Beyond the Historical Profession: The Historian's Craft, Popular Memory, and the Wikipedia (Fall 2011 version)
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 5 How has the digital revolution transformed the writing of history? If asked, I suspect most historians would point to the tremendous advantages of electronic access to published scholarship and primary sources. In this view, the digital revolution has served primarily to enhance scholarly productivity, much as other once new technologies such as online card catalogues and word processing software facilitated research and writing. Yet as the essays in this volume demonstrate, digital spaces offer platforms for entirely new kinds of research while “digital first” publishing simultaneously accelerates the propagation of ideas. As Dan Cohen observes, this nascent transformation in the historian’s craft challenges an academic status quo that assumes scholarly success and intellectual credibility stem from a Ph.D. and published monograph. Even as radically new forms of “publication” emerge, print first journals and books continue to reign over the profession. No wonder that despite a willingness to explore new media, few historians take the plunge and immerse themselves in the digital world. Concerned that online scholarship will be found wanting by their peers and institutions, most shy away.1 Open source knowledge – especially that generated through transparent drafting and review procedures2 – does not resonate with the norms of the historical profession. Beyond the ivory tower, however, open source histories proliferate throughout the Internet. And herein lies an important challenge for professional historians as they confront the digital age.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Underlying much of the trepidation with digital first scholarship may be the realization that on the web, we are not the sole arbiters of what constitutes “history.” Even as academic scholarship (with some exceptions) lies on library shelves or behind electronic subscription paywalls, vast swaths of historical information and analysis can be found readily on the open web. For the experienced scholar, the riches there seem endless. In moments I can choose class material from Documenting the American South (see Figure 1 below), browse the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection for an early 19th-century map of Cuba to propose in a manuscript, and even amuse myself by perusing the criminal records of The Old Bailey. I can read a fascinating academic essay on 18th-century funeral broadsides at Common-Place, or download research articles from the latest African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter 3 Yet the exponential growth of historical discourse on the internet draws not upon the labors of academic historians, but rather the wider public that edits entries on the Wikipedia, contributes to genealogical discussions on Ancestry.com, posts vacation photos of historic sites to Flickr, and invokes the Founding Fathers or scripture in the comment pages of the Washington Post.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 5 People with little or no formal training in the discipline have embraced the writing of history on the web, which begs the question, whose histories will be authoritative in the digital age? Since the professionalization of history in the last decades of the 19th-century, college and university professors have worn the mantle of authority. Through creation of professional associations such as the American Historical Association (founded 1884) and editorial control of academic journals and book presses, they have determined which narratives meet their standards of scholarly rigor.4 My own history department’s mission statement, crafted in response to some long-forgotten administrative mandate, grandly claims that, “As historians we are custodians of the past.” At first the emergence of the digital age did little to dilute the authority of disciplinary experts in history but that has begun to change. Although Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig rightly observed that, “The Internet allows historians to speak to vastly more people in widely dispersed places,” it can just as easily be said that the Internet allows vastly more people to speak about history without professional historians.5 Their understanding of the past differs greatly from that of academic historians; it often reflects an effort to muster the past in service of a particular worldview. As such it may tell us as much about memory – how events are remembered – as it does history.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 5 Ordinarily historians see history and memory as distinct ways of understanding the past, the former governed by professional imperatives, the latter by cultural and familial expectations. David Blight summarizes this distinction as follows: “History – what trained historians do – is a reasoned reconstruction of the past rooted in research; critical and skeptical of human motive and action…. Memory, however, is often treated as a sacred set of potentially absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage or identity of a community. Memory is often owned; history, interpreted. Memory is passed down through generations; history is revised.”6 Writing history in the digital age will require professional historians to produce scholarship in a space (i.e., on the web) shared with other people who write about the past. These non-academic historical narratives, however, draw upon “that sacred set of potentially absolute meanings” that characterize popular memory. