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Defending Wikipedia - it's our job

rant.jpgIn a recent posting to LM_Net, continuing a conversation about the advisability of the student use of Wikipedia, school librarian Jeff Hastings writes:

Let me make it clear, though, that I'm saying that the scope [of Wikipedia] in a k-12 environment can be highly distracting to students and downright hazardous to your professional life. Personally, I work in a district where a "values" group recently took actions to attempt to convict teachers and school officials for "distributing pornography to minors" based upon their use of the book "Freedom writer's diary" in High School accelerated English. And most of us have now read about the felony conviction of a hapless substitute teacher who unwittingly "allowed" students to see pornographic images.

In that sort of climate especially, Wikipedia's scope in areas like sexuality, vernacular, and pop-culture become problematic. Again, I'd hate to explain to an antagonistic group of fundamentalists how a student learned to perform fellatio by perusing an illustrated Wikipedia article while ostensibly doing a library research project--and there's no doubt that that scenario could happen in an instant. I think educators have to take a second to think about that.

OK, let's step back and think for a minute what might happen if we used the views of every "antagonistic group of fundamentalists" to dictate our school and library selection policy. You know it just ain't the naughty bits they're worried about.

What about this subversive material?

Current evolutionary theory holds that all species evolved from a single form of life which lived more than 3 1/2 billion years ago ... Although evolution is called a "theory," this term does not mean that evolutionary biology is guesswork or is not supported by evidence. In science, a theory is a set of ideas based on observations about nature that explains many related facts. The theory of evolution is supported by evidence from many scientific fields. When a theory is supported by so much evidence, it becomes accepted as a scientific fact. Almost all scientists consider the theory of evolution to be a scientific fact.

This radical information source? World Book Online. Jeff, I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that you have parents who feel this violates their values and ought to be tossed from your library as well. I hope you got some big dumpsters!

My question is this: If we let the loudest, most politically and socially radical members of our communities frighten us into abandoning our selection principles, where does it stop?

And how do we get our technology folks to help us fight for intellectual freedom instead of unilaterally making fear-based decisions? Does any technology post-secondary program from which we draw candidates for these positions address selection policies. developmental needs of kids, or censorship issues? I doubt it. I get e-mails like this one from a Florida librarian way too often:

 In my school district, the technology department, in all its infinite wisdom,  blocks Wikipedia.  They did this without asking one media specialist his/her expert opinion. ... The media specialists met as a group and talked to the head tech guy, and his answer was, it had to be done in "real time."  Apparently there were too many students wondering how the human body works.  It seems to me that might be why we have one of the highest rates of pregnant teens.  I can't quite get them to see it my way.  And so it goes.

The fight is real and it is important.  And it requires courage and strategy. It requires an alliance between librarians and technologists.

There. It's good to let off a little steam. I guess I will need to change the blog entry category on this from "professionalism" to "rants"! 

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Reader Comments (11)

Doug, Frequently the best - or only - definitions of modern technologies (blogging, podcasting, etc.) are found in Wikipedia. For factual information, I find it to be, on the whole, thorough and accurate.Why must we deprive our students of this resource? It should not be be the only source, but it might be one of a number of sources used.

June 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDiane

Posted here with permission...

I appreciate Doug's passion and tenacity and I don't disagree with
anything he says. But I took something different from Jeff's remarks
yesterday. Maybe I misunderstood and Jeff really was advocating
something more sweeping.

I have been a vocal and persistent advocate for Wikipedia and I continue
to use it frequently and recommend it to students. What Jeff points out
is that we owe it to ourselves to be fully aware of just how broad its
scope is, including materials that are not merely controversial but
developmentally inappropriate for many (most? all?) of our younger
students. And this scope, one of Wikipedia's strongest assets, presents
challenges for us.

For me this is merely a reminder to remain vigilant in the way we
supervise children when they're working in the Library.

When I send my own children off to school, I certainly don't expect the
school either to support or to challenge the values we try to instill at
home. One way or another, children will no doubt encounter both. That's
part of growing up. But I do expect that, the more so with younger
children, they will receive an appropriate degree of supervision at all

Sooner or later some children are going to come across inappopriate
materials on the Internet, whether accidentally or on purpose. Where we
have to focus our awareness is on how and how quickly we respond.
Because the end result of too many of those incidents will, in too many
cases, be further outcry, followed by politically motivated restriction.

As I told Jeff off list yesterday, I would have a hard time explaining
to a parent how her daughter had learned so much about the "dirty
Sanchez" in my Library. I could offer a cogent defense, but I wonder how
many administrators would back me up. I don't think that's allowing
anyone to frighten me into abandoning my principles, it's merely taking
a realistic assessment of the landscape. If we want to continue to offer
access to a remarkable tool like Wikipedia, we have to be responsible
with it. And this means knowing fully what we've got.


