I was recently challenged about a comment I’d made in ‘Marie Claire & Evaluating Our Research Decisions’. In this post, I referred to how we often tell our students to not use Wikipedia even though it may be our own first port of call when wanting to check something out or find out about a new topic. ‘Isn’t this just academic snobbery?’, I was asked – a question that resonated with the re-examination of my attitudes to the online encyclopedia that had followed since I wrote the post.
Using Wikipedia whilst at the same time telling others not to is hardly a crime but admitting to doing so in a public forum via my blog post exposed a level of hypocrisy in my own practice that I am not comfortable with. Around the same time, I was at a meeting for a public history project about Quakers in World War One that I’m involved in and the project director spoke enthusiastically about how she and the other researcher were preparing their Wikipedia entries on relevant topics. ‘They’re doing what?!’, I screeched internally, ‘Why?!’ Of course the answer is obvious: I use Wikipedia to find out about things and so do many millions of other people the world over (albeit they probably have less angst about doing so). If you are running a project where you want people to learn about and engage with the subject then it makes complete sense to put information in a popular public forum. People are likely to find this information in Wikipedia than if it is buried on some relatively obscure project website. Perhaps, just perhaps, I thought, Wikipedia has its uses for history.
Driving home from that meeting, another revelation struck me. The two project workers have done thorough research and can write informed summaries; therefore it makes sense for them to produce the Wikipedia entries. If they don’t, someone else might – and that someone else may not have the same level of knowledge. This statement sounds rather more elitist than I intend. I do not mean to suggest that only professional historians should write historical entries (on the contrary, I believe that one of the reasons that academics are disdainful of sites such as Wikipedia is that such initiatives, by virtue of their democracy and openness to all, seem to threaten our relatively privileged position). What I would argue is that rather than simply criticizing Wikipedia for its perceived, and sometimes very real, shortcomings, maybe we ought to consider whether we have a responsibility to contribute to improving the quality of its content. Is it our professional duty to share what we know with a wider audience? In the current climate of impact, outreach and debates about Open Access, perhaps a few well thought out, accessible entries might benefit us as well as Wikipedia and its users?
These thoughts came together at the recent Gender, Race and Representation in Magazines and the New Media conference held at Cornell University. A theme throughout the event was the intersection between magazines and new media forms, and the discussion during one roundtable session moved on to our attitudes towards the internet. Doubts, hostility and fear were evident. At the same time, a sense of the opportunities offered also emerged, as did the realization that the web is here to stay so maybe we ought to just engage with it. I publicly declared that I was going to write a Wikipedia entry somehow related to my new project on post-war British women’s magazines. A rather rash commitment considering I didn’t have a clue about how to do so, but a declaration that felt in keeping with my revised attitudes towards the whole subject.
Once away from the charged and excited atmosphere of an excellent discussion, this commitment slipped somewhat from my priorities and was in grave danger of becoming another ‘hopefully I’ll get round to it’ addition to the never-ending task list. Until last week, when faced with the challenge that I opened with. The ‘Isn’t this just academic snobbery?’ question bought it back to the forefront of my mind. So today, I did it. Okay, so I didn’t quite write an entire entry but I did something: I registered as a user then added a title that was missing from a list of current and defunct women’s magazines. A small step, just a minor improvement to one entry, but it represents an enormous shift on my part.
In case you’re interested, here’s the page in question: List of Women’s Magazines, with my insertion (Candida*) under the defunct heading towards the bottom.
*Yes, that really was the title of a magazine! What possessed its creators to chose that is the subject of another post altogether.