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Wikipedia, which for good or ill provides more historical information to the public than any other site on the web. Type any historical topic into the search engine of your choice; chances are excellent that the first hit will be the Wikipedia.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 5 Why explore writing history through the Wikipedia? Simply put, Wikipedia allows any reader to peel away layers of narrative to explore how entries have changed over time, juxtaposing the nearest revisions for comparison. In keeping with its self-fashioned identity as a community of writers, the Wikipedia also maintains discussion pages for each entry that further permit even the casual visitor – as well as the scholar bent on digital history – to follow the give and take between the different contributors. In short, the Wikipedia invites readers to peer behind the curtain and if interested take a place at the controls. It is this open-source quality that has troubled many observers, who question the accuracy of its entries and/or deny that it has any utility as a reference source for students and the wide public. These issues are discussed elsewhere in this volume and have received thoughtful exploration in other venues as well.7 Rather than discuss its accuracy as a source of information, here I want to examine how the site’s contributors construct history. Wikipedia may strive to be simply “an encyclopedia” but in practice its pages serve as loci of memory despite declarations that they are not to be a “soapbox” or “memorial site.” Contributors do not attribute the same meaning to past events; they debate the language used to describe and interpret them. Wikipedia may encourage the view that its entries are collaboratively written, adhering to a “neutral point of view” [NPOV], but the results often reflect a chaotic process.8
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 Despite this, a moral economy of crowdsourcing operates within the Wikipedia community. Although serious disagreements occur, acceptance of a set of norms — especially adherence to NPOV — allows Wikipedia contributors to maintain entries on potentially contentious subjects. Take for example the Wikipedia entry for the “Origins of the American Civil War” [OACW]. This particular topic lies close to my own expertise – I teach a graduate course on the Civil War and Reconstruction in the U.S. – but is also the subject of innumerable scholarly volumes. As 150th anniversary commemorations today proliferate, it seems unnecessary to say much about the war’s centrality to the popular understanding of the American past. Still, it is worth observing that debates about the origins of the American Civil War have served in past as proxies for other struggles, most notably during and after the 20th-century Civil Rights movement as scholars debated whether “states’ rights” or slavery should be seen as the underlying cause of the conflict in which nearly 2% of the American population died. Depending upon region and background, as a sizeable literature demonstrates, the popular understanding of the American Civil War varies tremendously.9
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 How does the OACW depict the past? How are debates about the war and its meaning played out in the Wikipedia? To answer these questions, I traced the article from its origins in December 2003, when the anonymous user 172 first posted a dense, 9700-word essay accompanied only by two images (William H. Seward and Frederick Douglass). Since then, some 928 other users (some of them automated) have updated the page,10 which now consists of 18,800 words, fourteen images, four maps, as well as copious notes and bibliography. I paid particular attention to contested content as it appeared in the OACW’s discussion and history pages (see Figure 3 below). I hasten to add that most editorial changes elicited no controversy whatsoever; they either added new information or tackled the perennial problems of organization that plague longer Wikipedia entries. I also ignored minor acts of vandalism. For example, for nearly five days in 2004, the phrase “Michael Cox is the coolest kid at CMS” appeared in the OACW; perhaps for those days he was.11 Excepting these pages, considerable debate about the “Origins of the American Civil War” occurred behind the scenes as contributors challenged one another over terminology, images, and context.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Wikipedia entries such as OACW reflect a collective but often contested memory. In the digital age, they are written history even if not written in a fashion that professional historians readily recognize. The initial entry for OACW provided a political and economic overview that emphasized the 1850s, sensitive to issues of historiography. 