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Why Wikipedia is Not Just a Running Joke.

7

January 20, 2015 by nsakas1

There were a couple of interesting things this week’s readings brought to mind. The thoughts I had this week centered primarily on the discussion of Wikipedia. With the articles in the book Writing History in the Digital Age, some questions about what constitutes as historical scholarship should be asked. It is painstakingly obvious that the internet has brought our society into a place where information can be created and accessed in an instant. However, in the world of academia what is considered historical scholarship is still primarily the traditional extensive archival research project followed by a monograph detailing the latest ideas of the researcher about a particular historical topic. It seems like there is a hesitance in the professional historical community to acknowledge the impact digital media can have on historical scholarship. It seems that open source sites like Wikipedia have tarnished the possibilities that digital media can have in the production of history. Now I am not advocating that PhD candidates begin taking over the production of Wikipedia entries, in fact that would go against what is good about Wikipedia. However, digital media has created a platform where historical scholarship can be enhanced by cutting edge technology, much like the online museums and digital history projects we have previewed this week.

Another thing that came to mind during this week’s readings about Wikipedia is what makes the site an important resource rather than a running joke throughout the historical community. I am not claiming that Wikipedia is without faults, but it is certainly undervalued for the resource that it is. We can all agree that the fact that anyone can edit Wikipedia makes it unreliable to base an entire research project on. However, what is missed by not using a site like Wikipedia is the opportunity to get a first-hand look at a particular subject. For most of us, we start a research project with little to no knowledge about the subject other than the interest that attracted us to the subject in the first place. Wikipedia allows a researcher a jumping off point into a research project. A researcher can get a moderately unbiased set of facts about a particular subject along with some cited sources that can be used to delve deeper into the subject. As historians we are responsible for evaluating the sources we use for their value to our research. Wikipedia is no different. As long as Wikipedia is used as a starting place rather than an all-encompassing source in our research, it can jump start what can become some excellent work in history.

 


7 comments »

  1. kdaly3 says:

    I think when people consider digital resources, their minds automatically jump to sites like Wikipedia rather than actual tools that can speed up and strengthen the ability to do historical research. I also think professionals in the field today are so attached to the traditional sense of historical research (i.e. published journals and books that undergo rigorous methods for approval), they are too quick to scoff at the possibilities that digital exhibits and resources can bring to the field, when considered with caution, as anything that is not subject to rigorous peer review. Even if it is not a perfect system, there is not much that ever really is, and I think the nonlinear ability to do historical research is an innovative experiment that requires serious attention.

  2. chuber1 says:

    Nick- I agree with you and Kate that the academy needs to start to explore digital history projects in earnest and not dismiss them as some new pedagogical fad. Kate the point you bring up about the nonlinear nature of the digital environment is a key thing to consider as we delve further into the digital revolution. While it is great that the possibilities of non-linearity are being embraced in the field of research I hope to see it deployed in how we interact with the end product of scholarship.

  3. rjordan10 says:

    I also agree with the three of you. However, because of it’s reputation, and the fact that just about anyone can go on and write whatever they feel like about an article, I do think that when historians, or anyone, for that matter, use articles from Wikipedia, they need to “take them with a grain of salt,” as the saying goes. That being said, though, it is possible to use Wikipedia as a credible source, as long as someone can back up the source somewhere else (maybe like a scholarly journal, etc.) I’ve had professors in the past say to never EVER use Wikipedia as a source, but I think as long as you can back up the source, it can be useful, and is one of the key parts of digital history, since basically anyone with the internet and a knowledge of their subject can add to it.

  4. acoleman34 says:

    Nick, I completely agree that sites like Wikipedia are great resources to use as starting blocks for research. I think the information is at least somewhat trustworthy for that. I agree with Kate that historians lean on the traditional methods of scholarship a bit too much, especially with the potential the internet provides. If historians and digital curators alike are careful with online research, it can be used to their benefit and offer new perspectives on history. There are plenty of sites that offer valuable and cited information.

  5. jeldredge1 says:

    I have to say that I use Wikipedia for a quick fact check on basic info, when I’m reading and want to know what year x country was founded, or who the current leader of x country is, etc. I definitely agree with you on that. I would not utilize it for any in-depth analysis of historic events such as Wolff analyzed in regards to the Civil War. The weight of historic facts as interpreted is too off-balanced. However, I think that if more ‘PhD candidates’ or other professional historians were to contribute more to sites like Wikipedia, it would benefit the site. They should not control the site, but the understanding that we have about the inherent bias of different levels that all people bring to historic writing and interpretation and the tools that we can use to recognize this and correct for it would help balance out more entries. Especially when it comes to groups who are routinely missing from the mainstream historic record such as women.

  6. John-Joseph Jackson says:

    Reading your response definitely rings true with some of the realities I have seen with regards to Wikipedia and its utility as a starting point for investigation, particularly among non-historians. Even professionals could utilize particularly well curated pages to perform reverse research, so to speak, in order to find good overview sources that could begin to provide direction to more pointed investigations.

  7. Adina Langer says:

    Nick, I appreciate your assessment of the nature of scholarship on the history Web. Since it is clear from your description, and from our class discussion, that Wikipedia is a valid tertiary resource, how would you imagine a valid and valuable secondary resource on the Web to appear? What would characterize the next generation monograph? And how would such a work of scholarship attract a diverse readership? Can academic public historians aspire to the level of popularity enjoyed by a site like Wikipedia?

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