Thursday, November 29, 2007

How to Get Feedback from your Exhibit Viewers Without Their Realizing it.

One of our class assignments this year was to mount a history of medicine display in the Medical Sciences building here at the University of Western Ontario, which used some of the medical artifacts from our vast collection. We mounted the exhibit, but when I left that afternoon I was skeptical that anyone would bother to look at what we had created. Personally, I never bother to look at the contents of exhibits mounted in hallways, so why should I expect the general public to be any different?

I decided to do a couple tests to see if there were inexpensive ways you could draw people to an exhibit and to get feedback on whether or not your gimmick had worked. Over the past month, I have mounted two unauthorized displays in the hall of the History department using two different interactive techniques. The case in question had been left empty all year but fortunately was unlocked, so I took the initiative to add some history to the history department.

I decided on a theme: “the History of Traditions” and created my first display. The content was unimportant since I was really just testing the interactive component, so I surfed the internet and created a few text panels and images related to the History of Wearing a Poppy as an act of remembrance. Since the Royal Canadian Legion was in the middle of their November Poppy donation drive, I contacted them and got a donation box along with 100 poppies – one for each person I estimated would see the case, given its location deep within the history department. This was to be my interactive component.

I secretly mounted my display, leaving one of the sliding glass doors open to encourage viewers to donate or to take a poppy. For just over a week it sat there on the wall and on Remembrance Day, I took it down and counted the poppies. 34 had been taken by viewers and I had collected about ten dollars which I returned to the grateful Legionnaires. Undoubtedly some people took two and some people who read the display didn’t take one at all. However, I was able to get a rough idea of how many people were looking at what I had created, with a simple interactive component – one that most people probably never even thought of as interactive.

I wondered if it had been the poppy box that had attracted viewers who wanted a poppy that would not otherwise bothered to look at the display. In an attempt to determine if my interactive component was attracting the viewers or merely recording them, I decided to come up with something a little more gimmicky that would attract people: a voting system. Keeping with the theme of the History of Traditions, I created a display on the History of Why We Send Fruitcakes.

This time, rather than ask for money, I placed a brick, a photograph of George Bush and a fruitcake on the bottom shelf of my display and numbered each item. I then posted three small sheets of paper with corresponding numbers and a bunch of stickers for people to use. I asked viewers “Can You Spot the Real Fruitcake? Indicate with a Star.” The interaction was merely a play on words of the various meanings people associate with the word “fruitcake” but what was important wasn’t that people could spot the true cake – most people got that wrong. What was important was that I was able to draw them in with a silly exercise and I provided myself with feedback from the viewer. The fact that people voted at all meant they were interested enough in the exercise, and that they took at least a moment to see what was in the case so they could make their choice.

The first day the exhibit was mounted, a crowd of my classmates gathered around to see what it was. The sheets quickly filled up with stars, and my colleagues asked me unknowingly, “Have you voted for the fruitcake yet?” For less than a dollar and with no gadgets, I was able to create a simple interactive component that drew in viewers and a feedback forum for myself. All while maintaining a traditional style display case that presented a history to the viewer.

The idea was popular enough that one of the other students in my class used my sticker-voting idea in a class assignment we recently completed to design an exhibit of medical history. She borrowed the idea for her own proposal as a way to get viewers involved and to get them to approach the exhibit.

If no one objects, I’ll continue the “History of Traditions” displays in the new year, or if one of my classmates would like to create an interactive display of their own, I would be happy to cede the case. After all, I didn’t ask if I could use it anyway. But in a department with a Public History program, no display case should ever remain empty!

Thanks to the Duchess of Kent Royal Canadian Legion for trusting me with their poppies, to Corey Everrett and Aaron Day for the idea about a display on Fruitcake, and to everyone who participated in my experiment.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Taking Notes on .PDF files Without Printing

I’ve noticed a lot of my classmates still prefer to print off articles and chapters that are available freely online to read them in hard copy rather than on their computer screens. I’m not sure if this is because they inherently hate reading off a computer screen, or if it’s because they like to scribble notes to themselves in the margins.

If it’s the later, I have a few suggestions that can let you take those notes, without having to use all that paper and waste your ink cartridges.

First, let’s assume the reading in question is a .pdf file. For example, one I have found on the internet: S. Smale’s Differentiable Dynamical Systems. Don’t worry I don’t understand what it’s about either.

Instead of clicking on that tempting print button, click on the “Select Tool,” click on any point in the text and type CTRL A, then CTRL C. You can then open up your favourite word processing program and paste the entire document into your word processor where you can manipulate it.

Now, to take all those notes you so love. (The following suggestions are tailored to users of MS Word, since that’s what I use).

If you’re a person who likes to highlight as you read, you can do so with this tool:

If you like to write text in the margins but you don’t want to mess up the formatting of the document, click on the INSERT menu, and then click “Add Comment” (Don't worry it's less invasive in a real Word.doc)

And there’s so much more flexibility with a word processor that you just can’t do after you’ve printed that article out. You can Bold the important words. italicize the article’s thesis statement. Want the article double spaced so you can read it better? Piece of cake. Don’t like the column width? Easy to change.

Or, if you’re lucky enough to have a laptop you can bring with you to the class discussion, you can type CTRL F and search the entire article for that quote you just know is in there somewhere but you can’t remember where and then everyone will think you’re a genius for having the perfect contribution to the discussion.

I know some of you out there love the smell and feel of paper. So to quell that concern as well, Please feel free to print off this article and take it with you everywhere you go. That way, if while reading your articles on your computer you begin to pine for paper, you can pull out my article, give it a big hug and continue your work refreshed.

Because really, are you going to read that article you just printed off ever again? Save a tree, save yourself some money, and experiment a little with what your computer can do. You might even like it.

*Note, this only works if the person who created the document has used the full version of Adobe Acrobat and has let Acrobat use Optical Character Recognition to convert the contents of the document to text. Unfortunately, as many of you have found, the only way to get some .PDF documents into text is to have your own Optical Character Recognition software.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I've Been Translated

I was browsing Technorati this morning, a site on which you can search for blogs and I came across my own. Beside my blog’s title was a little green bubble with a magnifying glass in it labeled, “Authority” and a number beside it. This number refers to the number of other blogs in Technorati’s database that link to your blog. I was curious to see who was on there, so I clicked it.

Most of them were the blogs of my colleagues, but one in particular stood out because it was in German. I clicked on the link titled, Gedanken auf Öffentlicher Geschichte durch Adam Crymble: Themed Tonführer Bereist Museum.

To my surprise, there was my post about Themed Audio-Guide Museum Tours, complete with the photo I had taken this summer on my vacation, however, the text had been completely translated into German on a website titled “Tourism Projects.” (Stehlen ist schlecht. Wenn Sie möchten, dass die Übersetzung meiner Arbeit fragen, und ich werde sagen, ja)

I guess I should put that on my C.V. now: “Work translated into German.”

