Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Well. I respect historians more now. One of the them wrote a great article -- the first I've read that's almost uniformly ... right. It gives insight on the usual topics, and manages to ferret out the really important issues, like wikipedia's impact on the 3rd world. (And it succeeds in being porn for wikipedia culture junkies.)

Your freedom both to rewrite Wikipedia entries and to manipulate them for other purposes is thus arguably more profound than your ability to read them “for free.” It is why free-software advocates say that to understand the concept of free software, you should think of “free speech” more than “free beer.”


Why are so many of our scholarly journals locked away behind subscription gates? What about American National Biography Online—written by professional historians, sponsored by our scholarly societies, and supported by millions of dollars in foundation and government grants? Why is it available only to libraries that often pay thousands of dollars per year rather than to everyone on the Web as Wikipedia is? Shouldn’t professional historians join in the massive democratization of access to knowledge reflected by Wikipedia and the Web in general? American National Biography Online may be a significantly better historical resource than Wikipedia, but its impact is much smaller because it is available to so few people.

The limited audience for subscription-based historical resources such as American National Biography Online becomes an even larger issue when we move outside the borders of the United States and especially into poorer parts of the world, where such subscription fees pose major problems even for libraries. Moreover, in some of those places, where censorship of textbooks and other historical resources is common, the fact that Wikipedia’s freedom means both “free beer” and “free speech” has profound implications because it allows the circulation of alternative historical voices and narratives.

It also further confirms the gist of that infamous Nature editorial...
I judged 25 Wikipedia biographies against comparable entries in Encarta, Microsoft’s well-regarded online encyclopedia (one of the few commercial encyclopedias that survive from a once-crowded marketplace), and in American National Biography Online, a high-quality specialized reference work published by Oxford University Press for the American Council of Learned Societies, written largely by professional historians, and supported by major grants. The comparison is unfair—both publications have had multimillion-dollar budgets—but it is still illuminating, and it sheds some favorable light on Wikipedia.

...and the purpose of this blog:
One noticeable difference [between Wikipedia and standard historical writing] is the affection for surprising, amusing, or curious details—something that Wikipedia shares with other forms of popular historical writing such as articles in American Heritage magazine. Consider some details that Wikipedians include in their Lincoln biography that do not make their way into McPherson’s profile: Lincoln’s sharing a birthday with Charles Darwin; his nicknames (the Rail Splitter is mentioned twice); his edict making Thanksgiving a national holiday; and the end of his bloodline with the death of Robert Beckwith in 1985. Not surprisingly, Wikipedia devotes five times as much space to Lincoln’s assassination as the longer American National Biography Online profile does. The same predilection for colorful details marks other portraits. We learn from the Harding biography that the socialist Norman Thomas was a paper boy for the Marion Daily Star (which Harding owned), that Harding reached the sublime degree as a Master Mason, and that Al Jolson and Mary Pickford came to Marion, Ohio, during the 1920 campaign for photo ops. It devotes two paragraphs to speculation about whether Harding had “Negro blood” and five paragraphs to his extramarital affairs. Meanwhile, key topics—domestic and foreign policies, the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act of 1921, immigration restriction, and naval treaties—are ignored or hurried over. We similarly learn that Woodrow Wilson belonged to Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and wrote his initials on the underside of a table in the Johns Hopkins University history department, but not about his law practice or his intellectual development at Princeton University.

No comments: