Time for Libraries to Take a Fresh Look at Wikipedia

by Alex Kyrios


Baga, Hoover, and Wolverton recently assembled a “webliography” of free online resources for catalogers (Baga, Hoover, & Wolverton, 2013). The webliography is itself a very helpful resource, especially for institutions short on personnel, money, or both. But the authors neglected to mention a prominent source for cataloging tasks such as classification and authority control, as well as help for other library professionals, from reference librarians to resource selectors. Like those listed by Braga et al., this source is free online. That resource is Wikipedia.

Wikipedia has been a fixture of the internet for years now. The site was formally launched on January 15, 2001. It came to prominence some years later and is, as of April 19, 2013, the sixth most popular website on the internet according to Alexa.com. (While Wikipedia is a multilingual project, with 286 languages represented as of April 19, 2013, this study will only examine the English Wikipedia, the largest and oldest version.) Perhaps the best known aspect of Wikipedia is its openness. Generally speaking, anyone may contribute to its encyclopedic articles by adding or removing anything. This fact colors most people’s judgments of the site. If you believe in the virtues of “crowdsourcing,” you’re likely to see Wikipedia as one of humanity’s most impressive knowledge-organizing ventures. But if you’re skeptical of crowd wisdom, you’re more likely to see the project as an impressive sandcastle on a beach, just waiting for a malicious child or the tides to destroy it. It would be wrong to discount the dangers Wikipedia’s open model represents. In most cases, there’s nothing stopping a person from adding false information (or deleting legitimate information) from an article, so taking anything on Wikipedia at face value is ill-advised. But it would equally be wrong to discount the legitimacy and utility of Wikipedia on such grounds.

It’s no wonder librarians can be skeptical of Wikipedia. At first glance, its mission seems incompatible with ours. Even as librarians make active efforts to engage users, such as through demand-driven acquisitions, the library remains a largely top-down model. Bibliographic experts select the best resources to make available to their users. No one would assert that every library resource is of unimpeachable reliability, but ideally, at least, every library book has an invisible seal of approval, an indication that the book is useful and good in some sense. (This can range from obvious quality educational materials, such as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, to popular leisure reading like the latest John Grisham novel, to primary source documents whose educational value is quite removed from its actual message, such as Mein Kampf.) But Wikipedia appears to have no such filters. In a system without the sort of filters that have served libraries so well, the reliability of information seems compromised. One popular writer has dismissed Wikipedia by summing up its philosophy as “Experts are scum” (Sjöberg, 2006). But this reflects a fundamental understanding of how Wikipedia works, even if it is one that many librarians may share. Used properly, Wikipedia can be a powerful tool for librarians of all types. And a librarian who knows how to make the most of Wikipedia can be a great resource for users of any library.

The Hazards

There’s no shortage in scholarly literature—library literature in particular—of voices warning of the danger of Wikipedia. Behrends says, “Perhaps no website has been the object of as much derision by the library community as Wikipedia” (Behrends, 2012). Popular sources haven’t spared Wikipedia, either. The encyclopedia represents everything that worries businessman Andrew Keen. In his The Cult of the Amateur, he decries Wikipedia’s “citizen-editors” for “defining, redefining, then reredefining truth, sometimes hundreds of times a day” (Keen, 2007, p. 20). The author of Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia, Robert E. Cummings, opens his book by saying “If you know anything about Wikipedia, chances are… you fall into one of two groups: you are either curious about Wikipedia… or you are worried by it” (Cummings, 2009). I would add that if you know anything about Wikipedia, you probably know that it’s open for anyone to edit its articles. This is broadly true. But in practice, Wikipedia has a multitude of defense mechanisms designed to prevent people from maliciously exploiting its open nature. Probably the simplest form of such malicious activity is referred to as vandalism. Popular and scholarly definitions of Wikipedia vandalism can vary from the official description, which excludes other behaviors classified more broadly as “disruptive editing.” For the purposes of this discussion, vandalism will entail any editing not made in good faith, including insertion of nonsense, deletion of legitimate information, or deliberately introducing factual inaccuracies.

