Is that all there is?

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.

Bend in the Sunday River

The Sunday River (CO 1069/214), from The National Archives and now also South African Wikipedia

The Wikipedia community have used images from content donations and a project generously funded by Wikimedia UK to improve articles ranging from 20th century artists to African history.

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…


  1. Jo Pugh says:

    I must thank, once again, Andrew Gray, the Wikimedian in Residence at the British Library for coming and running the training in the first. I was merely his stooge.

  2. David Matthew says:

    Whilst I think that this is a worthwhile plan it does seem odd at a time of public sector cuts including at TNA and I hope that this will not be at the expense of cataloguing which is in sore need of resources. As researchers know wikipedia has been a problem in that political parties have put in or removed information which does not reflect well on them. We should not forget that people that use TNA are of various ages and interests. I am always wary of any article that has no identifiable sources or where someone has ‘lifted/re-used’ information from elsewhere.

  3. Paul Weatherall says:

    Very commendable in principle but might be better restricted to ensuring that wikipedia articles have references to urls for further information at the TNA site. Audiences (especially the young) should be educated to realise that there are a variety of sources of information and learn how to evaluate which are authoritative. They will also get a better understanding of the wealth of information availbale through TNA and other similar institutions. The PRO didn’t take it upon itself to correct Encyclopedia Britannica articles did it?

  4. Jo Pugh says:

    I couldn’t agree more about the importance of cataloging. One of my other interests is working with archival datasets and it’s a simple equation – no cataloguing, no data.

    I think the Archives’ role should be to facilitate and encourage relevant work on Wikipedia rather than mandate staff to carry it out. But it’s also a great online space to run specific projects. (Perhaps even of a cataloguing nature via Wikisource).

    Wikipedia articles come in many shapes and guises and those with poor referencing should obviously be treated with more scepticism than those with good ones. Of course you could always get in there and try and provide referencing for unsourced statements…

  5. Jo Pugh says:

    Paul, I would suggest the difference is that Britannica didn’t make it as easy for us. Actually I do have colleagues who have corrected the OED based on our documents: there are some sources of knowledge that I would argue it’s in everyone’s interest to improve.

    In a less utopian vein, I would argue that we have to live in the world as it is. We are teaching students here every day how to work with and interpret evidence for the past – we worked with over 15,000 last year. But that leaves an awfully large number. Should I ignore key sources of information about our records that I could fix? Why wouldn’t I want to work with one of the world’s biggest websites? I’d happily chat to Google but I can’t get them on the end of a phone.

  6. David Matthew says:

    There is the other issue of the ‘bots’ (robots to the rest of us) who put data entries or delete the entries in wikipedia as well as tidying them up. History is always selective as it is often written by the victors and maybe the question should be one of why history (apart from a few periods) is largely ignored or not taught these days and whether it is TNA’s repsonsibility to help or educate people. I don’t disagree with what TNA are trying to do but whether it is the best use of limited resources. I think it is embarassing and wrong that if unless I want to literally spend hours looking for the correspondence of Charles Darwin which is very difficult to find in the catalogue I have to use Cambridge University’s Darwin online correspondence database rather than TNA’s catalogue. It may be that in decades to come people will ask why wikipedia overtook archivists and researchers who would ensure greater accuracy and (hopefully) sources and why it was allowed to happen. There is a wonderful programme (The Day that Television Died, with the British Broadband Corporation and other concepts) which comes to mind and which are not disimilar.

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