Amateur Historian: Participating in Wikipedia is Good for You

  By Hugo Estrada, 20 July 2007; Revised
This is the first column in a series of occasional columns dealing with the practice of history as a serious amateur. In these, I want to explore the different ways in which we can practice history with the resources that people have available. Some of us are lucky enough to go to a university where they have great research libraries; some of us live far away from such research libraries. Some of us can access article databases; some of us can't. In some cases, it is practically impossible to study some area of interest is the archives for our topic of interest is in another country; yet others have wonderful archives near them.

Regardless of the kind of resources we have, history is a subject that everyone can practice in some extent if one takes advantage of what one has available to them. So I want to explore different methods, practices, tools, and sources of information that many of us may have access to. Because of the disparity of resources that I mentioned above, not all of the column will be relevant to all of us all the time, but it is my intention that at least it will put people in the right frame of mind to look for what resources they do have. One more warning: I assume that a person has access to the internet.

This first column is about how participating in collaborate history projects are a positive experience for amateur historians. So I share my experience and insights from collaborating in rewriting a page on wikipedia.

I recently started contributing to Wikipedia after another member of All Empires sent me a link to the article on Plutarco Elias Calles, a Mexican president from 1924 to 1928, to show me how poor it was. The article was heavily biased, filled with personal attacks, and barely substantiated claims about him being an atheist, a mason, or anticlerical. It read like a conservative screeds against him. Even people who dislike Calles could see that the article was a hit piece. I was so annoyed by this, that I started participating by cleaning up the biased language of the article. After half of week, I checked the page again, and I noticed that my changes had been reverted by the original author.

What followed was a discussion that was very similar to the ones that we have in the All Empires forum. The difference here was that the discussion was around a single text that was being drafted by the both of us. So instead of just being a regular history discussion, we were collaborating on a project, even though we didn't know each other and probably didn't like each other too much. Both of us disliked Calles, but our assumptions on what was allowed as unbiased history were different. In many ways, it was highly confrontational.

This dynamic encourage me to take many actions that I wouldn't have done before. For the first time, I checked the references of an article. I discovered that they were not being used correctly. So I challenged the sources and its use. We had a spirited discussion on what sources should be allowed, under what conditions, and how they should be used.

The other author checked my excesses, and I checked his. And having someone checking on your excesses is a great help since most of your friends will not do it out of politeness. At the same time, it is needed for history because your personal biases will creep in without our knowledge.

When the exchange ended, I had finished with one of the most fulfilling historical experiences of my life. The discussion was productive in that it produced a better article on Plutarco Elias Calles that the one that was originally there. And having discussions that have a concrete output seemed particularly rewarding. And one may find oneself  meeting many people with the same interests that one has.

This experience happened with wikipedia, but collaborative history work doesn’t have to be exclusive of it, Maybe wikipedia was the technology that made collaborative writing of history obvious to us, but the practice is not exclusive of wiki technology. The important feature here is the collaborative nature while we work on the same text. And for amateur historians, participating in these projects will give them many important experiences that would be hard to have with the limited amount of time that most of us have.

I encourage others to participate in collaborative history in wikipedia pages. It will help most of us to mature more quickly as historians. And I also hope that AE will soon sponsor collaborative history projects in our site too, so that we can benefit from this exercises as well.