172’s narrative of the events leading up to the American Civil War resembles that of many American history textbooks; it covers the rise of the Republican party, Kansas-Nebraska Act, “Bleeding Kansas,” and the collapse of the Whig party as a national alternative to the Democrats. It further places that narrative within the context of a significant historiographic divide between scholars who have viewed the Civil War as irrepressible (i.e., the inevitable consequence of the regional differentiation between an agrarian, slave-labor South, and an increasingly industrial, free-labor North) and those who have argued that the conflict was repressible (i.e., the result of blundering politicians and/or reckless agitators in both regions). To be sure, the original narrative did not address events that professional Civil War historians today see as essential to our understanding of secession and the outbreak of hostilities, such as the Compromise of 1850, Fugitive Slave Act, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. 172 relied upon much dated historical works, which explains the narrow emphasis chronologically (the 1850s) and thematically (politics).12 At the same time, 172’s narrative strongly suggested that the South – specifically white Southerners – bore more responsibility for the outbreak of the war than their Northern counterparts. The “vitriolic response” of the “Reactionary South” to northern concerns about the extension of slavery into Western territories exacerbated sectional tensions over slavery. Southerners, “increasingly committed to a way of life that much of the rest of the nation considered obsolete,” therefore responded to the election of Abraham Lincoln by seceding from the Union.13
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 Although 172 may have thought his narrative impartial, others took issue with his characterization of southern attitudes and motivations, seeking to enshrine their own vision of the past through revision of the OACW. In January 2005, for example, a contributor with the evocative name Rangerdude14 challenged “anti-southern biases” in the OACV, objecting to the header “The Reactionary South” as “pejorative” and deleting a reference to the South’s “hysterical racism.” Underlying Rangerdude’s criticisms lay a preoccupation with the OACV’s depiction of non-slaveholding whites in the South as racist: “The term is a modern one and is not neutral for a historical article.” Not surprisingly, Rangerdude’s editorial changes provoked a response several hours later from 172 who insisted that the underlying causes of the Civil War could not be addressed without discussing racism. “To claim that all references to racism should be removed from the article is patently absurd. It would leave us with no way to address how white people came to believe that Africans should be kept in bondage. That’s why the relationship between slavery and racism has inspired a rich tradition in scholarly literature….”.15 In an “edit war,” the two contributors fought back and forth in the OACW, taking turns deleting the other’s revisions and substituting their own text. At one point, Rangerdude exclaimed, “Please do not revert edits because they remove bias that you happen to like.”16 Yet despite the ferocity of the exchange, scarcely mediated by the intervention of other contributors, newer revisions to the OACW began to address some of Rangerdude’s concerns. “The Reactionary South” gave way to “The Southern Response;” the OACW still discussed racism but no longer characterized it as “hysterical.” A further reference to southern whites so poor they “resorted at times to eating clay” also disappeared. Through appeals to neutrality and despite fiery words behind the scenes, 172, Rangerdude, and other contributors successfully balanced individual understandings and belief (memory) in an effort to create an authoritative text (history).
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 3 But what happened when someone attempted to interpose a reading of the past not consistent with that of the collective? Here the moral economy of the Wikipedia community encouraged contributors who monitored the page to block views that lacked foundation. In August 2004, H2O insisted that the OACW include African American slaveholders in its description of the antebellum South. “The article,” H2O complained, “implies that [slavery] was about the rich white people suppressing the poor black people, when it was really about the powerful (white or black) using the powerless (white or black) for their own gain, as evidenced by the fact that there were free black slaveowners who took advantage of the system as well.” This is of course a nonsensical position as there were no instances of powerful blacks owning white slaves. For H2O, slavery was simply an exploitative economic system in which white and black participated equally according to their ability. That all slaves were black H2O must have seen as incidental. Elsewhere s/he makes the claim that slaveholders “treated their slaves kindly, and wanted to see an end to slavery, and believed that it eventually would die out, but did not see a simple way to end the practice.”17 Another contributor went even further, proposing that the OACW be re-written to reflect that Northern aggression led to hostilities, driven by people “wholly opposed to the regular order of living and more into experimentation, the counter-culture.”18 Neither of these proposals led to changes in the OACW because other contributors rejected them. Similarly, when an anonymous user with the IP address 184.108.40.206 deleted an image of Dred Scott, ostensibly to improve the entry’s layout, a Wikipedia admin, quickly restored it.19 These examples, from both the OACW page and talk history, suggest that the Wikipedia community does effectively gauge basic historical knowledge, and can exclude claims that lack a factual basis.