References (Because theft is morally suspect)

Technorati. “”

“Gedanken auf Öffentlicher Geschichte durch Adam Crymble: Themed Tonführer Bereist Museum,” Tourism Projects. “

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Make Your Grandpa Tell You His Story

Before he died, my Opa (Grandfather) wrote a family history with the help of my mother and her sister. I think he wanted to leave us with a sense of who we were and where we had come from since he and my Oma (Grandmother) had immigrated to Canada from Germany in 1953 and almost all ties to our past had be left behind in a war-torn Germany. I finally read the memoirs this past week, and it was the war-torn part that affected me most. Even though I had known my Opa for over twenty years and had spoken to him countless times, I never once heard a story about the war or his experiences after he was drafted into the German army.

Thanks to his efforts writing it all down, I now have not only a clearer vision of why he was the man he was, but I have a one of a kind primary account of what the war was like in the German army during the Second World War.

I read of the Master Sargent who liked to make sure the men guarding the munitions dump weren’t goofing off, so he’d climb the fence and try to break in. If he was able to get to the guards, they were thrown in the brig for three days. Apparently the man did this on a regular basis to the chagrin of the soldiers until, “this routine ended one night when one of the guards shot [and killed] the Master Sargent in the process of climbing the fence.” According to my Opa, the guard was exonerated of wrongdoing and, “We were all happy with the outcome.”[1]

He also wrote in some detail about the lockjaw he contracted after he had his jaw shattered by a Russian bullet and subsequently wired shut for six weeks. To cure the lockjaw he said, “Over the next two months I ran around with a pair of clothespins in my teeth. The spring inserted between my teeth put enough pressure on the teeth to gradually loosen their grip.”[1]

Finally, I learned that his father, my great-grandfather had spent his last days in a Russian forced labour camp, where he contracted typus after being forced to drink the blood-soaked water of the Oder River, which he and other prisoners were clearing of dead bodies under the stern eyes of their Russian Masters.[1]

Since reading these memoirs, it has occurred to me that it will soon be too late to collect any more. Various projects at organizations such as the Center for History and New Media collect the stories of those who went through more recent events such as Hurricane Katrina or 9/11;[2][3] such a project is commendable, but the veterans of the Second World War are every day diminishing, and with them the invaluable stories vanish forever. Veteran’s Canada has a dozen or so stories of Canadian War Veterans.[4] The Digital Memory Project Digital Archive has many dozens more.[5] But given the thousands of veterans still around, why have so few given us their stories in these online repositories?

Perhaps my Opa’s memoirs provide the answer. I mentioned at the beginning that my mother and her sister helped him write the memoir. What they actually did was type it into a word processor, because he couldn’t use one himself. He never owned a computer. Even until he died his watch was analog, his typewriter produced one copy of whatever he typed, and he never owned an answering machine.

If we want these stories, we have to find a way to get them. Those that have already been written were likely done in pen and ink. And while I’d love to be able to sit down and collect everyone’s story, one by one, I’m just one man. So, until I figure something else out, a little help, if you please. If you still have grandparents, please, go talk to them. Get those stories written down. Because they’re wonderful. They’re who we are.


[1] Herbert Eichler. The Eichler Family History. (2002?)

[2] “Hurricane Digital Memory Bank” The Center for History and New Media.

[3] “The September 11 Digital Archive” The Center for History and New Media.

[4] Veterans Affairs Canada

[5] “The Memory Project Digital Archive” The Dominion Institute.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Remembrance Day: a day of rest?

Remembrance Day should not be a public holiday.

In most of Canada, today is a public holiday and had it not fallen on a Sunday this year, workers would have had the day off work and students would be playing their video games – or whatever it is kids are into these days. Only in Ontario and Quebec do kids go to school on Remembrance Day. And I’d be willing to bet, Ontario has the largest percentage of school-aged children who observe the traditional moment of silence at 11am on November 11.

The reasons for the holiday seem good-intentioned; the Nova Scotia Remembrance Day Act, declares:

“Our heritage of freedom and human dignity has, under Providence, been preserved through the unselfish devotion of those who sacrificed health, limb and life itself in World War One, World War Two and the Korean Conflict;

The eleventh day of November has traditionally been set aside throughout Nova Scotia as a day to be kept and observed in each and every year under the name "Remembrance Day";

It is fitting that on Remembrance Day the people of Nova Scotia should pay grateful tribute to the memory of those who have died, cherish those who have suffered grievous injury, and dedicate themselves anew to the maintenance and furtherance of the great ideals hallowed by those sacrifices.”[1]

That’s a nice theory and all…but I find it hard to believe that your average students (let alone his or her parents) are passionate enough about Remembrance Day to go to a ceremony, or even to tune the television to CBC where they can watch the official Canadian observance. So, if Remembrance Day is worth observing, why not send the children to school where they spend the morning listening to the types of sacrifices soldiers and their families made through stories, skits and poetry, before ultimately listening to the haunting notes of the Last Post, before observing a moment of silence with their teachers and peers?

If, on the other hand, we decide Remembrance Day is not worth observing, why is it worth taking a day off work and school? It seems rather ironic that we would celebrate the tireless efforts and extraordinary sacrifices of young Canadians, by sleeping in.


[1] "Remembrance Day Act" Government of Nova Scotia.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Public History on the Streets

If you live here in London, Ontario, you may have noticed these. They're all over my neighbourhood and as the image suggests, they mark the city boundary as it appeared in 1855.

They are quite large (2.5m/7 feet across), and painted directly on the road. They appeared three or four years ago after the streets were repaved in the area, but I wasn't able to get a response from City Hall as to who put them there or what motivated them to. Most people probably never notice them; thousands of cars drive over them every day. But I have to say, I think they're a great idea.

They do what academic history cannot. They are so tangible. They present history at the exact point that it occurred. Even most museums cannot boast such a feat. We all know that the mummy at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto was not an early Torontonian, he was brought there from Egypt. Yet that's where we go to experience Egyptian history.

Not so with these paintings on the road. To experience a piece of London's history, all you have to do is go stand on one of these paintings and you're at a spot historically significant in 1855. Sure, it's not as cool as the mummy, but it's cheap, noninvasive and it's simple enough that even a young child could begin learning about the history of their city by merely asking, "Mommy, what's that?"

Monday, October 29, 2007

Themed Audio-Guide Museum Tours

I was in Paris this past summer at the Musée D’Orsay, the gallery holding French art from 1848 to 1914. I have to admit, I know absolutely nothing of this period in art history. So my girlfriend and I shelled out the €6 each for an audio guide. The guide was pretty well done and gave between two and four minute descriptions of most major pieces in the gallery, detailing who the artist was, why he or she produced the work and how it was received by the public.

