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Digital History and Wikipedia as a Historical Resource

By: Ethan Chan

I believe that the internet as a historical resource represents postmodernism at its best. Two digital historians, Michael O'Malley and Roy Rosenzweig stated,

"The internet does not distinguish between the true and false, the important and the trivial, the enduring and ephemeral... every source has the same weight and credibility as every other, no authority is privileged over any other."

Postmodernists like Hayden White would agree that much of digital history is a constructed narrative. Even the most popular historical digital history project, Wikipedia, should be read as a genre of literature. Under its NPOV guidelines, Wikipedia claims to be objective and value-neutral, nonetheless, that is impossible. Its broad, collaborative, and populist writing force its encyclopedia to remain narratively postmodernist. The internet and digital history have continual interventions. Texts remain fluid, technologies shift, and the engagement with the wider historiography changes over time. The abundance and fluidity of ever-changing interpretations make it impossible to establish a foundational historiography.

Nonetheless, some argue that Wikipedia’s democratization of information has led it to become a valuable historical resource. Wouldn’t thousands of edits make an article more reliable than just one academic writer and the chance that other academics might review the article? In a sense, numerous edits would make an article less impervious to biases, making it less narrative. To add to the democratization of Wikipedia, most academic information is hidden behind expensive paywalls, unavailable to the public. However, Wikipedia is free and open to all to interpret their version of history. Wikipedia is not as restricting as academic journals, it allows the circulation of alternative historical voices and narratives, and editors are often trained much like undergraduate history students.

In the end, many questions remain when discussing digital history. How can historians catalog a seemingly infinite number of interpretations (from hashtags, tweets, photos, etc) from the fast-paced nature of the internet? How will historiography work? Nonetheless, is digital history solely postmodernist just because of its fast-paced nature? Traditionalists in history require a vast foundation of historiography just to write a simple article. Digital history lacks such foundational historiography.

Works Cited

Michael O’Malley and Roy Rosenzweig, “Brave New World or Blind Alley? American History on the World Wide Web,” Journal of American History (June 1997): 132-155.

Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” The

Journal of American History (June 2006): 117-46.

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