In Wikipedia’s early days, vandalism posed a very real threat to the integrity of the project. Then, a determined vandal could quickly go from page to page defacing or deleting content, leaving it to good-faith editors to clean up his or her mess. Especially if undertaken at hours when most Wikipedians could be expected to be asleep, such attacks could cause serious, if not permanent, damage. But even in these early days, Wikipedia automatically tracks the changes made with every single edit. Older versions can easily be restored, so an individual act of vandalism can be reversed in about a minute. It wasn’t long before script-savvy Wikipedians began designing “bots,” automated accounts made to perform repetitive tasks, including identifying vandals and undoing their work (Adler, de Alfaro, Mola-Velasco, Rosso, & West, 2011). Automated tools such as Huggle and Twinkle are granted to editors in good standing, allowing them to revert vandalism in mere seconds, in just a few clicks of a mouse. Wikipedia’s software also allows administrators to protect certain articles, disallowing either anonymous users or, in extreme cases, all users from editing them. Article protection can occur for fixed periods or indefinitely. For example, the article on Yolo, California was temporarily protected after suffering extended vandalism related to the popular motto “you only live once” (YOLO). As of April 21, 2013, the article on Barack Obama is indefinitely protected from anonymous editors and brand-new accounts, having been the target of extensive derogatory vandalism. While vandalism will be a fact of Wikipedia at least as long as it allows anonymous editing—and founder Jimmy Wales has made clear that this essential feature of Wikipedia will not be discontinued—the threat it represents has been effectively diminished from a horde of barbarians at the gates to an irksome fly, easily combated and ultimately harmless.

Vandals aren’t the only bad-faith users on Wikipedia, but they’re generally the only kind that will compromise the encyclopedic content. For example, trolls—users who goad good-faith users into attacks or pointless arguments—have also been identified as a threat to Wikipedians’ morale (Schachaf & Hara, 2010). However, unless trolls themselves engage in vandalism, there is little reason to think their behaviors could directly introduce errors into articles.

The Potential

These hazards should not blind librarians to the powerful tool Wikipedia can be in the right hands. Some of these benefits, in fact, come directly from the hazards. For reference and instruction librarians at the academic level, school librarians, or any information professional helping others assess the quality of resources, the ever-present possibility of errors on Wikipedia offers an endless stream of teachable moments in resource assessment. A statement on Wikipedia without a corresponding reference (generally formatted as a footnote) should be counted no better than a rumor. A statement with a reference the user can follow and verify against, however, will give that user experience in critically assessing specific claims of fact. (For bonus points, press them to find more resources to confirm the observation further.)

But focusing on Wikipedia’s shortcomings is to miss the forest for a few dead trees. Wikipedia has rightly been praised as “amazing” and “one of the best encyclopedias” (Sunstein, 2007, p. 12). For every bored teen who inserts obscenities into an article, there’s a competent researcher introducing real information supported by quality sources. For better or worse, users are increasingly relying on Wikipedia over libraries (Ockerbloom, 2013), and many of them consider it a credible source (Doueihi, 2011, p. 80). A librarian who teaches those users how to responsibly assess credibility does a service to Wikipedia and the profession alike.

This is not to say that librarians must reach out to Wikipedia; the relationship works both ways. Libraries have much to offer Wikipedia, whose references exhibit FUTON (FUll Text On the Net) bias—libraries’ print holdings represent an area of opportunity for collaboration. Wikipedia volunteers know this. The Wikipedia Loves Libraries initiative, started in 2011, seeks to improve engagement between Wikipedia and libraries. Several types of events are coordinated by Wikipedia Loves Libraries, but perhaps the most promising type is the “edit-a-thon.” In these, a library (or archive) hosts local Wikipedia editors who use the library’s resources to add sources to Wikipedia, improving the encyclopedia and bringing people into the library. Furthermore, these sessions are an opportunity for librarians to familiarize people with their collections and form community partnerships. Some edit-a-thons are free-for-alls, while others focus on a specific topic. The Smithsonian hosted an edit-a-thon dedicated to improving coverage of women scientists; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill hosted one focusing on notable African Americans in North Carolina.

As a digital resource, there are many ways in which Wikipedia has incorporated library data, with researchers on both sides seeking more. Some of these are quite simple. For example, users citing a book as a source on Wikipedia can provide the book’s OCLC number, which will automatically generate a WorldCat link for that book. Casual editors may more often only have the book’s ISBN, but it is entirely within the realm of possibility for someone to design a bot to match up ISBNs with OCLC numbers and supply the latter number in Wikipedia articles. In fact, one bot has already started on a similar task. Following a 2012 OCLC proposal (Klein & Proffitt, 2012), many biographical articles now include authority file identifiers, unobtrusively located at the bottom of the articles. An OCLC-designed bot matched Wikipedia article names with VIAF authority files, which can consequently be used to integrate other authority identifiers, such as LCCN or GND, the German National Library’s system. In the future, similar endeavors could link library data into Wikipedia on geographic and topical entities. (Keen might feel vindicated, however, at the reaction of a few Wikipedians to OCLC’s proposal. Unfamiliar with the concept of authority control, the phrase was attacked as “authoritarian,” “fascistic,” and “totalitarian.”) OCLC has hired a “Wikipedian-in-Residence,” who has coordinated the authority control initiative and presented on ways to integrate the missions of Wikipedia and libraries (Klein 2012).

