We asked our new Wikipedian in Residence, Dominic McDevitt-Parks, to tell us a little bit about himself and his passion for Wikipedia. Welcome to the National Archives, Dominic!
Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you study in school?
I am a history buff, a word nerd, a news junkie, and an occasional pedant. Currently, I am a dual-degree master’s student in the History and Archives Management program at Simmons College in Boston. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but moved to the Phoenix area in high school. I was a history major at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. My area of particular interest is 19th-century Latin American history. Before coming to Simmons, I worked for a year at the Scottsdale Public Library. I am also the (creatively-named) editor “Dominic” on Wikipedia.
How has your education related to your Wikipedia interests?
My passion is history, and I am now training to be an archivist. So, I do take a particular joy in research, which comes in handy on Wikipedia. My work for Wikipedia and my undergraduate- and graduate-level work have been mutually beneficial, and each helped develop my research and writing skills. More than that, though, Wikipedia is the ultimate public history project, probably the most ambitious and successful one ever created. I, of course, see a strong correlation between the work of Wikipedia and the work of academics and information professionals, and I am glad that this upcoming project signals that the National Archives does as well.
Why do you like Wikipedia, and how long have you been active in the Wikipedian community?
I have been a Wikipedian since 2004, which was when I was still in high school. I am an administrator on Wikipedia (and the sister project Wiktionary), and have also participated over the years in many other matters of conflict resolution and policy. As I can personally attest, for the sorts of people to whom it appeals, editing Wikipedia is no less addictive than Facebook or Warcraft. The difference is that most highly-involved Wikipedians have an incredible sense of mission, whether it’s about free culture, participatory culture, educating the masses, or just increasing awareness of a topic held dear. These are all important to me, and when I am spending my free time doing serious research and writing about a Chilean revolutionary (or Chilean newspaper, or Chilean politician, or Chilean organization…), it is because I know that I am creating a free and accessible resource on a topic of historical significance and adding it to a collective where others can improve upon it.
What are your goals as a Wikipedian in Residence at the National Archives?
In essence, I will work to foster collaboration between the Wikipedia community and the National Archives for their mutual benefit—or, in reality, the benefit of the public, which both projects serve. By the same token that engaging with the Wikipedia community can be daunting for outsiders, most Wikipedians do not have strong connections with the cultural institutions that share their same goal of public education. The holdings of the National Archives represent an incredible resource for helping Wikipedians do what they want to do better and I want to put them at Wikipedia’s disposal as much as is possible. As well, I hope to share my experience and understanding of Wikipedia culture with the National Archives staff and bring them into the Wikipedia community. I am excited that the National Archives is seeking out greater cooperation with Wikipedia, and I will do whatever I can to make that a reality. An important part of creating a relationship between the National Archives and Wikipedians will be the hosting of on-site events for local editors, too.
What types of projects do you foresee being helpful for both Wikipedia and the National Archives?
We will seek to to assist in Wikipedia’s expansion and improvement of the quality of coverage of topics related to the holdings of National Archives. This will mean creating relationships with the existing projects on Wikipedia or making a new one for direct cooperation. As a part of this, we will be taking advantage of Wikisource and Wikimedia Commons as tools in the National Archives’ ongoing digitization efforts. I have a particular interest in that task, since I think the potential for Wikisource to aid in the arrangement and presentation of original documents, especially through collaborative transcription, has yet to be realized so far by the institutions that hold such material. I will also seek to organize events, both on the wikis and on off-line, that will encourage collaboration around topics where the National Archives can be of use.
How can crowdsourcing information be useful for both Wikipedians and National Archives researchers?
In the case of cultural institutions, and especially the National Archives, it is the crowd itself which is the primary stakeholder. Archives preserve our cultural history; Wikipedia brings it to the people. We preserve documents so that they can be known and used in the future, not just so they can continue their existence inside a folder in a box on a shelf. Digitizing documents makes them more accessible, generates interest for a collection, and helps preserve the originals. Doing so while working with Wikipedia means we will take this practice one step further and also directly help create new works that incorporate such materials. Because of its prominence, large editor base, and devotion to the freedom of knowledge, Wikipedia is uniquely situated to make good use of archival materials.
How would you encourage researchers wary of using Wikipedia as a research tool?
Generally, this sort of question is answered by Wikipedians by pointing out studies that have shown comparable quality between Wikipedia and traditional encyclopedias or by pointing out that tertiary sources like encyclopedias are best used to be mined for citations, anyway. And it hardly needs saying that at this point Wikipedia is not something that can possibly be ignored; rather, it must be understood by researchers. Wikipedians themselves—already acquainted with Wikipedia’s standards and processes—are actually its most thoughtful readers, typically. We do not discount its content out of hand, but we also know to only trust it as far as it is verified with good referencing. As information consumers, all of us should evaluate our sources of information for reliability. And any researcher worth their salt knows to take a critical approach to sources, especially on the Internet. So, while no Wikipedian will vouch for the whole of Wikipedia, we will point out that avoiding the wealth of good, verifiable information on Wikipedia is actually shirking that responsibility to be thoughtful and critical about one’s research.
To take this further, though, we live now in a world in which all people can be, and often are, content creators as well as consumers. And Wikipedia, a project which bears out this fact, has become so wildly successful that it is one of the most dominant sources of knowledge in the public sphere—certainly in the areas of ready-reference and self-study. So, if the ultimate aim of academia is to serve the public interest at all, it is time for its members, especially those who feel the need, as a matter of academic principle, to question its authority, to recognize that they also have just as great a professional responsibility to help improve it.
Do you have any other hobbies or activities that you enjoy?
If I did not make it clear enough before, the Wikipedia obsession can be quite time-consuming, especially as a full-time student with another internship! I do venture outside occasionally, though, more often than not, it is because I require sustenance.
What was the last book you read and loved?
I’ll cheat and mention a few. I really enjoyed Judas at the Jockey Club and Other Episodes of Porfirian Mexico a short, deceptively entertaining cultural history about social life that really has some depth to it, too. Also, Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, a collection of short stories, turns out to have some real gems in it. My current interest is in the Civil Rights Movement in Arizona, and Matthew Whitaker’s Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West is an excellent book on a neglected topic. (Since we’re talking about Wikipedia, you can see the fruits of that particular fascination at “Lincoln Ragsdale.”)