This week we examined Wikipedia as a digital tool. I examined the Wikipedia entry on Claudette Colvin.
I believe Claudette Colvin’s Wikipedia entry is both valid and valuable because it is a reflection of the general public understanding of her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Valid history is useable and effective – Colvin’s Wikipedia entry provides a solid introduction into her as a historical subject and a good starting point for researching her. Moreover, Wikipedia is extremely user-friendly and accessible. I believe valuable history is appreciated history in that it adds to our understanding of the past; this article does so because it provides information on a lesser-known figure of the Civil Rights movement.
The crowdsourcing of history changes its meaning because it is no longer interpretations and meanings dictated to the public but generated by the public. (Note: Wikipedia contributors cannot be taken as a true sampling of the public because they are a particular group of people with the time, interest, and ability to edit entries) Wikipedia’s terms of service dictate all entries be neutral. This has the effect of biasing the historical narrative to exclude strong stances on controversial issues. For example, Colvin’s entry states “For a long time, Montgomery’s black leaders did not publicize Colvin’s pioneering effort because she was a teenager who was pregnant by a married man…” This is the only mention in the article of Colvin’s pregnancy and the fact that she was thought to be an unfit spokesperson is not elaborated on. This could be a “controversial” discussion about the divisions within the Civil Rights Movement or the experiences of Colvin as a young pregnant woman.
Ultimately, I believe that Wikipedia is a valuable academic source for students. Students should understand the inherent neutrality and crowdsourcing of Wikipedia and use it as a starting point for their own research. Encyclopedias are tertiary sources meant to provide an introduction to a subject; historical entries on Wikipedia do so in a convenient and accessible fashion.