I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with Wikipedia.
Conceptually, I think it is fantastic. A hub of free, user-driven content represents the democratization of the web like few other projects can. It’s wildly popular: it draws over 65 million visitors each month, and counts more than 85,000 active contributors working on more than 14,000,000 articles in more than 260 languages. As of today, there are 3,193,356 articles in English. These are amazing statistics for any reference site.
However, it does not come problem free. Despite a built-in system for oversight and management it can be factually-challenged at best, and incomplete or flat-out wrong often enough. I’ve found that it can also contribute to student (and professional) laziness (hey, why use any other resources when I can find basic stuff on Wikipedia?).
To my staff and students, I recommend that Wikipedia be used carefully, and mostly as a link to help reach other resources. My policy in the past has been to largely ignore what I’ve viewed as inaccuracies, misinterpretations, and/or bias on the site’s many entries. After all, with the nature of my personality I could spend the rest of my life making changes…is that the best use of my time? Also, as one who views history as histories and seeks to connect visitors to their own understanding of historic sites like the one I work in, what makes my take any better than anyone else’s?
My relationship with Wikipedia is beginning to change, and I now realize that I’ll need to wade into editing certain key entries. What’s prompting this change? Well, primarily the plethora of Augmented Reality (AR) and location-based based programs for smartphones and mobile devices.
Currently on my iPhone, I use Yelp, Layar, Robotvision, Wikitude, and Geodelic for AR-related activities. Due to its ubiquity, Wikipedia is the (or a) default source of information for most of these as well as a slew of others on other platforms. Thus, when you use one of these programs on a smartphone or other mobile device at Fort Vancouver NHS, you don’t link to our official park page; rather, you link to the Wikipedia page entry. We’re certainly not alone; my anecdotal research shows that when pointing my smartphone at almost every historic house, park, site or building that is not a functioning for-profit or non-profit business (like a restaurant or foundation), a Wikipedia page is the primary link that pops up.
I’m sure there are valid reasons for this, especially due to the ease of connecting to an omnipresent site like Wikipedia. So, I recommend that we all check out our historic sites’ Wikipedia entries and triage accordingly:
- make sure any basic information (hours of operation, location, contact information) is valid;
- make sure that, if nothing else, there is a link to any official website;
- include links to supplemental information that we think may help readers understand or connect with the historic site; and
- consider entering edits that help organize, fill out, flesh out, balance, or correct the existing narrative.
When considering the latter, some of the more helpful things we can do to a Wikipedia entry are 1) organize the information and divide it into palatable sections, and 2) add references and citations.
If we choose to wade in we should plan to be in it for the long haul, making sure to check our entries early and often. Remember, Wikipedia is a dynamic organism. Also, we should make it a point to explore the discussion and revision history pages for our site’s entry (accessible as tabs near the top of the entry). Here, we can track changes to the entry, learn valuable information about who is making changes and when changes are made, and even open discussions with contributors.
For folks wanting to connect with people who share a passion for your site, look no further than the people who have been volunteering to add content to your site’s Wikipedia page!
Question for readers: What is your take on Wikipedia? How have you interacted with it at your site? What other tips can you share?