Yesterday was the #tooFEW feminists-edit-Wikipedia marathon, which coincided (deliberately) with the first day of THATCamp Feminisms South, held at Emory’s Woodruff Library. I was there, trying to create an entry for Anne Emery; by the end of the day, though, I had given up and was ready to do some work of my own instead. The main reason I gave up was that I couldn’t access the entry for Anne Emery in Contemporary Authors, usually available through my library’s website. But I couldn’t access any of our databases (and I do in fact know how to access our
databases from offsite). That would have left me keying in all of her book title information, for more than 20 books. No thanks.
But truth be told, I lost interest in editing Wikipedia very early on. There were too many rules, too many of which were subjective (i.e. “notability”) in addition to the technical rules regarding formatting. At the same time, there was too much flexibility: since there apparently isn’t a consistent rule for adding citations, I had to figure out how to add in-line references to an existing entry that didn’t use in-line references (meaning that the author assumed that no one else would edit that entry?). At the risk of sounding draconian, if you’re going to use a controlled format… control the format. I’m a big fan of making structure apparent so that people can figure out for themselves how to function within that structure.
And yes, I found that I wasn’t interested in working within structures I couldn’t immediately identify in the knowledge that any entry I added was likely to be deleted (as being “not notable,” no doubt) or trolled. I have better things I can be doing with my time. Like, for example, writing about Emery, writing about intellectual girls, writing them into the scholarly literature.
Which brings me to the biggest problem I have with editing/writing for Wikipedia: the reliance on secondary source. That a person or organization can be kept out of Wikipedia for lack of properly authoritative sources—and it’s clear that that means secondary sources—just strikes me as being wrong. I’m a historian: we create secondary sources based on primary sources. As a history librarian, I work with students who are learning how to create secondary sources based on primary sources. Probably the question I get asked the most is “how do I find primary sources on XYZ?” And then I work with them on strategies to do that. I do start by helping them to find relevant secondary sources whose footnotes they can mind. Secondary sources are important for background, context, historiography, but they are necessarily based on primary-source analysis and so are an excellent way to help students begin to identify relevant primary sources (or at the very least, to begin to think about kinds of sources rather than just the far more/too vague “primary sources” as a general category).
But: secondary sources are also how historians show their work. They show what sources—both secondary and primary—were consulted; they also show the authors’ methodological approach, or, more simply, what interpretive framework they are using, what interpretive community or communities the author is engaging: more simply, a secondary source shows how the author thinks. While we may not think of secondary sources as essentially creative products, in some ways, they are. And while we may not think of secondary sources as reflective or (or, dare I say, constitutive of) intellectual community, they are. They are not transparent statements of fact; they are, at their very heart, interpretations, both of primary sources and of other secondary sources.
I would never say that primary sources are transparent “facts,” but neither are secondary sources. By forcing its entries to be based on already existing secondary sources, Wikipedia not only privileges what is already available and essentially announces itself as not a platform for new knowledge, but it also reinscribes a kind of reading/writing that exists in the form of a textbook. In fact, it fuses “secondary source” with “textbook.” Sam Wineburg has written powerfully about the trust students implicitly place in textbooks, much of which is rooted in the authoritative tone of the textbook… so much so that when presented with primary sources which contradicted a textbook, students believed the textbook over the primary sources. Wineburg calls for historians to be more open about the nature of their work, to “show their work” in a sense, to make it clear that history writing—the creation of secondary sources—is interpretive rather than a recital of “just the facts.” (Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past ).
So to me, Wikipedia’s model feels backwards. I’ve only written once for a tertiary source, when, back in grad school I wrote the Arts section for Gale’s American Eras: Development of a Nation, (1783-1815). It’s been awhile since I did that, but I do remember that not only was I supposed to use primary (as well as secondary sources), there was a timeline of primary sources included (a fair number of which were provided by the editor, as well as by myself). Writing for an encyclopedia is one way, and a legitimate way, to get new knowledge out, but only if that new knowledge is explicitly part of what the encyclopedia is accomplishing. That may be the difference between a subject encyclopedia written and edited by scholars, and a more general encyclopedia (I feel like I should know that that’s the difference, but I’ve heard it talked about more in terms of heightened reliability because of contributors’ credentials).
For me personally, I think I’m more comfortable remaining in the world of scholarship. If I were to do some sort of exercise involving students editing Wikipedia, I personally would need to stress how writing for Wikipedia differs from primary-source research, from scholarly writing, and how it privileges existing rather than new knowledge. For me, I sense some connection between what Wikipedia does—both as source and as writing/publishing venue—and the “teaching to the test” mentality we keep hearing about in association with No Child Left Behind. If history really were limited to “just the facts,” I would have majored in… something else. Because I hated history in high school, where it was all about dates, facts, wars, and politics, none of which interested me. What did interest me, in college, was the cultural history that dominated my college’s teaching of US history (at Carleton, American Studies’ home department was the history department). Editing Wikipedia felt like a forced return back to the aspects of history that don’t appeal to me, and that, to be honest, feel oppressive and antithetical to creativity. I felt like I could see the kinds of thinking I need to be able to cultivate as a historian and a poet being shut down. So, as a historian (and dare I say, as a poet) I learned yesterday that Wikipedia is not where I want to focus my energies.