Sure, it was interesting to learn about the various pieces of art, however it would have taken a year to listen to every single recording and my feet got tired far before we reached that end. Even if I had listened to every recording, I still feel I would have had only a rudimentary understanding of nineteenth century French art. Nevertheless, we listened to quite a few of the descriptions, and still, I left only knowing tiny fragments of the bigger picture. One fragment about impressionism, one about sculptures depicting Napoleon, one about Gauguin, but nothing to weave it together. I almost wished I could have taken a class or two in the museum that would have helped me make sense of what I was seeing.

And really, that’s not a huge stretch for the museum. After all, they’ve already got thousands of functional audio guides. So why not introduce a themed audio tour? Then, instead of a fragment about impressionism, I could have listened to a twenty minute guided lecture of impressionism. Isn’t that exactly what every art history lecturer dreams of? Being able to lecture students in front of the masterpieces themselves? I would have taken away so much more than I did from my fragmentary experience, and still more than I could have hoped by sitting in a lecture hall.

For those who don’t want to take the guided tours, they could still listen to the individual recordings – they’re already on the audio guides and there’s no reason that needs to change.

All such a project requires for Musée D’Orsay is someone to write some lectures that tie together the various works, someone to translate them into the half-dozen languages supported by the audio guides of the museum, and someone to record the dialogue. For a one-time cost, the Musée D’Orsay could provide an extra dimension to the understanding their visitors come to of the collection, without the need to hope you could find a guided tour in your language, speaking about a specific topic you’re interested in, that happened to be started at the moment you arrived.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Historian's Inferiority Complex

Imagine watching Superman with a physicist who can't help himself but to tell you that "That's physically impossible" as Superman leaps over a tall building in a single bound.

Imagine watching Pirates of the Carribean with a geographer who keeps insisting that the Isle de Muerte is not located where Captain Jack Sparrow says it is.

Imagine watching Finding Nemo with a zoologist who won't shut up about the fact that fish can't speak English.

Now, imagine watching Braveheart with a historian who can resist the temptation to tell you that actually, Wallace and his followers were Lowlanders and wouldn't have worn kilts, that Wallace couldn't possibly have sired the future King Edward III - who was born 7 years after Wallace's death, or that the Irish's role in the film is totally fictional - to name but three of a thousand complaints historians have with the film.[1]


[1] Elizabeth Ewan. "Braveheart" American Historial Review 100, no. 4 (October 1995):
1220 (And there are a hundred more where that came from).

Monday, October 22, 2007

Bringing Publishing into the Computer Age

A couple of years ago in an undergraduate seminar class about the Enlightenment, my professor told the class most academic books published by historians are lucky to earn their author $100. I was a little surprised by this. Why spend the hundreds of hours to produce something that will bring you no monetary gain? A labour of love (tenure seeking), no doubt.

Then I wondered, if you are not going to earn any money for it, why not give it away?

That's exactly what some people have done. Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig's book,Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web is the perfect example of this. The book appears on the Center for History and New Media website, which is an ongoing project of Dan Cohen's at George Mason University. If you enjoy the book and are interested in purchasing it, the site tells you places where you can do this, however, if you're a cheapskate, there it is for free.

So why don't more professors give away their work? Perhaps it's because they fear the internet's impermanence, have been taught not to trust it, or routinely teach their students not to trust it. Perhaps they have always wanted to see their name on a hardcover. Or, maybe they have a secret hope that their book will fly off the shelves and they'll be the lucky ones who make money off their efforts.

Then I wondered again; if the author isn't making any money off of the book they wrote, why on earth did I just pay $43 for it?

Either someone is making money on this book (though I can hear the publishing industry crying out that it's not them), or there is far too much overhead involved in producing these academic works. So I have a suggestion, inspired by Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig's book - which is an excellent example of online book-formatting, and by JSTOR, the online, password protected academic journal repository. If Universities can and do buy access to huge repositories to add to their collections, why does the publishing industry not produce and protect new academic works in the same way?

It seems so simple. The author researches and writes. The publisher edits and formats and uploads an unchanging version of the work to a repository. The university buys rights with instructions to password-protect the content from outsiders - just as JSTOR and other repositories such as Early English Books Online are protected. Academic integrity is maintained because the publishing house applies its logo just as it would to a hardcopy version of a book and promises not to alter the content.

RSS feeds could be set up to search the internet for randomly selected sentences from the work; any time the sentence was found on an unauthorized website, the publisher could quickly check the site to see if copyright had been infringed upon. And for those private citizens who are interested, e-copies of the book could be sold online much as MP3 files are sold.

Libraries already have budgets for purchases, and by the sounds of things, libraries and a few professors around the world are the only ones likely to buy your book anyway. So in stead of a research library spending $50 on one book, they could spend $50 000 to have access to all works published by a certain publishing house. Library content would swell without taking up space; the future generation of increasingly computer savy researchers will be happy they don't have to trudge into campus to go to the library to get a book for their research; the publishing industry doesn't disappear; with less overhead, there might be more money to pass on to the author. And, there might be a few more trees.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

History is Boring, Irrelevant and Made-up

I'm currently sporting a finger injury sustained in a rough frisbee game last night, so I'll have to be briefer than usual today. I was monitoring traffic to this blog the other day using Statcounter, and I was surprised by one of the Google searches that landed some poor soul at my blog. I see all the time people who search for "Canadian War Museum" end up here (often, it's the Canadian War Museum checking to see what I'm saying about them). I can understand why such a search would land someone at my site, since I have two posts on the topic.

However, I was shocked to discover someone in London England found me with a Google search for: "history is boring irrelevant and made up." In fact, my site is ranked fourth most relevant on the web for such a query (probably higher after this post).

Granted, my blog does contain the words "history" "is" "boring" irrelevant" "and" "made" as well as "up" - though not in the same post, let alone sentence. This leads me to wonder exactly how Google's magic searching formula works. A couple of weeks ago, we discussed in our course a few readings about how Google works.[1] But, apparently they havn't got the process completely refined just yet.

I hope that the person was disappointed and was unable to find evidence to support their beliefs while they were at my page. Although it's always interesting to see what people are looking for out there on the web.

[1] Cutts, Matt. “How Does Google Collect and Rank Results?” Google Librarian Center Newsletter (19 Dec 2005).

Cutts, Matt. “How Does Google Determine Which Websites are the Most ‘Trusted’?” Google Librarian Center Newsletter (19 Jan 2006).

Monday, October 15, 2007

Web Review: "Ontario History Quest"

Part of our course work this term was to review a website that contained historical content. Here is my review:

Ontario History Quest . Created and maintained by the Toronto Public Library in conjunction with the Archives of Ontario, the City of Toronto Archives and the Ontario Government. Reviewed September 23-24, 2007.

