History…The Wikipedia Way???

Is Wikipedia a good reliable source of historical scholarship?

The answer to this question depends upon several factors including, but not limited to our own relationship to historical scholarship.  According to Roy Rosenzweig, “History is a deeply individualistic craft” and its scholarship is characterized by the possessive individualism of historians.  As historians we are taught to cite our sources, giving credit to other historians for the use of their ideas and words to avoid charges of plagiarism.  In contrast, Wikipedia encourages the creation of entries in cooperation with multiple authors, who may be anonymous.  Wikipedia allows users to freely copy and use the entries found on their site in a variety of ways.  Teachers can make copies to use in their classes, students can copy and use the articles in their papers, authors can use the information in books, and anyone with a website can copy information found on Wikipedia to their website.  The only restriction imposed by Wikipedia regarding the use of these entries is…”you may not impose any more restrictions on subsequent readers and users than have been imposed on you”.

What is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a free, open, collaborative source which first appeared on the World Wide Web in January 2001.  The idea behind Wikipedia was originally developed in 1999 by Richard Stallman who proposed a website called GNUpedia.   The following year Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales and Larry Sanger, the driving forces behind Wikipedia, developed and launched Wikipedia’s predecessor – Nupedia in March 2000.  This was followed quickly by Wikipedia in January 2001.   The WikiWikiWeb software which enabled the creation of Wikipedia was developed in the mid 1990’s by Ward Cunningham.  Since its premier Wikipedia has become the largest, most widely read and most important free historical source.  Wikipedia has its own set of rules which are intended to regulate participation, however the co-creator and the site’s editor-in-chief, Larry Sanger resigned in 2003 in response to the projects “tolerance of problem participants and its hostility toward experts”.

The Wikipedia Way…

Wikipedia has its own set of policies and guidelines, which are “policed” by both volunteers as well as The Wikipedia Foundation.  The  Wikipedia Foundation consists of five members including Wales, two of his business partners and two elected members who retain the power to “ban users” from the website.

There are four “key” policies which should be adhered to in using Wikipedia.  They include:

1.      Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and therefore personal essays, dictionary entries, critical reviews, propaganda, advocacy and original research are excluded.  Basically, Wikipedia wants the accepted history summarized on the site and discourages anyone, especially historians from breaking new ground with original research.

2.      Avoid bias – All entries must be void of any bias effectively remaining neutral on all subjects – especially volatile ones.  Rosenzweig compares Wikipedia’s “founding myth” of neutrality with Peter Novak’s “founding myth” of the historical profession, “objectivity”.

3.      “don’t infringe copyrights”

4.      Respect other contributors

History…Wikipedia Style!

Is Wikipedia a good, reliable resource for historical scholarship?  This question keeps resurfacing and for good reason.  Wikipedia is first and foremost an encyclopedia and therefore is not a good, reliable resource for any student beyond middle school.  Like other encyclopedias the information contained within the entries is limited with a neutral point of view and therefore void of opinion.

Unlike traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia is a white board site which enables readers to edit the information contained within any entry.  The collaborative writing style encouraged by Wikipedia increases the possibility that Wikipedia entries could be altered at any given time, a characteristic which prevents its use as a reliable source of historical scholarship.

Why should historians and educators care about Wikipedia? The answer to this question is simple…because our students do!  Personally, when I returned to school in 2002 I had not heard about Wikipedia, but I learned quickly.  During my undergraduate and master’s programs my history professors warned us against using Wikipedia for several reasons…

1.      It was new technology and they did not trust the information.

2.      The constantly changing information within the entries

3.      It is an encyclopedia and college students should never use an encyclopedia as a source

I have been teaching history at a community college since last spring and in my syllabus under instructions for research papers I tell my students, Wikipedia is not an acceptable source for your paper.  My primary reasons for this are that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and the collaborative nature of the site which potentially results in changing and/or inaccurate information.

