Wednesday’s New York Times had a reasoned, detailed story on Middlebury’s “no wikipedia” decree. The whole story, thank god. And it’s the first time in recent memory that I’ve seen scholarly bibliography discussed in the context of undergraduate education.
The debate around Middlebury isn’t so much an issue of credibility or scholarly worth, because, for the most part, Wikipedia is a broad and superior reference tool. (As an archivist, when looking for the repositories which hold papers of individuals or organizations, Wikipedia is one of the first things I turn to.) Rather, it points to the gaping hole of information literacy/bibliographic method in college teaching and academic libraries. Students have a hard time reasoning what reference works are for, and how they might fit into scholarly research. It has a lot to do with changes in higher ed (big classes, adjunct teachers, less writing, less research), but also with bibliographic tools that are subpar, inconsistent, and confusing. The OPAC is insulting, and print scholarly indexes went broke and their commercial counterparts are spotty and incomprehensive. So introducing students to reference sources as a starting point to inquiry, and not an end-answer, requires more from everyone. If a history department in a decent, expensive, and intimate school like Middlebury can’t take care of this, everyone else is in trouble.
What made the Times piece different from the dozens of others, is that they kinda got this. And they went so far to find a Columbia professor who did as well. Projects like those described in the article, where students had to “describe and analyze resources like libraries, reference books and newspapers. With 16 contributors, including the professor, the project comprises dozens of articles, including 13 on different Japanese dictionaries and encyclopedias,” actually teach critical skills for doing research and evaluating others’ work, rather than expecting that students will learn them on their own, within a context that’s in flux.