Last month, Jason, colleague Leslie Working, Dr. Douglas Seefeldt, and I created the ‘Digital History’ page for Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia. More recently, as an earlier post indicates, an editor flagged it for failing to meet certain Wikipedia standards, namely editorial conflicts of interest with the subject matter and writing that reads like tributes to professors and founders that no one outside the field knows. Currently, we are working towards wikifying the page so that it remains available for generating public knowledge of digital history and its minutiae. Coupled with these current problems and Wikipedia’s prevalence in the recent press relating to the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama Wiki Wars, it seemed an excellent opportunity to discuss further digital history and Wikipedia.
Wikipedia seeks neutral, reliably sourced information and does not desire contributions that promote one’s own interests (apparently the problem we are facing with the digital history page). Created by an open community of unregulated and anonymous authors, Wikipedia allows anyone anywhere to add, change, or delete information about topics or people or places of their interests, to share that information so that others can come to appreciate and gain knowledge relating to those interests. In the few years since its creation, the free online encyclopedia has become, for many, the be all and end all for finding information. That said it becomes pertinent for teachers, at all levels, and history teachers in particular, to enter into a discussion with their students concerning the potential and pitfalls of the online encyclopedia. Wikipedia lacks analysis, critical thought, or evaluation. Its pages face continuous revision and remain in flux. Therefore, users should not blindly accept the information as accurate or correct. Students and the public alike must understand this crucial component.
Wikipedia does offer, however, a unique research and teaching tool. It provides an excellent place to start in research, providing basic background information and popular resources to consult on nearly any subject or topic. The online encyclopedia provides somewhere to begin for quick, easy, and free access to valuable information that may otherwise take much longer to find tucked away in the library stacks.
As a teaching tool, Wikipedia proves useful for engaging teaching in history because it fosters verifiability and citing sources. Participants in the editing process also can learn a complex lesson about history writing, as renowned historian Roy Rosenzweig states, namely that the “facts” of the past and the way those facts are arranged and reported are often highly contested. Through this digital environment, historians can instruct their students to focus on the process of history rather than concentrating on the product.
Regarding digital history, Wikipedia embodies much of what digital history is all about. Sharing knowledge and providing accessible information to the masses compose a core component of digital history. Rosenzweig suggested that Wikipedia represents the largest work of online historical writing, the most widely read work of digital history, and the most important free historical resource on the World Wide Web. To enhance popular historical literacy, historians must lend their high quality knowledge to inform others and build up the public historical web.
So crucial to digital history, Wikipedia echoes the idea of collaborative scholarship and can provide historians a model to remove themselves from isolation, to work with a diverse body to share historical knowledge in a new media. Wikipedia is a place of convergence for the armchair and the expert, written collaboratively by editors from around the globe. While it is unlike digital history in that it excludes original research and nuanced accounts, Wikipedia provides an immense and increasingly important digital resource for historians and the public alike to engage in historical discussion and foster the growth of historical knowledge.
 Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” The Journal of American History 93.1 (June 2006): 117-146. Also available from http://chnm.gmu.edu/resources/essays/d/42.
 Rosenzweig, “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past.”