Einar Spetz’ blog

Should librarians cross the Wikipedian border to reach young users?


By Einar Spetz, Sweden

This presentation connects with yesterday’s panel discussion about Wikipedia and libraries, where Chuck Henry and others concluded that Wikipedia challenges libraries and forces librarians to redefine the content of their profession. My presentation is called Improving quality content regional networking. An alternative title could have been Why I believe school librarians should help improving quality of Wikipedia’s content.

As more users daily turn to Wikipedia, expectations on finding high quality information raise. Not long ago a teacher and friend asked me: – Who is responsible for the development of Wikipedia? And when will Wikipedia become a high quality reference tool? Thinking about it becomes evident that no person or institution bear such a responsibility. The fact that thousands of users every day spend time improving Wikipedia’s content doesn’t mean that they have any obligation to do so. Though, If you are a school librarian and all your primary users, the pupils or students, daily turn to Wikipedia for answers, one could at least argue, that improving Wikipedia’s content would be a major concern to you. And to your target group. Personally I contribute mainly on the Swedish Wikipedia. Professionally, I am a school librarian and in the last years I have worked in an upper secondary school library. This school is situated in the Northern Stockholm area, 30 kilometres away from the centre of the Swedish capital.

Librarians and Information literacy

In my work I encounter pupils from fifteen to nineteen years of age. They spend three years at upper secondary school. When they graduate, a majority is likely to move on to university or college for higher education.

Pupils of secondary school soon figure out that school librarians have serious plans for them, plans aiming to develop the ability to access, process and use information in a conscious way. This includes skills to evaluate and reflect critically on information and trying to grasp at least some of the cultural and historical context to which the information found belongs. These aspects are only a few of all aspects of the subject Information literacy.  I’ll just scratch the surface of this subject today. You can find extensive and eloquent articles on this subject on the various language versions of Wikipedia. If your German is good there is an excellent article called Informationskompetenz waiting for you.

Traditionally, school librarians teach information literacy skills in a number of ways. They organise hands-on training, workshops, seminar-paper clinics, traditional library instructions and so forth.
A recent report (in Swedish) shows (as expected) that teachers and librarians promote other sources of information than they that pupils use most frequently. One often stressed point is to use trusted, authorised information. However, this preaching seems futile.

Most efforts made to alter pupils’ information behaviour prove to have little or no impact at all. Even surrounded by finger pointing school staff members, pupils in upper secondary school just do not agree that it such a bad idea to choose a source with user produced content. Pupils prefer easily accessible information and they use the easiest way to get it. Often that equals using Google to enter Wikipedia.

The result of a user-study

In August last year the Stockholm county library asked me if I could work with a so-called pre-study. This particular study would focus on possibilities of school librarians networking focusing on Wikipedia related issues. I accepted and in February this year I finished the study. (It’s available in Swedish only. You can press the word link to look it up:  LINK

Besides an introduction of Wikipedia to the Swedish library community, I included a user-study based on interviews with 91 pupils from three different upper secondary schools in the Stockholm area. The questions I wanted to look further into was the following:

  • How familiar are secondary school pupils with Wikipedia?
  • How frequently do they use Wikipedia?
  • How do pupils rank the reliability of the information found on Wikipedia?
  • What do pupils think about their teachers’ view on Wikipedia’s reliability?
  • What do pupils think about their fellow-pupils’ view on Wikipedia’s reliability?

The interviewees were not informed beforehand. They were approached at school, in the public areas, outside the classrooms where they were asked to participate in interviews regarding encyclopedias.


To test the aspect of familiarity, I presented the following short characteristics to all pupils:
“There is an internet based encyclopedia with articles in various languages. The English language version is the biggest with over 2 million entries. The Swedish version has more than 260 000 articles. Do you know the name of this encyclopedia?”

It proved that 82 per cent of the interviewees immediately could to tell the name. 18 per cent came up with alternative answer or no answer at all.