Coming back to the idea of Wikipedia as a cataloging resource, there are several functions Wikipedia can offer a cataloger. First is its impressive structure of categories. Casual readers of Wikipedia may never notice categories, which are listed at the bottom of every page (only some new articles lack categories altogether, and volunteers quickly categorize such articles). The article for Melvil Dewey, for example, has been placed in categories such as “American librarians,” “Amherst College alumni,” and “People from Jefferson County, New York.” The solenoid, a coil device used in physics and engineering, is in the “Electromagnetic coils” category. These topical categories frequently correspond to library knowledge organization systems such as Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). Wikipedia’s categories are structured hierarchically, like LCSH’s. As a cataloger, I’ve found these categories invaluable guides in classifying materials on subjects with which I’m unfamiliar. For example, I may have a thesis about a certain species of fish which does not have a discreet LCSH term for its genus or species. But if I can find a Wikipedia article on the species, I can follow its categories up through the species taxonomy until I find a grouping with an LCSH established. Generally speaking, Wikipedia categories are especially reliable. They’re not visible enough to casual readers to be the target of vandalism, and categories themselves are very difficult to vandalize. A savvy vandal could still place an article in an erroneous category, however. As with the encyclopedic content, Wikipedia should only be a starting point.

Wikipedia can also be a good resource for authority work. If a person is the subject of a Wikipedia article, there’s a good chance there are birth and death years in the article. The categories come in handy for this as well—articles on people are categorized by years of birth and death. Dewey, for example, is also in the “1851 births” and “1931 deaths” categories. Especially for living subjects, the articles may also contain links to official websites or CVs, both of which can be invaluable for the creation of an authority file. Additionally, Wikipedia’s human name disambiguation pages collate existing articles with shared names, from the dozens listed at John Smith to the two at Aníbal Acevedo. (Occasionally these pages won’t exist when there are just two entries. As of April 21, 2013, the article at Sanford Berman describes the cataloger, with a link at the top of the page to Sanford I. Berman, a philanthropist.)


Some librarians may regard Wikipedia with skepticism, distrust, or even jealousy. But the free encyclopedia shares many of the values and goals that libraries do, and many of its editors are motivated by the same values that guide many librarians. Wikipedia’s open model may pose some risks, but its overall reliability has been vetted and found comparable to traditional, top-down encyclopedias (Giles, 2005). Especially compared to those competitors, Wikipedia offers many opportunities to promote library resources and forge partnerships to keep libraries relevant in the digital age. In an interview early in Wikipedia’s lifespan, founder Jimmy Wales described the project, saying, “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing” (Miller, 2004). This quote has frequently been referred to as a summary of what Wikipedia stands for. It’s a utopian sentiment. But it’s one that many librarians have been pursuing at least since Alexandria. Libraries can join this effort, and in doing so we’ll improve Wikipedia and the institution of libraries alike.

Works Cited

Adler, B.T., de Alfaro,L., Mola-Velasco, S.M., Rosso, P., & West, A.G. (2011). Wikipedia vandalism detection: Combining natural language, metadata, and reputation features. In Gelbukh, A. Computational Linguistics and Intelligent Text Processing: 12th International Conference, CICLing 2011, Tokyo, Japan, February 20-26, 2011. Proceedings Part II. Berlin: Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-19437-5_23

Baga, J., Hoover, L., & Wolverton, Jr., R.E. (2013). Online, practical, and free cataloging resources: An annotated webliography. Library Resources & Technical Services, 57(2), 100-117.

Behrends, S. (2012). Libraries vs. Google in the 21st century. The Idaho Librarian, 62(2). https://theidaholibrarian.wordpress.com/2012/11/12/libraries-vs-google/

Cummings, R.E. (2009). Lazy virtues: Teaching writing in the age of Wikipedia. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

Doueihi, M. (2011). Digital cultures. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Giles, J. (2005). Internet encyclopaedias go head to head. Nature, 438(7070), 900-901. doi: 10.1038/438900a

Keen, A. (2007). The cult of the amateur: How today’s internet is killing our culture. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Klein, M. & Proffitt, M. (2012). Linking library data to Wikipedia, Part 1 [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwwTNmJUQ8w

Klein, M. (2012). Wikipedia and libraries: What’s the connection? [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcWmYIF5TMs

Miller, R. (2004, July 28). Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales responds. Slashdot. Retrieved from http://slashdot.org/story/04/07/28/1351230/wikipedia-founder-jimmy-wales-responds

Ockerbloom, J.M. (2013). From Wikipedia to our libraries [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://everybodyslibraries.com/2013/03/04/from-wikipedia-to-our-libraries/

Shachaf, P. & Hara, N. (2010). Beyond vandalism: Wikipedia trolls. Journal of Information Science, 36(3), 257-370. doi: 10.1177/0165551510365390

