Thursday, February 2, 2012

Is Wikipedia really the library's competition?

Wikipedia was on strike for 24 hours on 18 Jan 2012. Many libraries attempted to take advantage of this backout to turn it into a "teachable moment" . Libraries Tweeted (Topsy finds about 500 mentions of Library and wikipedia during the period), blogged, posted on Facebook, created libguides to help students survive the blackout and otherwise advertised the importance of libraries.

This was despite @libodyssey's very sensible tweet

Admittedly, I tried to market my library during the blackout. Arguably part of the reason was that we librarians are naturally helpful and was preparing to assist our panicky users once they couldn't get to Wikipedia.

In any case, the Wikipedia blackout hit my region at around 1pm and I prepared a couple of tweets and Facebook posts to firstly mention the library and secondly mention workarounds to access  Wikipedia. I suspect it was the later that got us some retweets, and some compliments.

I also monitored tweets with the keyword Wikipedia within a location of 1km around our library, to see what people (presumably our users) were saying.

What made me truly curious was whether Wikipedia downtime would lead to increase library usage, whether it be access to library website, eresource usage, reference desk usage etc. I happened to be on desk duty during the Wikipedia blackout and my impression was that while usage was up from the day before it didn't seem to be attributable to Wikipedia but was simply the effect of the academic year advancing (The term just started a week ago here). My tweet scan also didn't really pick up much panic, just general moaning though it was good that a few of our loyal fans actually tweeted at their friends who were moaning, to use the online library resources. 

Still impressions are not everything and I was going to look at our statistics but it seemed Ken Varnum already did a pretty comprehensive analysis at his  library (University of Michigan) The results he got at his library was very similar to ours basically.

"the increase was about the same as for the day before and the day after -- reflecting the increasing workload of the academic semester more than any Wikipedia-inspired bump."

Pretty much every article, commentary about how libraries are dying tends to mention Google and Wikipedia being some of the reasons why we are in trouble, so Wikipedia going down should have a bigger effect but it didn't. Why? Let me speculate.

1. The blackout was too easy to circumvent. 

You could turn off javascript, click Escape below the page loaded, access via mobile, use services that relied on the Google cache and probably more methods. While technical restrictions have always being circumvented by the savvy, the Wikipedia Blackout set a bar that was extremely low (on purpose).

2. The period wasn't long enough. 24 hours really isn't that long. 

Perhaps if the blackout was 1 week or even 1 month....

3. The period was during a time in the academic calender where University students weren't really doing assignments. 

In our University it was just the beginning of term. Assignments weren't due yet.

4. Wikipedia wasn't that important to our students after all, there are other non-library substitutes

While our students like to use Wikipedia to look up quick facts, to get a quick overview of topics, they didn't really *need it* , after all they still had access to Google.

5. Wikipedia isn't a substitute for libraries after all

This basically argues that even if Wikipedia disappeared forever, and no similar substitutes appeared, library usage wouldn't increase at all. Alternatively imagine Wikipedia goes down for 6 month, and there is no way to access it easily, usage of library wouldn't increase at all.

Under this view, Wikipedia and libraries are not substitutes at all (independent goods).  Why? Let's assume they know the library exists and what it can do (a big assumption granted).

a. They would have never used the library anyway, whether Wikipedia existed or not

b. They might have used the library if they haven't used Wikipedia before , but being exposed to Wikipedia means they would never go back. Our students are so used to Wikipedia, nothing we have in our library, not our books, eresources, shiny new discovery interfaces are sufficient to lure them back. 

c. They *are* using the library resources already, together with Wikipedia, so Wikipedia's blackout isn't going to increase library usage at all. See Daring librarian's Wikipedia is not Wicked.

No doubt all 3 reasons apply to different users but I get a feeling that b. seems to be the reason most people are thinking why libraries are in trouble, so librarians should hypothetically be cheering the fall of Wikipedia. I am not so sure....

Of the 5 reasons, I postulated of course all 5 are factors, but I suspect, even if #1-#3 are not factors, #4 and #5 would still mean no impact to usage. What do you think?

Other blackouts?

It's interesting to speculate what would happen if Google went down, or the reverse

"So what would happen if say on April 1, 2012 academic libraries around the country turned off their proxies? Would the world notice or would people just think that the servers at Science were down for the afternoon?" -- WHAT IF? The Library Blackout Scenario

Honestly, I don't think strategies for library survival should be based on hoping other people fail, so all this is hypothetical anyway and we can never go back to the way the world was pre-google and wikipedia, so we can only look forward. 

Of course, all I have argued is based on the premise that library usage did not increase during the blackout. Anyone have evidence otherwise? For example, one could argue that Public Libraries might see far more increased usage during the blackout than academic libraries because of the nature of users and queries (quick reference) , which users tend to rely on Wikipedia to handle. 


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