Local history and Wikipedia

In the lead up to the (now fully subscribed!) GLAM-WIKI event there is an increasing amount of chatter about how can Wikipedia play a part in helping the cultural sector to get their knowledge out to the world. But I’ve just come across another area that we’ve barely scratched the surface of:

Local history.

(Bachman farmstead workers load produce onto a Dan Patch line boxcar for delivery to market. Richfield Minnesota – date not published )

Every city, town and community has one. A small group of people who try to put together their photos and memories about the place where they live. Often this gets produced into a locally made coffee table book, often this work lies dormant.

But this is where Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons can come in great use. Take, for example, the article [[History of Richfield, Minnesota]]. This is largely written by [[User:Richfieldhistoricalsociety]].

Here’s the story (at the “Museum 3.0″ Ning) that put me on to it:

“I can tell you from a small museum perspective Wikipedia is invaluable. I am also on the board of the a tiny historical society in near Minneapolis, Minnesota. I helped them set up a wiki for them to collect and disseminate the history of our community. However, not only did no one contribute – no one bothered even to go to it. Instead, we found that putting our community’s (fascinating) history on Wikipedia reached more eyeballs than we ever could if we left the information ghettoized on our own now defunct wiki.”

- Joe Hoover from the Minnesota Historical Society (on twitter @nyargle and blogging at nyargle.com which is subtitled “figuring out how to market the museum on the web one pixel at the time”)

I find the word “ghettoised” particularly interesting. It raises the very true point that whilst so much work goes on around the world in getting local history written and published, it is largely kept apart from the rest of the world’s collection of knowledge. Isolated. Often this is due to the expense of mainstream publication and the narrowness of the subject matter. But this is exactly where Wikipedia can help! We can host those town’s histories (so long as there are verifiable sources, e.g. the aforementioned coffee-table book) and bring them out of the isolation and stagnation described by Joe.

So what can we do to encourage this more?

1) Let me answer my question with another question:
If you were asked to go along to your local history society meeting and give them a practical training session on editing Wikipedia (even assuming they had access to enough computers) would you either say “yes, I’d love to spend the next 3 months teaching you how to read WikiMarkup” or would you say “Editing Wikipedia is quite complicated and I think I don’t have the time to help your local studies group get up to speed.” Just thinking of how tricky it is to edit tables, add references, explain nested templates, upload images, decrypt infoboxes… gives me the heeby-jeebies.

Editing in MediaWiki is just too damn hard for the majority of the population. It makes them feel stupid and frustrated. The usability team will be able to make this learning curve less steep but I don’t think they have the resources or the time to do as much as is clearly needed within the scope of their current grant. The less steep we can make the learning curve to independent editing of Wikipedia the more likely that different interest groups – especially those that are not particularly technologically inclined – will be able to join in.

2) Localisation support. As Gerard Meijssen often reminds us, and is the reason for his standing for the Foundation board, we have a very haphazard approach to supporting languages other than English. The “in your own language” part of our vision statement is not given much financial support or attention (relative to the “for free” part for example) that it deserves. I’m not sure how this should be fixed but it certainly needs to be addressed. The local histories in the English speaking world are important enough, but imagine how interesting and diverse the local histories from non-English speaking areas of the world are!

(Housing development along Washburn Avenue, Richfield Minnesota, 1950s)

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One Response to Local history and Wikipedia

  1. I really like Wikipedia. It is great for… well, it’s great for a plenty of things. And I also like local history. Still if Wiki were ideal for local historians I would not start my own project in the field, Zurbu. It is a very young website and most of my experience comes from another forum on history of Riga, Latvia launched five years ago.

    First, as a Vice President of Wikimedia Australia You most probably know about wiki-notability criteria. History of Richfield merits its own article, biography of a memorable Richfieldian farmer John Doe might cause interest only for Richfield History Society – hence the relevant article would be nominated for deletion. However research of the latter is more appropriate for the Society than writing an overview article.

    Secondly, Wikipedia is not a forum made for conversations. Surely there are discussion pages for every article but assuming one needs 3 months for explaining wiki-markup other three they would spend on describing methods of following each discussion. In addition http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:NOTFORUM#FORUM says: «… talk pages exist for the purpose of discussing how to improve articles; they are not mere general discussion pages about the subject of the article…». Diving into history is a matter of a forum, of sharing info dug in libraries, archives, interviews with senior people etc. For some topics it takes decades and more to reveal the truth and publishing it encyclopedically before any results may not only mislead readers but also harm Wikipedia’s reputation on reliability.

    There are some more reasons why forums are better for local history. As I’ve already said, my first local history forum is dedicated to Riga – a city with 42% Latvian and 41% Russian population. Luckily there is no problem in replying in Russian to a forum message written in Latvian and vice versa. Information gets concentrated not dispersed on lv.wikipedia.org and ru.wikipedia.org.

    It was a bit verbose but I hope my arguments are comprehensible.

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