Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Montana History Wiki

The Montana History Wiki is an interesting experiment in digital history. Established by the Montana Historical Society Research Center, the purpose of the wiki is to "assist researchers in finding the best resource for their projects or topics." There wiki is pretty bare right now but does have some valuable resources, such as a limited number of subject guides to Montana history (American Indians are not one of the subjects--tsk tsk) and a place for the Vertical File Index to the Montana Historical Society reference room--though this part of the wiki is empty as yet.

What, you may ask, is a wiki? According to Wikipedia (who should know): "A wiki is a collaborative website which can be directly edited by anyone with access to it. Ward Cunningham, developer of the first wiki WikiWikiWeb, originally described it as 'the simplest online database that could possibly work'." A wiki is an online document, or series of documents, that anyone with access may change and edit. It is one of those collaborative web applications that are sometimes called "Web 2.0" applications.

It is easy to see how useful this could be for researchers. If I went to the MHS looking for material for my research on Edward Curtis, and discovered that most of their material was duplicated at the Washington Historical Society, I could make a note of this on the MHS wiki. Subject bibliographies are another promising wiki application, where users could add to and annotate a bibliography concerning, say, tourism in Montana.

Wikis, especially Wikipedia, are controversial in the academy. The fact that anyone can create a Wikipedia acount then create new entries or change existing ones makes the entire project suspect according to some. What is just as bothersome is the fact that our students use Wikipedia anyway, all the time. A 2006 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Can Wikipedia Ever Make the Grade?" (Google cache of article) seemed to answer its own questions with a "no." Other scholars, including this one, think Wikipedia has a place along other encyclopedias as a sometimes useful starting point for undergraduate research and a place to look up forgotten facts.

Like any collaborative project, a wiki is only as good as it collaborators, and for a project like the Montana History wiki to be useful it will require a lot of good collaborators. I wonder if the MHS wiki will attract large enough a community to make it work. I also wonder why the MHS did not simply incorporate what they wanted to do into the existing History of Montana pages at Wikipedia (which frankly could use a little scholarly attention.)

[Note: Here is a site about the pros and cons of presenting information in a wiki format. It is of course itself a wiki!]


Jay River said...

I read on your blog that you had an interest in ES Curtis & the northwest. Have you seen the new film on him?

"The Indian Picture Opera"

Larry Cebula said...

Jay: I have not, but I will order it. I did not realize that enough of this work survived to recreate it, how exciting. I should warn you that I am very critical of Curtis, the old faker, and if the piece indulges in any of the usual hagiography I will be disappointed.

Have you seen the film? Were you involved in the production?

Jeff Malcomson said...

Thanks for taking the time to spotlight and review our new wiki feature on your blog. I wanted to address the issue of how the Montana History Wiki will grow. At this time we plan to allow only Montana Historical Society staff and any designated collaborators to add content to the wiki. As an example, we are currently working with local Helena educators and librarians from the public library adding content on local history subjects and sites meant to be used by local students. In our minds this is a pilot project that should be an example of how we can work with educators and historical societies around the state to use the wiki to develop content on Montana's state and local history. While we do encourage the general public users to suggest additional content and topics to add, we are limiting direct access to editing and adding material. We agree with those who question the value of wikis that provide unlimited access to edit content. We are trying to find the "middle way" in order to maximize the reliability of the content and yet take the most advantage of the powerful forum the wiki provides. It also provides an excellent forum to showcase and make accessible the tremendous knowledge base held by the staff here at the MHS.

Larry Cebula said...

Thanks for the clarifications Jeff. I understand the desire to limit access to keep the database scholarly and on-track. Good luck with the project!

Donald said...

Greetings Larry, I am trying to find any information on the "Etna Mission" in Montana. I have come into the possession of an 1858 Bible and the inscription is to a "Mr. Cortez Goya, Etna Mission, Montana. I have had very little luck. I seek merely for curiosity. The inscription is very faded and the last word may be "church". Have you heard of this mission? Thanks. Donald

Larry Cebula said...

Donald: I do not believe there ever was an Etna Mission in Montana. However from this page in Google Books I see that there was an Etna school near St. Mary's Mission:

I think this must have something to do with your Bible. What do you mean that the last word might be church--do you mean in place of mission?

Feel free to drop me an email!