I recently Roy Rosenzweig’s article Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past. Though I had no issues with his article, it brought my mind back to a project I did two years ago about Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica. This article–along with pondering my project–prompted me to think about what Wikipedia’s role should be among historical scholarly and non-scholarly resources.
Wikipedia receives a wide range of mostly-deserved criticism. Some articles are woefully written, others give more coverage to less important issues, than the ones that matter. Some Wikipedians simply write things that are not true, or that are taken out of context, perpetuating rumours and half-truths. All of this criticism is justified, but I believe we allow it to overshadow the good that Wikipedia does. Nevertheless, Wikipedia is good at correcting itself, and seems to get better every day through the efforts of volunteer contributors and administrators (check out the articles for deletion forums). Furthermore, I believe that we give some of the seminal reference works (e.g. Encyclopaedia Britannica) a little too much credit for what they do, especially compared to Wikipedia. Let’s remember that encyclopaedias were never meant to be authoritative sources of information. A friend of mine, a seasoned academic librarian, put it this way, “you go to an encyclopaedia if you’re feeling lazy, and just want a few tidbits of information, quick and dirty.” To be honest, I believe Wikipedia serves that purpose quite well, moreover, their articles are longer and typically contain more detail than the average traditional encyclopaedia entry.
For the purposes of historical research–especially at the high school and undergraduate Ievels–I think Wikipedia does well as a starting point for research, especially on a topic that the researcher may not be familiar with. Of course, the student would never use a Wikipedia article as fuel to support his/her argument, but if it is used to get to know the key names, dates, and statistics of a particular event, I think it’s a great way to start research. Many Wikipedia articles also come with some impressive bibliographies with reputable sources. Take Wikipedia’s article “Attack on Pearl Harbor” it had 122 endnotes as of September 13, 2013, and comes with a list of some reputable sources. The authors of the sources include some of the world’s experts on World War II like Sir Martin GIlbert, Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, and Dr. Gordon W. Prange. The resources also include works published by many reputable academic presses including Oxford, Cornell, and Taylor & Francis. A professor seeing those types of sources used for a research paper would not be disappointed.
From a Public History standpoint, in our last Digital History class we talked a lot about how we were excited about the possibilities of making historical information available to a wider audience at a low or no cost. Though Wikipedia certainly has its flaws, so far I don’t think anyone has come up with a better way to disseminate information freely than Jimmy Wales through Wikipedia. On his donation page, he stated that, “Wikipedia is something special. It is like a library or a public park. It is like a temple for the mind. It is a place we can all go to think, to learn, to share our knowledge with others.” Though it’s a bit of a utopian idea, I appreciate Wales’s sentiment to make knowledge freely available to anyone who wants it.