Wikipedia as a Scholarly Resource

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By User:Husky and h3m3ls, Mischa de Muynck and Niels [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Over the past couple of weeks, students in my Museum Practices graduate seminar presented their semester projects.  An Egyptology Art History graduate student, Chris Stelter, presented on the 66 short biographies he created for the renovation of the American Legacy exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum here in Memphis.  He used Wikipedia as a primary resource in the project noting that “. . . using Wikipedia as a main source has helped me make a new mental connection between the available information, what I myself, as a museum professional, want to present, and what a visitor would want to take in.  Since I am providing information for the public and Wikipedia is made by the public, it provides an interesting connection between scholarly research and public intake.”

In discussion after his presentation, Chris noted a certain trepidation at using Wikipedia for a “scholarly” project.  When asked what he would use if he were creating similar biographies for a group of Egyptologists Chris suggested the Who Was Who in Egyptology volume – arguably even less inclusive than Wikipedia.

Regardless of the specific merits in using Wikipedia to collect the Civil Rights leaders mini-bio information, which I find wholly appropriate, I found the class discussion interesting on another level.  As I reflected before in this blog, the very mention of a virtual museum or Wikipedia as a scholarly resource caused audible gasps from seminar students five years ago.  This year after Chris’ presentation the class was able to have a reasoned discussion, while still noting that Wikipedia was loathed by the vast majority of their professors.

I have posted before on Wikipedia as a research tool and specific applications in museums.  Six months down the road from those posts, the potential of Wikipedia as a research and information tool continues to grow.  A mid-year review of the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums with Wikipedia (GLAM) points to this evolving direction. Also, consider the following links:

  • Michigan Wikipedians as “The first student group of its kind in the country, Michigan Wikipedians support the use of Wikipedia on campus for purposes of education. Similar to the Open.Michigan initiative, Michigan Wikipedians foster the development of educational content that can be used globally under open licenses. The club is open to all students and faculty of the University of Michigan, as well as community members who are interested in Wikipedia.”
  • The very entry for Museums in Wikipedia is a 7000 word article with 45 “scholarly” references.  The article covers everything from the etymology of the word to virtual museums.  Were the essay written as an undergraduate honors thesis, the student would be given an A and a strong letter of recommendation.
  • This Wikipedian in Residence link lists the intent, function and experience of individuals who have taken up such assignments at a range of institutional types as essential collaborators, builders, and promoters of Wikipedia.  Scroll to the bottom of the linked page to view projects that the Wikipedians have piloted.

I was reading Debbie Morrison’s most recent post on her Online Learning Insights blog and was a bit overwhelmed when reflecting on the general reluctance of higher education to embrace these potentials, choosing instead to hunker down in their silos.  Then I got to the paragraph heading “Personal Learning Network” in Debbie’s post and it started making a good bit more sense. She wrote about the importance of personal motivation in accepting the new technology. I thought of how in 1994 while finishing my PhD I taught a course back in my hometown titled “Anthropology and the Internet” in a department of eight faculty of whom only three even had email accounts.  One faculty member that year proudly refused the computer the University had offered him choosing instead to continue typing his manuscripts on an IBM Selectric typewriter. However, when he realized he could get the daily Mexican newspapers where he did his research online, he became a convert overnight to the wonders of the digital age.  Based in part on pressure from students in that class, the next year the department had a computer lab set-up.  Can a reasoned and objective assessment of the scholarly applications of Wikipedia be far behind?

How do you use Wikipedia as a tool in your scholarly work?