One of the Nation's Top Historians Decides It's Time to Embrace Wikipedia

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The world of academic scholarship -- particularly the field of history -- has at times had a strained relationship with the massive collaborative project that is Wikipedia. In 2007, for example, the history department at Middlebury College banned citations to the encyclopedia. How could the free-for-all of the web produce a reliable source? It was thought to be too susceptible to inaccuracy, whether as the result of malicious or ideological manipulation or just pure sloppiness. Although some of the Wikipedia skepticism was fueled by a gut distrust of anything without a scholarly seal-of-approval, much of it was simply a reservation-in-judgment until the upstart could prove itself.

Now, about a decade in to this great experiment in collaborative creation, Wikipedians efforts are resulting in increased credibility among academic historians, signaled most recently by an essay by the president of the American Historical Association William Cronon in the association's publication Perspectives on History. Cronon writes:

My initial skepticism is now proof of how little I understood what Jimmy Wales grasped far better than I. Wikipedia exploded from an initial 20,000 articles in 18 languages during its first year to more than 19 million articles in 270 languages (3.8 million of them in English alone) written or edited by 82,000 active contributors. Whatever reservations one might still have about its overall quality, I don't believe there's much doubt that Wikipedia is the largest, most comprehensive, copiously detailed, stunningly useful encyclopedia in all of human history.

I myself use it on a daily basis, and am pretty sure most of my colleagues and students do too even if they won't admit it. . . . Wikipedia is today the gateway through which millions of people now seek access to knowledge which not long ago was only available using tools constructed and maintained by professional scholars. 

Wikipedia, Cronon goes on to say, is not perfect, though nothing is. But its imperfections are far outweighed by its strengths: its breadth, accessibility, and -- perhaps its most under-appreciated feature -- its ability to remain current with updates that reflect even just-breaking news. Partly, Cronon writes, this is the result of the medium of the web -- even obscure topics can take up all the space in the world, if there's someone out there who has the knowledge and will to expand the entry. These sorts of obscure entries, Cronon notes, tend to be quite strong, as they are often authored by people with particular knowledge, interest, or experience of them.

But it's more than just the medium. Wikipedia has also devised and implemented successful systems of editing and review for dealing with controversy. "Compare Wikipedia's entry on 'abortion' or 'abortion debate' with Britannica's and ask yourself which does a better job," Cronon argues.

These strengths of Wikipedia are enormously useful to anyone looking for basic information online. But for the academy, Wikipedia has a particular value, one Cronon particularly loves: It is pushing the world of academic scholarship to be more open, for the walls at its edges to fall. Cronon explains:

Wikipedia provides an online home for people interested in histories long marginalized by the traditional academy. The old boundary between antiquarianism and professional history collapses in an online universe where people who love a particular subject can compile and share endless historical resources for its study in ways never possible before. Amateur genealogists have enabled the creation of document databases that quantitative historians of the 1960s could only fantasize. In my own field of environmental history, I've long told students that gardens and cooking, which have only recently begun to attract the academic attention they deserve, have been studied for generations by serious antiquarians and amateur scholars (many of them women) whose interests were marginalized by a male-dominated academy. In the wikified world of the Web, it's no longer possible to police these boundaries of academic respectability, and we may all be the better for it if only we can embrace this new openness without losing the commitment to rigor that the best amateurs and professionals have always shared more than the professionals have generally been willing to admit.

We all stand to benefit from this shifting tide as academics warm to the collaborative vision. After all, they won't be just consumers but creators. "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," Cronon urges. He suggests they start with updating the entry for the American Historical Association, which is looking, he says, "pretty inadequate."

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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