Tim Roberts Public history & historical thinking How to read a Wikipedia article

How to read a Wikipedia article

To prescribe how to approach reading and relying on a Wikipedia article is a bit of an academic exercise, since I would never really encourage someone, especially a student, to use Wikipedia articles as important research sources. Although U.S. federal circuit courts have now cited Wikipedia, it is probably fair to say both self-respecting scholars and college students should use Wikipedia mainly to get a rough understanding of public opinion on a topic, to see citations for a handful of useful related secondary sources, and to see linked references to collateral topics. Wikipedia, like its text-based predecessors from which its name is derived, does not seek to be a repository for research based on primary historical sources. Indeed, it disallows and monitors for usage by contributors of primary research materials.  

Nonetheless, a less obvious and peculiar benefit of first resort to a Wikipedia article on a subject is its chronology of changes to an article after its first posting. To track changes to an article’s length as well as organization sometimes may merely reflect changing emphases in a controversial historical or political topic, like the Armenian genocide or the presidency of George W. Bush. Sometimes these changes are contested, occasionally so bitterly that inflammatory or disrespectful editors have been banned from Wikipedia. Unfortunately, a glaring instance of this had the downside of a ban of only the female contributor to a quarrel, which probably reinforced an ongoing criticism of Wikipedia that its content is dominated by male editors, at least among its known contributors.

In most, less dramatic instances, the fascinating production of Wikipedia articles by potentially large communities of contributors represents the acme of crowd-sourced knowledge, a hallmark of the digital humanities (DH) age. Wikipedia, in his way, is a twenty-first century version of seemingly innocuous stories-like home remedies, excerpts of poetry, exotic foreign or astronomical events – that circulated widely in antebellum American newspapers: such information gains significance on the basis of how many people contribute to it as both sharers and users, rather than on the basis of the genius of its original author.

In a few instances, such as the revelations of a trace of the evolution of Wikipedia’s article on DH, however, an article’s development can hint at important debates among experts. The chronology of major editorial revisions to an article can amount to a mini-version of the historiography, or patterns in scholarly interpretations, of an historical topic. This is particularly the case when the identity and even professional background of contributors is detectable, which Wikipedia invites through its “History” and “Talk” functions that accompany every article.

Of course, some contributors do not disclose their identity, exploiting Wikipedia’s policy not to differentiate between their contributions and those whose relevant expertise is available to the reader. This is a problem not only with usage of Wikipedia, but, as Stanley Fish pointed out – according to a Wikipedia article on digital humanities – for digital humanities (DH) generally, because DH effectively de-emphasizes individual, authoritative scholarship, and emphasizes its identity as an intersection and interdependence of humanities scholars and technology developers.

On the other hand, to appreciate a real significance of Wikipedia as a user may read one of its entries is awareness of the platform’s encouragement  and even paternal role in encouragement of open-source digital sources of historical information. A review of Wikipedia six years after its establishment in 2000 by Roy Rosenzweig, himself a founder of the DH movement, called for an open-source history textbook authored by historical scholars. The OpenStax textbook project at Rice University, whose free, digitized U.S. history textbook is only one of several textbooks it has made available on various subjects, is the fulfillment of Rosenzweig’s challenge to historians.

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