History · Writing

Digital History: Editing Wikipedia

Our professor said we’d be astonished how easy it is to edit Wikipedia, and he was right. Our assignment was simple: Improve a history-related Wikipedia page. We could add a paragraph on a topic the article didn’t cover, add relevant citations/further reading, write an entirely new page, or whatever, basically just add something that would be of use to others. This way we could use whatever knowledge we had from other classes or from our own interests, areas in which we might actually know more than Wikipedia.

Last class we discussed Wikipedia’s pros and cons, which I blogged about here. Basically, Wikipedia is a good encyclopedia. It’s for general use, getting quick information and maybe as a springboard to find scholarly or journalistic sources. The super awesome thing is that it’s free, so anyone with an internet connection can access a basic encyclopedia, the kind you used to have to buy. And people are accessing it! The page on Adolf Hitler gets more than half a million hits every month. Granted, that’s a very popular page. History of Human Rights, the page I edited, gets about 4,000 a month. I realized, to my glee and dismay, that more people may read this Wikipedia edit than read anything else I ever publish. That’s kind of terrifying, but also a really exciting opportunity to disseminate accurate information to those looking for it.

I added this paragraph to the Modern human rights movement/Age of Discovery, Early Modern Period, and Age of Enlightenment section in the History of Human Rights page, with two citations:

In the 1700s, the novel became a popular form of entertainment. Popular novels, such as Julie, or the New Heloise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson, laid a foundation for popular acceptance of human rights by making readers empathize with characters unlike themselves.

In that last post, I talked about how some people think Wikipedia’s prose style is choppy and not good. As I said, I don’t think it’s important. I do want to mention that, as it turns out, it’s super hard to write a few sentences that are completely impersonal AND that fit in with the flow of an article written by dozens or hundreds of people.

A secondary part of the assignment was to add a picture. I took a picture of the museum where I volunteer, the Iron & Steel Museum of Alabama, and added it to the museum’s page.

Iron & Steel Museum of Alabama

In checking to see if this picture would be needed, I noticed that I know a LOT more than what the Tannehill Ironworks page has, and the Iron & Steel Museum page is just a stub. There are a fair number of books published on Tannehill specifically and lots more about the iron industry, and I have access to most of them since it’s of local interest, so I’m planning to start improving these pages as I have time. It’s surprising how much I’m finding that I could add to Wikipedia in general now that I’m looking for those openings.

Have you ever edited Wikipedia? Got any thoughts or tips?

7 thoughts on “Digital History: Editing Wikipedia

  1. Reblogged this on [title of blog] and commented:
    I am often shocked, and sometimes disturbed, by how easy it is for human’s to alter history. Although it is often thought of as a concrete subject important to teach, the facts we read depend on the credibility of those who relay it. With current technology, it’s as easy as the tap of a computer key.


  2. Never edited it, but I have an app on my computer that allows me to build wiki-style files. It is awesome for some of my worldbuilding activities (which I need to be getting back to). And you’re right. It is both amusing and depressing that so many people will see that, but so few will see this nice article you wrote about it.


  3. There’s a great article on co-authoring history in a crowdsourced way by Roy Rosenweig called, “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” ( http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=42 ). Your post made me think of what he wrote, especially when you wondered if anything else you will ever publish will receive as many “reads.” Rosenweig also talks about the issues of co-authoring Wikipedia articles with regards to professional development and tenure which I thought was interesting.

    Anyway, it was a great post!


    1. Thanks! I think we’ve actually read that article — we’re reading a lot of Rosenzweig for this class. Whether or not Wikipedia counts as a publication for tenure requirements does sound dicey…



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