“Wikipedia has democratised access to information among individuals and institutions around the world,” says Jesús Lau. “Today, anyone who has Internet access can find answers to their questions, regardless of their economic power or income; it’s something that was impossible before Wikipedia.”
In a career spanning over 35 years, Jesús has worked as an academic librarian at five Mexican universities, served on the Governing Board of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and was President of the Mexican Library Association (AMBAC). Today, he works as a professor at the Universidad Veracruzana, a public university in the state of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico where he teaches classes at undergraduate and doctoral levels. While not a Wikipedian himself, Jesús actively uses Wikipedia in the classroom as part of an open access course that he has created and shared with universities across South America.
“The subject I teach is called ‘information competencies for learning’,” he explains. “It combines a bit of research methodology and writing, and focuses on developing information skills. I try to teach students to use scientific, academic materials—encyclopedias or scientific journals—but I also have exercises on how to use, filter and evaluate mass media as well as Wikipedia exercises,” Jesús describes.
“My students are mainly in their first or second semester, so for them it’s almost impossible to publish their work in a journal. However, on Wikipedia they can practice, and they do. When you publish something—and on Wikipedia you can also improve it later—you care for it, so I think that this is an excellent way of introducing students to the world of written communication,” he adds.
Answering our question of what Wikipedia means to him as a reader, librarian, and a teacher, Jesús says: “I just love turning to Wikipedia for local information, information about things that are obscure, perhaps, for the world. I have been surprised many times by what information is available on Wikipedia. It’s not always the most academic information, but just the fact that the information is there already helps, as it’s a place where you can set off from,” he explains.
“Take the Enciclopedia de México as a different example,” Jesús suggests. “It was published between 1966 and 1977 and has 12 volumes. The last volume was published in 50,000 copies, which for a country like Mexico, with a population of over 65 million at the time, is nothing. It means that most Mexican households never owned a copy of the encyclopedia; what is more, not even libraries, especially smaller libraries, ever had a copy,” he points out.
“It’s why I think that Wikipedia is really beneficial both for the educational sector and the general population. It can be accessed on-line 24 hours a day, at no cost, has the most extensive subject coverage, and makes it possible for information to be used by anyone who needs it, and not just those who have the means to access it.”
As our discussion turns to the use of information as an indicator of a society’s development, Jesús makes a comparison between his country, Mexico, and the developed world. “In Mexico, our society uses information without evaluating it, without questioning it. And you just have to use information by thinking critically,” he notes. “And that’s why I am against textbooks, because a textbook is a prison: a prison that doesn’t allow the student to develop information skills, such as localising, and, above all else, evaluating information.”
As we near the end of our interview, Jesús makes sure that we pass on his praise to the wider Wikimedia movement. “I would just like to congratulate you all for the work that you do,” he says. “I think that the work that Wikimedia does is excellent; for me, it’s laudable and I think that the future of information is going to be collaborative—it’s going to be open access.”
To read more about the use of Wikipedia in education, see the Wikipedia Education Program on the Wikimedia Outreach wiki.
Interview and translation to Spanish by María Cruz, Communications and Outreach Coordinator, Wikimedia Foundation
Profile by Tomasz W. Kozlowski, Blog Writer, Wikimedia Foundation