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The Wikipedia War

My Twitter friend and fellow Atlantic contributor Yoni Appelbaum pointed out a fascinating article — note: PDF— called “Military History on the Electronic Frontier: Wikipedia Fights the War of 1812” by a military historian named Richard Jensen. Jensen writes, “This essay examines how the 14,000 word article on the ‘War of 1812’ was worked on by 2,400 different people, with no overall coordinator or plan. Debates raged as the 1812 article attracted over 3,300 comments by 627 of the most active editors. The main dispute was over who won the war.”

I wonder how many of our many wars would draw as their chief topic of debate the simple question Who won?

Jensen’s overall verdict on Wikipedia is thoughtful and nuanced. I invite you to read the whole article, but here’s a key passage from near the end:

Wikipedia is now a mature reference work with a stable organizational structure and a well-established reputation. The problem is that it is not mature in a scholarly sense. The amateurs are enthusiastic for details but cannot see the forest that has been mapped out in the historiography. The problem is less severe in military history because academia does not favor the field and much of the text writing is done by self-trained scholars. My recommendation for improving military history on Wikipedia is to set up a program to help the most active military editors gain better access to published scholarship, gain an appreciation of the historiography, and start attending military history conferences. One method would be to set up short training programs for them at a research library on the model of the masters-degree historiography course.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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