The new president of the American Historical Association, William Cronon (an environmental historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison), confesses that he misjudged Wikipedia when it first started:
Like most scholars, I was skeptical about Wikipedia when Jimmy Wales first launched the site back in 2001. The notion that unvetted volunteers cooperatively contributing to an online encyclopedia might produce a reference work of any real value seemed at best dubious—and, more likely, laughably absurd. Surely it would be riddled with errors. Surely its coverage would be ridiculously patchy. Surely it would lack the breadth, depth, and nuance of more traditional reference works like the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica.
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.
While he “generally agree[s] with those who defend Britannica for its traditional excellence in scholarly nuance and quality of writing when compared with its online rival,” Cronon admits that he uses Wikipedia daily. More to the point, it has become “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.”
While Britannica continues to recruit leading scholars to add their luster to its reputation, Wikipedia relies on a credential-less system in which any and all are free to edit as part of a community. With mixed results:
Like much on the internet created in a mechanically templated multiauthored environment, [Wikipedia] is at its best when presenting simple descriptive summaries and linear narratives broken down into predictable taxonomic subsections that can be composed and edited in modular units. Long, complicated interpretations exploring subtly interacting historical causes in carefully contextualized analyses or beautifully flowing narratives—these one will never find on Wikipedia.
But Cronon finds that “the overall quality of Wikipedia content is remarkably good,” and it
provides an online home for people interested in histories long marginalized by the traditional 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.
So in the end, he sighs, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Just as scholars in math, sciences, engineering, and music have long since turned their energies to improving the quality of Wikipedia entries in their fields, Cronon encourages history professors (or their students, as part of class projects) to help improve historical pages (or supply them, when they’re missing altogether).
What do you think of the quality of Wikipedia? Have you ever edited an entry?