Wikipedia: How does it work and why don’t we teach it?

Those of us who have been educated in the age of Wikipedia knew that our grade was at risk if we cited the website. This refrain resulted in my assuming that Wikipedia was inherently flawed, inevitably incorrect, and otherwise detrimental to my education. Still, if I needed a quick answer to a question, Google would lead me first to the Wikipedia page, and I was naively confident in its accuracy.

This practicum is intended to teach us how Wikipedia works, reconciling our teacher’s warnings with our own understandings of Wikipedia to better understand its strengths and weaknesses as a digital encyclopedia, available at our fingertips.

Wikipedia is a free, web-based encyclopedia— meaning that we don’t have to pay for the information we access when we click on any link starting nor are there restrictions on using their content in your own publication. Wikipedia is open-source software, meaning the source code is made available to and edited by the online community to contribute and make changes. The result is several million articles of information written by multiple, volunteer authors, available to anyone with access to the internet.

Wikipedia holds a nebulous position in the digital history field. Roy Rosenzweig describes the role of Wikipedia in the field in “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past”.

In a few short years, it has become perhaps the largest work of online historical writing, the most widely read work of digital history, and the most important free historical resource on the World Wide Web. (119)

So how does it work? When we do a Google search, a Wikipedia page often lands somewhere near the top of the list. Search the word “museum” and select the Wikipedia search result. The following page opens.

The two links we’ll focus on are “Talk” and “View History”. Both of these pages are Wikipedia administrative pages where editing and quality control happen. On the “Talk” page, you’ll find reviews from the Editorial Team indicating that it is low in quality (C-Class). Other interesting features include a to-do list and conversations among the article’s editors.

Clicking “View History” leads us to a page detailing the history of revisions done on the article about museums. This page identifies who made the edits and when. We notice that this museum article is not often edited—twice in 2018 and only a handful of times in 2017—perhaps contributing to its low quality rating. To better understand the array of quality ratings and to find higher rated pages, I clicked next on “Louvre” where we immediately see that this page features a green plus to the far right, indicating that it is a “good article.”

You can follow the same steps to read the “Talk” and “View History” pages specifically relating to this article to see how the conversation is different on a higher quality page. In pursuit of another high-quality article to compare, I clicked to several pages until I found a “Featured Article” specifically about history and identified as being one of the best articles Wikipedia has to offer. “Middle Ages” was the winner, as both a featured and “semi-protected” article, meaning it is at risk of vandalism or otherwise having its quality diminished by further edits. Contributions to this page are more highly monitored and must be reviewed prior to publication.

The Middle Ages article is highly curated and carefully edited. The organization of the page makes logical sense, the history is more detailed, and while the writing is fact-based without being focused on creating a narrative, it is more pleasant and informative to read than the Museum article. The discussion on the “Talk” page is brief but more detail-oriented, and the volunteers appear to be frequent contributors to Wikipedia articles. There are also a significantly higher number of edits visible on the “View History” page, indicating that it is more carefully maintained than the Museum article.

Having learned a bit about Wikipedia, I am realizing the benefits of learning how to read Wikipedia pages’ quality and history. Roy Rosenzweig would agree with my high school English teacher that I can’t cite Wikipedia in a paper, but I would argue that instead of terrifying students into not using the website at all, we should be teaching students how articles are created, how to read Wikipedia, and how to understand the difference between articles and the quality levels. Having this information, I feel better informed and more able to use Wikipedia effectively.

While I am very new to digital history, I’m wondering: did anyone already know that these pages exist and that it’s possible to read Wikipedia this way? Did you ever seriously consider how Wikipedia articles are written and edited? If so, how did you learn about them and do you think we should be teaching students these skills?

3 Replies to “Wikipedia: How does it work and why don’t we teach it?”

  1. Thanks for the great post Maren! During my undergraduate studies I actually took a class on Baseball and American History (yes, it was as awesome as it sounds) which required us to contribute Wikipedia as a part of our semester project. We had to identify a baseball player that didn’t have a page or whose page was mostly empty, do some research, and update it with more info. It was a really fun experience and I got to both learn a new digital medium and contribute something to Baseball History. That being said, I can confirm that the quality control measures Wikipedia implements are legit. My first two contributions were initially rejected until I finally got it together and had my page approved. I totally agree with the argument that perhaps Wikipedia shouldn’t be *the* source of historical knowledge for society, but the fact of the matter is that for many people it acts as a baseline to get into their area of interest. The public should be encouraged to know how Wikipedia works and use it if nothing else as a starting point for deeper inquiry.

  2. Thank you for reconciling our past Wikipedia trauma with this helpful practicum! I’d never heard of the talk pages before nor had I noticed the rankings of different page qualities, but I’m thrilled to explore these more.

    I agree with Alex–I feel like it’s definitely an important jumping off point. I can remember a sixth grade teacher outlawing Wikipedia citations, but instead telling us to check the footnoted sources. I think that was probably the first time I examined footnotes, although I’m not sure that I realized that’s what we were doing. Addressing Wikipedia’s reputation is a good opportunity to teach students about analyzing the quality of content that they’re consuming–something increasingly important in a world full of Buzzfeed articles and Facebook spam. It seems like a great way to launch into a “always check your sources” discussion with young inquirers.

  3. I’m really intrigued in exploring the way cultural institutions interact with Wikipedia . Like you, I was told by my teachers never to cite Wikipedia in anything I submitted; however, many encouraged me to go to Wikipedia—and particularly the citations—as a starting point in my research. Sometimes I found this useful, sometimes not, but I didn’t think too deeply about it until I interned with the National Archives and participated in a Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon. This was a day-long event (with lunch provided) where volunteers edited a curated list of Wikipedia articles, each time linking back to the National Archives in the citations. The purpose was to both to provide more in-depth and historically accurate articles given the prevalence of Wikipedia in society, but also to increase awareness of the National Archives by using primary documents and staff research as the source for as many Wikipedia articles as possible.

    I’m curious as to how common this effort is in other institutions and how much of an impact it has. Is this a good way to increase awareness of a museum or other cultural institution? Should museums try to do more work like this?

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