopedia to find book citations that connect to a public library catalog.

Wikipedia is situated in the eye of the commercial online information economy[edit]

Library staff can situate Wikipedia as a part of, but distinct from, the commercial online information economy. From satire news sites to purposefully misleading news and information circulating in social media channels, the commercial open web presents a pressing need for library staff as information professionals to guide patrons to critically evaluate and verify information they encounter online. Wikipedia is in the eye of the open web: it’s popular, but does not organize information based on proprietary algorithmic decisions that may be designed to prioritize commercial values. While Wikipedia does often surface in search engine results, the online encyclopedia itself has no “feed,” and criteria for categorization, article notability and content development are determined by consensus among the volunteer-run community of contributors who use the core content policies as their guideposts. English Wikipedia’s distinctive role gives the online encyclopedia limitations and affordances that are distinct from other social media. Here is a briefing of what library staff in the Fall 2017 online training program found important to understand about Wikipedia’s weaknesses and affordances, along with suggestions on ways these insights can be marshaled into library educational or instructional sessions that incorporate Wikipedia.

What makes Wikipedia distinct:

  • English Wikipedia’s notability criteria and focus on secondary references can reproduce existing biases in secondary literature. (See Wadewitz, 2012); library staff can edit following a mandate for “reparation” to offset these biases (hear from archivist Danielle Robichaud on this topic).
  • English Wikipedia’s effort to be a volunteer-run, reliable reference source has led to a specific internet culture that not everyone can, or wants to, contribute, and this has resulted in a gender-imbalance among editors, and evidence of broad imbalances in coverage of topics, e.g. only 17% of biographies on Wikipedia are about women. See the 2011 editor’s survey; Ford and Wajcman, 2016.
  • Wikipedia editors, like users, often go to the internet first for sources and can be influenced by popular media’s coverage of topics, resulting in recentism, which is when an article has inflated or imbalanced coverage due to recent media coverage. In this way, Wikipedia’s embeddedness in the commercial online information economy is revealed by the choices that editors make, who are themselves may be motivated by coverage of popular and accessible topics.

Wikipedia’s affordances:

  • Articles are always under development and changing (just like real life!), and practices can change. The fifth pillar is: no firm rules.
  • All edits and versions of every Wikipedia article are saved and accessible to anyone.
  • All content is produced under an open license and is free for anyone to use; Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects thus guide editors to comply with all copyright legalities.
  • Multiple editors contributing to an article often help the article achieve a neutral point of view (and an article on a recent event can signal the piece has not yet achieved a meta-level perspective).
  • Wikipedians value civility and achieving consensus.
  • The 2017 strategic direction of the Wikimedia Foundation is for knowledge equity and knowledge as service.

Suggested activities:

  1. Show patrons how editors on Wikipedia “flag” articles with templates in the body of the article and within sentences to facilitate a distributed workflow. Compare Wikipedia’s open editing processes with information or articles that are circulated on social media. Compare these to the results you get in a database. Comparisons can shed light on the richness of information accessed using library databases.
  2. Use Wikipedia’s categories to generate new search terms to use in library catalogues. For patrons just beginning a research project, Wikipedia can offer a place to explore and brainstorm about the topic.
  3. Gather the references and further reading available at the end of a Wikipedia article.
  4. Understand the reparative acts that editors and educators have sought to do with Wikipedia, specifically to redress systemic inequalities and information inequity, such as editing projects Women in Red, AfroCROWD and Art + Feminsim
  5. Engage critically with Wikipedia to consider how the male-dominated tech industry has shaped information on the internet as a way to think critically about the presentation of information that appears neutral. Develop an instructional seminar that compares search results and materials accessible via Google, Wikipedia and your library databases to develop an inquiry-based critical thinking mindset so patrons can better critically evaluate the possibilities and limits of the reference sources they encounter and the biases found within these.

Further resources:

  • Bohémier, K., Maksin, M., & Crowley, G. (2017). ‘Wayfinding the web: Applying critical information literacy to a Google instruction session.’ Online Searcher, 41(4), 16-21.
  • Nagy, Peter and Gina Neff. Sept. 2015 "Imagined Affordance: Reconstructing a Keyword for Communication Theory." Social Media and Society. DOI: 10.1177/2056305115603385
  • Noble, Safiya U. 2016. “Challenging Algorithms of Oppression" (12-minute presentation), Personal Democracy Forum. Last accessed: 1/26/18
  • Ford, Heather and Judy Wajcman (2016) “ ‘Anyone can edit’, not everyone does: Wikipedia’s infrastructure and the gender gap” Social Studies of Science. DOI: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0306312717692172
  • Robichaud, Danielle. (1/9/2018). “Visiting Scholar draws upon her archival expertise to improve Wikipedia,” Wiki Edu Foundation Blog. Last accessed 1/29/18

For an example of Librarians Who Wikipedia in action:

  • Susan Barnum edits Wikipedia to improve the quality of information available online, specifically missing works about Chicana artists and women’s history globally.

Things to consider[edit]

  • While no familiarity with Wikipedia is presumed, this learning pattern is written to serve library staff who are on a journey to learn to meaningfully engage with Wikipedia for their libraries and communities. For library staff new to Wikipedia, the Wikipedia + Libraries project has shared out a suite of materials to enable self-guided learning and offers strategies that library trainers can use to adapt the materials to run their own programs. This Learning Pattern complements these other materials (which will be available by May 2018 on WebJunction; get links and more information on the Wikipedia + Libraries: Better Together grant project page).
  • Keep in mind these are just a few uses of Wikipedia to encourage digital and information literacy; there is more than one way to approach the task. Library staff’s go-to techniques for teaching digital and information literacy for information found online – whether instruction is done one-on-one or in a workshop -- are very appropriate for evaluating Wikipedia, and you can deepen the analysis by remembering what’s particular about Wikipedia’s open participatory culture.

When to use[edit]

This pattern is best used by library staff who have some experience with Wikipedia, such as the participants in the Wikipedia + Libraries: Better Together online training program, and can confidently explain these concepts to colleagues and patrons as a result of their experience.


  • The material in this Learning Pattern was developed by the OCLC Wikipedia + Libraries Wikipedian-in-Residence, Monika Sengul-Jones, who developed the pattern by connecting project design with learnings from library staff involved in the Wikipedia + Libraries: Better Together project
  • This learning pattern was made possible by the Wikipedia + Libraries: Better Together project, supported by OCLC with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Wikimedia Foundation.


See also[edit]

Related patterns[edit]

External links[edit]