Wikipedia vs Library: Analysis of an Infographic

Wikipedia vs Library: Analysis of an Infographic

cross-posted on NeverEndingSearch

Infographics are viral.

In my own PLN, one of us discovers an infographic relevant to learning or libraries or research and it’s all over the edtech/library world in a matter of minutes. And many of us are now using infographics as a student assessment.

But, like political or commercial messages, infographics are carefully-crafted media messages. And they beg careful deconstruction, scrutiny, and analysis.

The infographic, Wikipedia: Redefining Research, for instance, appeared on Open-Site recently. It documented the end of Britannica’s long print-based history and Wikipedia’s growing prominence as a reference source.

After 244 years, the Encyclopedia Britannica has decided to halt the presses and go out of print. Facing the realities and the stiff competition from Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica will now focus primarily on their online services. But even then, it might be too late. Wikipedia has grown to be the number one source for students. In fact, many students will stop research and change topics if it’s not on Wikipedia.

As I looked more carefully at the infographic, as I really read it, I began to see some distorted truths and some opportunities for information literacy explorations. (Editor's note: Column continues below infographic)


I saw many leaps in logic. But I will focus here on the few that are closest to my heart.

In celebrating Wikipedia’s prominence, the infographic also presents an interesting comparison of Wikipedia to libraries. And it kinda points to how we need to be in the habit of carefully scrutinizing the data these viral resources share.

Some of the statistics presented:

Students use Wikipedia more than libraries. Only 25% of students visit the library but 8 in 10 students turn to Wikipedia for their first source of research.

Library use is declining by 11% annually. And the amount of books is declining by 12%.

1.59 visits to the library annually. 5.7 billion visits to Wikipedia annually.

The source for the statistic regarding decline in library use comes from a November 18, 2010 article in the Concord (NH) Monitor. And that Concord article actually notes that despite the decline in use seen in two local branches,

Libraries across the nation have seen more people using their services in recent years due to the recession, the American Library Association said earlier this year in its annual “State of America’s Libraries” report.

While I love New Hampshire, one has to wonder why the infographic creators favored the local paper and ignored the larger group of stats provided by the national report they were led to in the same article they used as a potential source. (The 2012 edition of the report is due to be released by ALA next week.)

In the statistic comparing library visits to Wikipedia visits, the creators also quoted an IMLS study, based on a 2009 survey, using it to compare 1.59 billion library visits to 5.7 billion visits to Wikipedia. While that may be true, it seems a bit of an apples vs. oranges comparison. And, in fact ( ironically), the original source uses the 1.59 billion number to report an increase in library visits:

In FY2009, public libraries had 1.59 billion visits, an increase of 5.7 percent from 1.50 billion in the previous year. Library visitation per capita has increased over the past 10 years (Figure 3).

Other questions to ask relating to this infographic:

  • Which libraries were you measuring?
  • Which students? Which teachers?
  • Are those students who may not visit the public library, visiting their school libraries–either physically or virtually–during the school day?
  • Did you explore the digital use of public, school or college libraries? Students now use library resources even when they are not physically in their libraries.
  • When students are researching, not merely question answering or getting background, what do they do after they consult their first source? Is this an either or kinda thing? Don’t students use more than one source for most of their research?
  • Does YouTube give Wikipedia a run for its money? It does with my students.
  • And the amount [sic] of books is declining by 12%. Really? Which books? I had trouble believing this given the burgeoning ebook and audio book industries, the popularity of print on demand portals like Amazon, the number of e-reader devices sold, and the rise of the self publishing movement. In fact, Bowker’s annual Book Production Report for 2011 declares: Traditional publishing grows a modest 5%, while POD [print on demand] sends print total over a record 3 million! [Exclamation is mine.]
  • And, is there an irony–a rather sad one–about the authors titling their own infographic Research Redefined? While the authors of the infographic may have used a few reliable sources, in my mind, their own research is a little shoddy. I would have expected more of my own students. Had they consulted with a librarian, had they considered the value of a visit to a library (physical or virtual), I think they may have discovered a few even more reliable sources. To name just a few, these sources of reports about young people and their research habits: Pew Internet & American Life, the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning, the University of Washington’s Project Information Literacy.

( is a free, trusted, online encyclopedia . . . edited by volunteer editors and its content is freely available for everyone under the GNU Free Documentation License.)

Joyce Valenza is the Teacher-Librarian at Springfield Township High School, author, and technology advocate. Read her SLJ NeverEndingSearch blog here.