Jan. 19, 2012
BOSTON — When Wikipedia announced it would shut down its English-language site on Jan. 18 to protest pending anti-piracy legislation, everyone wondered: Where will we find out the answers to random facts? Or settle disputes with loved ones?
NPR, the Washington Post and the Guardian made an offer: tweet your would-be-Wikipedia'd questions with the hashtag #altwiki and the organizations would try to answer them. NPR reference librarian JoElla Straley was the point person. With help from her colleague Kee Malesky, she managed to answer about 20 questions between her regular tasks. WGBH News spoke to her via email.
Now, to knock down our headline: Straley emphasized, "The point of the project wasn’t to substitute for Wikipedia really in any way."
(The idea, NPR online journalist Mark Memmott said in an email, was "to see what a day without Wikipedia is like and what types of questions people ask.")
And in fact, a lot of #altwiki users just seemed to be having fun with it, Straley said. Would you ask Wikipedia, as someone did #altwiki, "How many fingers am I holding up?"
Beyond that, #altwiki garnered a few "gotcha" questions about highly specialized scientific research as well as short factoid requests, Straley said. Given the format, long answers were out. "One of my favorites today said something like 'I need detailed info about thermodynamics in 140 character bursts.'"
Where to find the answer, with no Wikipedia? Straley has access to subscription-only databases but stuck with sources anyone could access. That often meant… you got it… Google. But Google as manipulated by a professional librarian with a master's degree. "I use Google Books a lot for answering questions in the newsroom, and I did that with this project," Straley said. "The important part is picking good stuff out of the results. It’s helpful to have a sense for what types of org[anization]s are going to have the info you need before you start looking, too. Otherwise you can spend a lot of time barking up the wrong tree."
So now we're back in the wide-open internet and we can quit bugging Straley and go back to using that information source everyone maligns (but secretly relies on) until it's blacked out.
Straley is not among the haters. "Personally I like Wikipedia. I mostly use it as an index to the internet," she said. As with Google, she brings a trained eye to the information — and skips to the bottom of the page: "Searching through the references usually leads to some good stuff."
Whether it's Wikipedia or the Encyclopedia Britannica, Straley said, "It's good to have a healthy skepticism for most reference works. If something is in doubt you should really consult a bunch of different sources, and maybe even call some experts!"
Coming to a smartphone near you: 1-800-ALT-WIKI?
WGBH NEWS: KENDALL SQ. ON THE BLACKOUT