Who is a historian, and what authority do they have? Who are the custodians of history? How does the internet change or define these roles? This is the focus of this week’s discussions.
So, who is a historian? There isn’t quite one single answer. Wikipedia defines a historian as a person who researches, studies, and writes about the past, and is regarded as an authority on it. Conversely, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a historian primarily as a student or writer of history and secondarily as ne who produces a scholarly synthesis. In both cases the emphasis is put on the study of history first, and the scholarly pursuit second. By these definitions, a historian could be anyone who shows interest in history enough to study it on their own, be it a hobby or academic reasons. This a very different take on the profession from what is more commonly heard within graduate classrooms, where a historian is described as someone who researches and interprets the past.
This plethora of meanings of a historian bears great influence over how history is treated outside of the classroom. Online a historian can be a hobbyist or an academic authority. Again Wikipedia provides an example of the variety of individuals which proclaim themselves historians. The talk section of wiki pages is often a place of debate and discussion of contributions, though results vary. For example those wishing to add sections on women to various wars (which are often approached with a very masculine mindset), may find themselves at-odds with the rest of the userbase. Similarly, a scholarly authority could have their contribution to a Wikipedia page removed if others feel it is a “minority opinion.” In many cases those policing these contributions are hobbyists, not professionals. It seems online the emphasis is on established “facts” and the status quo over actual historic interpretation.
Do we still call these individuals historians? Do we allow them to continue the curation of online historic resources? Do we allow these individuals to say, as Leslie Madsen-Brooks desires, “I nevertheless am a historian?” I personally am very conflicted on the matter. No one begins as a scholarly historian, with academic training and approach; everyone begins as a hobbyist. The internet is also an excellent place for anyone to begin historic pursuits. However, I take great issue with the custodianship of widely-used resources (such as Wikipedia) being maintained by nonacademics. These individuals likely don’t understand their own bias, or the bias of the historical record, or even the incomplete nature of the historical record. In more practical terms the informal nature of widely-used historic sites online presents a greater problem for those who wish to take an academic interest in history. Without understanding the interpretive nature of history, or the function of historiography and the need for debate, it can provide a difficult learning curve for students within classrooms of all levels. The internet is a wonderful resource for historic research, but the websites maintained by non-academic individuals should be carefully assessed with a very large grain of salt.
Martha Saxton, “Wikipedia and Women’s History: A Classroom Experience”
Timothy Messer-Kruse, “The ‘Undue Weight’ of Truth on Wikipedia”
Leslie Madsen-Brooks, “I nevertheless am a historian”
Rebecca Onion, “Snapshots of History”