/* Bob Hassett, Head Librarian */
/* Luther Jackson Middle School */
/* 3020 Gallows Road */
/* Falls Church, Virginia 22042 */

June 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

I think that we need to realize that students ultimately have the responsibility to make good choices and appropriate choices for themselves.

We can give students safe operating guidelines, recommendations and teach them well, but ultimately they will be on the internet, alone, at some point, and need to have those good skills and habits at hand.

I think Wikipedia has much to offer as do other wiki sites, as do sites like Flickr, and social networking sites, etc.

I think when we block these resources from schools we do two things:
1.We abdicate responsibility for giving students guidance that THEY MIGHT NOT BE GETTING ELSEWHERE, and
2. We make ourselves irrelevant in their world, where wikipedia is often their source of choice.

We have to act like we "get it"--the pros and the cons, and talk about it with them.

I agree that in schools students should have teachers and librarians working with them as they do research projects and being aware of their sources, and guiding them to good sources.

I agree we need to teach them good "habits of mind."

I heard a speaker at Tech Forum(sorry that I can't remember if it was David Jukes or DAvid Warlick) in Austin talk about students crossing the street. Do we want to just toss them out at the curb, or is it also our job as educators to allow them to use tools like this so that we can guide them?

And certainly age appropriateness (as is reading level) is an issue for ANY source we have online or physically in our libraries.

I do think we have to be aware that there are many parents with differing views--about many of our materials and sources, so we do have to approach that issue very mindfully.
I understand that Jeff may have just been advising caution.

I use Wikipedia to talk about the idea of neutral point of view with students, a term wikipedia uses to indicate biased articles, and then extend that beyond wikipedia. We can talk about the idea of how the writers of wikipedia negotiate with each other to decide what the article is going to say ultimately(thanks Will Richardson for sharing that idea). We can talk about quality of writing and how some articles on Wikipedia are more readable than others.

So beyond the actual articles, there are a lot of interesting points to bring up regarding Wikipedia that also justify its inclusion as a district resource.

June 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn Foote


Great comments.

Carol Simpson says that it is impossible to teach kids to cross the street if you never let them out of the basement!

All the best,


June 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

I've been thinking about the wikipedia issue a lot lately, trying to figure out ways to make some practical pleas for it's use, so that we can be a part of it instead of demonizing it (or letting others demonize it, etc.) Here's what I came up with at my blog Here We Are, What Now?

(Link added here by Doug Johnson)

June 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSam Wallin

Hi Sam,

I like the ideas in your blog entry a lot!

All the best,


June 8, 2007 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Jeff Hastings adds this. Is he a great guy or what? Admitting here publicly that I misjudged him - Doug

From Jeff:

Likewise, I appreciate Doug's Blue Skunk Spunk, but think he may have underestimated my resolve in terms of being an advocate for intellectual freedom.

Fact is, I've always been my my district's go-to guy whenever there's a contested title; I'm always the first one on the phone to Chicago and the first one putting together packets of support materials.

Plus, I'm a big Wikipedia fan, and, as I said, I make it permanently available on the QUICK REFERENCE portion of my library site at:

Yeah, I love Wikipedia. I also love Cognac, Cuban Cigars, and high-stakes poker, but I don't introduce 12-year-olds to any of those.

All I was trying to say is that since Wikipedia is designed to address all things, one can expect it to address topics that won't be appropriate for children. (IF one subscribes to the notion that certain things aren't age-appropriate) Therefore, when working with kids, one needs to be more careful with the source than with, say The New Book of Knowledge, which is written specifically for young audiences.

Jeff Hastings,
School Librarian

June 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

This post inspired some independent research on my part. I was a bit surprised by what I found. I wrote about it over at my blog: Wikipedia: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

Doug, I appreciate your efforts - you gave me something else to mull over this summer.

June 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBrian B.

Hi Brian,

Thanks for the comment. I replied on your blog.

All the very best,


June 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

"If we let the loudest, most politically and socially radical members of our communities frighten us into abandoning our selection principles, where does it stop?"

You could just as easily be talking about Wikipedia admins as members of a school community.

"In my school district, the technology department, in all its infinite wisdom, blocks Wikipedia."

The irony is that if you don't block wikipedia and some student writes something on wikipedia that is below a graduate student level, it will be deleted, and if students post something offensive or off-topic, his or her whole school district will be blocked by wikipedia admins themselves.

I believe that like most new technologies and websites, there is a honeymoon period people go through where they see no wrong. But if you actually tried to use Wikipedia seriously, you would see a great deal of faults. Remember we are just talking about an encyclopedia, something that most people don't use after they are 13 years old. If you're doing a report on Afghani stamps that have fish on them, by all means, use Wikipedia:
Otherwise I'd recommend sticking with Google to do research, and getting help from other folks at sites like Yahoo Answers.

June 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Holton

Interesting perspective, Doug.

Thanks for writing in,


June 28, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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