“Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” – The Machine is Us/ing Us

Roy Rosenzweig’s 2006 article “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” can be found on the Center for History and New Media web page. The website is a great resource for historians and anyone curious about a variety of topics! Check out some of the articles and exhibits on the website.

Rosenzweig breaks down the history of the beloved website Wikipedia, including its origins and how the website works. Wikipedia is based on the concept of the ancient Library of Alexandria and collecting all knowledge in one place. As of January 25, 2020 there are 5,896,924 articles on the database. You could make a case for the site serving its original purpose!

Wikipedia was founded on four pillars which serve to maintain the database as a credible and reliable source. First, Wikipedia serves as an encyclopedia. Nothing else. To do so, the second pillar is to avoid bias, which is why articles simply describe an event or person without taking a side on an issue. (Naturally this doesn’t always happen, but they try to monitor articles!) Third, don’t infringe copyright. This is a logical pillar for a database and establishing credibility. Lastly, exhibit respect for other contributors. Wikipedia serves and is served by a community of collaborators all coming together around a common interest.

Rosenzweig then moves into a discussion of Wikipedia as a form of history and what that means for the academic history community. The article concludes with the looming question: Why should we care? Implications for Historians.

Historians, academic and amateurs alike, need to continue to commit time and energy into open sources like Wikipedia for a multitude of reasons, but mostly because of how user friendly and popular these sources are. Rosenzweig acknowledges the shortcomings of the source, but concludes that if historians are not happy with the result, historians must be a part of the process of improving the source and democratizing history.

As an “open source”, it means that the website has less coding, meaning the information is not uploaded to a server, which in turn makes the information more accessible. The YouTube film “The Machine is Us/ing Us” is a less than five minute crash course in new media, mostly rooted in the internet.

While “The Machine” was published in 2007, the basic language and skills presented in the video are true 13 years later! Digital text, and media, is adaptable and flexible, and always changing.

How does an idea get from our minds onto a web page? What is a blog?! How does Instagram know to advertise Reynolds Wrap to my friend who wraps her bagel in aluminum foil every morning? The internet learns from us!

Check out the clip below before reading the article to have a better grasp on open source and coding before diving into Rosenzweig’s article.

Wikipedia is a part of this “machine”. Wikipedia is adaptable and engaging, reaching millions of people on a daily basis. As Rosenzweig points out, an overwhelming percentage of the articles on the site are history related. Does this mean that history can be open source? I would argue that history can and should be open source because of the overwhelming benefits. Open source history is a great example of public history at work as it encourages collaboration and debate, even if the debate all takes place on the back end.

At the end of the day, regardless of the quality of writing, amateur history is better than no history. A community invested in itself and contributing to collective global knowledge is a beautiful gift and should be fostered in an ethical and reliable manner.

4 Replies to ““Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” – The Machine is Us/ing Us”

  1. Thanks for the great summaries, Ani. I found Rosenzweig’s arguments about what teachers can learn from the process of contributing to Wikipedia interesting. For example, he argues that participants who contribute to Wikipedia entries often engage in the contestation of facts (138). It makes we wonder what the implications are for secondary teachers and professors who want to move beyond teaching their students “the facts.”

    1. Hi Elisabeth,
      I think the best resources for secondary teachers and professors is encouraging their students to check out the other sources Wikipedia has to offer. (Like Wikiversity and Wikisource, etc.)
      I feel some tension around the contestation of facts, because I generally feel something is either true or not, but as a historian I understand that context is very important. Is truth up for interpretation? How much room is there for multiple perspectives? Everyone experiences an event differently, like the Armenian Genocide as Rosenzweig points out, and that is where the contestation comes from. I wonder if it is the facts that are questioned, or the interpretation of the facts. I should check out some of these pages and find out more!

  2. Hi Ani,

    Thanks for the great post and excellent summary of Rosenzweig’s argument. Wikipedia is such an interesting and useful tool precisely because it is open-source. It makes available a wealth of information to an (almost) infinitely wide audience and allows for the contribution of that audience, which in turn help contribute to this growing knowledge base at a rapid rate. Interestingly, one of my professors during undergrad assigned us each an article that had the “this article needs more citations, etc.” notification. We were graded on our ability to flesh out these articles with well-founded and cited sources. This, in many ways, gets back to the point Elizabeth brought up in class last week about HOW we teach students to interact with material they find online (or how well we teach them the skillset of being an informed researcher). Wikipedia holds endless opportunities to engage with material, from the editing of articles, to the mining of references for sources to help us dig deeper on a certain topic.

  3. Thanks for the recommendations!

    I generally agree with your distinction between contesting facts and interpreting them. I wonder where the definition of fact ends and interpretation begins.

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