Wikipedia: The Endless Palimpsest

I just returned from the 2009 Australian Historical Association conference, held this year at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Lovely name, lovely place! Can’t beat a uni campus with wild kangaroos running through it…

I’ve given copyright presentations to lawyers, and ‘freedom’ presentations to linux folk, but this was the first time I’ve given a history presentation to historians. And, since I’ve just graduated in history, these were the people I had to impress.

So… I chose a chapter from my thesis called “Wikipedia: the endless palimpsest” which argues that Wikipedia can be legitimately used by historians in several ways as a primary source.

Embedded is the video of the presentation and after that is the abstract. The presentation went very well in the end. I got a packed-out room and several people with some fantastic expertise came up to me afterwards and asked how they could get involved.

Wikipedia: The Endless Palimpsest from Liam Wyatt on Vimeo.

(Sorry about the poor quality, it was only filmed on a digital camera and I had no microphone).


The palimpsest is that most unusual of sources as it shows not only the final state of the page but allows us to see what is now valued but was once discarded. The wiki methodology of writing, with its inherent ability to return, compare and restore to previous versions of any page can therefore be seen as an infinite palimpsest—digital vellum being scraped back, written over and restored ad infinitum. Just as Pompeiian graffiti is of interest to academics two millennia later, so might some otherwise unprepossessing text in Wikipedia’s archive be of interest to the future’s linguist, historian or sociologist.
The ability to see snapshots of articles at any given point through history, their corresponding discussion pages, associated paratexts and statistics demonstrating article popularity gives Wikipedia great potential for historians. This paper uses these elements of Wikipedia to highlight practical means by which historians might engage with it as a primary source of history and still maintain professional standards. Therefore, under discussion is Wikipedia’s own historical record and how it could be used to great effect by historians.

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