The Library’s Role in Supporting Wikipedia

Wikipedia is having its annual fundraising drive and that got me thinking about a recent conversation I had with a fellow librarian.

The discussion started as one of those “is reference dead?” chats (I don’t think it is by the way – though it’s definitely taken a pretty big hit with the rise of the Internet – especially for those “quick hit” answers.)  This person was someone who believes that reference, if not dead, is on life support and sites like Google and Wikipedia are the main reasons why.

But instead of thumbing our noses at these sites, this person was of the opinion that libraries should be at the forefront of supporting Wikipedia. “Think about it.  Less than a decade ago, the library would spend, what?  $1500 per set for a bunch of copies of Britannica.  So somewhere north of $10 000 per year.  When was the last time the library bought that many encyclopedias?  Actually, I don’t even know if we’re still buying them?  So yes, that’s a big cost saving and those funds can go into other materials.  But aren’t we at the point now where Wikipedia has *become* part of our collection and since we don’t “buy” it, maybe we should put a portion of that money towards supporting it?  Imagine how much money Wikipedia could raise if every library – public or academic – that used to buy print encylopedias – sent Wikipedia $500 or $1000!”

It’s no secret how much of a supporter I am of Wikipedia (in a recent post, I think I said that it and YouTube – not Google, not Facebook – were the two sites I didn’t think I could live without) so even as I plan to send it a small individual donation, maybe we need to start talking to our friends in collections about putting some money towards an electronic resource that is one of the most useful in existence, for both our staff and our patrons.  Plus is there any popular web site online that so closely matches the mandate of libraries as Wikipedia – with its mandate of sharing the world’s knowledge, being open and accessible to everyone, by not charging any fees and (doing libraries one better in a lot of cases) not even having any advertisements or corporate sponsorship.

It’s a free site but that’s with an asterix of course.  With server costs, staffing costs and all the related expenses of running the Internet’s fifth most popular site, the reality is that it needs money to survive.   Libraries could help that to happen.  No, strike that.  Libraries *should* make that happen.

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