Ontario History Quest was developed jointly by the Toronto Public Library, the Archives of Ontario and the City of Toronto Archives to be a teaching tool for Ontario history teachers and a learning tool for students. The site aims to expose students to primary sources, rather than secondary sources traditionally used to teach history in school. The aesthetically pleasing and user-friendly interface was designed by ecentricarts (Toronto, Ontario), and the learning content was created by an educational consultant, B. Rubenstein.

The website is split into two major sections: the learning content and the database. The first section consists of a series of online, interactive projects designed to follow the Ontario Ministry of Education curriculum; these projects are targeted at grades 7, 8, 10 and 12. Each project starts with an introductory activity to ensure students understand the difference between primary and secondary sources. Following this, students are shown a primary source, or a series of primary sources that centre around one topic related to their field of study. Open ended questions such as, “If you could ask the painter of this painting one question, what would it be?” compel the students to become engaged with the sources they are viewing. Very little in the way of the traditional memorization of dates, or the narrative telling of political history is evident in the website’s content. The emphasis is clearly placed on learning to think critically, rather than on learning a series of historical facts.

All of the information students need is available on the website, which ensures no dead links arise as external websites are changed or taken offline. The majority of the information on the site is found in the second section of the website: the database. This database includes over 3000 online primary sources relating to Ontario history in a variety of media, ranging from photographs, to video, to scanned documents. The records have been carefully chosen for relevance to the curriculum and have been uploaded from the collections of the Ontario and Toronto Archives and the Toronto Library. The database is very easy to use, and includes many options for searching, including well-organized drop boxes to search by place, subject or type of media, as well as the opportunity to use more advanced search techniques. A detailed tutorial aids any unsure students, and the lessons give helpful hints on what types of searches the students should try when looking for materials for their projects.

Ontario History Quest also has many features to help teachers budget their time with lesson plans and evaluation tools. Students benefit from note-taking aids as well as checklists to help them write good reports. The site from anywhere since no software or licensing is required, and users can easily print screen content for offline use.The wide range of documents available allows teachers to customize the assignments to emphasize local research, assuming the class lives in a fairly major centre.

Where the site is lacking is in maintenance. It was designed in 2003 and as far as I can tell, has not been updated since. The site was designed to look best in 800x600 resolution, which is considered poor by 2007’s standards. This means the content on the site does not take up enough of the screen, resulting in wasted space. The site also suggests users use at least Internet Explorer 5.5 or Netscape 6.2.2. Netscape has all but disappeared and Internet Explorer 5.5 is now over seven years old and completely outdated. Further evidence that the site is not maintained was found when trying to access one of the primary sources. A message that “Due to copyright restriction, this image cannot be made available until after December 31, 2003. Please be sure to visit in 2004” appeared when clicking on the image. This is problematic because the Ontario curriculum changed as of September 2004 to reflect the end of the O.A.C. courses. The exercises, particularly the grade 12 assignments, no longer reflect the Ontario curriculum. Websites of this nature should have a date-stamp to let educators know the material is – or in this case – is not up to current standards.

Finally, the grade 7 and grade 12 projects are nearly identical because the curriculum formerly dealt with the same time periods for these two grades – 1820s-1850s. Only minor changes in the assignments and the number and type of primary sources appear between these two grades. Any student who was taught using this website in grade 7 would likely be unenthused to have to redo the same projects in grade 12. This reflects laziness on the part of the creators on an otherwise marvelously designed teaching tool. With a few hours of updates, and annual maintenance, Ontario History Quest would be a fabulous addition to Ontario classrooms.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Canadian War Museum: Controversy in Context

The Canadian War Museum has updated its controversial panel relating to the Allied bombing of Germany in the Second World War, and I have to say, I’m rather impressed with what they’ve come up with. The original panel, which caused uproar amongst some veterans who believed it painted them as war criminals, was terse and lacked context. As I mentioned in The Canadian War Museum Controversy on September 18, 2007, a person who did not have any previous knowledge of the bombing missions would have a difficult time coming to any logical conclusion other than that the bombing was immoral.[1]

The new panel, as found on this morning reads reportedly as follows:

The strategic bombing campaign against Germany, an important part of the Allied effort that achieved victory, remains a source of controversy today.

Strategic bombing enjoyed wide public and political support as a symbol of Allied resolve and a response to German aggression. In its first years, the air offensive achieved few of its objectives and suffered heavy losses. Advances in technology and tactics, combined with Allied successes on other fronts, led to improved results. By war's end, Allied bombers had razed portions of every major city in Germany and damaged many other targets, including oil facilities and transportation networks. The attacks blunted Germany's economic and military potential, and drew scarce resources into air defence, damage repair, and the protection of critical industries.

Allied aircrew conducted this grueling offensive with great courage against heavy odds. It required vast material and industrial efforts and claimed over 80,000 Allied lives, including more than 10,000 Canadians. While the campaign contributed greatly to enemy war weariness, German society did not collapse despite 600,000 dead and more than 5 million left homeless. Industrial output fell substantially, but not until late in the war. The effectiveness and the morality of bombing heavily-populated areas in war continue to be debated.[2]

If your motivation is to depict these airmen as war criminals for the deaths of 600,000 Germans, I’m afraid you won’t likely be happy with the rewrite. And I know not all of the many angry historians who felt a lobby group prevented the historical truth from coming out will be satisfied. However, I think this new panel does far more than its predecessor to show that historical truth.[3] And it does this by providing a balanced view of the controversy. A visitor to the museum who knew nothing of this campaign now has far more information to make an informed decision about the morality of the bombings, and the Canadian War Museum has done this without removing the facts that appeared in the original panel.

All the same controversial points are still there: the bombing campaign “remains a source of controversy today,” “600,000 [Germans] dead and more than 5 million left homeless.” And, “the morality…continue[s] to be debated.” In fact, the panel goes further and adds more about the problems and shortcomings of the bombing operations that weren’t in the original panel. “German society did not collapse,” and “In its first years, the air offensive achieved few of its objectives.” You may not agree entirely with the content of this new panel, but no author is going to please everyone. In a case like this, balance is key, otherwise we risk creating a society of brainwashed zombies.

Not only has the uninformed visitor benefited from the change. Thanks to the new panel, a visitor who came into the museum as a supporter the bombings does not witness a panel which vilifies the airmen, but it does not blindly support what this visitor already believes. As an educated reader, this visitor must confront the facts that challenge the campaign and question his or her belief. Conversely, if the visitor believes the attacks were immoral and ineffectual, he or she likewise must pause to consider the evidence in the panel which does not support that position.

