Sooner or later, as a modern-day history major you have to figure out where you stand on Wikipedia. It’s either something you depend on, something you avoid, or something you use but try not to acknowledge. Where do you stand? More important if you are a serious history major, how should the profession adapt in this Wiki Age?
The answers don’t come easy anymore. For years, history professors warned students away from Wikipedia. But now some are welcoming it. William Cronon, a distinguished historian, used his term as president of the American Historical Association (AHA) to advocate for making Wikipedia better. Check out Cronon’s 2012 editorial on the subject. He makes some powerful points, but historian Timothy Messer-Kruse’s dismal experience with trying to improve a mediocre Wikipedia entry highlights some of the inherent problems with this crowd-sourced and surprisingly rigid online encyclopedia. More recently, historian Stephen Campbell reports to the AHA about his challenges in trying to live up to Cronon’s call to action.
And even more recently, the AHA reports in September 2016 on the continuing struggles by historians to counteract the biases of Wikipedia’s content policies.
What’s your opinion? Feel free to comment.
This post was updated in September 2016
After reading Timothy Messer-Kruse’s piece on Wikipedia, I now have a hard time trusting any historical information that Wikipedia pages produce. It seems very strange to me that a historian like Messer-Kruse, who ultimately wrote a book on the Haymarket riot and trial of 1886, was shut down time and time again for being a “minority source,” (Messer-Kruse, 1). It should have been clear to these Wikipedia editors that this information was coming from a credible source (for he wrote a book on the topic), albeit a “minority” one.
During most of my academic career, I have usually been told by teachers to avoid Wikipedia at all costs. I was therefore puzzled when I heard one or two professors in college say that it’s okay to use Wikipedia as a source. I have a different view altogether: some articles could be used to find excellent sources (mostly secondary sources), and other articles leave room for a historian to “fill in the gaps.”
Take the Wiki article we read for homework as an example. This article on the U.S. Constitution is not perfect by any means (In fact, some portions of the article have few citations.), but it can lead researchers to wonderful secondary sources. The footnotes acknowledge the work of writers such as Donald Ritchie, the Historian Emeritus of the United States Senate. The “works cited” section makes note of a book called The Creation of the American Republic, which won a Bancroft Prize in 1970. On the surface, at least, the Wikipedia article on the United States Constitution leads a student like me to sources and authors which are held in high regard.
Critics of my view will say that Wiki articles can still have its own biases, even when it cites supposedly reputable sources. This is an issue when you are trying to use it like a reputable source (which I wouldn’t recommend). However, you avoid that issue if you pluck individual secondary sources from Wiki instead of citing the article itself.
But there are unfortunately times when you can’t even get good secondary sources from a Wikipedia article. For example, when I did a biographical profile for my American Civil War class, I quickly realized that my subject matter had a short and largely unhelpful Wiki page. In cases such as this, maybe the historian should consider filling a gap in Wikipedia by turning his/her project into a well-informed article. In fact, I sometimes feel sorely tempted to do exactly that with the person I did research on.