Sjöberg, L. (2006, April 19). The Wikipedia FAQK. Wired. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/software/webservices/commentary/alttext/2006/04/70670

Sunstein, C.R. (2007). Republic.com 2.0. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Alex Kyrios, Metadata and Cataloging Librarian, University of Idaho

The Librarian’s Nitty-Gritty Guide to Social Media [Review]

reviewed by Rebekah Hosman

The Librarian’s Nitty-Gritty Guide to Social Media
Laura SolomonThe Librarian’s Nitty-Gritty Guide to Social Media
Chicago, IL:  American Library Association Editions, 2012
ISBN, 978-0838911600, paperback
224 pages, $52.00

Laura Solomon writes in the introduction of The Librarian’s Nitty-Gritty Guide to Social Media that “this book is my attempt not only to answer common questions libraries have about using social media but also to explain and demonstrate how libraries can be doing social media more effectively” (intro pg. ix).The best part about Solomon’s book is that she thoroughly accomplishes what she sets out to do–the book is chock full of effective methods to navigate the social media world, with the understanding of why libraries should be involved in social media in the first place.

Solomon includes a wide range of topics from Understanding Social Capital (which is a key concept that I hadn’t heard before), Fine-Tuning Facebook, Online Reputation Management, Social Media in the Long Term, and more. Each of the eleven chapters addresses a vital component in understanding and managing social media for a library. Solomon doesn’t just talk about how to participate successfully in the social media world, but she also gives references, resources and practical tasks for a library’s social media plan. There are many types of social media sites discussed in this book, including Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Google+, Instagram, YouTube, and blogging. It’s up to a library to choose what works best for their needs and patrons.

This book is a great asset for libraries wanting to start or advance their social media agenda. If libraries aren’t currently utilizing social media, this book will help you to understand and plan an effective social media campaign at whatever level will best suit your library. Whether you are the Library Director or the Social Media person, you will find practical applications in this book. At our library we have started using several social media sites; including Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook to connect to our patrons and be a resource for our community. After reading this book I realized that I’d missed some steps to be successful in our media plan. For example, we didn’t have a Social Media Policy, and Solomon explains why that’s important and directs readers to several policies developed by other libraries.

As the Library Director of a small rural library, I sat down to read the book and was excited to find a wealth of useful information I could use for our library. I ended up not only underlining the key tips that Solomon puts at the end of each chapter, but also wrote down a list of tasks for my library’s social media plan. We plan to implement a social media plan, poll our patrons to see what social media sites they use, and establish a social media team to help keep our sites current and updated. We especially appreciated the specific advice on how to effectively post on Twitter.

My library also appreciated the final chapters that talk about evaluating your social media plan and social media in the long term. Solomon helps readers to understand how social media is a changing system, but will continue to be around in some form. If you follow Solomon’s advice and direction then you will have a long-term effective plan for your library’s social media. She also provides encouragement by having real-life library staff give social media advice. For example, “Social media, just as the names implies, is social. No one person or department can tackle it alone successfully. It has to be a group effort. And, oh, yeah I almost forgot, not an afterthought to your other endeavors” (192).

When you are finished reading (and re-reading because the information is so relevant) the book, you will feel equipped and ready to take on the social media world. Solomon’s book is not only an effective guide, but in essence a how-to handbook for libraries using social media. I would recommend this book for libraries that would like to start using social media, and libraries that are having difficulty using social media effectively.

Rebekah Hosman is the Library Director at the Grangeville Centennial Library.

Libraries vs. Google in the 21st Century

by Shawn Behrends  

Recent statistics released by OCLC’s Perception of Libraries, 2010 do bear out the assertion that users rely heavily, if not exclusively, on Internet search engines for information search tasks.  Their survey showed that 84% of respondents reported starting a search on a search engine, and not a single respondent reported beginning on library websites (De Rosa et al., 2011, p. 32).  If libraries have traditionally been the gatekeepers of information people need, how do they maintain relevance in this new information-seeking paradigm?

This essay examines what we mean when we talk about authority and credibility for Internet sources.  It discusses the question of whether free Internet information services like Google really can compete as an alternative to traditional library reference services.  Finally, this essay considers the practical implications for libraries and it offers solutions for living comfortably within the free and open online information landscape.

What Google Offers Users

Users have sound and valid reasons for relying on the Internet for their information needs.  Internet search engines offer information that is self-service, free, and available 24/7 in one’s own home (Anderson, 2005).  The Google web browser has been a driving force in this perception.  Anderson states that “Google has succeeded wildly at finding its users the information they want in return for a minimum investment of time and energy” (p. 32) and Timpson (2011) observes that for searchers Google offers a one-stop shopping experience and a very usable interface.  Critics of the Google-style information search have countered that it returns too many results—and too many irrelevant results—and that most people lack the skills to form an effective search.  Anderson argues that the same could be said for libraries.  They also suffer from information glut and users have no better success formulating effective queries on library websites and databases.  One could argue that they have even less success on these.  What users do get from Google, however, is good enough quality information (Anderson, 2005).