And perhaps most importantly, this new panel is far more likely to spark interest in the debate over the effectiveness and morality of the Allied bombings. By showing both sides, a visitor might be more prompted to learn more so that they can come to a conclusion themselves. By pegging the airmen as immoral as in the former panel, the visitor has no incentive to look more deeply; it’s just too easy to accept what the panel says and keep walking on to the next exhibit.

All it took was an extra 122 words and a little more care in the writing process to put context to a controversy. And that’s a sign of good history.

[1] Adam Crymble. “The Canadian War Museum Controversy” Thoughts on Public History. “

[2] Paul Gessel. “War Museum Produces New Wording for Controversial Text” (accessed Thursday October 11, 2007).

[3] The old panel’s wording can be found at Adam Crymble. “The Canadian War Museum Controversy” Thoughts on Public History. “

Monday, October 8, 2007

Bringing Academic Integrity to the Web

The internet has opened up a whole new arena for historians and public historians to disseminate knowledge. Academic journals, online classrooms, and hobby sites are everywhere on the web and seemingly, no matter what your historical interest, you can find something to read. And, with each year that passes, more and more undergraduate students instinctively want to turn to these websites to do research, but, while each passing day brings flashier graphics and more entertaining interactive content, few websites incorporate formatting styles that allow undergraduates to properly cite what they find.

Books, on the other hand, make citation simple. If I use the paper version of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, I can tell you that he teaches us how to make a crude, rather foul smelling explosive on page 193; I could properly cite this paraphrase using the Chicago Manual of Style guide in my footnotes as:

[1] Abbie Hoffman. Steal This Book. (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002), 193.

This has all the important information: author, title, publishing info, and page number. Anyone could, in theory, find the exact paragraph that I used to assert this claim and see that I did my research well.

If I try to do the same, using a website that contains the entire e-text of Steal This Book in one 67,538 word chunk – without any page numbers, all I can tell you is that my source is.

[2] Abbie Hoffman. “Steal This Book”

Since I paraphrased in this instance, it wouldn’t even be possible for my reader to find the proper point in the text and check my reference. Websites like this necessitate the writer to use direct quotations else the reader is left crippled to verify the source. While this may seem wonderful to undergraduates who havn’t done their homework well and who stuck in a made up source to appease the professor, this undermines academic integrity.

Now, the Steal This Book website is very old – I read the book on this same webpage almost ten years ago and it hasn’t changed since then. But, even though most new websites break up content into more manageable chunks, they often still neglect offering the tools researchers would find in a printed book.

Page numbers are an excellent example of this neglect. Page numbers are almost unheard of on a webpage, unless the site is offered in PDF format. I would argue that by being transparent with how many pages your site has and showing your reader how much of the content he or she has already read, it would make it much easier for a reader to make sure they have not missed important, relevant content. Imagine reading a book or journal article in which you could not be sure you had found all the pages. As a bonus, they also makes it much easier for a researcher to cite you as a source.

Footnotes are another essential element of academic writing. On the internet, they are slightly more common than page numbers, but still many webmasters shy away from them. Perhaps they fear, as in publishing, that footnotes will scare away non-academics and shrink their readership. But, there are so many ways a designer can hide the footnotes from anyone uninterested in or bothered by them. They could appear as endnotes that could be easily linked to using HTML tags such as this 1. Or, they could appear in a frame at the bottom of the screen, as in A.M. Syverson’s template for how to present an academic paper on the web, created way back in 1996. 2. A savvy web designer could even give users an option of hiding the footnotes frame by clicking a

Syverson also tells me other important information about her site: where it was published (The University of Texas), and when (1996). Almost like a book, isn’t it?

The Footnotes appear in the frame at the bottom

While, admittedly, Syverson’s eleven year old template is not as attractive as newer websites, that need not be the case. I’m not suggesting web designers abandon pretty pictures or interactive interfaces; I’m no Luddite and I like shiny objects as much as the next guy. But shiny objects are no trade for academic integrity.

Now, I’m not saying if you make your website more academia-friendly, it will increase your readership or fool people into believing your website has solid content. And if your site is dedicated to funny pictures of your dog, by all means format your page as you please. But, if you have created a website dedicated to knowledge that you believe to be true and a good source for undergraduates and academics alike, use the tools the publishing industry has developed over the past four hundred years to provide integrity to the academic system. It has worked so well and there is no reason a change from print-based to electronic-based media should result in its demise.

Perhaps if more people had followed the model Syverson posted in 1996, we would be in a position where academics esteem web-publishing, rather than warn their students against using websites. Had the author of the Steal This Book website taken the time to include these important pieces of information, the same citation that provided nearly no direction to a reader could have been cited:

[3] John Doe. “Abbie Hoffman: Steal This Book” (Chicago: 1998), 193.

And that would be a good step towards reconciling the internet and the inhabitants of the Ivory Towers.

1 Click me again to go back to your point in the text.

2 A.M. Syverson. “Sample of a Conventional Academic Paper Using Frames.” University of Texas: 1996.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Narrative History in the Classroom?

I’ve never been able to relate to people who describe their experience learning history as “boring” or “irrelevant.” I’d like to think they didn’t just have awful teachers, or that history is inherently, boring. But maybe they did and maybe it is. I, on the other had, had a wonderful history teacher in high school, Mr. Taylor.

He taught “Ancient Civilizations” and he had developed a teaching style that was entirely lecture based. This was unheard of at my high school. Teachers were supposed to integrate the students in discussions, group work and hands-on learning. But, Mr. Taylor had hearing difficulties and to cope with this, he found a combination of lecture, storytelling, inventive uses of his arms, legs, and facial muscles, and the odd strange sound effect, to be the most effective way to teach history. What resulted was an extremely entertaining narrative. Every day we were captivated by his tales of how Alexander the Great struggled his way through the Kyber Pass and into India during his great conquest, or how Socrates met his untimely demise thanks to a cup of hemlock.

For us, going to history class was like going to story class. Four of the students from that one course now have a B.A. in history. That’s about 16% of us; a much higher output per capita of historians than I’m sure most people think the world needs, but impressive none the less. And, I don’t think any of us would argue that this class didn’t influence our path through university. But, what we learned in our Ancient Civilizations class not what my history professors at university would call history. What we learned was Narrative History.

Rather than present history as it is, as a series of disjointed moments, documents and interpretations, narrative history presents history as a fluid story. An omniscient narrator guides the audience through the story of history. Facts are stretched; dialogues which are impossible for anyone to remember are recited as if from some magical memory bank; details that never occurred are recounted to add the human element to the story.

Because of this background, I spent the first three years of my undergraduate degree ignoring footnotes, resisting journal articles – because they were boring and didn’t tell a story – and trying to weave my courses into the narratives that Mr. Taylor had taught us. I was disheartened to find out that we don’t know what Alexander the Great said to his bodyguard, Hephaestian on September 17, 325 CE, as I had previously believed. But I got over it, and I was eventually won over to the academic history taught in university.

