Librarian Secrets: Wikipedia Is Not the Enemy

People my age are often referred to as “digital natives,” but I’ve never felt like that label is appropriate. I like the internet, but I don’t always trust it. I use Google regularly as a part of my job, but sometimes it just isn’t good enough. And here’s every librarian’s dirty little secret: we use Wikipedia all the time.


Wikipedia was new when I was in high school. I first used it for a project in my tenth grade geography class. I’d spent a sizable fraction of my childhood poring over the 1999 Encarta Encyclopedia on CD-ROM, finding entries on topics and reading through them. (Once a nerd, always a nerd.) Wikipedia was like a version of Encarta that went on exhaustively and forever on the internet.


I can’t remember if tenth grade was when I was told “Wikipedia is unreliable.” I remember debating with friends. I remember other teachers at my high school having demos about how anyone can edit it to say anything they want.


I was skeptical of this anti-Wikipedia sentiment at a young age; after all, Wikipedia had information that my underfunded, underused school library couldn’t get. We were frequently assigned work with the bogus constriction that “x amount of your sources must be from a book.” This seemed like an excuse to boost the usage of what outdated materials we did have on the shelf. Another librarian dirty secret: books don’t have a monopoly on informational integrity. People can also write books to say anything they want. Credible books can go out of date. In some arenas, professional and academic journals have the most-current information.


In undergraduate school, the professor for my Introduction to Humanities course rolled her eyes at our objections to using Wikipedia. “The articles on the Classics are actually quite good,” she said. “Just make sure you can verify the information with the citations.” I partially attribute this statement to my later choosing a career dedicated to information literacy.


I worked at an academic library in grad school, and I can tell you some college students today have been told at one point to avoid Wikipedia completely. (They’re also still being required to use a quota of books in their assignments.) But if you’re getting started on a topic, Wikipedia is hard to beat as a starting place and for further resources. There were times when I needed Wikipedia to brush up on a topic in order to help a student.


I’m not saying “Wikipedia is a substitute for everything,” nor am I saying that this is a knockdown dragout of internet-versus-books, nor am I validating the claims that Wikipedia (or the whole of the internet, for that matter) makes my job irrelevant. I’m saying that it’s counterproductive to ignore Wikipedia as a resource and a major player in our information ecosystem. When life gives you lemons, make credible lemonade.


We promote equal access in the library, but we don’t live in an equal-access world. Even though we provide cardholders with a huge array of databases, DPL has some amazing physical resources that can’t leave the Central Library and/or require special equipment to use. Everyone has information needs, but not everyone has the resources (like time, transportation, or money for parking) to fulfill those needs.


Here’s an example: we receive questions almost daily that require the archives of the Denver Post or Rocky Mountain News. If you’re searching an article published after 1989 or so, you can find it using the America’s Newspapers database. But if you’re looking for something published before the first Bush administration, it may only be accessible on microfilm. Librarians can scan or print something on microfilm for you, and are happy to do so for particular items. But what if you need to come look at the microfilm for deeper research and you can’t get downtown? Or, if you could, what if you could share what you learned with the next person who might need or be interested in the information you’ve found?


This is where Wikipedia comes back in because, if used well, it has the potential to be a great equalizer. Someone out there in the world without a Denver Public Library card may need information. A robust, well-cited Wiki page could help them find that information and lead them to further reading on the topic. And because anyone can edit Wikipedia, that means we (me and you!) can harness its power by making sure its articles reference credible resources, like resources found in the library’s physical and digital collections.


On Saturday, March 31, I became a Wikipedia editor and content creator as part of Art + Feminism’s global movement to improve Wikipedia pages about women in the arts. Denver’s event was hosted by local arts collective ArtHyve. My colleagues and I brought some of DPL’s resources to help augment and create Wiki pages to lead users all over the world to information about women in the arts.  

I used to be a volunteer docent at the Molly Brown House Museum, where I learned about Helen Henderson Chain. Brown owned one of Chain’s paintings, and I used to point it out on my tours. (By the way, you can see this painting for yourself by using your library card to check out one of our Museum Passes.)


Chain was a pioneering landscape artist and mountaineer who lived in Colorado in the 1870s. She has been called the first female resident artist in Colorado. She learned from, taught, and traveled with several famous landscape artists of the period (and summited mountains in Gilded Age garb), and even though she’s referenced in other Wikipedia pages, she didn’t have a page of her own.


Using a combination of America’s Newspapers, Gale Power Search, the Kirkland Museum website, and the book An Encyclopedia of Women Artists in the American West, I was able to give Chain her own Wikipedia page.


My page isn’t the final word or even a piece of writing I’m incredibly proud of, but it’s a start. I have designs on looking through our non-circulating collections to find out more and add to what I’ve already written, both in Reference’s robust collection of biographical materials and in our Western History and Genealogy department (where Chain is listed in the Subject Index). Western History also hosted an exhibition of Chain’s work in 2014 and owns quite a bit of it, which you can see in person or online.


Being lucky enough to work in an institution that has so many resources on this criminally under-known artist has filled me with a sense of responsibility to get the word out. With a free, collaborative platform like Wikipedia, I can spread the word. And with library resources, I can do so wisely––and so can you!


Got questions? Ask Us or call Reference Services at 720-865-1363!


Photo of [Landscape with Deer] by Helen Henderson Chain, courtesy of Western History. This painting is viewable online in the Western Art portion of our Digital Collections at this link.

Written by Lauren on April 5, 2018


Karen Lausa on April 6, 2018


Absolutely fascinating! Thank you for sharing this insight into an oft maligned resource.