Roy Rosenzweig’s “Can History be Open Source?” brings up many relevant questions concerning the relationship between academic history/historians and Wikipedia. Though he ultimately supports a greater integration of historians into open source, free Internet sites such as Wikipedia, the beginning of his article thoroughly outlines the seeming incompatibility between the “laws” of historians and the set up of Wikipedia. Besides his premise that history is a “deeply individualistic craft” rather than a communal effort, his most important insight for me was Wikipedia’s emphasis on neutrality.
As future/current historians, we all know the value and necessity of arguing a point in our works. To this end, in addition to the weaker bibliographic information, anonymity, deemphasis on status (an individual with a PhD is not given prominence over a “typical” Wikipedian), and different value placed on certain facts (such as in the section where he is talking about James McPherson and what Wikipedians emphasize in their post on Lincoln as opposed to McPherson, or where Rosenzweig states Wikipedia is fueled more by popular news than academic historiography), Wikipedia appears to be the antithesis of “proper” history.
However, Rosenzweig is successful in two things: his attempt to legitimize the facts and articles on Wikipedia as factual, and arguing the venue of Wikipedia (as a free, open source, easily accessible site) would be a wonderful and important avenue historians could take to integrate a wider audience into historical works and debates. His point that Wikipedia is also run/edited by white, educated males and has a Western bias was also a very interesting point in regards to discussing history.
Honestly, I use Wikipedia to look up what year so-and-so was born. Or what year that movie was made. And that’s about it. I cringe, I’ll admit, when student cite Wikipedia as a source in their papers. Yet this article did somewhat assuage my fears that their information was entirely misguided. Despite the potential, as Rosenzweig outlines, for false information to stay on the site, Wikipedia apparently is factually accurate in general.
Though I feel Rosenzweig makes a good argument for why historians should interact on a larger basis in voluntary communities such as Wikipedia (NARA’s “tagging” archived documents online comes to mind), I’m going to have to argue that the non-historical community would not widely accept accessible, online historiographical information. Part of the reason, I believe, people love Wikipedia so much is because it’s quick and easy. There’s no reading multiple articles to come up with your own analysis, no weighing historiographical arguments, no reading introductions or paragraphs about context. There’s “boom. Fort Sumter was fired upon on April 12, 1861 and it hit the fan.”
While I would love for journals like the JAH to be online, free, accessible, I don’t believe it would either catch on like Wikipedia has, nor do I think it would open the pool of who was posting in these journals. I also agree with Rosenzweig that a majority of professional historians are not ready or willing to give up the tenets of their profession, such as hierarchy among PhDs, antiquarians, etc. Maybe these historians are the ones whose retirement we were discussing last week, but as it is, Wikipedia and academic history, though they have some crossover potential, are at this moment still inherently yin and yang.
(I would like to add that I was questioning my own resistance to calling Wikipedia compatible with academic history as I intend on going into academia. Did everyone have this reaction as well, or do you think there’s a divergence between academic and public history?)