Jilara (jilara) wrote,

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Wikipedia and original sources

I was reading the submission guidelines for Wikipedia, and found that some of their policies sit badly with me, as a historian. I can understand the one about "no original research," (which they say amounts to historical interpretation), but the one about preferring secondary sources to primary? Bad. Very bad. And contradicting their own outlooks, because what is a secondary source but a historical interpretation?

Okay, I'm prejudiced. I'm tired of this distillation of the what often turns out to be complete fiction over original sources. One thing I've found out, in researching various books and projects, is the closer you get to the primary source, the more reliable the information seems to be, even if it's five years vs five days after something happened. And a lot of things accepted as historical "fact" simply never happened. A lot of time, you go back to the original eyewitness account, and it's extremely different. I think my favorite at the moment is "Durty Nellie's," a pub that supposedly has been at Bunratty in some form or another since the mid-18th century. I found an eyewitness account from the time period of 1778, and another from later (1822), and there was not only nothing resembling an alehouse, but the *road it was on* didn't exist. Which is significant, since the local history claims it started out as a tollhouse. Oops.

Hmm, another case in point, regarding one of my ancestors, who has had some erroneous data published about himself and his family. I've read his original accounts, by his own hand, also confirmed by journals kept by the Wilkes expedition, gravestones, etc. Or maybe the research a lot of us have done on Captain Sutter, for another instance. The published secondary material contains some substantial errors. But the primary source material citations require legwork, including visiting places like the Bancroft Library, etc. Which again disallows them on Wikipedia, because they're not readily accessible to just anyone.

And of course, none of this would be acceptable on Wikipedia, anyway, since it's original research, from original sources. Nope, those secondary sources and their "official" version should be allowed to stand. Yep, let's propagate the errors forward. But you can't be involved in a controversy, that way, which I'm sure is why the policies exist.

So what does this tell me, ultimately? That I need to publish my own secondary source material. I'm carrying around too much knowledge that has only gone to a limited audience. What would happen to all of this stuff, even if copies of the research material are somewhere in the state archives, in research papers I've put together for various projects for State Parks, if I weren't to pass it on? It would have to wait for someone like me to recreate it, or be lost altogether. In this case, it literally is "publish or perish." If the material isn't published, it perishes in the void of time. Even then, it might well go that way, but at least published, it has a better chance or survival.

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