My colleague looked at the article with a mixture of surprise and mild horror.
We were part of the way through an afternoon of Wikipedia training and she had decided to have a gander at the article on Historical geography. Take a look if you like. It won’t take long, it’s only about four paragraphs and that’s a paragraph longer than when she found it – which is the point I’d like to make. When confronted with a hopeless Wikipedia article (and goodness knows there are plenty of those) there are really two reactions. One is to tut, mutter darkly about the deficiencies of crowdsourced knowledge and consider another source of information. The second is to fix it.
At The National Archives, after some consideration, we’ve decided to take the second option. We’re going to train more staff and run more projects across Wikimedia Foundation websites. We’ve already started. Today you can stand next to Domesday Book, scan a QRpedia code with your phone and access information on the book from Wikipedia in 40 languages – a forest of labels we could never produce on our own.
You might ask why we’re bothering. The answer is pretty simple: we believe in putting information in places where people can find it. When people want to find out about Valor Ecclesiasticus, a very fine illuminated manuscript which we have in our museum, they don’t visit our website. They look at Wikipedia. It’s one of the most widely used websites on the planet and rises to the top of umpteen Google searches – sometimes regardless of whether the article in question is cream or something less savoury
We could pretend that inaccuracies and omissions on Wikipedia regarding our records are none of our business. But if we’re interested in working with, particularly young, audiences (and we are) we need to accept that Wikipedia is where they will be getting their information from. And that means it is our business and that if we can improve those articles, we should. Wikipedia can be a great source but it shouldn’t be anyone’s only source. We also need to work to improve the digital literacy of students. Anyone can use a web browser, but do they know what to make of a webpage when they’ve found it? How do you distinguish between a good and a bad Wikipedia article (hint: it’s not just about the length) or between a reliable website and a dodgy one? It’s a jungle out there but studying history can help students find their way through it.
Archives can step up to the plate as well to pass on these skills, some have been doing it for a while. But of course the joy of Wikipedia is that anyone can help make it a better place. Fancy giving it a go? That edit button is only a click away…