So, was it wrong for Mr. Taylor to teach us narrative history? We learned a lot of facts – some of them true – but we were left with no understanding of primary sources, bias, or interpretation that I have recently learned are the focus of the Ontario Secondary School Curriculum for history students.

Yet, without the stories, I never would have pursued a history degree and no doubt likewise for some of my friends in the class.

Then what is the purpose of teaching history? I have a feeling most educators would say to get students to think critically about what they see and read. To interpret things for themselves, be they primary source historical documents, or an article in the newspaper. These people would say the “facts” and rote learning are outdated ways of teaching history and they belong in the Victorian era.

I have to say, I agree. Students should be taught critical thinking.

But, I’m glad Mr. Taylor liked to tell stories. If we had spent the entire class with our noses in primary sources, I wouldn’t be here pursuing history. Maybe narrative history does have a place in our high schools? Or maybe we should try to find a happy medium, which combines the stories of Mr. Taylor with the “critical thinking” goals of the curriculum. And maybe then we’ll hear a little less often that history is “boring.”

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Age Appropriate Content

Today, a few of my classmates and I watched in on a group of seven year old students as they received a tour of a local art gallery. The tour consisted of three parts: a Smartboard presentation, a viewing of the gallery, and a studio session.

We were particularly interested in the first segment with the Smartboard presentation. Smartboards are essentially large computer monitors that the user can control by touching the screen, much like a self checkout at the grocery store, except way more fun. The gallery has recently purchased one of these boards and some volunteers put together a presentation for school aged children, based on their elementary school curriculum. Today was the first day the presentation went to the test on a real tour. There were a few glitches that need to be worked out, but the technology is new and that’s to be expected. Overall, the experience was a success and the children likely learned a thing or two about primary and secondary colours. Perhaps just as important, their attention stayed firm the whole time.

After half an hour at the interactive station, the guide took the children to view some of the paintings they had seen on the Smartboard. These included a couple of Paul Peel paintings from the 1880s which are the pride of the gallery.

This little lady was the star of the show, and if it hadn’t been for a quick-thinking guide, this image might be the only surviving record of the painting. Kids like to touch. Especially seven year olds. Especially seven year olds who have just been encouraged to touch a Smartboard for the past half hour. And especially seven year olds who are being asked to stand within arms length of a very tactile-looking painting, in a big room with nothing else worth touching.

Nicholas, dear, please don’t touch that.

Even with a lesson to start the tour, reminding students not to touch any of the art, they just couldn’t remember. Any time they were asked a question about the painting, it was accompanied by pointing, far too close to the actual painting for comfort. Even after three warnings to the same child to stand back, the threat loomed. For some of the students, the notion that they weren't allowed to touch it seemed to mean they thought the guide was asking them to get as close as humanly possibly to the painting without actually making contact.

Nicholas, what did I ask you to do with your hands?

I don’t pretend I could have done any better at controlling twelve seven year olds, and I commend the volunteer guide for her efforts and patience. I also don't blame the kids; they were just doing what came natural to them and I imagine I was much the same way at that age. But, I have to wonder if looking at fine art is age appropriate to that group. I think the kids benefited from their experience with the Smartboard, and I’m sure they had a blast in the studio section of the tour after we left, in which they got to mash their hands in paint. But, these kids were clearly bored with the notion of standing around and looking at a painting – which happened to be the only thing all day they weren’t allowed to touch.

If anything, today reinforced to me the importance that when designing educational materials for children, you must be very careful to choose activities and learning experiences that are appropriate to their age, and attention spans. Maybe keep the fine art preserved for those of us who appreciate it, and let the kids spend a little more time interacting?

Nicholas. I’ve asked you not to touch the paintings!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Vandals on the Tube: the Mythbusters?

I was watching the television program Mythbusters last night, in which a group of engineers go about testing urban myths to see if they are true. They’ve tested everything from the myth of the exploding, killer lava lamp to the validity of the “five second rule.

Last night, they sought to show if there was any truth to the myth that two hammers, if hit together, could shatter. They had tried to disprove this myth once before using modern hammers that they superheated to make them more brittle, but fans of the show insisted they had gone about the experiment incorrectly. According to these fans, only antique hammers would shatter in this fashion.

So, being engineers, keen to teach the world about torques and forces, the hosts of the show went out and bought two antique, pre-WWII hammers, attached them to a robotic arm and smashed them together with twice the force that a human could swing. The experiment was a bust. The hammer heads cracked, but would not shatter in an explosive manner as viewers had suggested they would.

Then it struck me, is this not vandalism? Are we going to let a bunch of engineers destroy artifacts like that? Those hammers will never again be produced. What if that had been the last hammer of its kind? Now it’s gone, and for what? To be part of some silly science show to entertain viewers?

Before you think I’m a nut, let me say, I calmed down and took back all the nasty thoughts I had about engineers. I know it’s unfeasible for us to keep everything just so that we will have a record of who we were. The world does not exist so that historians can write about it thirty years later. And after all, perhaps the use the Mythbusters put that hammer toward will tell historians of the future far more about our society than the hammer did about the people who made it eighty years ago.

Thanks to the Mythbusters, we’ve traded one record for another: a hammer for a video clip of humans being curious. So, maybe as historians it’s not our job to worry about what to preserve, but to deal with what is preserved? That way we can focus on our writing, and leave the preservation to the archivists and little old ladies with too many strawberries. It’ll be less stressful that way.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Museum Funding Discrepancies

Yesterday, London Ontario held its “Doors Open London” in which 51 heritage sites opened their doors free of charge and invited the public inside to experience their community’s history. My girlfriend and I went to three of these sites and had three very different experiences.

The first place we went was the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. Judging by the extensive list of donors and sponsors posted both on their website and on a plaque in the museum – including a section dedicated to donors of $250 000+, this museum is fairly well funded.

The second stop was the Banting House National Historical Site. This museum not only has a $10 entrance fee on a regular day – about the price of admission to the Louvre but also has a very expensive looking bronze statue of Banting in the garden, an eternal flame (that doesn’t pay for itself) and has undergone extensive restoration work inside, including adding a large addition for the Canadian Diabetes Association.

We enjoyed these first two museums, but it was the third that stood out the most for us

This last stop was at the Secrets of RADAR Museum on a wooded lot overlooking a small lake, just behind Parkwood Hospital in south London. The building in which the museum is housed looks like a community centre in rural Ontario, complete with the overly harsh fluorescent lights reflecting off the 1960s linoleum floor. The lounge resembled my Grandmother’s basement, which has not been entered let alone redecorated in the past fifty years, and I could almost see my mother and her sisters playing Monopoly as children on the floor by the window.