What is quality information?  How do we judge it?  These questions of authority and credibility of Internet information sources have been the object of much debate and are central to whether we, as librarians, allow ourselves to embrace or reject this 21st century reality.  Perhaps no website has been the object of as much derision by the library community as Wikipedia, the online open source encyclopedia.  Yet Wikipedia has proven, over time, to be at least as authoritative as mainstream published encyclopedias (Lankes, 2008).  It is, in fact, verified for accuracy of its scientific articles against the science journal, Nature (Brindley, 2006).

Establishing Authority and Credibility on the Internet

The question of authority—a trusted source—on the Internet is compounded by the problem of so much information, so many choices.  Lankes (2008) has made some very engaging observations about how users navigate the Internet information space, how they choose information sources, and how they make judgments on the credibility of the information they find.  In contrast to the old model of going to the library to consult librarians and trusted resources for credible and authoritative information, Internet users must operate on a self-sufficiency model.  Because Internet users cannot engage physically with the items they encounter, they are dependent on information they can glean about the items.  (For example, one can pick up and examine a book in the bookstore or the library, while one must depend on the information provided about the book on Amazon.com).

Whom does one believe?  Lankes (2008) posits that credibility is derived from trust and expertise.  On the Internet, that means that users are dependent on information provided by others.  According to Lankes, that explains the power and popularity of social web applications of Web 2.0.  The desire to participate and engage the feedback of others is at the heart of credibility on the Internet—and reliability, Lankes claims, is the currency of credibility.  On the Internet, it is reliability that is more powerful than authority.  It is through the consensus of the participatory Web environment that one can determine the reliability of information sources on the Internet.  Establishing authority on the Internet in yet another form comes, very famously, from Google’s PageRank algorithm that is based on consumer input from links generated between web pages (Regalado, 2007).

The implication for libraries is two-fold.  One calls for an attitude adjustment in terms of the message libraries broadcast about authoritative sources and the Internet.  According to Lankes (2008), that has been, generally:  Internet bad.  Library good.  Lankes asserts that the relative ease of use of the Internet and other digital resources makes authoritative sources easy to find, and that because the Internet provides access to raw data (e.g., NOAA for climate data) users feel empowered as authorities.  The second implication is for the services that libraries provide.  As information service providers, libraries need to get on board with social Web applications and the kinds of linked data schemes that allow them to add value and context to the information they already disseminate.  Lankes observes that librarians (and users) must “be fluent in the tools that facilitate the conversation” (p. 682).

Does Google Work Better Than Libraries?

Surprising—to we librarians, at least—is the popular perception that other sites have better information than libraries (Timpson & Sansom, 2011).  Timpson and Sansom conducted a study comparing students’ perceptions and search performance of Google Scholar against library research discovery platforms and databases.  In keyword searches—which were how students actually preferred to search—Google Scholar performed better than the library products.  Students were biased toward the single search box and they were satisfied with the precision and recall of search results on Google Scholar.  Although Google Scholar did not out-perform the library databases for relevance in subject specific areas, the authors noted that the trend in academic libraries seems to be toward the types of Google-like search interfaces that students feel comfortable with.  They also noted that the students’ satisfaction with the Google results may reflect the kind of research documents they prefer.

Practical implications of this research can be drawn for libraries.   Timpson and Sansom (2011) suggest that publishers put more effort into creating the kind of one-stop research experience that students prefer.  Libraries can vote with their pocketbooks to effect these kinds of changes.   Timpson also reflected that Google can be an effective search tool.  Librarians must be proactive in teaching student researchers techniques for getting the best results from Internet searches, and to appreciate the power and the limitations of library databases (Regalado, 2007).

The kind of service Google offers to searchers differs from that of libraries as well.  Beyond the obvious appeal of the convenience of providing search on demand, Anderson (2005) discusses ways in which Google’s search capabilities are superior.  Google’s search is more granular because it can search at the article level.  Libraries’ search engines are not so sophisticated—one can only search as deeply as the title of a book, for example.  Google also has full-text search capability.  Essentially, Anderson observes, Google can search the content.  The library catalog can only deliver the container.  But Google isn’t the only Internet information service that exceeds the online library catalog in granularity.  Amazon.com has announced a new service to make books available at the page and chapter levels (Brindley, 2006).  What does than mean for libraries?  We need to design better search engines.