Roy Rosenzweig leaves us with an idea, a challenge in regard to Wikipedia’s popular history.  It is his tentative belief that “If Wikipedia is becoming the family encyclopedia for the twenty-first century, historians probably have a professional obligation to make it as good as possible”.  He challenges historians to devote one day to review and improve those entries which cover their area of expertise.  Participating in this project would enhance the quality of Wikipedia.

Flickr Commons: An Uncommon Resource

The World’s Public Photography Archives

In January 2008, Flickr: The Commons was created with the intention to create the world’s first public photo collection and interactive archive.  Users are able to browse the image collections of 46 participating institutions from around the world, including collections from notable American institutions: The Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, National Media Museum, The U.S. National Archives, and NASA on the Commons.

According to the website, the program has two main objectives:

1.“To increase access to publicly-held photography collections.”

The Flickr format enables institutions to share limited photographic collections (those with no known copyright restrictions) with the general public.  NASA, for example, which has been proudly “on the forefront within the federal government in utilizing Web 2.0 technologies” joined Flickr in 2009 to ensure that NASA images and media could reach an even wider audience.

2.“To provide a way for the general public to contribute information and knowledge.”

The Commons encourages site visitors and users to add tags or comment on the photos to encourage conversation and invite insightful dialogue to complement and enrich the collections.   The comment feature allows knowledgeable users to share information, stories, and otherwise provide historical context.

What is good for the user is also good for the institution?

The Library of Congress Commons Project FAQ page explains how “social tagging and community input could benefit both the Library and the user.” In their initial collection offerings, the Library posted photos that had only minimal identifying information or subject indexing in the hope that users may help shed some light on these otherwise obscure images.  The Library of Congress, and other participating institutions, recognized the value of Flickr Commons’ social community and the potential to tap the “collective intelligence” of citizen users and recruit them to perform the task of “collective cataloging.”

This is not the first time an institution capitalized on “collective intelligence.” In 2001, NASA launched (pun intended) an experimental project that utilized public volunteers, called “clickworkers,” to perform “common sense” routine analysis and assist in the cataloging of Martian craters.  The project was highly successful and the public assistance saved NASA both time and money. So Flickr Commons wisely followed suit.  As noted in a Flickr blog, “many hands make light work.”

The Fruits of Crowd- Source Labor

An article in the March 2008 edition of the The Library of Congress Information Bulletin entitled “Rediscovering Lincoln” triumphantly announced that thanks to “collective intelligence” the Library of Congress was able to properly identify a photograph and, subsequently, three glass negatives of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration that had been wrongly identified as either the Grand Review of the Armies or the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant.

In November, amateur historian and Civil War enthusiast John Richter found several interesting images among the treasure trove of photographs digitized and accessible on the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. He identified them as images of Lincoln at Gettysburg for the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863. (The images can be viewed by searching “Lincoln at Gettysburg” on the Library’s Prints and Photographs Catalog and selecting the images of the dedication ceremony at Soldiers’ National Ceremony.)

The potential for amateur historians and historians alike to properly identity photos and uncover “new” visual sources is a truly exciting prospect.  For Flickr, and other crowd-sourced projects, the power is with the people.

Outside the Digital Playground Looking In

If you want to take one thing away from “Living and Learning with New Media” is just how far reality has passed research.  If this paper is truly representative of the research on childhood and the internet, then not only have researchers only barely begun to scrape the surface, but that the language they are using to formulate their studies are hopelessly out of date.  For all of that, I ultimately took away an optimistic message.

Mimi Ito et al. set out to study how children play, self-actualize and learn in a digital environment.  The key message is that children pick up surprisingly sophisticated knowledge online in the process of networking with friends and peer groups.  The study included students involved in social gaming like MMORPGs and first person shooters, youths creating AMVs (adding music soundtracks to anime clips) and people creating fan dubs and subs (translating foreign films, usually anime).  In each case, youths acquired highly sophisticated knowledge about video editing, and computer usage through peer interaction.  They developed and carefully maintained online personae which allowed them to talk, socialize and even flirt in a secure environment.