Despite our initial shock by the décor, we were quickly reassured when, as we walked in, a young lady at the front desk greeted us enthusiastically and thanked us for coming. She told us a little bit about the museum, smiled and wished us an enjoyable visit.

Just next to the desk was a bristle board display introducing the museum. At the bottom was a small block of writing that declared,

Because the Secrets of RADAR Museum does not have any full-time employees, we are ineligible for government funding and rely on the support of the community to keep our doors open.

I looked around, and it definitely looked like it lacked funding. The displays in the museum were a mixture of bristle boards that had typed pages glued to them, and professional-looking 5’x4’ display boards. Clearly the museum is in the process of upgrading itself.

I had an opportunity to speak with the President of the Museum, Ryan Fraser, who was enthusiastically telling visitors all about the collection and adding a “human element” to the artifacts. I have to say, he was a fantastic guide. He is clearly passionate about what his museum has to offer and the progress his displays are making. And though he is not old enough to have ever seen the Second World War, he admits he knows more about the history of RADAR than most of the veterans that his museum works with on a regular basis. Of the three sites my girlfriend and I visited yesterday, we definitely felt the most welcome at the Secrets of RADAR Museum. The people volunteering there were excited about what they were working on, and veterans freely mixed with young volunteers. It was a wonderful place and I recommend that you all visit.

Thanks to private donations, the museum now has funding to replace the rest of the bristle board with more professional looking displays, and according to their website, an anonymous donation of $5000 has allowed them to “keep open for another year.” So if all it takes is $5000 to upgrade a wonderful little museum such as this, why does the Canadian government’s Museum Assistance Program insist that anyone applying for funding “employ the equivalent of one full-time paid professional staff”?

Even at minimum wage, that means a museum must spend $17 000 per year on staff wages to be considered legitimate enough for the government. That cost does not include all the money required to heat, light and rent the building as well as pay any insurance or miscellaneous costs.

I find it strange that a group of people willing to volunteer their time in the pursuit of providing Canadians with a site to come and learn about their heritage is somehow less valuable than a group who want to be paid to provide Canadians the same service.

Now, I understand that the government does not want to fund someone’s basement hobby and has decided to place the restriction on their funding to try and ensure the money is not used inappropriately, but could they not just be more prudent about to whom they give money? Would it not make sense that the institution applying for a grant should detail what they intend to spend the money on, and then be expected to show results? Private scholarship grants operate in this manner with great results.

Currently, it seems like a case of keepin’ the little guy down so there’s more money for the bigger museums. But, if the major museums were forced to compete with small outfits such as the Secrets of RADAR Museum, there’s no guarantee the bigger places wouldn’t continue to win all the funding. After all, they have professional, full-time staff with experience working with the government. At least let the little guys play too. Let them try to get some of the money. As it stands, the Canadian government’s funding policy of museums only stifles passion. And passion is a terrible thing to waste.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Canadian War Museum Controversy

The Canadian War Museum recently agreed to re-write a panel from one of its displays at the request of upset Canadian veterans. The panel read as follows:

"The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested. Bomber Command's aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Bomber Command and American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions in German war production until late in the war."[1]

The decision by the Canadian War Museum has sparked a lot of debate, particularly in the historical field. Many people are upset that a lobby group has changed the history we will teach to our children. These same people point to the stacks of academic literature on the subject to show that there is in fact controversy over the morality of the Allied Bombing of Germany.

I support the War Museum’s decision.

Not because I think history should be censored, or that we should teach lies, or that we should let lobby groups tell us what to do, but because the panel is insensitive and it’s imbalanced.

It’s easy to be upset that a lobby group has gotten its own way on this one, but we need to remember that this isn’t the nameless, faceless tobacco industry. It’s men like this:


This is Don Elliot. He is one of the men who was involved with Bomber Command during WWII, and he is one of the men who complained about the exhibit. In an interview with CTV, he said the exhibit made him “feel very angry…It gives me the impression by the wording and photographs that they're implying I was a war criminal.”[3]

This isn’t a lobby group. This is a real man. And this exhibit is about him. In essence, this exhibit is inadvertently a biography of living persons. I’ll borrow from Wikipedia to show why this is important: “articles can affect real people's lives. This gives us an ethical and legal responsibility. Biographical material must be written with the greatest care and attention to verifiability [and] neutrality.”[4] If Wikipedia holds these standards for itself, then surely the Canadian War Museum should hold similar, if not more stringent guidelines.

But, just because someone is upset doesn’t mean they have been treated unfairly. It’s important that we determine if this passage is fair and merely shows two sides of the argument, or if it’s biased and depicts Don and his peers as war criminals, as he suggests. I think the best way to show this is to take the passage completely out of context and analyze it as a rhetorical entity:

"The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Mars remains bitterly contested. Space Laser-Squad’s aim was to crush civilian morale and force Mars to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Space Laser-Squad and Jupiterian attacks left 600,000 Martians dead and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions in Martian war production until late in the war."


Was the Space Laser-Squad justified in its actions?

I’d be willing to bet none of you said yes.

But none of you know anything about the Space Laser-Squad. All you know about them is what you have read in this passage – in my museum exhibit. And I hope most of you can now see that my exhibit is biased. Given the information I have presented you with, it is very difficult to see the Space Laser-Squad in a good light.

This is because of emotionally charged words such as “dead” and “homeless” used to describe the Martians. These words become even more emotionally charged when you attach the numbers, “600,000” dead and “five million homeless.” And for what? “Small reductions in Martian war production.”

I cannot read this passage and come to any conclusion other than that the action of the Space Laser-Squad was wrong. There are no claims to balance the argument that might suggest – perhaps – the bombing was justified. And until it does, you are not providing insight into a controversy; rather, you are making a moral, value judgment against living persons. And that’s not what history does.

disclaimer: I acknowledge that the panel was part of a much larger display and has been taken out of context for the sake of this article.


Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Multimedia Textbook

I’ve been thinking about this for a couple years now, and it has come up twice now in the last two weeks in articles I have read. [1|2] Digital textbooks were part of my motivation for entering public history. I’ve always thought there was a better way to present a history survey course to undergraduate students (or high school students) than through a bulky monograph.

I found most of my peers resented their textbooks. Many were bought and never opened. In more than one house I moved into during my undergraduate career, the textbooks of the previous tenant were left in the unit.

I think part of the reason for this is that students aren’t that keen. Especially when they first get to university. I know I wasn’t. I read readings to get to the end, often retaining almost nothing. I cheered to myself when pictures took up a lot of space on a page, likewise with footnotes, especially the really long annotated ones – which I never bothered to read until I had nearly graduated.

