At Least You Can Fix the Errors on Wikipedia

I just read a great digital age lesson about information literacy.  It came from Lawrence Gillick, a school librarian in Wisconsin.  He explained that he recently taught a lesson to his students about why they were using the educational databases and not Wikipedia as the main source of content.  Soon after that, the class found a misprint on an article located through the EBSCO database.  He contacted customer service to tell them about the error, and they explained that they had a policy that prohibited changing the error.  The content must stay as it was submitted by the publisher.  Gillick follows with a great reflection about how this would be handled on Wikipedia.  In fact, Gillick himself (or one of the high school students for that matter) could go to the page and correct it.

This is not intended to disregard the value of academic databases, but Gillick’s illustration helps us to check our assumptions, both about traditional publishing sources and Wikipedia.  Information literacy is clearly about more than finding trusted sources.  It is about equipping ourselves (and others) with critical information literacy skills and resources.  I find it helpful to remember these four considerations, referenced in The Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education and stated succinctly in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills content.

  1. Time – There is only so much time in the day, and deadlines require that we learn to find and evaluate information in a timely manner.  As a result, we often lean on “trusted sources” or we just take the risk that our sources may be errant.  Regardless of our information literacy skills, time will influence the quality of our work, so we must find ways to be more efficient with our research.  We mitigate this limitation by attending to the next three items.
  2. Access – Wikipedia is much more accessible than many academic databases.  In the end, we use what we have.  Regardless of the databases that we learn about, most people end up using the ones that provide the easiest and most widespread access.  Related to this, in the days of going to the library and checking out the book, we were used to locating and accessing a source as two distinct steps.  In the digital world, many are used to doing a search and simultaneously locating and accessing a full-text version of what they need.  If it isn’t in full-text format and time is an issue, then they skip it, even if it might be the best source. Of course, access isn’t just about what databases are available to us, but it also depends upon our skills in accessing relevant and appropriate resources.  That is where we need to develop search skills, understand the benefits and limitations of different types of sources, etc.
  3. Competence – The ability to evaluate information requires enough background knowledge to get started. The less we know about the topic, the more difficult it can be to evaluate it.  In addition, evaluating the accuracy of content typically requires a source upon which to evaluate it.  That means more time and access.
  4. Critical Thinking – Even if we have plenty of time, easy access, and a high level of content knowledge; we also need to learn how to analyze sources critically.  Looking at things like currency and authorship play an important role but critically analyzing sources can go deeper than that.  For the greatest example, check out Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book (on my 20 Books that Changed my Life list). For something more concise and on topic, consider this section of the Purdue Online Writing Lab site.