I have three interns working for me right now at my museum. They’re recent graduates of the history department at Aberdeen University in Scotland and like all “kids” just out of college (granted, they’re only 5 years younger then me) they know all the latest and greatest research tools and study aids, like Wikipedia and JSTOR. To be quite honest, I had never heard of either until about five weeks ago when one of my interns asked if the Museum I work at had a JSTORaccount he could get use to do some research for a project he’s working on for me. Interest peaked, I took a look at the on-line storage house of academia and I was amazed….where was this why I was writing my undergraduate history thesis at AU?
On the same day that I discovered JSTOR, I also took a look at Wikipedia, and then promptly forbade my interns to use it in their research. I’ve worked with a bunch of historians over past fiveyears, most of whom are still learning how to bank on-line, and I’ve learned to fear anything that doesn’t end in a .mil, .org, .edu, or .gov (I love the irony) when it comes finding sources fornew projects I work on at the museum. It didn’t take long to put a free on-line encyclopedia that can be added to or edited by anyone, despite the fact that it’s an .org (remember…initial impression) into the same category as Satan, loud gum chewers and drivers who don’t use their blinkers…bad, bad bad. In retrospect, I think I might have been a bit hasty in the accepting of JSTOR and the rejection of Wikipedia.
The reading on Wikipediafrom this week intrigued me. My initial impression from the readings was that the authors of each article on Wikipedia wanted badly to embraced its ideals, but were having a hard time wrapping their arms around it’s reality. Through Wikipedia, everyone can be a historian, and, if editing Wiki entries is your thing, I guess you could be a “revisionist historian.” JSTORis clearly more academic in nature…the journals are all referenced, article information is easily accessible, etc, etc, etc. The journals housed within JSTOR are still just an interpretation of a subject though, so fundamentally, is the database my interns swear “got them through college” all that different from Wikipedia?
The readings for this week presented both the pros and cons of Wikis. Perhaps the biggest pro…it’s free. Biggest con…how do we know that what we’re getting from a Wiki is accurate info? To answer that question, I reflected on a class I took during my freshman year at American University, Historians and the Living Past. My professor, Dr. French, claimed that there actually was no truth to anything, and that the best historians could be was defend their work with the best possible resources. Despite the fact JSTORis a widely accepted academic resource, the information house in it still needs to be collaborated with other resourses. Wikis, when used responsibily and thoughtfully, make equally as good resources though.
That being said, about a week ago I reversed my position on my interns using both JSTOR and Wikipedia. Both can be used as a research tool, but anything they find now has to be backed up by an additional source from a different on-line database, collection or library. I don’t want to hinder research, but with the rise in “on-line historians” I’m beginning to wonder how much harder it will be to monitor the projects going on in my office.