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Leading scholar hails Wikipedia, historians urged to contribute while PR pros remain shunned
Leading historian hails Wikipedia, urges colleagues' engagement
"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
President of the American Historical Association William Cronon, who celebrated Wikipedia as "the greatest encyclopedia the world has ever known" in an editorial exhorting scholars to greater engagement with it
William Cronon, a renowned environmental historian and President of the American Historical Association, wrote an editorial for the February edition of association's encyclical Perspectives on History in which he expressed his admiration for Wikipedia and his desire to see more of his colleagues engaging with the project. "Whatever reservations one might still have about its overall quality", he wrote, "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".
Acknowledging the dramatic reach of the encyclopaedia, Cronon declared it to be a gateway to knowledge for millions, replacing tools traditionally compiled and maintained by credentialed professionals while maintaining comparatively minuscule number of paid staff. This has cast the role of professional scholars in the future of knowledge dissemination and public education into question, Cronon argued, considering that the "overall quality of Wikipedia content is remarkably good", particularly for quick consultations and general overviews and with "a breadth and intellectual scope that put even the largest traditional encyclopedias to shame." Its particular strengths for the historian are articles concerning scientific and technical information, current events ("Wikipedia has a nimbleness that even newspapers have trouble matching"), controversial topics prone to edit wars – whose synthetic compromises on neutrality he considers an achievement worth commending, and most notably, niche or fringe topics "long marginalized by the traditional academy".
That said, the crowdsourced encyclopaedia is for Cronon no replacement for scholarship, as he cites the professionally written Encyclopaedia Britannica as superior at least in respect of its "traditional excellence in scholarly nuance and quality of writing", indicating that traditional models of knowledge production retain some cultural importance. Wikipedia, he argued "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." What is beyond the abilities of the amateur encyclopaedians, he confidently declared, are "[l]ong, complicated interpretations exploring subtly interacting historical causes in carefully contextualized analyses or beautifully flowing narratives—these one will never find on Wikipedia."
Touching upon the endless debates over what constitutes knowledge worth covering and which viewpoints deserve prominent attention, Cronon called for a recognition that the "boundaries of academic respectability" were "no longer possible to police" in the network culture of which Wikipedia is emblematic. He exhorted his audience to "embrace this new openness without losing the commitment to rigor that the best amateurs and professionals have always shared". Citing scientists and musicologists as ahead of the game in terms of this embrace, dominating in his view much of the Wikipedia coverage of their topic areas, the historian called upon his colleagues to commit themselves to similar engagement. He proposed that Wikipedia had much to gain from greater historical context in its articles, greater scholarly involvement with its history articles, and, rebuking those who flippantly consider the important article creation work to have already been done, declared the absent historical entries to be "myriad". "All one needs", for a scholar to get involved, "is to open oneself to the possibilities and give up the comfort of credentialed expertise to contribute to the greatest encyclopedia the world has ever known". Cronon finished his editorial with a simple question: "Any volunteers?"
In its coverage of the piece, The Atlantic situated it within the context of a growing acknowledgement of Wikipedia's virtues and staying power by an academic community once skeptical to the point of dismissiveness of the user-generated encyclopaedia. Associate editor Rebecca Rosen was enthusiastic about Cronon's call for acceptance and engagement, concluding "We all stand to benefit from this shifting tide as academics warm to the collaborative vision. After all, they won't be just consumers but creators."
in Mumbai, where Wikipedian photo scavengers successfully resisted attempts to dissuade their efforts at expanding the projects' stock of freely-licensed images of Mumbai landmarks. For more, see the dedicated Commons category
- PR debate rekindled: Despite the editing community's consistent rejection of efforts to prohibit paid editing (cf. Wikipedia:Paid editing), efforts by public relations agents to edit frequently run into difficulty when resisted by mistrustful article watchers. In an attempt to make the case for greater tolerance of Wikipedia engagement by PR professionals in Techdirt, Public Relations Society of America head Gerard F. Corbett described their years of frustration at the unwelcoming Wikipedia bureaucracy, and the latest initiative to break the impasse, Phil Gomes' Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (CREWE). Acknowledging misdeeds on his peers' behalf in respecting community norms and guidelines, Corbett nevertheless entreated: "[T]he engagement should be a two-way street in which Wikipedia is willing to see and accommodate both sides of the issue. At the moment, we do not believe that to be the case." The renewed calls for a detente come in the wake of agitation by PR professionals and experienced editors late last year over "Why Wikipedia Needs Marketers" (Signpost coverage).
- Wait, Wikipedia's a charity? The Next Web took note of revelations contained in a post by Wikimedia Foundation data analysts revealing insights into the donation habits of and beliefs held by Wikipedia's readerbase (see "News and notes"). Among the eyebrow-raising figures cited were the findings that nearly half of readers and more than a quarter of editors were unaware that Wikipedia is a not-for-profit endeavour. The article also contained a précis of the project's recent fundraising efforts.
- Mumbai taken: The inaugural Wikipedia Takes Mumbai, in which scavengers set out to capture photographs of the notable sights on offer in the fourth largest city on Earth, caught the attention of The Times of India, which reported a haul of 800 images, as well as that of Daily News and Analysis, which noted the evangelical component of the exercise and the powers of persuasion of Wikipedians in overcoming resistance by recalcitrant security guards at Bombay House (right), headquarters of industrial titan the Tata Group.
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