Wikipedia: It isn’t just me

When I wrote “Dear Teachers: Wikipedia Is Not Evil” I definitely felt alone. Despite the fact that seemingly everyone uses Wikipedia I had never run across a teacher that admits that he or she loves it. But then I came across Rebecca J. Rosen’s (associate editor at The Atlantic) article “One of the Nation’s Top Historians Decides It’s Time to Embrace Wikipedia.” In it she writes:

“The world of academic scholarship–particularly the field of history–has at times had a strained relationship with the massive collaborative project that is Wikipedia…Although some of the Wikipedia skepticism was fueled by a gut distrust of anything without a scholarly seal-of-approval, much of it was simply a reservation-in-judgment until the upstart could prove itself.

Now, about a decade in to this great experiment in collaborative creation, Wikipedians efforts are resulting in increased credibility among academic historians, signaled most recently by an essay by the president of the American Historical Association William Cronon in the association’s publication Perspectives on History.”

Cronon’s article, “Scholarly Authority in a Wikified World,” is a must-read for believers and skeptics alike. He says everything I wish I’d said in my article. For example, in describing Wikipedia’s strengths, he writes:

“What one will find is a breadth and intellectual scope that put even the largest traditional encyclopedias to shame…Compare Wikipedia with Britannica on ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’ and you’ll see what I mean. On topics of current interest, including many environmental subjects central to my own work, Wikipedia has a nimbleness that even newspapers have trouble matching. Its entry on Hurricane Katrina, for instance, already filled many screens while the storm was still raging over New Orleans. (Britannica, in contrast, still offers only seven short paragraphs on the subject.) Even controversial topics that are famous for generating warring submissions by opposing sides often do a remarkably good job of migrating toward shared middle ground. Compare Wikipedia’s entry on ‘abortion’ or ‘abortion debate’ with Britannica‘s and ask yourself which does a better job.”

And he makes a couple points that I had not thought of. For example, he argues that Wikipedia has been able to tap the knowledge, skills, and resources of hobbyists and amateurs:

“Perhaps most importantly, Wikipedia provides an online home for people interested in histories long marginalized by the traditional academy. The old boundary between antiquarianism and professional history collapses in an online universe where people who love a particular subject can compile and share endless historical resources for its study in ways never possible before.”

But most exciting for me is his vision of the future. I remember way back (in Internet time) to 2005 when Wikipedia ‘only’ had a few hundred thousand articles in English. Its growth over time has been remarkable, and it now boasts 3.9 million articles. Of course, Cronon and I both argue that the quality has also increased. And Cronon’s vision bodes well for both quantity and quality:

“What is to be done?

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

He describes how many experts, scientists, engineers, and music scholars among them, have already adopted this strategy. But he argues that history lags behind and it is time for that to change:

“Because the discipline of history is much harder to corral than these more technical subjects, and because it’s nearly impossible to imagine organizing historians to provide editorial input for all relevant Wikipedia pages, it would undoubtedly be more productive to approach this challenge in a “wikier” way. There are few pages on Wikipedia that couldn’t be enhanced with more historical content. There are few historical entries that wouldn’t benefit from more scholarly input. And there are myiad historical entries that are missing altogether…

All one needs is to open oneself to the possibilities and give up the comfort of credentialed expertise to contribute to the greatest encyclopedia the world has ever known—which again, I intend here mainly as a symbol for the Web itself.”

He ends with a call to members of the American Historical Association to start with the organization’s own entry on Wikipedia. And I’d like to do the same. Look up your own school, town, club, or local organization on Wikipedia. Or look up the latest subject you had to study in order to teach it to your students. What can you contribute? How can you help make Wikipedia an even better place?