To map usage I asked two questions: “Have you ever used Swedish Wikipedia?” and if the answer was in favour, when was the last time you used Wikipedia’s Swedish version?

It became clear that almost everyone had used Wikipedia at least once. And those who had, had useed it frequently:

87 per cent of the interviewees claimed that they had used WP at least once within the last 30 days. Now 87 per cent – how much is that? I disided to compare this with to what extent the interviewees also h used Wikipedia’s No. 1 competitor in Sweden – The National encyclopedia, a.k.a NE.SE. At all three schools this web-based encyclopedia was accessible through any computer belonging to the school’s computer network.

The answers were clearly in favour of Wikipedia. During the last 30 days 42 per cent of the interviewees had used the NE.SE, compared to the 87 per cent that had used Swedish Wikipedia.

Then followed questions about Wikipedia’s reliability. The first question was: Wikipedia’s content consists of articles that anyone is able to write and edit. How much do you trust the information? How reliable is the information found on Wikipedia? The result was was 88 per cent of the interviewees thought information was either very reliable or reliable.

On the other hand only 35 per cent of the interviewees believed that their teachers either thought of Wikipedia’s information as very reliable or reliable.

A clear majority believed that teachers disregard Wikipedia because of poor content quality. I have to stress that this is what pupils believe. I have definitely no proof that a majority of Swedish teachers would not respect Wikipedia.


These interesting figures show how interviewees rate fellow-pupils’ trust in Wikipedia. Fellow pupils are believed to rely on Wikipedia slightly more compared to the interviewees themselves. I find this to be one of the funniest results of my enquiry.

What’s the conclusion? Well, it seems indisputable that these upper secondary school pupils were familiar with Wikipedia and they are using it to a great extent. They also seem to trust Wikipedia’s content and they don’t seem to worry about warnings.

As a school librarian, knowing that my primary target group finds its way to Wikipedia, without any marketing at all, that pupils find the information there quite reliable regardless of what others may think or say – to me that changes things. My professional conclusion is that libraries and librarians should start to contribute on Wikipedia. Not because the content is either good or bad, but simply because our core users already are there. Does the catchword The library is everywhere mean anything to you? It was a slogan belonging to the Library 2.0 movement. The idea is that libraries should be useful to clients wherever they were, rather than to expect users to show up at libraries at specific times.

But not only that: it also means librarians should get more involved. Normally, if libraries establish a service on the internet, the procedure to follow, would be building separate web-projects, like special wikis and then try to attract target-groups through development of services and hope that users will turn up and maybe also return.I believe it is a much better idea that librarians join forces on Wikipedia. Now, that would be the start of a new era, because librarians lack traditions both when it comes to getting deeply involved in someone else’s project or favouring one particular party, like Wikipedia. But as said in yesterday’s panel debate: libraries and Wikipedia do have a lot in common, like the interest of conveying information free of charge, all aiming to increase knowledge and to make society more open and more democratic.In my pre-study I suggest a project for 8-10 school libraries in the counties Stockholm and Uppsala. The man idea is to build networks with individual wiki-users, students, school staff and librarians. Organisations like Swedish Wikimedia chapter could also be included. Financing, though, is a current problem. There is little money in the library trade.The reason for this team building is that our target groups would benefit from librarians’ joint efforts on Wikipedia. What would these networks be doing? Here are some ideas of what to focus on:

  • Improve quality: improve articles listed as Vital, improve B-class and good articles, trying to reach A-class level
  • Writing and editing articles on demand after interviewing clients at the front desk or through the web reference desk
  • Verifying, indexing and categorising material/articles
  • Developing meeting spots on the Wiki-site for parties that care about school library issues
  • Developing IRLmeeting places like Wikipedia LAN parties and Wiki-clubs at the school library
  • If you can think of other things, I would be all ears.

    Now, time is probably out since long. Thank you all very much for listening!







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