Through what began to seem an endless examination of Wikipedia, we rediscovered that on Wikipedia, historical truth can be what the author or editor or administrator thinks it is. In his “Essays on History and New Media,” Roy Rosenzweig uses a well-worn tale to make his point, “As in the old tale of the blind men and the elephant, your assessment of Wikipedia as history depends a great deal on what part you touch. It also depends…on how you define ‘history.” Clearly, history as defined by Wikipedia contributors is not the laboriously peer reviewed work we graduate students are urged to seek out in academic journals and books. However, Rosenzweig does outline a process of constant editing, reviewing and re-editing that is the method and ethic of Wikipedia. He and Stacy Schiff also point to the research on accuracy of Wikipedia vs. Britannica the outcome of which was that Wikipedia had four inaccuracies for every three in Britannica. That may not make Wikipedia the gold standard in historical accuracy, but it’s pretty good for a general resource that is authored by thousands of volunteers, most of whom seem to adhere to a set of principles and procedures that are fundamentally as voluntary as the unsigned hours of work they are doing.
Stacy Schiff takes a somewhat more critical view of Wikipedia. Schiff’s article, “Know it all: Can Wikipedia conquer expertise,” discusses the same contributors’ bureaucratic hoops as Rosenzweig. However, Schiff’s tone is more critical, “For all its protocol, Wikipedia’s bureaucracy doesn’t necessarily favor truth.” Referencing a dispute about an article on global warming, written by a climate modeler at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, that went to a three-month arbitration after a protracted dispute with a climate skeptic, resulting in the climate modeler being humiliated, Schiff quotes Jim Wales (Wikipedia founder) as saying “in this case the system failed.” Schiff goes on to say, “It can still seem as though the user who spends the most time on the site-or who yells the loudest-wins.” Not particularly comforting words for a user hoping to find some useful information.
Unlike the unknown contributors to Wikipedia articles, there are few activities more personal for a researcher than to interview a person who is an important actor in the historical period/event you are researching. While archival material is certainly subject to interpretation and other historians who are looking at that material may see it differently and challenge your view of it, the material itself has no agency. The interview subject does. Further, depending on the subject matter and the centrality of the person you are interviewing to the events you are studying, the interview can be an emotionally fraught experience for both parties no matter how deep your commitment to objectivity.
Clair Bon Potter takes us into her work on antipornography feminism, the deep disputes within the feminist movement about this advocacy work, and talks candidly about her experiences and about the risks associated with oral history and ethnography as methodologies. Potter refers to Kristin Luker’s theory that as oral historians we should be less interested in the “veracity” of the interviews than in the “deep truth of them.” She is telling us that absolute objective accuracy provided by the interviewee is not necessarily the point of this work. It is actually impossible to obtain. Which of us remembers deeply experienced events with complete objective accuracy? Still, given the opportunity of a safe space to reflect upon the events of our life, it is possible to confront the depth of the experience, the truth within ourselves about our role in the outcomes of our work, and to express those reflections honestly to another.
However, it is always well to remember that the space we interviewers are creating is not necessarily safe. As historians, we will be evaluating that truth within the context of the time, the subsequent events, and with an understanding of the roles of the other actors in those events. As Potter points out, not only does the interviewee have an intensely held opinion about the worth of their work, their role in that work, and how we use their words in our final product, they can also get the name and number of a lawyer. Probably wise to reflect on the words of C. S. Lewis.
“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”
C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew