review: Wikipedia: The Missing Manual

Several weeks ago I replied to a posting for a Facebook group that I’m a part of. O’Reilly Media had a few copies of Wikimedia: The Missing Manual that they would send out to folks for review. I got a copy, and as luck would have it, I saw the message and got the book as I was working on a few Wikipedia projects. Here’s the review I promised to make.

John Broughton’s Wikipedia: The Missing Manual is a book that is useful in several ways.

1. This book is a good introduction to editing Wikipedia for someone who has made an account and a few edits, and has begun to realize there’s a lot more to editing Wikipedia than they first suspected.

2. This book is an excellent reference for the advanced user who wants to do more with customization and JavaScript.

3. This book could be a relevant and useful text book for an information literacy class.

As I suspect there will be a number of reviews focusing on points one and two, I’m going to focus on three.

This book could be a relevant and useful text book for an information literacy class. The book is truly about how to edit Wikipedia. Because of this a lot of the text is about how (technically) to make edits. A theme of the book is to learn the Wikipedia culture in order to know what is appropriate to add, change, and delete. However, there is also a secondary theme dealing with issues we talk about in library instruction classes every day.

  • Wikipedia requires that article have supporting research. This book discusses the types of sources that are appropriate to cite and why they are best. Sound like the type of information we’re trying to convey in all those scholarly vs. popular publication talks we give?
  • There is a specific citation format that you must use to make references show up correctly. If someone cites in a way that COiNS understands, all the better. The citation format doesn’t really look like MLA or APA, but it is a specific format. Learning to follow the rules applies to all citation formats.
  • You always have to think about who wrote the Wikipedia article. You can look at the discussion tab for some of the conversation about the work and the history tab to see who made what changes. Likewise, when using any work, it’s good to think about authority and who is behind the writing. It’s a good habit to get into, and Wikipedia gives people a good reason to get into the habit.
  • Wikipedia is peer reviewed. Sure, we have very few ideas about who is doing the reviewing in many cases, but if your work doesn’t meet the standard of the community it will be changed. This can be a good (and sometimes hard) lesson in community standards. And that type of lesson will be good whether someone is going into academia and will be publishing in academic journals or if someone ends up working in a marketing firm and need to write company press releases.

I could easily imagine an infolit class that has a final project of a new Wikipedia page. Students could use the textbook for the technical howtos, and the concepts that align with information literacy could be assigned as readings and discussion topics.

So, it’s a great book. I’m going to heavily use it as a reference source as I begin editing Wikipedia in order to do it right. But I’m also going to keep it in my teacher’s arsenal for when I work with information literacy classes. Perhaps the real-world examples from Wikipedia will provide relevance and resonance with some of my students.

2 thoughts on “review: Wikipedia: The Missing Manual

  1. Thanks for these thoughtful notes about the book.

    I agree with you that Wikipedia is a very useful tool for teaching students information literacy concepts. Most students — and most people — approach Wikipedia as consumers of the information with little clue about how the information even got there in the first place. I believe that even drawing students attention to the Discussion and History tabs can deepen their awareness of what’s going on in Wikipedia and (hopefully) use it more mindfully — or at least get a better grip on what all the fuss is about it. They’ve all heard they should be cautious about using Wikipedia and that anyone can create content, but most students and also faculty have never even noticed features of the wiki besides the Article tab itself. But peeking into the Discussion tab exposes the biases and struggles of the authors to attempt some sort of “neutral point of view” and the History tab reveals the anonymity of authors (and edit done by an IP address!). You can totally leverage the interest students have in Wikipedia to teach concepts such as peer review vs. the seemingly collective review happening in Wikipedia and discuss the pros and cons. I’ve also discussed the scholarly vs. popular dichotomy and then asked students to think about whether Wikipedia is scholarly or popular, neither or both while talking about the Wikipedia guidelines (NPoV, no original research, etc.) and showing them how the wiki works beneath the surface of what they read. Fascinating stuff! A whole arsenal of rich material for engaging students!

  2. Hey Kim, thanks for your comments! I’m with you! I’ve actually gotten a fair amount of mileage out of Wikipedia at the reference desk, too. It’s amazing how a short one-on-one conversation about the tabs, works cited section, and a little bit about the Wikipedia culture can change how someone sees the source. It’s a great one, if it’s used thoughtfully. (Which is the key for most things, isn’t it?)

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