Strategies for Making the Library’s Online Services More Relevant to Users

Users’ confidence in Internet resources represents a crisis that needs to be met by libraries if they wish to have a presence and be competitive as the “go-to” resource for online research and reference queries.  There are several avenues that libraries can take to respond to this challenge.

Embrace Internet Information Services and Technologies

Anderson (2005) observes the ambivalence of librarians toward services like Google’s.  While publicly they disparage Google, privately they have adopted it in their own information seeking practices.  That approach seems hypocritical and disrespectful to the vast majority of users who view the Internet as a self-service cafeteria for finding the information they need.

Web 2.0 technologies have introduced a number of different tools that are preferred by Internet users and can be adapted by librarians to improve service to their patrons.  These include using instant messaging tools for reference, wikis for pathfinders and subjects guides, and blogs and RSS feeds for library news events (Regalado, 2007).  Libraries have also begun to embrace social networking technologies such as Facebook and Twitter as effective and free communications tools.  All of these tools operate on the conversational principle that has proven to be an important component for users to judge the reliability of Internet resources.

Re-Imagine Reference Services

Reference services are the main point of contact of libraries to information seekers.  Popular and scholarly literature concerning reference services is replete with suggestions for luring patrons away from Google and Wikipedia and into library vetted online resources.  Like many reference service providers, Arndt (2010) recommends helping users to navigate that vast information landscape they encounter on the Internet as a key service that libraries can provide.  Arndt’s literature review reveals that younger users still desire and value the assistance of face-to-face reference services.  Research concerned with keeping library reference services alive and relevant to users includes ideas such as services that require librarians to leave their desks and meet users at computer stations, in the stacks, in academic departments, in coffee shops, and through research skills workshops.  Arndt concludes that researchers still desire reference services but that the way libraries provide these services must change.

Join the Internet Community

Lankes’ (2008) discussion on the importance of user input and conversation for verifying credibility of online resources hints at the need for libraries to employ these social technologies in the online services they provide.  Although the ideals of authority and credibility are implicit in library-sponsored online content (and users recognize that), users have come to expect and prefer these resources that incorporate user feedback and context.

New technologies also allow libraries to link to outside sources.  Newly emerging linked data technologies allow libraries to create a web of links that allow users to access library resources from outside of the library’s websites (Miller & Westfall, 2011).  Thus, users may still begin information searches in Google, but they may discover answers within the library’s resources.  Using linked data schemes libraries can position themselves in the center of Internet information spaces.


Although it is not true that all of the information that users seek can be found on the Internet (the difficulty of accessing the deep web exemplifies this notion), a great deal of information that is good enough to meet the needs of users can be found there (Anderson, 2005).  Many of these sources are, in fact, as authoritative and as credible as those that can be found in libraries (Lankes, 2008).  Lankes reminds us that systems for determining credibility have shifted as Internet users are left to make these judgments on their own.  The conversational exchange that is enabled through social web technologies has filled this credibility gap by allowing Internet users to leverage vast pools of user input (e.g., customer ratings, forums, and complaint sites) to judge the credibility of information based the reliability of its providers.  Sometimes this means that Internet users abandon traditional news service providers in favor blogs and other informal sources or, as in the case of Hurricane Katrina, Lankes (2008) reports that information seekers turned to local chat rooms and community sites to verify contradictory reports.

Libraries must recognize that they are increasingly not at the center of information seeking behaviors of Internet users.  Several strategies, however, can be employed to counter this.  Inside of the physical library and community environments libraries can find innovative ways to push reference services to users.  They can be proactive in educating searchers in more sophisticated search techniques and demonstrate the utility of their database products.  Librarians should be engaged in lobbying electronic resources publishers to create databases with more appealing user interfaces and superior functionality.  Libraries must also take seriously the need to have a presence online and create points of access that make their resources discoverable by Internet browsers.

OCLC’s (De Rosa et al., 2011) 2010 perceptions report reveals that although library resources still rank high for being trustworthy, users have confidence in their abilities to make determinations about Internet sources for themselves—and they are equally as confident about the trustworthiness of the Internet.  Add to that the convenience of information seeking on the Internet and one can only conclude that the library will need to work very diligently to maintain relevance as an online information provider.

Shawn Behrends has an MLS from the University of North Texas. She works at Madison Public Library in Madison, South Dakota.


Anderson, R. (2005). The (uncertain) future of libraries in a Google world: Sounding an alarm. Internet      Reference Services Quarterly, 10(3/4), 29-36. doi:10.1300/J136v10n03_04

Arndt, T. S. (2010). Services in a (post)Google world. Reference Services Review, 38(1), 7-9.  doi:10.1108/00907321011020680

Brindley, L. (2006).  Re-defining the library. Library Hi Tech, 24(4), 484-495.  doi:10.1108/07378830610715356

De Rosa, C., Cantrell, J., Carlson, M., Gallagher, M., Hawk, J., Sturtz, C., . . . Oleszewski, L. (2011). Perceptions of libraries, 2010: Context and community : A report to the OCLC membership. Dublin, Ohio: OCLC.

