This week we were asked to edit an article on Wikipedia, and I must say, my debut as a Wikipedian was a veritable rollercoaster of emotion. Here is a glimpse at what I can only describe as a wild ride (at least as far as my experience with digital history goes).
It started when I started to think about which article I should edit. What do I know enough about to warrant editing someone else’s work? What topic can I do justice? How can I contribute in a meaningful way? This quickly unraveled into something of an existential crisis – am I an expert in anything?
When I finally calmed down, I settled on an article about a Chicago doctor named Harry Haiselden, whom I learned about while conducting research for my seminar paper. Haiselden is the kind of figure who we might prefer to leave in some dark corner of our collective historical memory, shuttered away with other Americans who make us feel less than proud about our past. But of course, we have Wikipedia to ensure that he, and the ideas he stood for, do not get abandoned in the metaphorical attic of U.S. history, that we remember the bad stuff alongside the good.
You can read about him here. I added more details to his story and corrected some minor inaccuracies. I also did some basic rewriting of the original text… it was hard to decide where to stop.
Editing the text was not as simple as I thought it would be. In editable form, the text was riddled with programming commands, the actual content nestled among strings of symbols and characters. It was overwhelming to try and pick apart the text, to identify what did and did not need to be changed. For this Wikipedia amateur, the “preview” function came in handy more than once.
Once I had muddled my way through the technical stuff and settled on some content I felt responsibly adhered to Wikipedia’s guidelines for editors (Roy Rosenzweig describes them here), I felt incredibly proud of what I had accomplished. So often as historians we work on projects that take months or even years to complete, and the final product does not always necessarily see the light of day. I cannot deny the delightful feeling of instant gratification that swept over me when I published my edits.
So… what happens next? Will some territorial Wikipedia sweep in and undo what I’ve done? Twenty-four hours later, my changes are still standing. I have to admit, I am slightly disappointed. I think that maybe it would have been gratifying if someone had swept in and altered it because, if nothing else, it would meant that my work had been seen. In the absence of any such confirmation, I will just have to content myself to think that someone did see my edits and thought, “Wow, that’s perfect, what an improvement!” and didn’t touch a thing.
Joking aside, I have come away from this experience feeling good about the Wikipedia experience. For a self-identified perfectionist, it is comforting to know that nothing I post on Wikipedia is permanent – there is always the opportunity to revise and improve. It won’t always be me making those changes, but there is something comforting about that, too. Hopefully what I’ve done is provided the next Wikipedian with something better to work with that what was there before.
Editing a Wikipedia article was not necessarily as quick and easy as I anticipated, but I think that is ultimately a good thing. That’s not to say that all Wikipedians share my anxieties about the process, but I am encouraged by what was a thought-provoking and challenging experience. I may not be an expert on Haiselden (or anything, for that matter), but I was able to make a positive contribution to a source that many people looking to find information about him will consult. Traditional wisdom holds that Wikipedia is a dangerous, unsavory place for historical learning, but I think now I can say that the opposite is true. Public and digital historians must explore this opportunity to promote learning among and learn from the public.