Interview with the author: Paul A. Thomas, Inside Wikipedia

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

April 25, 2023

I recently had the opportunity to interview Paul A. Thomas about his book. The interview is below.
1. Please introduce yourself to our readers. My name is Paul A. Thomas. I’m a library specialist at the University of Kansas, and I hold a PhD in library and information science from Emporia State University. My research focuses on the intersection of fandom, Wikipedia, and LIS; in fact, this unique topical junction is the focus of a manuscript I’m currently working on for Lexington Books titled The Information Behavior of Wikipedia Fan Editors: A Digital (Auto) Ethnography. In addition to my works that look at Wikipedia, I’ve also written books about “wizard rock” (I Wanna Wrock! 2019, McFarland), the television show Adventure Time (Exploring the Land of Ooo, forthcoming, UP Miss.), and ghost story folklore (Haunted Lawrence, 2017, History Press)! In terms of my Wikipedia contributions, most of the articles I have edited focus on popular music and television (I’m a principal contributor to most of the article focusing on The Office, The X-Files, Adventure Time, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and the band Pale Waves), but I’ve also worked on articles about everything from Latin literature to bats.

2. Please briefly summarize Inside Wikipedia: How it Works and How You Can Be an Editor. Inside Wikipedia is my attempt to present a succinct, readable, and thorough introduction to Wikipedia, aimed squarely at “wiki-neophytes.” For a good number of people, Wikipedia offers a chance to write about what they love, but unfortunately, many of these individuals are held back by a lack of know-how: ‘How do I edit?’ ‘What makes a good article?’ ‘Are there rules I have to follow?’ With this work, I wanted to clear the air and show people that while Wikipedia can be a bit strange at first, it isn’t the scary black box a lot of people think that it is. 

3. Why did you decide to write this book? This book grew out of my PhD work. Originally, I wanted to include a comprehensive chapter in my dissertation that summarized how Wikipedia worked. Once I started, however, I realized that I had far too much content for just a chapter. So I decided to combine what I had with some ideas I had been chewing on (e.g., how to make Wikipedia less biased) and see if I could produce a coherent manuscript. Soon after I made this decision, I reached out to the LIS editors at Rowman & Littlefield and shared my idea. They thought it was a solid one and agreed to support my work! And the rest is wiki-history. 

4. Why did you decide to start editing Wikipedia? While I started visiting Wikipedia around 2003, I only started to make substantial edits in 2007. Then, as now, I was energized to contribute content to articles about pop culture media that I enjoyed (e.g., The Office, Weird Al). People often wonder why I held off for about four years before actually contributing to the site. The answer is that I was held back by my self-doubt; I was a kid, and I was worried that I would get the info wrong and screw the whole site up. (And indeed, when I started editing, I did make mistakes!) But something that helped me get over that fear was my recognition that if I did goof up, I could just go back to an article and wash away any mistakes with the handy “Edit” button! Wikipedia isn’t one-and-done: It’s an ever-changing site where necessary corrections are openly welcomed! 

5. How have you seen Wikipedia change over the years? In the last 20 years, the internet has been defined by change, but strangely, Wikipedia has, in many ways, stayed largely the same—at least the last 15 or so years. (Consider, for instance, that the same guidelines that governed the site when I started are largely still in effect, and it was only a few months ago that the site switched from the default layout it had introduced in 2010!) That said, it would be incorrect to say that Wikipedia has stagnated. In fact, while things on the surface might look much the same as they did a decade ago, there has been considerable growth. This is perhaps most noticeable when you consider the site’s quality: Indeed, I have stumbled across many an article that rivals those published by “real” encyclopedias. That Wikipedia has managed to grow not only in terms of size but also quality is, to my mind, amazing.

6. How is editing Wikipedia a useful skill for librarians? Librarianship is, to my mind, predicated on two key facets: information management and public service. Librarians gather information (be it that which is contained in books, journal articles, etc.), and they make it more readily accessible to the public. This is exactly what Wikipedia editors do, too, but in a slightly different context! Additionally, given the digital and rapidly-changing world we live in, I think it is more important than ever for librarians to meet patrons where they’re at, and a good number of them are using Wikipedia as the go-to site for their information needs.

7. What do you hope readers take away from reading this book? The main takeaways of the book are a) that Wikipedia isn’t as scary as it might seem, and b) that the site has problems that need to be addressed. But in addition to these more practical takeaways, I also hope that the book’s buoyant tone and its subtle hopefulness will inspire people to approach Wikipedia with a sense of playfulness: Wikipedia is a key information resource, but I strongly believe that editors should have fun when they work on articles. Simply because something is important does not mean that it has to be approached with a sort of humorless solemnity. Wikipedia allows you to write about almost anything you find interesting—be it sea slugs, illegal numbers, the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, or the Principality of Sealand! What’s not to love about that?

8. Is there anything else you would like to share? I’m a Wiki-optimist in that I fundamentally believe the site is a net positive for humanity, but I also recognize that it has its flaws. Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing the site is how bias is baked into many articles (this is likely to become even more of a problem as soon as AI-generated content starts to really take off and people are cranking out half-baked and heavily skewed article submissions left and right). Sadly, this is a structural flaw of the site: On Wikipedia, you’re only allowed to cite “reliable sources” (e.g., professionally published books, journal articles), and a lot of these sources overlook marginalized groups thanks to the systemic biases of the cultures in which they are produced. But if you can only use these kinds of sources, how can you hope to shine light on those who have been overlooked? It’s a tricky problem, and it’s one I’ve been hoping to find an answer to. There is likely no one, tidy answer to this issue, but I do believe that the more editors working on the site, the greater the diversity of viewpoints.

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent presenter and interviewer on topics related to libraries and librarianship, especially information literacy, educational technology, and library and information science education. Please read Lauren’s other posts relevant to special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus, used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets.

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