Wikipedia is not the Enemy, and neither is Flickr

In November, there was a lot of buzz about a particular librarian in New Jersey and her anti-wikipedia campaign. I read about it in one my favorite blogs, Dangerously Irrelevant. Around the same time, I was up against a very small battle with teachers regarding wikipedia. The argument against wikipedia is valid. The articles can be modified by anyone, creating an opportunity for inaccuracies. Teachers who are against Wikipedia want to take the extreme position that the site should be completely avoided. I find that once we discuss the format of the site including the features of wikis in general, safeguards put in place to prevent all out vandalism of articles, and the Nature Magazine study comparing the results to Britannica the tone of the discussion usually changes. I can usually convince teachers that Wikipedia is a fine place to start gathering information, particularly if one needs some basic background information. After all, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia never intended for the site to be used for “serious research”.

When teachers complain that students should never check Wikipedia because the content is created by “anyone”, they are missing the point. “Anyone” includes experts in the fields, graduate students, professionals (like teachers), and people who care a great deal about the content of the article because the subject matter is their passion. Just as we would never want students to use an encyclopedia article as the only source in an essay or research paper, we could recommend that if Wikipedia is used, the student must add a resource to their list of sources sited. In addition, high quality Wikipedia articles include a bibliography, from which further research can be done. I can make a really good case for using Wikipedia and I’ve even had a few workshop attendees sign up for an account and begin an article about their own school or parish.

Here’s the weird thing – with lots of discussion about how “dangerous” it is to ask the community or the public to write articles for one of the most widely used online encyclopedias, why don’t we hear an equal amount of caution about asking the community/public to tag and comment on the photos from Library of Congress’ Flickr collection? I see no caution that the public will negatively impact the integrity of the project with inappropriate comments or irrelevant tags. By the way, Library of Congress sounds ecstatic over the results of their pilot so far.

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Library of Congress Goes Web 2.0

I’ve been a big fan of the Library of Congress for several years. We’ve used many of their collections for writing and social studies projects. With more than 10 million primary sources, the resources that can enhance a lesson can be very overwhelming. A good place to begin is The Learning Page which includes a database of lesson plans and activities using various collections. Examples of units and lesson plans that I’ve been involved in using the American Memory Collections include the following:

The collections from the Library of Congress are vast. For anyone studying American History, they are essential resources. The challenge is to find the right resources to help in the study of a particular topic. There isn’t an effective way to search through the millions of pictures to access the appropriate group that illustrate a period in our culture. It takes a great deal of time and familiarity with how the Library organizes the collections to select the images. Students, particularly those in elementary school, or even the general public would find navigation impossible. Perhaps recognizing this, the staff at the Library offices have posted thousands of images to Flickr, the world’s most popular photo-sharing site. The plan is for the the Flickr community to tag, comment, and make notes on the images. Flickr users use 20 million unique tags to categorize the hundreds of millions of photographs on the site. That’s the idea. The Library wants us to go th the collections on Flickr, called Commons, and add information to the photographs to make them easier to find. The whole concept is amazingly innovative and I for one am looking forward to years to come, when every one of the 10 million images are tagged, commented on, and easier to find and use because of the contributions of the Flickr community.

Read more about this project on the Library of Congress Blog.

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