A teaching student comes to the desk of my public library. She comes across as intelligent, capable, library friendly – she knows what she’s looking for and how to articulate it.
She’s looking for information on different types of pen through the ages as a backgrounder to a lesson plan. She’d like book references if possible, and they have to be useful to her and potentially useable with primary age children as well.
As is often the case, what we needed wasn’t there – there were no works to hand on the subject itself, the how it works books didn’t cover the full range of options and the titles on writing only had a limited amount of information on writing instruments.
I asked if she had looked on the web. She said she had but she hadn’t found anything useful. I suggested we start with a quick look at Wikipedia.
“Oh no,” she said “we’re not allowed to use it.”
I’d like to tell you that I felt a professional conflict, but I didn’t. This interaction wasn’t the first time I’d been asked by help for students whose instutions wanted them to stay away from Wikipedia, or google, or any number of modern bugbears. My response is tailored to the student’s age and need, but is generally the same: a touch of subversion for the better good.
Thus, I explained that her institution was right, and that she oughtn’t use Wikipedia as a final reference, but that we might use it as a secondary source, and go better armed from there. As I had anticipated, the site had an excellent page on pens giving us not only the full list of pen types (including reed pens, new knowledge for me) but an exhaustive coverage of the subject. I finished the interaction by strategising with her how to proceed with her online research using terms and links garnered from the source.
Educational institutions with an aversion to wikipedia/google/etc. is not a new thing. Schools lock these sites out of their inhouse computer systems, but I had felt that culture had become less entrenched over the last few years.
I recent post to one of the listservs I read showed that the issue is still bubbling away under the surface. The author, a school librarian, cited a recent incident in which a parent doing some background research for her child on Newberry Award winner Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh on Wikipeda found “pornography”. The article was cited as justification for the kinds of hands-off policies educational institutions have towards internet sources. (Why the article wasn’t about how children can only learn by doing their own homework I can’t tell you).
This is a hard one to respond to. Pornography, particularly when notionally directed at children, is a hot button. As the earlier interaction was still on my mind I decided to investigate further. Fortunately, with Wikipedia, this is eminently possible.
Wikipedia holds a revision history for the Mrs Frisby page, as it does for all the pages it contains. It tells us that at 1.36 PM on May 19th this year, an unknown user from IP 220.127.116.11 (ie someone locateable if a true offence is being committed) altered the page to include some obscene material.
I say obscene rather than pornographic, because the half-paragraph of text while offensive is clearly not written to arouse. I would estimate the writer’s age to be between maybe 10 and 14, probably male. Read the text yourself if you’re interested.
While I can understand that an adult reading this would be offended, it occurs to me that this random mishmash of meaningless acts is exactly the approximation of adult concerns children invent for themselves on the winding path from complete innocence to full agency. Try reading a Goosebumps sometime. Aimed at primary age children, and absolutely shocking to an adult.
An hour and three minutes later, SilentAria, a Wikipedia editor of what seems to be good, longstanding reputation reverts the page to its last good revision. He or she sends the anonymous vandal a politely worded message explaining the philosphy of Wikipedia, encouraging their positive contribution and warning of their banning should they continue. The vandal has not posted since.
Now, I’m not saying we should expose our young people to this kind of content. What I am saying is that this content was there for one hour, a blip in the evolution of a page that has existed since October 2004. I’m reminded of the comparision of the risks of flying in an airplane versus crossing the street – in this case, the television that’s on in the home every night is far more likely to bring potentially upsetting content to children than this hour’s worth of transient and well-hidden filth.
A concept I intend to explore more fully at a later time is that of information literacy education needing in the modern information culture to go beyond a set of procedural rules – and believe me, “no wikipedia” is one of the most blunt, basic procedural rules an institution could put in place in this context – and change our approach into on vastly more dynamic.
Let’s not ask “is this source reputable”; let us learn to ask “is this source reputable today.“
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