Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sarah Palin, Paul Revere and the Teachable Moment about Wikipedia

 Recently Sarah Palin, ex-governor of Alaska and possible 2012 U.S. presidential candidate, answered a reporter's question about the story of Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere. The reaction to her answer fell along partisan lines and ranged from accusations of inaccuracy to defense of her statement about the reasons for Paul Revere's famous ride. Soon after this news story appeared, the online free general encyclopedia website called Wikipedia found that its article on Paul Revere was being revised repeatedly to either support or negate Palin's version of history. Wikipedia allows anyone to edit its articles online so apparently Palin's defenders and detractors took the fight onto the most commonly used online encyclopedia. After a few days of repeatedly cleaning up its Revere article, Wikipedia put a virtual lock on it, effectively making it un-editable. In fact, Wikipedia did what the Encyclopedia Britannica and Grolier's Encyclopedia have always done: put out an edition of an article and then lock onto that version until the official editors feel it needs updating based on the facts of the case. Groliers and EB articles are written by experts in their field and the articles are often signed giving the author's credentials.
Without taking any side whatsoever, I think I have found one useful, library-related lesson in this latest Palin vs the news media kerfluffle. The Teachable Moment is this: you can't always believe what you read on Wikipedia or many, many other internet websites. You can rely on the facts in published reference works, both the old fashioned kind that sit on library shelves and the online versions that librarians purchase and link to their library websites. Berkeley Heights Public Library purchases reference books and encyclopedias in hard copy and in digital editions for our patrons to use. These reference works have been carefully researched, written, documented, edited, reviewed and have stood the test of time so librarians feel confident that the research resources we select for the library are "authoritative" - a nice library school word meaning the information is the real McCoy.
So if your children come home from school with an assignment which says they should not use Wikipedia or other unreliable websites, that's a good thing. If your children had checked online for the story of Paul Revere by Googling it in the last few days, you would have had very confused children. Ask your local reference librarian to point you towards the Real McCoy when it comes to research.

As to whether Ms. Palin was right or wrong or somewhere in between, I cannot say. But I can give you a really nifty assignment:  pick a topic and then compare and contrast the content and accuracy of real signed encyclopedia articles with some anonymous website articles. If that doesn't sound like fun, trust us on this one: just because something appears in Wikipedia or on the internet doesn't make it true.

Related articles:
Paul Revere's Wiki Page Altered, The Daily Beast
After Palin's Paul Revere Comments, Wikipedia Page on Revere Becomes Political Football, Associated Press
Paul Revere, Wikipedia
Revision history of the Wikipedia Paul Revere article with screen names of contributers.
List of Databases subscribed to by the Berkeley Heights Public Library. Patrons with a Berkeley Heights Public Library card can use these resources from any internet-connected computer.

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