Why Do History When There Is Wikipedia?

Over the past couple weeks, we have explored a number of questions about history and the development our discipline. In this post, we want to discuss Wikipedia and the study of history.

Increasing access to information has blurred the boundaries between professions. Before the Internet and the digital age, the medium one used to disseminate information typically defined one's craft. In general, journalists published in newspapers, writers wrote fiction books, actors were in theatre or television, and so on.  Historians published academic monographs meant for specific audiences. Today, these limitations have been softened by the universal accessibility of the Internet.  Anyone with an Internet connection can create a website, blog, or contribute to a forum like Reddit, all of which act as a means to engage in dialogue. In short, the ways commentators, scholars, and, specifically, historians contribute to discourse has changed in some fundamental ways.

For the most part, this unprecedented access to material and information is a good thing, and certainly something Karl Marx would be very proud of.   The ability to learn from books, which we take for granted today, was once restricted by low literacy rates and inaccessibility. Libraries were collections of books found in the homes of nobility or the Church, not open or convenient to the “everyman.”  With the rise of the printing press, book publishing and literacy blossomed. Wikipedia is the latest step in that process and provides access to almost anything you might want to learn. Nevertheless, despite all the benefits that derive from the online world, there are some inherent problems. Many people and students have become used to inputting search terms in Google and coming up with specific passages of necessary text without reading a chapter, article, or larger body of work. Twitter has forced us to limit ideas and messages to 140 characters at the expense of more wholesome discussion. Wikipedia meanwhile has given anyone the authority to "do" history by editing or writing articles about it. Like any source, there is a balance between its advantages and weaknesses.

We should concede that there are some good quality and valuable articles on Wikipedia. Many of us use it for reference, perhaps as an encyclopaedia should be used. But, in its current form, Wikipedia can be problematic for research. In an historiography course I co-taught last year, I asked students to choose an historical figure from either British, Canadian, Irish, or American history and compare the entries on each individual on Wikipedia and in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (or another country's equivalent). The point of the exercise wasn't to say that Wikipedia was worse than academic sources, but rather to get students thinking about and to consider things like peer-review processes, the transparent credentials of an author, and the ease with which information could be revised or updated.

Aside from pointing students to other valuable, and easily accessible, resources to study history, the exercise highlighted that entries in the DCB were often written by historians who had published one or two books on a particular figure and who had delved into manuscript and archival sources. On the other hand, however, it showed that information wasn't easily revisable. Entries in peer-review sources remained untouched for five or more years. Wikipedia, however, can be easily modified by anyone who registers as a user. In some cases, particularly in current affairs, this is extremely valuable if one wants to research capricious events, such as the ongoing war in Syria, which is constantly changing.

Wikipedia should be approached as a place for learning about facts concerning history, not necessarily about interpretations of history.  As Dan Gillmor said, "Wikipedia is the best place to start, [but the] worst place to stop." It serves as a useful introduction to history, but should be taken as definitive. Wikipedia also has different for different audiences.  As historians, we might look at Wikipedia to remember a specific date or event and then if we want to know more, look up a book or article on the subject. For students or the general public though (or for historians reading outside their area), Wikipedia is a place to learn about history. They might start off knowing nothing and, like the curious kids who used to read encyclopaedias, it is a great space for devouring information about a variety of historical topics. Some of them will continue to learn more about the subject in classes or in books, and some will not. Wikipedia might be the preferred medium of learning history for some and there is nothing wrong with that.

Historians or students of history can use Wikipedia as a starting place for research, not just knowledge.  The editorial policies at Wikipedia are burdensome at times, but also often ensure that citations are comprehensive.  So if you are looking for historians who talk about a subject, the Wikipedia article usually will have some books to look at first. Unfortunately, as Timothy Messer-Kruse discovered, these policies often weigh quantity over quality.  As a completely made up example to illustrate the problem, imagine if 10 historians write that Britain discovered North America, while only one historian writes that Vikings first landed there centuries before.  According to Wikipedia, the 10 historians would be correct, since there's more “reliable sources” that agree on it.  As an editor noted to Messer-Kruse: “Wikipedia is not 'truth,' Wikipedia is 'verifiability' of reliable sources. Hence, if most secondary sources which are taken as reliable happen to repeat a flawed account or description of something, Wikipedia will echo that."  Clearly, this is problematic.

Like so many things in the digital world, Wikipedia is here to stay. This doesn’t mean it can’t change from its current form to something more verifiable. In its current state, Wikipedia remains a starting point to a very basic knowledge of certain events or people. As we move forward, we might ask what role do historians have in influencing and shaping how the public “does” history? If historians don’t step in to fill the void, someone else will.