Wikipedia, Amelia Bedelia, and Our Responsibility Regarding Online Sources
When I was a children’s librarian with NYPL’s Children’s Center at 42nd Street I conducted a lot of class visits with older kids (ages 9-12, usually). Sometimes these would be groups of kids learning how to do research using the library’s resources. For them I covered the usual databases and image library stuff, but also a kind of Why Google Is Not God portion where I showed them very convincing fake websites like the good old Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus site and All About Explorers. Using these sites I showed them why you need to take every site you encounter online with a grain of salt because someone might be mucking with you.
That’s Google. It should be noted, however, that I never did a Wikipedia portion of my talk. Not intentionally, of course. It just wasn’t as go-to a resource as it is today.
Librarians have a love/hate relationship with a lot of online resources and Wikipedia is no exception. We would be lying if we said we didn’t all use it sometimes, though. I mean, where else are you going to find a fairly accurate listing of the order in which the Rainbow Fairy books are meant to be read? And we understand that everyone should rely on two sources for information gathered there. So with all that in mind how are we to interpret the Amelia Bedelia-related Daily Dot piece I Accidentally Started a Wikipedia Hoax?
In the piece one EJ Dickson says that in college, while high during her Sophomore year, she and a friend went around creating false information on Wikipedia for children’s book authors. “It was the kind of ridiculous, vaguely humorous prank stoned college students pull.” For Peggy Parish they wrote that Amelia Bedelia was based on a Cameroon maid with a lot of hats.
First off, and before we go any further, I’m not entirely certain that the author understands the meaning of the word “accidentally” as found in the title. Perhaps it would be accurate if she had been falling asleep one night and in the course of her head falling forward onto the keyboard in an unconscious state it managed to type out a false Wikipedia entry and enter it without her knowledge or consent. Because the implication as it stands is that everything one does in college is “accidental” and therefore doesn’t count. Mmmhmm.
Personally I found it an odd little piece, but not overwhelmingly disturbing. A friend of mine felt very differently and emailed me the following:
“As a high college student, she very deliberately sabotaged a hugely-valuable communal resource, and now she finds it strange and hilarious that her lies are still doing damage 5 years later …and she’s blaming everybody but herself for the damage she’s done. Yes, Wikipedia will publish your lies if you tell them with a straight face. So will the New York Times, as has been proven over and over. This is why everyone should rely on at least two sources. This obvious fact doesn’t make it cool or funny or righteous to plant lies in either of these information sources. Now she’s off on a Oedipus-like righteous crusade to find the watchdog that fell asleep and let her lies go uncorrected. She might want to look in the mirror.”
That’s a bit stronger than I’d put it, but it’s another way of reading the piece. She does apologize, I should note, though she also admits to finding the entry funny not much later on.
And in case you were wondering, this magnificently wrong little tidbit about Amelia Bedelia does not appear in Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature. I’m happy to say that Candlewick had us source and re-source every quote and fact in that book to the hilt. So no worries there. I do wonder what you take away from the article, however. Is the deliberate planting of lies the responsibility of the resource or the person doing the planting?
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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