Lankes, D. R. (2008).  Credibility on the Internet: Shifting from authority to reliability, Journal of Documentation, 64(5), 667-686. doi:10.1108/00220410810899709

Miller, E., & Westfall, M. (2011). Linked data and libraries. Serials Librarian, 60(1-4), 17-22. doi:10.1080/0361526X.2011.556427

Regalado, M. (2007). Research authority in the age of Google: Equilibrium sought. Library Philosophy & Practice, 9(3), 1-6.  Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/libphilprac/

Timpson, H., & Sansom, G. (2011). A student perspective on e-resource discovery: Has the Google factor changed publisher platform searching forever? Serials Librarian, 61(2), 253-266. doi:10.1080/0361526X.2011.592115

Getting Bombed in Boise: Yarn Bombing and Libraries

by Ruth Patterson Funabiki


Surprising sights greeted participants at the 2011 Idaho Library Association annual conference.   Bright blue “monster feet” peeked out from under projector screens.  The banquet room podium microphone was wrapped in a rainbow of colors.  And random colorful objects appeared on water carafes and coat racks at Boise’s Centre on the Grove.  Two members of the Idaho’s Special Projects Librarian Action Team (SPLAT) had prepared a yarn bombing for the conference.  In addition to a presenting a show-and-tell conference session, Heather Redding (2011) created a handout with a bibliography for prospective librarian yarn bombers.

Sometime in the last two decades, knitting and other traditional fiber crafts began to evolve into active public art forms.  In the catalog for an exhibition entitled “Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting,” McFadden, Scanlan & Edwards (2008) theorize that rising interest in handcrafts may represent a response to the increase of digital technologies in our daily lives.  They also suggest that after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, groups of crafters may have formed because people were seeking communities of personal support.

Ruth Scheuing (2010) traces the origins of yarn bombing to an Austin, Texas woman named Magda Sayeg, whose inspiration led to the 2005 creation of a tagging group called Knitta.  Yarn bombing quickly spread all over the world, often with positive responses from public officials.  Two popular contemporary books document the movement and inspire fiber artists.  Yarn bombing: the art of crochet and knit graffiti (Moore & Prain, 2009) and Lela Nargi’s Astounding Knits (2011) display colorful examples from both professionals and amateurs.  Yarn bombing is a lively presence in social media, with multiple Facebook pages, and it appears on hundreds of boards on Pinterest.  It is no surprise, then, that commercial craft enterprises are not far behind in promoting yarn bombing.  A recent article in Time (Luscombe, 2011) identifies June 11 as International Yarn Bombing Day.

There is very little scholarly work to date on the subject of yarn bombing.   But, in her recent sociology master’s thesis, Jennifer N. Vchulek (2011) used focus groups to explore the motivations and influences for individuals who participate in yarn bombing.  She identified the motivating factors for yarn bombers as urban beautification, fiber arts legitimization, and ideas of anarchy.  This article describes those factors and suggests ways in which librarians might wish to encourage local yarn bombing activity to enhance or increase public library awareness.

Motivations for yarn bombing

Urban beautification

Many of Vchulek’s subjects indicated that they viewed yarn bombing as an opportunity to “improve the local landscape” with their handcrafted items.  This could be accomplished either through “enhancement” of existing artistic features, or by using colorful knitted or crocheted products to draw attention to “under-appreciated” items such as bicycle racks and parking meters.  Urban enhancement was definitely the point of view of Crosley (2011) who argues that although yarn bombing is often described as tagging, it belongs in the arena of public art rather than graffiti because it is intended to please average people.  Writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2010, Chelsea Conaboy dubbed yarn bombing the “anti-graffiti.”

Fiber arts legitimization

Vchulek found that countering the image of knitting as a “grandma” activity is another common motivation for yarn bombers.  Minahan & Cox (2007) explore this in depth in their article, describing how many young contemporary women discovered and developed a feminine Third Place after reading Debbie Stoller’s Stitch’n Bitch: a Knitter’s Handbook (2003).   As they put it, “Stich’n Bitch groups are formed by and for women who get together to knit as a highly social form of creative leisure production.”

Ideas of anarchy

Finally, a number Vchulek’s respondents seemed to identify tagging as an antiestablishment activity.  One of her focus groups got very excited while talking about dressing in black ninja costumes and sneaking around in the dark to install their yarn bombs.  Other “bombers” ply their trade in the bright sunshine and hope for the best.  Streetcolor’s Blog describes one such escapade at the Berkeley Public Library in http://streetcolor.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/yarnbombing-the-berkeley-public-library/   When dealing with city officials, it may sometimes be “easier to get forgiveness than permission.” (Bloch, 1980)

Library applications for the three kinds of motivation

How might Idaho librarians apply Vchulek’s observations in a way that enhances library programming and public image?  Based on the three motivations that Vchulek found, there are a number of possibilities.

