The Future of the Discipline

Historians in Wikipedia: Building an Open, Collaborative History

Lori Byrd Phillips and Dominic McDevitt-Parks, December 2012

What will the historian's craft look like in the age of social media, crowdsourcing, and Wikipedia? It is a question often addressed in the pages of this magazine, and here we want to expand on one answer offered last year by AHA President William Cronon, who encouraged historians to "contribute to the greatest encyclopedia the world has ever known." As Wikipedians in residence, we facilitate the contribution of subject matter expertise from cultural institutions—such as the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, the National Archives, and the Smithsonian—to Wikipedia. The future will see more of this type of engagement, which brings the insights of authorities to the world's most widely accessed online encyclopedia.

Many see Wikipedia's open, collaborative editing model to be contradictory to established processes within the academic world. In fact, the work of academics is not in competition with Wikipedia, but is the key to its quality and development. Ultimately, if the field of history is to become a part of an online collaborative culture, historians will need to be full, participating members of the Wikipedia community. We see this happening through partnerships with cultural institutions and through an embrace, by Wikipedians and historians alike, of an emerging model of collaboration called "open authority."

In urging historians to join in the improvement of Wikipedia, Roy Rosenzweig, founder of the Center for History and New Media, called Wikipedia an example of "the massive democratization of access to knowledge."1 As the world's fifth most-visited website, Wikipedia and its sister projects receive around 490 million unique visitors a month, and its openly licensed content frequently appears on other websites.2 The popularity of Wikipedia, and especially of its history articles, makes it, for better or worse, the most prominent public history project in the world. Compare, for example, the 20 million page views in 2011 of Wikipedia's "United States" article to the 17 million views of all the National Archives webpages on archives.gov in the same year. Trends like these prompted the National Archives to make a concerted effort to collaborate with Wikipedians. In the words of Archivist of the United States David Ferriero, "You need to be where the people are."3 Historians will continue to publish their scholarship in academic journals, but that scholarship is best communicated to the general public through Wikipedia.

Wikipedia needs the contributions of expert historians. Although Wikipedia generally succeeds at providing an amazing breadth of knowledge, it needs historians and other experts on specific topics who can provide depth. However, because any person is entitled to contribute to Wikipedia regardless of credentials, experts often struggle with their role as authorities within Wikipedia. They often fear worthy contributions are not given proper recognition in a community of amateurs. But, in fact, collaboration with Wikipedia does not undermine scholarly authority. Rather, it enhances it by putting it to work and adding value to a high-profile public representation of the topics experts are passionate about.

The combination of expertise and transparent collaboration is an emerging model known as open authority.4 Public historians, academics, and many others have expressed concern over the shifting role of expert authority in an increasingly connected digital world where everyone is a curator. Open authority is the coming together of expert authority with user-generated content on free and open platforms. This typically takes the form of dialogue between experts and the public on a virtual forum, leading to a more inclusive representation of a topic. Wikipedia, as an open forum for discussion and collaboration, is one of the best examples of open authority. The open-source software movement from which Wikipedia evolved has demonstrated that open, collaborative communities can create large, complex projects that meet even the highest standards of the profession. Experts in diverse fields are learning to embrace the potential of collaborative online communities, and are entering dialogue within transparent, open forums that reflect the connected environment in which we live.

It is important to understand that Wikipedia contributors are not amateur historians but encyclopedists. Wikipedia, as a tertiary source, does not seek to crowdsource the interpretation of the past, but to document the state of the field on a given topic. Scholars sensitive to this mission will understand Wikipedia's policy of "no original research," which ensures that all interpretive claims are referenced to a published and accepted source. This insistence on verifiability is necessary to maintain the reliability of contributions, and avoids the slippery slope of (sometimes eccentric) self-proclaimed experts promoting unpublished interpretations. That said, Wikipedia does not reject the use of primary sources altogether. Wikipedia editors will, however, question contributions based on primary sources alone when they offer an interpretation that cannot be found in the secondary literature.

Just as historians are moving towards a better understanding of the Wikipedia community, the Wikipedia community itself is becoming more welcoming and accessible to new contributors, professional historians included. To this end, the Wikipedia community is developing an improved editing interface and supporting new editors through various projects.  In recent years, a community-driven project known as GLAM-Wiki ("GLAM" stands for Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) has united hundreds of Wikipedians around the world with the goal of supporting cultural institutions as they share subject matter expertise with Wikipedia.5 Initiatives like these will lower the barriers to entry for new expert contributors—but there is still much more work to do. And, as with any open community, the best way to make it reflective of one's values and experience is simply to join in.

In the meantime, Wikipedians in residence are bridging the gap between the Wikipedia community and cultural professionals by providing insight, outreach, and in-person assistance for institutions committed to establishing partnerships with Wikipedia. Wikipedians in residence work for an institution—often a museum, library, or archive—to serve as a liaison between experts and the Wikipedia community. Wikipedians in residence have been supported in esteemed institutions around the world, from the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution to the United States' National Archives and the Israel Museum—and interest continues to grow. This enthusiasm illustrates the cultural sector's growing acceptance of Wikipedia, not only as a platform for sharing content, but as a valuable community worthy of long-term partnership. This coupling of expert authority with the collaborative community of Wikipedia is open authority in action.

Issuing a challenge to scholars, Rosenzweig wrote, "historians probably have a professional obligation to make [Wikipedia] as good as possible."6 While Wikipedia continues to provide free knowledge to millions each day, the discipline of history risks becoming isolated if scholars do not become more engaged with the online communities of this new information commons. Contributing to Wikipedia makes a scholar's work more accessible than ever before. As a wiki that is open to everyone, Wikipedia only works if everyone feels empowered to be involved. To this end, we urge historians to make the first step in contributing. Follow Wikipedia's unofficial mantra and "Be Bold!" Do not be afraid to click that edit button.

Lori Byrd Phillips is the 2012 US cultural partnerships coordinator for the Wikimedia Foundation and a digital marketing content coordinator at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis. She has served as the Children's Museum's Wikipedian in residence since 2010, and holds a Masters in museum studies from Indiana University and a BA in history from George Mason University.

Dominic McDevitt-Parks has been the Wikipedian in residence for the National Archives and Records Administration since May 2011. He holds a BA in history from Reed College and is currently completing his MS in library science from Simmons College.

Notes

1. Roy Rosenzweig, "Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past," Journal of American History 93:1 (June 2006), 117–146.

2. All figures include information from all Wikimedia projects, including all Wikipedia languages and projects such as Wikiquote, Wikinews, etc. Monthly stats can be found in the Wikimedia Foundation's Monthly Report.

3. David Ferriero, "Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero" (Speech presented at the Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit, Simmons College, Boston, MA, July 9, 2011). www.archives.gov/about/speeches/2011/7-9-2011.html.

4. Lori Byrd Phillips, "Defining Open Authority in Museums," MIDEA Blog (New Media Consortium, January 13, 2012).

5. "GLAM-Wiki US," Wikipedia. (2012).

6. Rosenzweig, see note 1.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.

The American Historical Association welcomes comments in the discussion area below, at AHA Communities, and in letters to the editor. Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.