Editing Wikipedia: Sharing Canadian Environmental History with a Wider Audience


Over the past few months I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Wikipedia. I noticed the wiki page for NiCHE was out of date and found little mention of Canadian (or my field of British) environmental history on the mainEnvironmental History Wikipedia page. After struggling to remember the password for an account I’d created five or six years ago, but rarely used, I made a few minor edits. This reminded me of a survey I filled out in February on why few experts (scientist, academics and professionals) edit Wikipedia. The questions in the survey caused me to think about the main reasons I rarely edit this crowd sourced encyclopedia. The first hurdle is time. Completing a PhD while teaching does not leave a lot of spare time. Moreover, I have little inclination to use my limited spare time to do even more research and writing. This issue is equally true for more senior historians who already find it hard to focus on their writing after they complete their many teaching and service duties. The second hurdle is the lack of credit. Career advancement rests on publishing peer-reviewed books and articles, not adding paragraphs and citations to online encyclopedia articles. This combines with the first issue: we don’t have time to work on Wikipedia when we should be doing work to help us land or keep our jobs. The third hurdle that stood out was Wikipedia’s policy of not accepting original research. This means you need to cite reliable published sources, not archives or other primary sources. This system is essential for the crowd sourcing to work, but it is off putting to realize the website does not want academics to write directly about topics we feel we have ample expertise to contribute to. A related concern came up in a comment to a similar post I published on ActiveHistory.ca a month ago: academics do not like it when 14 year old Wikipedia editors delete or change their work because it does not conform to the website’s rules and regulations. The crowd sourcing model is too democratic for those of us with hard earned credentials. For these reason, combined with the continued scepticism many hold about the Wikipedia’s reliability, it is not surprising that few of us spend much time contributing to this web project.

The problem with our lack of engagement is that Wikipedia is an important tool for communicating to a potentially massive audience. During the recent EH+ workshop, we spent a lot of time discussing ways to mobalize our research and expertise so that it spreads beyond academic readers (see EHTV episode 1 for an overview). As I said in the Active History post , if we want more influence with policy makers, the media, and the wider public, we should probably write for the website many of them use as a first source of information. Currently, when I search “Canadian Environmental History” in Google I get a link to David Duke’s textbook, Sean Kheraj’s podcast (on various websites), the NiCHE website, and Alan MacEachern and Bill Turkel’s textbook. While these books, podcast and websites would all provide a great introduction to our field, none of them have the simplicity or conciseness of a Wikipedia article. Wikipedia is one of the top ten websites in the world (behind Google and Facebook, but ahead of Twitter and Microsoft’s search engine Bing) and unlike the other top internet information sources, we have the power to shape it, as long as we conform to theirManuel of Style.

At this point there is no Canadian Environmental History page and their is little mention of our field on other obvious pages (History of CanadaParks CanadaEnvironmental History, orFraser River). To begin to remedy this situation, I would like your help writing a Canadian Environmental History wiki page. I’ve worked with a few NiCHE members to help create adraft page and it is now ready for your input. You will need to log-in or create an account to edit this draft page – it only takes 2 minutes to create a new account. You can edit the content directly and you can provide suggestions for improving the page in the discussion section. The biggest challenge I foresee is keeping the article general enough and not focusing too narrowly on our many individual research interests. The article should also focus on the past and current practice of Canadian environmental history and not on the directions we might like to see it develop. Once the article is a little more complete I will publish it and then we can continue to edit the article as our field develops in the years ahead.

The technical side of editing Wikipedia is fairly simple. Once you are logged in their is an option to edit the page as a whole or individual sections. In the editing screen, the Sections and Subsection are identified by adding equal signs around words i.e. =Historiography=, ==1990-1999==. ===Moving Beyond Wilderness=== (these sections/subsections automatically show up in the article’s table of contents). To add links to other Wikipedia pages just include two square brakes around the words i.e. [[environmental history]]. Adding citations is almost as easy, click citations in the menu at the top of the editing box and use on of the templates to add a citation. This should be enough to get you started and we can work to maintain a standard formatting by editing each others contributions.

Beyond helping with the new Canadian Environmental History page, you can look at topics of particular interest and see if they need small edits, new paragraphs or more citations to help work in more attention to environmental history. It is OK to reference your own publications now and again, but Wikipedia does warn again excessive self promotion. I hope that if a few dozen members can contribute a few minutes a week that over the next year we will increase the coverage of our field in Wikipedia and draw more attention to Canadian environmental history from the millions of Canadians and people around the globe that turn to this constantly growing encyclopedia on a daily basis. If you have questions or comments please uses the comments option below or email me: jcliffo9@uwo.ca

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Assistant professor of environmental history at the University of Saskatchewan.

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