And apparently, I was one of the good students. Good enough to get into grad school anyway.

For so many kids now, university is that thing you have to do after high school. They are not passionate about their subjects. They certainly don’t get excited at the prospect of reading a book about theory. Not when they know they can get so much more stimulation out of Facebook, or videos, or games, or beer.

So many undergraduate history students I know have no concept of what they studied, because they always did the bare minimum. I have a friend who now has a B.A. in history. He took mostly European history courses, and when we went to Europe together, was unable to locate Barcelona on the map. Apparently the monographs he read didn’t give him enough context.

So if it doesn’t work, maybe we need to fix it? Maybe we need to make the textbooks easier to read. Why can’t the article be linked to a map so that the reader understands where we’re talking about? Why can’t the historical personage be linked to a portrait of them, so that those of us who learn visually can make mental connections? After all, isn't the portrait a valuable piece of historical evidence that the student should be exposed to anyway? Why can’t I be directed to an explanation of a concept I don’t understand/remember, via a hyperlink to a sub-article, rather than having to search through an index to find a page that might explain what I’m looking for?

There is obviously demand for online material. The fact that so many undergraduates turn to Wikipedia to understand course material – often even after being warned against the practice by their professors – shows that students now want something easier to read than the traditional, 1500 page textbook.

So why don’t we give it to them? Is there any reason my Canadian history survey course can’t have a textbook that looks something like this?:


The Battle of Queenston Heights

Map of Southern Ontario showing the location of the Battle:

Sir Isaac Brock (image 1 of 24)

This battle took place on October 13, 1812 between British and American troops. It was an important victory for the British in the War of 1812, and helped ensure that Upper Canada did not fall to the Americans…

Sir Isaac Brock was the commander in charge of the British troops. He was killed at this battle…

yadda, yadda, yadda...

Time Line of Related Events:

Further Reading For Interested Students of my Imaginary Class:


If anyone has ever taken a class in which the professor used an online text - homemade or otherwise, I'd love to hear about it.

Credit Where it is Due:

The Map of Ontario is from GoogleEarth
The Image of Sir Isaac Brock is from the Wikipedia article of Brock

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Defense of Wikipedia

To truly sabotage knowledge is very difficult. Sure, it can be done. See [Essjay|Colbert] for rather successful examples of Wikipedia vandalism. Acts like this are bound to occur on a site that anyone can revise; the more people that edit articles on Wikipedia, statistically, the more saboteurs there will be. But in any peer reviewed system, someone is eventually going to find something fishy and point it out. This is why Wikipedia is great. The more people that edit articles on Wikipedia, the more reviewers we will have.

And isn’t it reviewers that give scholarship much of its authority? To get an article published in a journal, a gauntlet of reviewers must read and meticulously comment on everything from your improper use of the word “data” in line 43, to broad, overarching structural issues he or she has with your paper. You fiddle and tinker, send it back with comments such as, “Thank you for your remark regarding my use of a comma in line 12. I have made changes accordingly,” and if all goes well, there it is: your article will stand as is for all time. It has passed the peer review. You have passed the peer review.

But Wikipedia doesn’t work like that. Wikipedia is ours. All of ours.

Instead of pleasing 4 reviewers and perhaps your supervisor as well as the journal editor, you must please everyone who reads the article, ever again. If you don’t, the article will have changed so much that you won’t be able to call it your own anymore. But it never really was to begin with. Your name won’t appear on it. You can’t put it on your CV. In fact, you’ll likely never personally benefit from it at all if you write an article for Wikipedia. So why do people perform these selfless acts of writing? Why are there 2, 005, 703 articles in English alone?

Because Wikipedia provides us an opportunity to expand the amount of knowledge available to us all. And we’re curious. So we write.

Sure, saboteurs like Essjay and Stephen Colbert relish in stirring up trouble, but given how many of us out there edit, correct, and write in good faith on the pages of Wikipedia, I know that in the long run the interference of a few will not have a significant impact.

The perfect example of why I know this is true comes from the father of the Encyclopedia: Diderot. In his world’s very first Encyclopédie of 1758, full of thoughtful, well planned articles, he allowed one of his writers to include this defamation of the Jesuits:

Qu'est-ce qu'un jésuite ? est-ce un prêtre séculier ? est-ce un prêtre régulier ? est-ce un laic ? est-ce un religieux ? est-ce un homme de communauté ? est-ce un moine ? c'est quelque chose de tout cela, mais ce n'est point cela…

Soumis au despotisme le plus excessif dans leurs maisons, les Jésuites en sont les fauteurs les plus abjects dans l'état. Ils prêchent aux sujets une obéissance sans réserve pour leurs souverains ; aux rois, l'indépendance des loix & l'obéissance aveugle au pape ; ils accordent au pape l'infaillibilité & la domination universelle, afin que maîtres d'un seul, ils soient maîtres de tous.

[Rough Translation], What is a Jesuit? A Secular priest? An ordained priest? A layman? A man of the Church? A man of the community? A monk? He is all of these, but at the same time, he is none...

Subjected to the most excessive despotism in their houses, Jesuits are the most contemptible agitators in the state. They preach on subjects such as obedience without regard for their sovereigns. Like kings, they are independent from law, and they blindly obey only the Pope, whose infallibility and universal domination they support. In order to be masters of one, they are masters of all.


Hardly NPOV . But it certainly didn’t damn encyclopedias as unreliable drivel. In fact, it didn’t seem to hurt Diderot at all. People still bought his Encyclopédie in large numbers. Most of his readers likely never came across the passage about the Jesuits – after all, who reads an encyclopedia from cover to cover – and those who did find the article either chuckled or were offended, and then they went on with their day. Now, two hundred and fifty years later, most people have no idea Diderot’s Encyclopédie ever made such claims about the Jesuits. Most modern Jesuits likely don’t even know. This is because the mistakes were not copied. In subsequent encyclopedias, the editors decided humanity was better served with a more neutral description of the Jesuits. As a result, the Jesuits recovered from the attempt to misinform the public.

And so did the elephants. The Wikipedia article that Stephen Colbert’s viewers vandalized, falsely claiming that the elephant population had tripled in the past six months, has been peer edited over twenty times in the two months since the incident. As far as I know, no scholarly journals published this unexplained increase in the elephant population. And in five years, no one will even remember that elephants mysteriously and briefly had a massive population increase.

On a long enough time frame, with enough people who believe in the value of an encyclopedia like Wikipedia, the vandals will lose and the majority of the articles will improve their factual content. There isn’t anything wrong with Wikipedia; it’s just a work in progress. And it’s there for all of us. So please, peer review something on Wikipedia that interests you. And don’t be afraid to read it to learn about whatever it is that peaks your curiosity. No matter what that is, be it King George II, house hippos, or chainsaw jeans.