“DO NOT USE WIKIPEDIA!”: The Benefits of a Site that was once a Historian’s Nemesis

This week in History and New Media our class explored various aspects of the World Wide Web and reflected on questions such as is the web participatory? Is the web collaborative? And is the web exploitive? According to Trevor Owens:

“In public history we work to connect audiences and publics with the past. In this vein, the participatory and collaborative rhetoric that surrounds the web fits many of the values of public historians like a glove. This weeks readings explore issues around crowdsourcing and public participation in history on the web. This includes both the potential to connect with the missions and values of cultural heritage institutions and opens questions about what constitutes participation and what becomes exploitive.”

With this in mind, my blog post for this week looks at Wikipedia and explores the site’s benefits for historians.

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Thinking back on my undergraduate work in History, I clearly remember the first day of every history class when my professors would go on a slight tangent, passionately denouncing the use of Wikipedia in our research. Those of you who also began your education within the last fifteen years probably have similar experiences.

So, with all of these professors professing that the historical world as we know it would come to an end if historians began using Wikipedia, one has to wonder what is so bad about it?  And, is it really that bad?  Does Wikipedia have any benefits at all?

With regards to the first question – what is so bad about Wikipedia? – my understanding of the situation is that Wikipedia is an opensource website.  This means that anyone, literally, can edit its content.  As a result of this, professors tend to teach historians not to use Wikipedia as a source, because the content may not be ground in proper historical research.  Thus, professors tell their students that the site is an unreliable source.  But I have to wonder, is it really?  Wikipedia does not provide any benefits for historians?

According to Roy Rosenzweig, it does.

In his article Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the PastRosenzweig lays out some of the merits of Wikipedia.

First, the author argues that

Wikipedia is surprisingly accurate in reporting names, dates, and events in U.S. history. In the 25 biographies I read closely, I found clear-cut factual errors in only 4. Most were small and inconsequential.

In a comparison to Encarta, Encyclopedia Brittanica, and American National Biography, Rosenzweig found that Wikipedia fared well in content coverage.  In fact, in terms of errors, Wikipedia contained less or the same amount of errors than Encarta and Encyclopedia Brittanica and was only surpassed by the near perfection of the American National Biography.

However, what I want to point out is that all sources have mistakes in them, regardless of how much historical training the author possesses.  Should Wikipedia be discredited for making an extremely limited amount of errors?

I do not think so. After all, the authors are human.

Another benefit of the site is that it is mostly free of biases. Rosenzweig argues that

One might expect—given the Randian politics of the founders and the strength of libertarian sentiments in cyberspace—a libertarian or conservative slant. But I did not find it. One can see occasional glimmers, as in the biography of Calvin Coolidge that says with apparent approval, “Coolidge was the last President of the United States who did not attempt to intervene in free markets, letting business cycles run their course.” This sentence was inserted early on by an avowed libertarian and it has survived dozens of subsequent edits. But Wikipedia also presents the socialist Eugene V. Debs in flattering terms; the only criticism is that he “underestimated the lasting power of racism.” At least one conservative blogger charges that Wikipedia is “more liberal than the liberal media.” If anything, the bias in Wikipedia articles favors the subject at hand.

In fall 2014 I took a class called Historian’s Craft.  This class essentially informed me that the ultimate goal of historian’s (regardless of its inherent vices) is to be objective.  Since Wikipedia is authored by an innumerable amount of people, it is difficult for the site to contain biases.  As a result, one could argue that Wikipedia does a better job attempting to reach historians’ ultimate goal than even academic books and journal articles.

While I could go on discussing various aspects of Wikipedia that are beneficial to historians, my blog post would not be read in its entirety.  So I leave all of you with my final thoughts.

While it is undeniable that Wikipedia is not the most prestigious or perfect resource for students, it does provide them with a general overview of the topic which I believe to be a tool for starting new research.  In the end, I think the site is extremely useful for students when it is used properly.  As a result, professors should teach students how to use sources such as Wikipedia rather than yelling “DO NOT USE WIKIPEDIA!”  And it is the responsibility of the With this being said, it the responsibility of the students to learn and be aware of the dangers and merits of Wikipedia and to use it wisely in their research.

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6 thoughts on ““DO NOT USE WIKIPEDIA!”: The Benefits of a Site that was once a Historian’s Nemesis

  1. This was a great post!

    I agree with your assessment regarding the use of Wikipedia in research and classrooms. I luckily, had a different experience. My professors told me that Wikipedia was a good place to start at for any research project. Although they advised taking the information with a grain of salt, they suggested that starting there would help me figure out where to find sources, make connections, and get basic information upon which to build my research questions. For this reason I can see its merits, just as you suggest.

    I really enjoyed Rosenzweig’s argument concerning the use of Wikipedia in the classroom as a way of understanding the processes behind historical research and writing. He argues that by making students edit a Wikipedia page they are exposed and learn from traditional historicizing processes. What are your opinions on this particular argument? Do you think Wikipedia can be used convincingly in both capacities?

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    1. I completely agree! I think Wikipedia is an excellent tool for introducing students to historical methodology. I think it will allow students to learn historical methodology hands-on rather than the way that many of us probably learned – through dry lectures. Now that you brought it up, a merit of Wikipedia with regards to Rosenzweig’s argument concerning the use of Wikipedia in the classroom may even influence more students to become interested in the field.

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  2. Anna,

    Thanks for writing such a nice break down of the readings for this week, particularly the question of wikipedia in the history profession. I think one of the biggest takeaways I had from Roy Rosenzweig’s reading for this week is his discussion of error. One argument historians have for wikipedia is that if anybody can write history in an open source website, than there will be errors. But as you pointed out about his argument, historians are not error free either. Do you think that the strategies that wikipedia has in place to catch errors are enough? Is there more we can do?

    I think you put forth a very interesting argument when you say “Since Wikipedia is authored by an innumerable amount of people, it is difficult for the site to contain biases. As a result, one could argue that Wikipedia does a better job attempting to reach historians’ ultimate goal than even academic books and journal articles.”

    I think this would be an interesting discussion to bring forth in class. Do more contributors to a site like wikipedia correspond with less biases? Is Wikipedia doing a better job about being objective than academic books and journal articles?

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    1. Hello!

      I do not think that Wikipedia has enough strategies in place to catch errors. I think it would be difficult to say that any institution or platform has enough of these strategies. I think our field can always do more.
      This is the same for biases. Our field can always work towards being more objective. With this being said, I think Wikipedia’s guidelines on editing do correspond with less biases. Of course there will always be biases, but the platform recognizes it and is attempting to remedy the problem.

      With regards to Wikipedia doing a better job about being objective than academic books and journals, I do think it is possible, but I do not have the data to support this. I think it would be very difficult to analyze overall which source is more objective. I think we would have to compare how objective the sources are topically. Hopefully this makes sense. Regardless, I do think Wikipedia has the potential to be more objective than academic books and journal articles.

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  3. You absolutely need to download The Hunger Games if you want to read about a smart, sassy female in the lead role. Also, some of my co-workers were talking about how to politely “shush” a couple of ladies in a spin class that talk throughout the class over the instructor. I’m sure you’ve had to deal with this in your career. Any tips?

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