Digital History: Wikipedia for Historians

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!


13 thoughts on “Digital History: Wikipedia for Historians

  1. Thanks for welcoming me to your blog. As a museum professional, I find wiki extremely useful for obscure, organized facts and cringe-worthy for some of the ways things are presented. But some folks in digital history can’t have it both ways–wanted to expand open source access/participation and dismiss the content and their participation unpolished.


    1. Hi! I’d think for a serious project, open source and authority would need to be balanced. Last night in class we talked about Project Gutenberg and Operation War Diary and projects like that, where they crowdsource the nitty-gritty obscure organizational work but then may have professional historians overseeing and analyzing the results.


        1. Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org) digitizes public domain books. Pages are scanned and a program does its best to convert the text into individual letters, then volunteers copyedit the pages to fix the program’s errors. I used to contribute some spare time to it when I had more of said spare time.

          http://www.operationwardiary.org is more specifically history-related. I don’t have any experience with it, we just discussed it and viewed the site in class… Volunteers are going through pages of Civil War diaries and marking up when days, names, and places, so in the future one would be able to see all the diary entries from a particular day, and other such applications.


  2. I think she’s probably right, at least for the most part. Wikis are collective archives. They tell us about as much about our present as our past (Someone suggested this ages ago, and I’m too tired to remember whom.)

    But for me, the difference is this: what you’re reading from Wikis often comes in the form of paraphrases of secondary or tertiary sources. Much like other research avenues, I prefer for students to cite their material from the original source to ensure that paraphrasing or quoting of a source hasn’t been done incorrectly or been misjudged/misconstrued in some way.

    I generally tell my students to use Wikis as a jumping off point-to go find the information and use the sources they cite on the Wiki as their next research step.


    1. It’s certainly true that any work of history is also a window into the present, or the time when it was written. I think it would be worth researching what topics get the most interest on Wikipedia, especially since Wikipedia is constantly changing. Insights on the present will be lost in favor of the next “present.”


  3. Almost every academic I know gripes about Wikipedia because it’s open source and therefore “not reliable.” I certainly wouldn’t use it as my only source in research, but I do use it as a way to quickly gather information (skimming as you mentioned) and scout out other possible sources on the web, which, as you mentioned, was the point of a wiki in the first place.



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