When the subject of Wikipedia comes up among academics, I've seen lots of different responses (almost all of them negative): rolling-of-the-eyes, tisk-tisking or harrumphing, hasty disavowals are among the most common.
If responses of this variety demonstrated only the view that Wikipedia was less-than-perfect, or that Wikipedia is no substitute for a library, I'd have no objection. But what I am usually picking up is far more disdainful than that, and (what's worse), responses that often don't seem suggest an accurate sense of what Wikipedia is (and isn't), or of how it works.
I can almost hear the shouts of "heresy" already, but let me offer a good word or two, if not in praise of Wikipedia at least in favor of critiquing it more insightfully.
All resources - whatever their pedigree, whoever is responsible for them, and in whatever medium they appear – are fair game for informed scrutiny, but if we are going to judge Wikipedia,
- Let it at least be on its own terms – as a colossal co-operative venture, which at least potentially draws together a vast community of people with an interest in a given topic.
- Let's be clear which version or edition we are judging. Because, unlike even the most distinguished reference source in print, Wikipedia is not the same today as it was yesterday.
- If we are going to use comparisons, let's at least make them reasonable and balanced. Far too often I find that some randomly-selected weak item from Wikipedia is held up against an exceptionally fine entry from a print volume. These comparisons prove very little.
- We ought to bear it in mind that when a given entry is incomplete or still in development, at least an effort is made to tell us so.
- We have access to a much broader community of learning than when we limit ourselves to print. There is a growing understanding of the value of the "community of enthusiasts," as well as of the better-known "community of scholars."
Is Wikipedia an alternative (intentional or not) to a library? Nope, but it doesn't claim to be, either. It's just another resource to evaluate (the kind of evaluation the library community is supposed to excel at), though it just happens to be a resource which is extremely convenient, as well at least capable of being continually improved (have you tried authoring or editing an entry? Or tracking its history ?), and continues to expand dramatically.
In other words, a resource that merits critique that is balanced and well-informed.