As of yesterday I’m back at university, had my first lecture of the new semester yesterday which includes all the basics, what text book to buy, what times the tutorials are, and of course, a stern warning on the evils of Wikipedia, according my history lecturer Wikipedia is not to be trusted, in fact she was adament that if any of us cite Wikipedia we would fail the course.
I have no objection to that policy – although partly for the mundane reason that once you get to university you shouldn’t be citing any encyclopedia.
There’s the common argument against Wikipedia, which is it’s unreliability. In the article on the miner’s strike:
Folk singer Billy Bragg wrote several songs dealing with the strike as a current event, namely “Which Side Are You On?”
That’s not an error that anyone who had a background in unions, let alone labour history, could make. The error was pointed out on the talk page in 2006, and still hasn’t been fixed. Obviously errors aren’t limited to Wikipedia – everytime I read a general history of New Zealand I go looking for errors in my area of research – but that sort of error shows that the author(s) do not have any depth of knowledge, or context in the subject they’re writing about.
But my objection to Wikipedia as a font of historical knowledge is much more fundamental than that. As the article Byron linked to said:
. Despite Wikipedia’s unconventionality in the production and distribution of knowledge, its epistemological approach—exemplified by the npov policy—is highly conventional, even old-fashioned.
I would go further, and say it was conservative, and privileged the knowledge and experiences of the powerful over the knowledge and experiences of those without power.
Here’s an example from the Talk page about the miner’s strike. Someone asks:
people who were not there who work for a news paper take credence over people who were there, but didnt work in the media? I can provide quotes to living people,NUM activists,strikers,miners for quotes, but this would not be allowed?
Someone else responded
No, this is precisely the sort of thing which will not do – please read the verifiability policy and the reliable sources guidelines. Reporting something which someone said to you is not good enough – that’s original research, which is forbidden.
Radical historians have fought hard to expand historical record beyond what people have written down. You cannot do radical history when you privilege what’s written in newspapers about a strike over the experiences of people who participate.
If we’re looking at open source history we need to dream bigger than a better version of Microsoft’s Encarta. Wikipedia’s policies against original research, its priviledging of published sources, and its belief in objectivity, means that it will always be limited, and reflect the history of the powerful. We need to move beyond that, we need to do original research, write about people’s experience, and most importantly, we need to have a point of view.