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 The Wikipedia currently provides a plausible essay on the Origins of the American Civil War, even if professional historians would have written it differently. It opens with a statement with which many academics can agree: “The main explanation for the origins of the American Civil War is slavery, especially Southern anger at the attempts by Northern antislavery political forces to block the expansion of slavery into the western territories. Southern slave owners held that such a restriction on slavery would violate the principle of states’ rights.”20 A Wordle of the OACW (see Figure 3) illustrates the prominence of particular terms within the entry, demonstrating that the Wikipedia’s collective understanding of the war’s origin does indeed center upon slavery. On this essential point the OACW shares the broad consensus in the historical profession. But beyond this the OACW offers an unruly congeries of information reflecting its crowdsourced roots. It’s not just that every Wikipedian is his or her own historian, but that for each, the past possesses different meanings. A few accept the authority of professional scholars, incorporating their interpretations into the entries they write. When challenged by Rangerdude to defend the argument that Southern society twined slavery and racism, 172 cited a battery of prize-winning scholars — Oscar and Mary Handlin, Winthrop Jordan, David Brion Davis, Peter Wood, and Edmund Morgan. 21
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 4 Others, rejecting scholarly expertise altogether, posit that only memory can reveal true history. For example, user 220.127.116.11, who commented in the OACW discussion but did not edit the page, lambasted other contributors for their “repugnant bias.” By this, s/he meant that instead of presenting just the facts, they “editorialized.” First-person perspectives are authoritative, 18.104.22.168 seems to say, but everything else is opinion or bias. “Remember in you[r] search for history, do read memoirs, diaries and other accounts. Old newspapers articles are always interesting. You can always corroborate the memoirs etc… for accuracy against accounted for events.” For this person, history can only be accurate if it chronicles the past in the words of those who experienced it.22 Most contributors, as their demographics might suggest, fell between these two extremes. According to Wikipedia’s own survey research, contributors are 26 years old on average. Roughly half hold a bachelor’s or more advanced degree; 23% hold an advanced degree. Surprisingly, 34% have completed high school only, and 11% not even that.23 If the profile of OACW contributors resembles this overall picture, most have studied history – in high school or college — but few will have studied it in enough depth to explore debates among historians or identify new thematic approaches. Perhaps this explains the most stunning omission in the OACW, the absence of any reference to Edward Ayers’ prize-winning In the Presence of Mine Enemies, and its companion website, The Valley of the Shadow.24
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 1 If, according to Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, “millions of Americans regularly document, preserve, research, narrate, discuss, and study the past,” it should not be surprising that they are drawn to the Wikipedia. 25 More than just an encyclopedia, the Wikipedia serves as a people’s museum of knowledge, a living repository of all that matters where the exhibits are chosen by ordinary folk with nary an academic historian in sight. The gap between Wikipedia contributors and professional historians, therefore, might be the ultimate “town and gown” divide. The Wikipedia deserves greater attention from historians, because it reflects popular understanding of the past and serves as a foundation on which people build their interpretation of the present. On the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, the event that began the Civil War, more than 28,000 people visited the fort’s Wikipedia entry (see Figure 5 below). In contrast, in July 2011 the daily total of hits never exceeded 800. When presidential aspirant Sarah Palin provided her own take on Paul Revere’s famous ride earlier this year, people turned to the Wikipedia in droves – peaking at 140,000 in a single day.26
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 2 As the digital revolution continues to make popular understandings of the past readily accessible via the open web, academic and public historians must be prepared to write history in the digital age alongside others who lack their credentials. While it might be tempting to throw up our hands, surrendering the open web to popular control, the digital revolution presents professional historians with an unprecedented opportunity to make our expertise available and relevant to an audience that whatever its assumptions possesses a deep, abiding investment in the importance of the past. Certainly the Wikipedia community could benefit from an open discussion about the implications of its assumption that there can be a “neutral point of view” on any historical subject. This is not a plea for Ph.D. scholars to rush out and edit Wikipedia pages – far from it – but it is a call to greater engagement with those digital spaces that “document, preserve, research, narrate, discuss, and study the past.”
- ¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 2
- Dan Cohen, “The Ivory Tower and the Open Web: Introduction: Burritos, Browsers, and Books (Draft).” Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog, 26 July 2011. http://www.dancohen.org/2011/07/26/the-ivory-tower-and-the-open-web-introduction-burritos-browsers-and-books-draft/ (15 August 2011); Robert Townsend, “How Is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?” AHA Perspectives (November 2010). http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2010/1011/1011pro2.cfm. (15 August 2011). ↩
- In addition to this volume, see for example Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (New York: NYU Press, forthcoming 2011), which first emerged online at http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/plannedobsolescence/. ↩
- Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library, 2004-, http://docsouth.unc.edu/; Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas at Austin Library, (?-2011), http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/; Joanne van der Woude, “Puritan Scrabble: Games of Grief in Early New England,” Common-Place 11, no. 4 (July 2011), http://www.common-place.org/vol-11/no-04/van-der-woude/; African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1994-, http://www.diaspora.uiuc.edu/newsletter.html. ↩
- The single best source on the professionalization of history remains Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: the “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). ↩
- Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rozenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 5. ↩
- David W. Blight, Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory, and the American Civil War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), 2. ↩
- Roy Rosenzweig, “Wikipedia: Can History Be Open Source?,” Journal of American History 93, no. 1 (June 2006): 117-46 (A reprint of this essay appears in Rosenzweig, Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 51-82). ↩
- See Wikipedia contributors, “Wikipedia,” “Wikipedia:Neutral Point of view,” “Wikipedia:Key policies and guidelines,” and “ Wikipedia:What Wikipedia is not,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Neutral_point_of_view, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Key_policies_and_guidelines and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:What_Wikipedia_is_not. (15 August 2011) ↩
- See, for example, Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997); David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001); David W. Blight, ed., Beyond the Battlefield (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002); Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause and the Emergence of the New South, 1865-1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). ↩
- For more on automated editing in the Wikipedia, see R. Stuart Geiger, “The Lives of Bots,” in Geert Lovink, and Nathaniel Tkacz, eds., Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader, Institute of Network Cultures Reader 7 (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011), 78-93. ↩
- OACW, 16:39, 12 May 2004, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&oldid=3550913 (accessed 15 August 2011). With so many citations to the same Wikipedia page, I’ve developed this shortened, time and date stamped form for use in the footnotes. Unless otherwise noted, access to all Wikipedia URLs was verified on this same date. ↩
- OACW, 9:12, 20 December 2003, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&oldid=2005512. ↩
- OACW, 11:39, 21 December 2003, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&oldid=2014509. ↩
- A Wikipedia admin deleted Rangerdude’s profile in November 2007. The last substantive version of the profile appears at User:Rangerdude, 03:08, 19 December 2005, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Rangerdude&oldid=31922674. ↩
- Talk:OACW, 07:07, 8 January 2005 and 12:49, 8 January 2005, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Talk:Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&diff=prev&oldid=9198574 ; http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Talk:Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&diff=next&oldid=9201516. Please note that Talk:OACW citations are references to the OACW discussion page, not the Wikipedia entry itself. ↩
- OACW, 6:48, 8 January 2005, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&diff=next&oldid=9197400. ↩
- OACW, 7:43, 16 August 2004, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&oldid=5234557; Talk:OACW, 9:17, 16 August 2004, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Talk:Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&diff=next&oldid=5235613. ↩
- Talk:OACW, 2:51, 23 December 2008, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Talk:Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&diff=prev&oldid=259648581. ↩
- OACW, 2:44, 14 March 2004, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&oldid=2763518. ↩
- OACW, 23:20, 11 August 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&oldid=444350362. This is a permanent link to the page current when this chapter was completed, 15 August 2011. ↩
- OACW, 12:49, 8 January 2005, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Talk:Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&oldid=9201556. ↩
- Talk:OACW, 08:34, 28 June 2010, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Talk:Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&oldid=370560458. ↩
- Ruediger Glott, Philipp Schmidt, and Rishab Ghosh, Wikipedia Survey — Overview of Results. Collaborative Creativity Group, UNU-MERIT, United Nations University, March 2010. The data also show that the vast majority are men; fewer than 13% are women. See http://www.wikipediastudy.org/ (4 August 2011). ↩
- Edward L. Ayers, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863 (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003); Ayers, “The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War,” Virginia Center for Digital History and the University of Virginia Libraries, 1997-2003, http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/. (15 August 2011) ↩
- Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 24. ↩
- Chris Beneke, “Revere, Revisited,” The Historical Society; A Blog Devoted to History for the Academy and Beyond, June 13, 2011, http://histsociety.blogspot.com/2011/06/revere-revisited.html. (14 August 2011); for stats, see User: Henrik (a Wikpedia admin), “Wikipedia Article Traffic Statistics,” at the following URLs: http://stats.grok.se/en/201106/Paul%20Revere, http://stats.grok.se/en/201104/Fort Sumter, http://stats.grok.se/en/201107/Fort Sumter. (15 August 2011) ↩