Speakers and listeners: Cultural democracy vs. professionalism

The final week of Digital History, we focus on “Speakers and listeners: Cultural democracy vs. professionalism.”

Leslie Madsen-Brooks’ article “I Nevertheless Am a Historian:  Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers” raises a valid point about historical practice and public history. This issue arose while researching information for my digital blog on the past life of currently abandoned buildings, schools, homes, etc., in Atlanta. It was a bit frustrating yet fascinating to see so many blogs or social media accounts dedicated to abandoned structures in not only Atlanta but other large cities. The difference between their blogs and mine are the primary sources utilized to determine what past occurrences occur at the site of the now, defunct structure. Can these amateur bloggers consider themselves historians because of a brief blurb from ancestry.com? On one hand, digitalization of historical articles, photographs, etc., have made historical scholarship easier for historians, but on the other hand, it does blur the line between amateur historian and scholarly historian. Will we be replaced by amateur sleuths?

Though primary sources have become available online, not all sources are available in digitalized formatting (Sanborn Maps after 1922 Grrrrr!) and still required skilled sleuthing in archival repositories, an area that trained historians are quite skilled in.

Madsen-Brook’s mentions the arguments of proponents of the use of digital platforms and sources by using the suppressed history of the Civil War and black Confederate Soldiers on Southern Heritage sites. This example is a fairly excellent example of why one could be opposed to the digitalization of historical documents. Southern Heritage site users misinterpret the context of the historical articles or photographs without knowing the history behind the primary sources. In turn, they are spreading baseless information from in ignorant viewpoint. Historians, on the other hand, would approach those primary sources from the thought processes of a trained professional. Interpreting the primary sources based upon the era of which they are derived. So how do we control the incorrect interpretations on history online?

While there are several reasons to oppose the common use of primary sources through untrained users, one of the more positive aspects of digitalized primary sources is the opportunity to spread historical scholarship from repositories all over the globe without having to leave your home. Users can share information with others and offer opposing or supportive theories of historical events steeped in historical facts of course. Madsen-Brook’s article was thought provoking and applicable to any historian currently working on historical scholarship or simply enjoying historical primary sources.

The second article “Truth and the World of Wikipedia Gatekeepers) (NPR transcript) touches on the same issue but with Wikipedia being the main focus. We’ve all been warned by college Professors not to use Wikipedia as a primary source, and in some cases, refrain from secondary source usage as well. Wikipedia has a bad reputation of providing false information masquerading as facts mostly due to the fact that anyone can edit the Wikipedia pages. Many may wonder why Wikipedia allows false information to be shared and not designate a historian or “fact finder” to ensure that all information presented is factual? Well, this practice may take away from the whole premise of Wikipedia, which is to have a communal feel to it without the restrictions of designated editors and webmasters. Wikipedia began as a forum for editors who aren’t experts in their field, so to do a complete 180-degree change would significantly alter the structure of Wikipedia’s appeal.

Perhaps Wikipedia should put forth policies that require editors and contributors to have their article submissions peer-reviewed, which would drastically reduce the amount of historically inaccurate submissions. However, I am well aware that this may discourage people from contributing as well – which places Wikipedia in a Catch-22 situation all around.

The final two articles “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” by Roy Rosenzweig and “Know It All: Can Wikipedia Conquer Expertise?” by Stacy Schiff reads as the history of Wikipedia and its historical related documents. While Schiff’s article begins as a historical background of Wikipedia and it’s rise to the top, it also delves into the subject of control over historical data. Encyclopedia Britannica could be the culprit behind the bad rumors surrounding Wikipedia’s authenticity. Before the age of Wikipedia, scholars turned to the Encyclopedia of information, now that Wikipedia is around, perhaps they’re threatened by its success. Threatened that readers are relying on web-based materials rather than traditional methods of scholarship. Whatever the case, we shouldn’t discourage newer ways to present historical research methods to the public. The evolution of historical research keeps the practice alive and available for the next generation to enjoy and to continue improving upon.



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