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The Social Reference Desk: A Band-Aid For The Wikipedia Blackout

Mark told you earlier that Wikipedia is going black for 24 hours beginning at midnight tonight. While Wikipedia's reason for shutting down is to protest anti-piracy legislation making its way through the United States Congress, another interesting question is going to be what happens to all those web surfers seeking answers to can't-wait questions?

The Washington Post's Style Blog has a novel suggestion: Go to a library.

But in the spirit of the Web, NPR, The Washington Post and The Guardian are teaming up to provide a touch of reference muscle to try to answer questions — the kinds that settle a bet or quiet a curiosity — usually answered by Wikipedia.

"While we're not in the Wikipedia business, this is an experimental, one-day Band-Aid to help out readers during the protest of proposed Internet rules by Wikipedia, Reddit,Boing Boing and several other online organizations," the Post explains.

And here's how Mark Stencel, NPR's managing editor for digital news, described the endeavor:

"Wikipedia is among the web's most-referenced sites. It's often among the first things that shows up in just about any search result. So we started thinking about what a day without Wikipedia would mean, practically speaking, for a typical person. The #altwiki tag seemed like a fun way to track that."

So how will this work? All of you are invited to tweet questions with the hashtag #altwiki and the public or someone from the Post, NPR or Guardian will get back at you with an answer.

JoElla Straley, an NPR reference librarian, will be one of those trying to answer questions as @NPRaltwiki on Twitter.

We spoke to the Post's David Beard and questioned whether something like this would work, especially considering that it will be lacking Wikipedia's self-correcting environment, which has made it so useful.

Beard said this was a "one day thing," a "Band-Aid" that doesn't aim to replace Wikipedia.

We'll circle back tomorrow to see what questions were asked and answered and see if along the way we learn something about what Wikipedia means to people.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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