As part of a class on digital history, on several occasions I’ll be posting thoughts on a chapter of Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web by Cohen and Rosenzweig and comments on one historical website featured in that chapter. You can read this whole book for free at http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/. This week, we’re just reading an article by Rosenzweig instead of the usual chapter-and-website. For more information about this series, see the Intro.
Article: “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” by Roy Rosenzweig
(Available here: http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=42. It’s a good article and I only cover a few of the highlights, check it out!)
This article covers some basics of Wikipedia’s own history and how it works, which most of you probably know, and then basically covers Wikipedia’s usefulness for historians and in comparison to traditional venues of historical expression. Some fun facts: Rosenzeig says up to half of Wikipedia’s articles could be considered historical or history-related, which I take as a testament to how important history is to understanding the present and the world as a whole, as I’ve said on other occasions. Also, in one study the median time for repairing vandalism on a Wikipedia page was three minutes.
Wikipedia does not allow independent research, and some experts seem to feel slighted that they don’t get any special recognition for their own personal knowledge on Wikipedia, but that’s really not the point. If you’re an expert, you have other avenues of publication. Wikipedia is just supposed to describe what all those professional sources are saying, thus creating a well-rounded encyclopedia, and also imposing a level of quality control. Wikipedia may not be vetting sources, but in theory, someone has. You’re not supposed to get on there and just make stuff up; there should be citations, so you can actually see where an assertation was published, not just take the encyclopedists’ word for it.
Does it work? Is it good history? Maybe. Rosenzweig goes over the pages in the “List of United States History Articles” and isn’t too impressed. The writing is sloppy, leaves out important topics, and is weighted toward what amateurs find interesting, like stamp collecting instead of “The Interwar Years.” It’s also weighted toward geek culture, since internet geeks are the ones editing it, and it’s overwhelming weighted toward Western/American culture, although some large Wikipedia sites exist in other languages. Rosenzweig found factual errors, but he also checked commercial products and found about the same number.
Rosenzweig criticizes Wikipedia’s prose repeatedly, but seems to have missed the fact that people don’t READ Wikipedia articles. They skim them looking for particular pieces of information, and that’s much easier to do with simple (even bland) factual writing, as opposed to the engaging prose of historians he quotes. Plus, most history books are boring. (Sorry, guys, it’s true). I take it that historians also complain about the focus on collecting and listing facts, like the lists of all the secretaries of the interior or major births in 1882, and on the Wikipedian fascination with topics of present, public interest, like Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality (which apparently has its own page now). I think historians should spend less time poo-pooing and give some thought to what people are actually interested in knowing.
Rosenzweig makes an interesting case that the process of editing Wikipedia mimics or echoes traditional historiography, and reasonably concludes that Wikipedia is indeed performing the function of an encyclopedia. No encyclopedia is entirely accurate, and no encyclopedia is suitable as a research reference. They’re intended to provide quick answers to questions, give a reader a short primer on a topic, and possibly to point that reader toward real sources. Wikipedia does all those things admirably.
Next week I’ll actually be editing a Wikipedia page on a historical topic of my choice instead of doing one of these blogs, but I’ll probably blog about it anyway. I’m super excited, I’ve never edited Wikipedia before!