There conclusions are actually quite optimistic.  It suggests that children are well aware of themselves and their activities online.  The goal of parents and adults should not be to restrict or police the internet activity of children, but rather, to moderate it as fellow peers.  Schools, they suggest, would do well to emulate the networked nature of the digital learning environment with student driven, peer moderated learning, relying on the sophistication students have already developed as part of their socializing to access, synthesize and learn knew knowledge.

As I was reading this, I was amazed at how much it sounded like me as a teenager on the internet 15 years ago.  All of these practices referred to in the study were things I participated in.  My brother at 14, taught himself first how to create maps in Doom, then learned Photoshop, then 3d Studio Max and now works as a 3d artist for Blizzard Entertainment, all through knowledge gained online through peer interaction.  Granted this was over dial-up connections playing Quakeworld, or on Web 1.0 newsgroups, but there seems no fundamental difference.  This suggests to me two things.  First, despite changes in technology, the methodology of digital networking has not changed.  Perhaps we’ve reached the end of the digital revolution.  If that is the case, this study is even more behind the reality than its creators may realize.

One example of how behind the curve Ito and the rest are is in their choice of language.  For instance, they refer to socializing online as “hanging out.”  I found this to be problematic at best.  Internet socialization is far from hanging out.  For me, “hanging out” is an activity.  As a kid, when I used that term, it referred to actually going somewhere, actually investing time in being physically with friends.  Online time with friends is usually carried out in a different manner.  Being on IM is an activity that increasingly is part of the background of usual activity.  For instance, chatting with a friend through Facebook while reading this article (bad admission?), or dropping by a forum to post while hunting through JSTOR for an article.  Reflecting, this is not fundamentally different from how I interacted on the web 15 years ago.

Did anyone else get the impression that the researchers are looking in at a playground that many of us are already inside?  Is this crisis of a generational digital divide really worth the ink and web-space devoted to it?  Or is this merely a phenomenon of this particular generation of researchers commenting on this particular generation of kids?  Will academia evolve toward a more web-centric approach to learning as web-centric learners step in the fill the gap, or will institutional inertia prevent what is happening naturally across the country?

Preliminary Proposal: A Multimedia Project Gemini Portal

For decades, the work of NASA has captured the imagination of the American public and the world, sending humans to the moon and unmanned craft even farther.

NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

NASA’s work is documented rich in eye-catching images, videos, as well as lots of primary source documents that are freely available on the Internet — and are public domain.

That’s all great, but this documented history is strewn across NASA’s websites and elsewhere around the Web — hardly an easy way to explore the archive.

In this digital project, I hope to use WordPress or Drupal to create a multimedia portal for Project Gemini, which lasted from 1965 to 1966.

Gemini capsules accommodated two astronauts and the Titan II rocket was used (the Titan was actually developed as an intercontinental ballistic missile). A total of 10 manned flights were flown. Despite some flaws (including a capsule that spun out of control that Neil Armstrong commanded), the program was deemed successful and paved the way for Project Apollo, which sent astronauts to the moon.

NASA’s official website for Project Gemini is clearly stuck in the 1990s and, simply put, is garbage. Something must be done.

Using my Delicious site, I have curated a number of links to sources I would like to incorporate into this website. Additional content can be found on YouTube and other non-NASA.gov websites.

I plan to create a page for each of the 10 Gemini missions, and possibly an additional page to talk about the test flights. Each page will include links (or even embed) the relevant images, videos and primary source documents. The pages will all include a 1-2 paragraph introduction to the mission, and could possibly list the vital information (dates, crew, etc.). The homepage, I think, should be more of a splash design, with each mission’s patch displayed. Clicking on said patch would send the user to that mission’s page. A short introduction to the site will also be included on the homepage.

