Saturday, August 05, 2006

A new approach to local history, part three: the Wikipedia and MemoryArchive

The Atlantic magazine (formerly The Atlantic Monthly) has an interesting article this month ("The Hive") about the Wikipedia, an on-line encyclopedia that is built and maintained by a community of users that has great promise and challenges for the future of historical research. Begun in 2001, the Wikipedia is now ten times the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica, measured in numbers of entries, and is, according to one disputed study, only marginally less accurate than that esteemed traditional publication. The idea of the Wikipedia is to let anyone make new entries or changes to existing ones, thus potentially involving the specialized expertise and substantial volunteer hours of the general public. It also opens the project up to amateur errors and malicious tampering as well, a possibility that concerns outsiders more than Wikipedia’s army of active participants, who feel quite competent to ferret out these errors and mischief-makings and keep the product accurate.

This is another example of how the web has undergone a transformational change from something that is only a series of proprietary, view-only sites to the new “Web2.0” category of sites – such as Flickr,, and blogging – that are interactive, bottom-up approaches to sharing information and building communities that couldn’t be handled the old way. Throughout the various disciplines of information and scholarship we are seeing an opening up of new channels and the empowerment of millions of new voices that formerly would have lacked the means to participate fully in how information is created, shared and used.

In terms of local history, the Web2.0 phenomenon presents new ways for everyone to become published on some level and to include their thoughts, opinions, expertise and memories in the central marketplace of ideas. The author of the Atlantic piece, Marshall Poe, is heading up a related project called the MemoryArchive (formerly the MemoryWiki), where individuals can directly enter their memories and stories and read those of other contributors. We at Cleveland State are partnering with Marshall and the MemoryArchive in next week’s Cuyahoga County Fair (see below), encouraging fair-goers to visit the MemoryArchive site to record their memories in writing, or give them verbally to us at the fair, where we will record them and pass them along to Marshal for inclusion as MP3 audio memories. The Library of Congress has jumped into the memory-gathering field, with their StoryCorp project, as well.

Returning to the Wikipedia, I see this as part of the recent trend towards moving academic history closer to the subjects and users of historical information. Starting in the Sixties, when the new crop of Baby Boomers started graduating with masters degrees and doctorates in history, they brought with them that era’s emphasis on the worth of the working class and others who had formerly not had their voices heard by traditional academic history. Their new emphasis on Social History sought to document the lives of the common people through analysis of new sources of information (see the CSU History Department’s studies of coroner’s inquest records in the Case of Rosa O’Malia) and, more recently, in the wholesale recording of oral histories (see the 1980’s Ethnic Women of Cleveland series and the recent interviews being done for the RTA project and reported in the Plain Dealer). That in including the voices of the people being championed by the socially-aware Sixties such an approach was also opening new career possibilities for young academicians was doubly beneficial (the emphasis on public history as a field of study also has opened up new vistas for academic study and for post-graduation jobs in documentary film production, historic properties docent work, writing popular histories, working in museums, libraries and archives and other career possibilities to soak up the supply of students coming out of university history programs).

Somewhere down the decades, the message that the common citizens have something valuable to contribute to an understanding of history has begun to sink into the consciousnesses of that class and they are emboldened to try their hands at writing history directly. The best example of this is the plethora of new local history works being written by amateur historians and published by Arcadia Publishing. But the web offers even faster and cheaper paths to publication and the Wikipedia is foremost in offering opportunities for national exposure for local historians and subject specialists in narrow fields that might not even find publication through Arcadia.

Many traditional historians find this trend towards grass-roots publishing worrisome and often for good reason. Sometimes rapid change upsets the controls and authentication that insures the reliability of expert information and things like the Wikipedia can make it seem like any crank can put themselves alongside a PhD with 30 years of careful research in a subject. But like it or not, the Web2.0 phenomenon is rolling along and spreading into all manner of new nooks and crannies of intellectual life. Where this impacts history, a category I whimsically call History2.0, it is stirring things up for scholars and teachers alike. One response has been for more traditional on-line websites –- if anything in the 10-year-old Web can be called “traditional” -– to experiment with opening up somewhat and make some provision for users to share opinions and information with necessarily touching the core information that the site has offered. Whether this will prove to be an adequate response or merely a transitional measure towards fully and equal community participation is yet to be seen, but the Wikipedia is making a strong case for empowering users.

For previous musings about History2.0 see:


At 1:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for all three articles - "A new approach to local history..."

I am currently taking a course in Emerging Media at the University of Texas at Dallas and am just now learning about blogs, podcasts and other new forms of digital media. Although I work as a User Experience Architect, meaning I layout the blueprints for web sites, I wasn't up on the latest trends.

Our instructor is a fan of Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, and I have a strong interest in genealogy and history, so I was really fascinated by your articles.

It sounds like the work you all are doing is great - especially the Cleveland Memory Project. Thanks for taking the time to write these articles. You've generated a lot of ideas for the rest of us to think about.


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