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FreePint BlogSOPA, information blackouts and ready references

Wednesday, 18th January 2012 Please login top-right to be able to star items

By Africa S. Hands


Abstract:

It’s official. According to a statement by Jimmy Wales, the “Wikipedia community has chosen to blackout the English version of Wikipedia for 24 hours”. This is in protest to both the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). I was surprisingly saddened to hear about this plan. Surprised not because I have any particular tie to Wikipedia ... more because the shutdown, voluntarily or otherwise, of any information source is unsettling.


Item:

It’s official. According to a statement by Jimmy Wales, the “Wikipedia community has chosen to blackout the English version of Wikipedia for 24 hours”. This is in protest to both the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). I was surprisingly saddened to hear about this plan. Surprised not because I have any particular tie to Wikipedia ... more because the shutdown, voluntarily or otherwise, of any information source is unsettling.

While I haven’t contributed to any of Wikipedia’s campaigns, I have to admit that I am a daily user of Wikipedia. Over the weekend while watching the 49ers game I wanted a quick reminder of their Super Bowl history, so I used Wikipedia. On Sunday while watching Downton Abbey, I was a bit confused about one of characters and turned to Wikipedia for a review. I also checked the show’s website and IMDB, but Wikipedia offered what I wanted just as easily. After watching Iron Lady, we dined at a restaurant with spätzle on the menu. What’s spätzle someone asked? Quick, check Wikipedia.

Sure, Wikipedia has its shortcomings, but these aren’t life or death information needs. If I don’t find the answer to the above queries, my life will go on. This widely used source is not without critics from the academic and information community. We know more information is available and a research question probably will not be complete based solely on a visit to Wikipedia. An astute and curious searcher will look for additional, credible sources. Still we cannot dismiss the fact that this is an important ready reference tool and, unless we plan to download to entire database, we had better prepare to use another resource for 24 hours.

Staff at The Next Web have compiled a list of apps, free and paid, that allow users to reference Wikipedia offline. Good for future reference, though I don’t think I’ll go that far this time around. What other online, fast and easy ready reference tools do we use day to day? Of course, this depends on the question at hand but there are a few go-to resources that usually do the trick. Movie trivia? The Internet Movie Database (IMDB). Math problems? Hands down I head over to Wolfram|Alpha. Quotes and classics? Bartleby.com. Refdesk.com lists numerous resources, still millions turn to Wikipedia. It will definitely be missed.

A resource blackout, whether it’s a ready reference tool or major research database, can be positive. Such an experience stretches us to find and regularly use other resources and learn new ways of doing information work. We can’t rely on one resource to have all the answers. We can’t find everything online using Google. Nor is every kernel of information available online. Hopefully the blackout will lead us not only to reflect on SOPA and PIPA and other issues of information access, but also to make better use of the many reference tools available online and in print.


 

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Africa S. Hands is an independent librarian with a focus on helping professionals understand and utilise social media and search engines through one-on-one tutorials and small group workshops. Africa tweets (@africahands) on resources of interest to information and higher education professionals.

Africa can be reached at africa.hands@freepint.com

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