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May 05, 2006

What's for dinner (cont'd)

My edit of the Donner Party entry in the Wikipedia lasted not quite five days. As I wrote in an earlier post, I changed one sentence in the entry to reflect the work of Kelly Dixon and Julie Schlabitsky on what happened in the Donner family camp.

The first paragraph of the entry I read on April 26 said:

The Donner Party was a group of California-bound American settlers caught up in the "westering fever" of the 1840s. After becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the winter of 1846–1847, some of the emigrants resorted to cannibalism.

My edit changed it to:

The Donner Party was a group of California-bound American settlers caught up in the "westering fever" of the 1840s. Accounts of the Donner Party's journey traditionally claim that after becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the winter of 1846–1847, some of the emigrants resorted to cannibalism, but recent research by historical archeologists now casts doubt on how much cannibalism actually occurred.

And the new version says:

The Donner Party was a group of California-bound American settlers caught up in the "westering fever" of the 1840s. After becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the winter of 1846–1847, some of the emigrants resorted to cannibalism, although this aspect of the tragedy has been exaggerated.[1]

The Wikipedia entry on the Donner Party is a good example of what one might call a “enthusiast entry.” This brief entry (around 480 words) has been edited more than 500 times since it appear in the Wikipedia in April 2002. There are a number of people who come back to the entry over and over, changing, polishing, and correcting it. Does this make it more correct or accurate?

Not particularly.

What it does do, instead, is make this entry the embodiment of a consensus among those in the Wikipedia community who care about this one small moment in history. Unlike the more contentious entries (see George Bush or Anarchism, for instance) this is not an entry that the Wikipedia aristocracy is going to have to lock down to prevent edit wars. Instead, it is a polishing down of the facts and the interpretations of those facts until they are smooth and acceptable to those who are committed to the editing of this entry.

For this reason, this particular entry would make a good example in a learning exercise that aimed to teach students the virtues and pitfalls of the Wikipedia and open wikis in general. Students might be asked to compare various versions over time and discuss the changes that appear and disappear and what that means for our understanding of the consensus that is emerging. They might be asked to compare the Wikipedia version of the Donner Party to several different scholarly accounts. In such a comparison, they could discuss the ways that scholarly interpretations changed and compare those changes to the ways that the Wikipedia entry changed. Or, they might be asked to consider what happens to history when it gets polished and smoothed down as the result of consensus building? Is it better history? Or is it just more palatable?

Posted by mills at May 5, 2006 07:55 AM

Comments

Excellent idea for a lesson on doing history, and more specifically public history. This negotiation on the Wiki between ethusiasts writers and historians reminds me of how sometimes exhibit scripts are written in some museums. Often those underwriting exhibitions (private funders, or say the Navy) want an exhibit to reflect positive ideals or demonstrate heroism. Same goes for local history museums which often desire triumphal tones to stories about their small town.

Posted by: Sheila at May 5, 2006 11:08 AM