Reference 2.0: Crowd-sourced Information

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      Rachel Kersley

      Once upon a time, references (of the ‘reference desk’ variety, not citations and bibliographies) were all about trusted, verified, expert sources. Now it’s all about crowd-sourced information.


      Strictly speaking, traditional references are absolutely still a thing, it’s just that now there’s competition – and the competition is doing pretty well for itself.

      At this point in the conversation the obvious example to give is Wikipedia, and I’m clearly feeling conventional, because guess what I’m about to talk about? That’s right – encyclopaedias (and Wikipedia too, I suppose).

      Encyclopaedias are a pretty shining example of traditional reference. The information comes from experts, is apparently held to a high standard of accuracy, and if anything needs to be updated it has to wait until the next edition. Wikipedia, on the other hand, is updated regularly (and often changed back, and updated again, and changed back…), is written by the public, and students are constantly told that it can’t be trusted to be completely accurate.

      And yet, we all know which option we tend to go for when we need to check something quickly, don’t we? There are a couple of reasons for that preference, and they also apply to the broader trend of movement towards non-traditional reference sources as well.

      The first is accessibility. Thérêse Nielsen commented a few years ago that Wikipedia is okay “if you don’t have anything else, if you’re in a remote part of Africa on something that’s got a solar battery and you need to know the average rainfall”. In other words, if that’s all you’ve got access to then it’s okay, because most people are probably more likely to have an internet-capable device on them in that situation than they are to have a set of encyclopaedias. Except that that’s true of just about any situation where people might want to check something quickly, unless the situation is literally ‘standing next to some encyclopaedias after losing your phone’. Sources like Wikipedia are quick, easy, and accessible.

      The other reason is more complicated, mostly because it’s about people. More specifically, it’s about experts and objectivity. Traditional reference sources are supposed to be reliable because they’re written by experts, and apparently unbiased. Which is great, except for when it isn’t. When it comes to information about gender and sexuality, for instance, I’d far prefer to get it from a site like AVENwiki, Gender Wiki, or, because it’s far more likely to have been written by a queer person. Official experts are much more likely to uphold the status-quo with ‘objectivity’. Queer wikis, on the other hand, have a horse in this race, and that horse is called ‘making sure people can get the information I wish I’d known earlier’. Just because something isn’t objective doesn’t mean that it can’t be trusted, and just because something’s in a dictionary doesn’t mean that it’s right in any meaningful way.

      Of course, even with the move towards non-traditional reference, the traditional sources are still being used. It’s just that the non-traditional options are being used – and people have reasons for choosing them.


      tl;dr: though still being used, there’s a general trend away from traditional reference sources towards ones like Wikipedia. Part of the reason is simplicity and ease of access, but for some people it also stems from a distrust of official expertise that upholds the status-quo in the name of objectivity.

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