Urban beautification

An urban beautification approach might appeal to existing community fiber arts groups–some of which may already meet at the library.  For instance, librarians may wish to invite a holiday-oriented “bombing” inside the library on Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day.  The Fourth of July might lend itself to an outdoor event at the library or some other public venue.   Any of these colorful efforts might be newsworthy for the local press or television.

Recently, the Lodi Public Library in California hosted a yarn bombing as a part of its National Library Week celebrations.  A notice in the local newspaper invited participants to create colorful knitted or crocheted strips that were 6 inches wide and 100 inches long.  The library hosted an “assembling party” on April 2, and the “bombing” took place on April 9.  The yarn bombing was featured on the library website, and recorded in a video at:  http://www.lodi.gov/library/events-2012-03-Yarnbombing.html

Not every public library yarn bombing is greeted with enthusiasm!  In Berkeley, California, the North Berkeley public library branch disassembled some colorful wrappings applied to its brand new bike racks during a grand opening celebration.  Fortunately, a kindly library staff member preserved the wrappings and returned them to their maker. And Donna Corbell, Director of Library Services, was later quoted as saying “We explained to the woman that we would be glad to talk to her about putting it back up at a future date if she wished to.”  (Taylor, 2011, para. 8).

Fiber arts legitimization

The growing interest in fiber arts and crafts represents an opportunity for library program planners.  Local fiber arts groups can be invited to display their creative and decorative work in the library.  Elementary classes in knitting and crocheting present an opportunity to showcase library books and videos.  In addition, 4H groups and Girl Scout troops might also be invited either to attend instructional programs or to lead them.

Ideas of anarchy

For any publicly-funded institution, there will be limitations on this aspect of yarn bombing!  But, certainly yarn bombing offers library users an opportunity for artful free expression.  Magda Sayeg’s website and blog continue to inspire both political and aesthetic creations at: http://www.magdasayeg.com/home.php.  Several free-spirited, first person accounts of library yarn bombing escapades–including the unsuccessful North Berkeley Public Library installation– appear in a blog authored by Berkeley’s Streetcolor:   http://streetcolor.wordpress.com/


Yarn bombing is on the rise as a craft and art form.  Its urban origins do not limit its applicability in any size community.  Yarn bombing is also an extremely flexible medium.  It can be a solo or group effort, performed either outside or indoors.  These are among the many reasons for libraries to consider yarn bombing for community-building, public relations, and entertainment.


Bloch, A. (1980).  Murphy’s law book two: more reasons why things go wrong.  Los Angeles: Price/Stern/Sloan Publishers.

Conaboy, C. (2010, April 13).  Anti-graffiti knit work, or ‘yarnbombing,’ brightens cityscape. The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Crosley, S. (2011, January 1).Wild and woolly. Hemispheres. Retrieved from: http://www.hemispheresmagazine.com/2011/01/01/wild-and-woolly/

Luscombe, B. (2011, June 20).  A ripping good yarn! Step aside, graffiti artists, here come the knitters.  Time.

McFadden, D., Scanlan, J., & Edwards, J.S. (2008). Radical lace & subversive knitting.  Woodbridge: ACC Editions ; New York: Museum of Arts and Design.

Minahan, S. & Cox, J. (2007). Stitch’n Bitch: Cyberfeminism, a Third Place and the New Materiality. Journal of material culture, 12, 5-21.

Moore, M., & Prain, L. (2009). Yarn bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Nargi, L. (2011).  Astounding knits: 101 spectacular knitted creations and daring feats.  Minneapolis: Voyageur Press.

Redding, H. (2011). Get bombed! Yarn bombed, that is.  http://www.idaholibraries.org/files/Yarn_Bomb.pdf

Sayeg, M.  Magda Sayeg: current projects. http://www.magdasayeg.com/home.php

Scheuing, R. (2010). “Urban textiles: From yarn bombing to crochet ivy chains”  Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings.  Paper 50.  http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/50

Stoller, D. (2003). Stitch’n Bitch: a Knitter’s Handbook.  New York: Workman Publishing.

Taylor, T.  (2012, April 9).  Berkeley library not thrilled about yarnbombing. Berkeleyside.  Retrieved from http://www.berkeleyside.com/2012/04/09/not-all-creative-contributions-welcome-at-library-reopening/

Vchulek, J. N. (2011). “Tag! You’re It!”: A social examination of urban yarn bombing. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Ruth Patterson Funabiki, Law Library, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho