Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/July 2012/Op-ed

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Lessons from a weekend workshop

By Hawkeye7

On 26 and 27 May 2012, I travelled up to Brisbane for a weekend workshop. This was jointly conducted by Wikimedia Australia and the Australian Paralympic Committee as part of an ongoing project to develop the The History of the Paralympic Movement in Australia (Wikipedia:GLAM/HOPAU). Our President, John Vandenberg, asked me to come and help out. I was unsure about how much help I would be, as I am a military historian, not a sports historian. However, many of the issues turned out to be much the same, hence this report.

The workshop was held at The Edge at the State Library of Queensland, a special space for online creative communities. The facilities were excellent. For me it was also a big plus as to how warm Brisbane was, after the biting cold of winter in Canberra. The attendees were from the Australian Paralympic Committee and other organisations. We even had our own paralympian present. Later in the year a couple of lucky Wikipedians will be sent to the Paralympics to cover the event.

Murray Phillips from the University of Queensland, the official HOPAU historian, opened the workshop. He gave a brief introduction, explaining how he was writing a conventional book, but felt that the days of such things are numbered. In the future, he posited, the online history would be the paradigm. This would have many advantages for him in that he could correct and update his text as errors were reported, and new information surfaced.

However, this same shift potentially creates a major problem for us, because it means that the secondary sources that we rely on may dry up. This soon became apparent. The historians were gathering a great deal of information. My job was to show them how to use it. The decayed into a long hands-on instruction session on writing Wikipedia articles. Whether this is the easiest way to do things depends on how you learn. For many of the non-Wikipedians, our markup language takes a lot of getting used to.

Working with the historians, the biggest problem they had was with sources. Some had conducted extensive interviews with Paralympians. This is an especially valuable source of information for the early games in the 1960s and 1970s. For historians, the challenge is to gather up as much information as possible before the Paralympians start dying. However, these interviews cannot just directly; they must be verifiable. I recommended uploading them to the HOPAU website, and then using it as a source.

Military historians have access to first-class archives. We don't have to create them ourselves. In this we are much more fortunate. Much of the sources HOPAU had collected were very obscure indeed, even when they were secondary sources: newspaper articles, brochures, programs, newsletters, meeting minutes, magazines with a circulation only among people in wheelchairs. Much of it is as rare as hen's teeth. "That's the Melbourne Sun", I declared offhandedly after glancing at an article pasted in a scrapbook. How do you know? Yes, how do I know? Well, years of looking at Melbourne newspapers has accustomed me to their peculiar house styles.

Historians like using primary sources. Getting across the notion of using secondary ones was going against the grain. This led into a series of discussions about various Wikipedia policies such as WP:Verifiability and WP:No original research. Perhaps the most embarrassing incident was when a BLP article that had been created in the workshop was deleted with minutes of being created. I wanted to hide under a table, but John used it as an opportunity to launch into a discussion of our Wikipedia:Biographies of living persons policies.

In the end, the workshop was very successful. Over the following weeks, a series of articles were improved, and a number have made their way to GA. I feel that this is probably the future of MILHIST as well, with articles being written in coordination with the historians and the archives.

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