Gemini 7. (NASA, via Wikimedia Commons)

This project will make accessible historical information that is difficult to find over the vast sprawl of the Internet. NASA’s work interests many people, and I feel this site would do a service to the general public by making this information easier for the public to find. Perhaps it could even be used as a teaching tool in classes.

What do you think? Do you think this idea makes sense? Do you have any specific suggestions for me? Please share your thoughts in the comments. I look forward to hearing from the class.

Only the Wiki Survive

As Jerry Butler once wrote, Only the Strong Survive, but what about the wiki? As technology continues to be developed, there seems to be no reason not to create our own “wiki-pads,” “wiki-pods,” and maybe even “wiki-phones.”

Historians could attempt to learn html and create their own websites, but why bother when there are so many online tools that provide the space and templates that can guide us through the process? Of course, beyond just sharing our own individual work, we are encouraged to engage in more collaborative research, like this article suggests. Again, the space for collaborative research has also been laid out for us.

PBworks allows for businesses, educators, and individuals to set up their own “wiki’s,” or collaborative spaces where groups can share and edit information. For those who wish to create online workspaces without the necessity of learning code, applications like these make it easy for anyone to “click and insert” whatever information they desire.

We should ask, however, how is this website, PBworks, any different from other do-it-yourself sites? Google Sites allows for the same type of collaborative projects and has its own templates that individuals and groups can use. There are probably a hundred different websites that allow anyone to create their own wiki’s, many of which will host them for free. The question is, what do these sites suggest for scholars in the humanities? Basically, there’s no reason not to have your own website, whether for presenting your own research or creating collaborative projects for others to participate in your research.

In terms of education, PBworks is specifically designed with templates for the syllabus, course readings, class assignments, etc. Schools and classrooms can create their own online workspaces, like this one for an AP American History Course, where students can engage online with various content. While I personally see this as helpful in the classroom, it seems less significant when it comes to scholarly research.

This is not to suggest that certain wiki’s have not been created to aid in historical research. A Digital Research Tool Wiki (DiRT) was created where contributing individuals present hundreds of tools and resources to help scholars with their research. In a way, it’s like a phone book of digital tools.  Do you need help with organizing research tools? Check out these possible resources. What about creating interactive multimedia works on your own to enrich the presentation of your research? Try one of these. Regardless of how much help you may need, this site guides you to many resources available online. The problem is, how do you know this site exists without being guided there. You can get there through Google, but you have to know to search “digital research tools.” There isn’t really a database of PBworks sites, so unless you are part of the group you may never know it exists. Many PBworks sites are set up for exclusive groups (i.e. schools, classes, etc), so you would have to be invited to even access the material. This is naturally a benefit for those workgroups that want to keep their research confidential until published, but able to access it across the globe.

To get to know PBworks, I went ahead and created my own workspace. I used their platform to create my Interactive CV. Basically I just uploaded my CV with links to proposals of each of the articles I’ve worked or are currently working on. If anyone requested to contribute, they could post comments and suggestions to my proposals. Obviously, I don’t expect anyone to request this sort of engagement, especially since no one would even know this site existed without my specifically inviting them. Nevertheless, while working on setting this up, I realized how helpful digital tools like this one are along with its affiliated tools (i.e. uploading slideshows, etc) for various workgroups. If I was collaborating on a book or paper with multiple authors, we could use PBworks to upload our drafts, scanned copies of primary sources, links to other secondary sources, and then comment on each author’s work without needing to worry about any of the group’s research being compromised before publication.

What other types of wiki’s would you set up in a group setting and how do you think this site can help collaborative historical work? Is there a valid use for this site when compared to all the other options out there today?

Well, if you’d like, setting up your own wiki is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

1. Choose a Plan that fits your needs.

2. Choose your address: __________.pbworks.com

3. Accept the terms of the site and… “Take Me to My Workspace.”

Or should we call it Wikispace?