Thoughts on “Wikipedia and the Future of the Past”

I had heard of Wikipedia as a “write-it-yourself” kind of online encyclopedia, but had never visited it or frankly, given it another thought until hearing the term “wiki” being tossed about on the night of our first class. What’s a wiki? I felt so out of it…  Okay, so now I know a bit more about this online phenomenon called Wikipedia, and Roy Rosensweig’s deconstruction and analysis of it has filled another gap in my ever-evolving knowledge about all things cyber.

Rosensweig’s is a call for the historical community to sit up and take notice of this site and others of its ilk, wherein virtual communities are populating the Internet with knowledge (along with bias, ignorance, and venom) which has the potential to reach and influence how people regard their world and how things came to be.

 Acknowledging the difficulty historians have in contributing on the web (the “trolls” inhabiting Wikiland, for example), Rosensweig nevertheless exhorts academics to find ways to present history online such that it does not invalidate the contributions of amateurs and non-historians, but amplifies and clarifies the historical record. To this end, historical societies, archives and associations must seriously reconsider their long-standing practice of “charging admission” to their online resources. Such practices seem to say “If you want the facts, you have to pay for them. If you want it free, then you get what you pay for.”

What the free online encyclopedias need to do is to remind the reader that an encyclopedia entry is but the first step in one’s research; for the student doing a term paper, the entry should have sufficient references to primary and secondary works. And in the case of secondary works, these should be as recent as possible. By its very nature, this is where the professional historian can make an entry more useful and relevant.

The example of Wikipedia shows that the Internet is blooming with more and more resources, and while the tending of these blooms requires time and money, the result can be breathtaking.  

Thus endeth this post. Unfortunately, I’ll miss class tonight, so by my absence you will probably figure out who I am !   

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