My colleague Roy Rosenzweig has just published “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” in the Journal of American History (93/1), in which he offers both a history of the Wikipedia and suggestions for its future, especially as concerns history and historians. If you don’t already know the history of the world’s largest encyclopedia, this essay offers the most lucid and thoughtful take on it you could want.
More important, though, is Roy’s willingness to take seriously the idea that the work of many can be as good as or better than the work of one (or a few) historians. To wit, he offers several suggestions, including:
What if we organized a similar “distributed transcribers” to work on handwritten historical documents that otherwise will never be digitized? Volunteers could take their turns transcribing page images of the widely used Cameron Family Papers at the Southern Historical Collection that would be presented to them online. The same automated checking process used by Ames Clickworkers or among distributed proofreaders could be applied. A similar approach could be taken to transcribing the massive quantities of recorded sound—the Lyndon B. Johnson tapes, for example—that are enormously expensive to transcribe and cannot be rendered into text with current automated methods.
Along those same lines, I recently recommended to the managers of a large online archive of sources in various East European languages a similar solution. They told me that one of their biggest problems was that they had far too many sources to translate, given their budgetary constraints. So, why not post them up in the original and offer visitors the option to be the “first to translate this source”? Wiki technology makes this simple enough and all that would then be required of the sites managers is that they monitor the translations from time to time–relying instead on the community of users to do most of the translating and monitoring of the translations. Of course this won’t be as popular as the Wikipedia, but would have the advantage of getting the most used documents translated the fastest (and for free).
Several other blogs have taken notice of Roy’s article and the reviews (not of the article, but of Wikipedia) are not surprisingly mixed. See, for example, TIP Community, ifBook, ACRLog, and Stephen Schenkenberg.
I used my Wikipedia assignment as a training exercise with a group of about 50 high school social studies teachers last week and they (mostly) enjoyed it. Why? Because their students rely so heavily on the Wikipedia and this assignment offered them a simple way to teach their students the good, the bad, and the ugly about Wikipedia. We happened to be doing this exercise on the day the Ken Lay entry got locked down–much to the dismay of one of the teachers who really wanted to correct a grammatical error in the version that happened to be up that at that moment. For those planning to do something like this on their own–a multiuser training exercise–beware! Wikipedia limits the number of new accounts that can be generated from one IP address in the same day to six! So, most of my teachers had to limit themselves to editing entries rather than creating new ones.
What are we to conclude from all of this blather? We know Wikipedia isn’t going away any time soon and we know that our students are going to continue to rely on it. And we know that it is a flawed tool, depending on which moment you happen to access it. But, as Roy’s essay demonstrates, we also know that it can be a valuable tool. Or, more to the point, wikis can be a valuable tool. So, it’s up to us to (a) train our students how to use and not use Wikipedia, just as we would train them how to use or not use certain resources we might find in the campus library and (b) think seriously about the ways that historians can make use of the wisdom of them many for projects of our own devising.