Businessweek reports that “genealogy ranks second only to porn as the most searched topic online.” It’s no wonder, then, that Ancestry.com, which for a monthly fee lets anyone search and browse its more than 10 million digitized records of births, marriages, censuses, ships’ passenger lists and more has become a destination for anyone interested in trying her hand at historical research.  I say “her” intentionally, as the majority of users—typically around 65 percent—of genealogical sites are women. Ancestry.com is the world’s most-trafficked genealogical site.

Wikipedia, the highly popular online encyclopedia, on the other hand, has a paltry percentage of women actively editing articles—just 8.5 percent by one measure. The sites allow for two different, and sometimes competing, versions of historical practice to emerge. In particular, Wikipedia’s community ethos, although it embraces collaboration and consensus, may actually discourage participation, especially by women—reflecting a problem that also exists in the historical profession. In addition, Wikipedia privileges consensus over expertise, which limits the sharing of new discoveries by historians. Meanwhile, Ancestry lacks a collaborative community spirit but (for a fee) allows amateur historians unprecedented access to primary sources—a move that democratizes historical practice but also allows individuals to craft false historical narratives because they lack expertise in interpreting historical documents.As of this writing, Alexa reported Ancestry was ranked #166 for U.S. website traffic, and Wikipedia was #7.

WIKIPEDIA: A LIMITED HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia anyone can revise by clicking the “edit” tab on any article. Wikipedia defines “active editor” as someone who makes at least five edits in a given month. Just because anyone can edit Wikipedia, however, doesn’t mean just anyone does: in 2011 and 2012, Wikipedia had between 86 and 100 million unique visitors per month, but currently only 133,079 of those visitors are active editors. While 133,079 appears to be a healthy number of editors, it means only 0.0016 percent of users contribute information to the site.

As Wikipedia matures, data is emerging about who exactly is writing and editing its articles:

The average Wikipedian on the English Wikipedia is (1) a male, (2) technically inclined, (3) formally educated, (4) an English speaker (native or non-native), (5) aged 15 to 49, (6) from a majority-Christian country, (7) from a developed nation, (8) from the Northern Hemisphere, and (9) likely employed as a white-collar worker or enrolled as a student rather than employed as a laborer.

In spring 2011, a Wikimedia Foundation study discovered that only 8.5 percent of editors are women.  The New York Times published an article on the disparity, with experts claiming women were recalcitrant to contribute to the encyclopedia because Wikipedia boasts an “open” culture where aggressive, misogynistic voices may be privileged as much as others and because of women’s reluctance “to assert their opinions in public.” One blogger suggested that women don’t care about the important topics and collaborative efforts on Wikipedia, and that women’s contributions to Wikipedia would make the site degenerate into little but a commentary on fashion and celebrities, “a flickering panoply of constantly changing images, never the same for more than a moment.” (Misogynistic voices indeed.)

Many commentators have noted the impact of this gender disparity on Wikipedia’s content, including a lack of articles on certain subjects, underdeveloped articles on others, and biased perspective within articles. For example, Drew Bowling pointed out that:

The article for a fictional recurring supporting character on The SimpsonsSideshow Bob, has nearly the same length of a page as Catharine MacKinnon, a highly influential feminist, lawyer, and scholar who’s been active in reforming laws related to pornography and gender discrimination since the 1970s. Sideshow Bob’s page is also about the same length of the page for Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Justice appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Some Wikipedians have proposed ways to counteract systemic bias, including incorporating information from multiple news sources or from sources “written by people from other countries or cultures.”  There have also been “edit-a-thons” focused on better representing women’s achievements, including at least two—one at the Royal Society and one at the Smithsonian—that encouraged participants to research and write about women scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Wikipedians have also established the Teahouse, “A friendly place to help new editors become accustomed to community culture, ask questions, and develop community relationships,” though it’s not clear if this effort is increasing women’s participation.

ANCESTRY: PRIMARY SOURCES AND UNTRUSTWORTHY TREES

Subscribers to Ancestry.com may access several databases of primary-source documents as well as construct family trees to share with others on the site.  Members can attach primary sources—from the databases, or uploaded from their own collections—to individuals, and anyone may copy sections of trees that members have opted to share with the “public.”  When a user adds an ancestor to her tree, Ancestry.com offers possible leads in others’ trees and in the primary source databases; such leads are indicated by the sprouting of a leaf icon from an ancestor’s name:

FamilyTreeLeaves

One genealogist explained, “Many serious researchers ignore the online family trees completely since they are riddled with error, and rarely have sources cited.” Some genealogists on Ancestry.com do cite their sources, and the platform makes it easy for them to do so, with each source citation attached to an event in the ancestor’s life.

sourcescited

Ancestry’s appeal extends beyond genealogists. As an historian, I have used Ancestry’s databases to verify some facts about the women natural scientists I study.  If I search Ancestry for the Idaho mycologist Ellen Trueblood, for example, Ancestry returns a list of categorized results that may or may not be related to Trueblood:

EllenTruebloodResults

Ellen Trueblood does not have a Wikipedia page, despite her significant contributions to Northwest natural history, while her husband, outdoor writer Ted Trueblood, does. While Wikipedia has a tendency to overlook women’s contributions, Ancestry’s databases of documents, as well as its countless family trees, provide a relatively equitable font of primary source documents. Does this mean that researchers use Ancestry to craft histories with greater representation of women? It’s hard to say, though family trees, with their emphasis on heterosexual, child-bearing relationships, tend to have as many women as men. How much each researcher delves into the details of the lives of women versus men is difficult to determine. This information isn’t available to the average user, but it would be interesting to know how frequently researchers attach primary source documents to women’s records in their Ancestry family trees compared to men’s records.  Still, since the historical record often is better at documenting men’s activities than women’s, even this metric might not tell us much about research equity.

CONSENSUS VS. EXPERTISE

Just about every undergraduate knows of professors’ disdain for Wikipedia as an academic source, as faculty prefer to have students cite reliable sources rather than an encyclopedia—especially an encyclopedia written and edited by amateurs and enthusiasts. Those academics who would like to raise Wikipedia’s reliability quotient by contributing their own work can find themselves clashing with Wikipedia’s editors as they try to navigate a crowdsourcing culture that prioritizes different kinds of evidence and expertise. Take, for example, Timothy Messer-Kruse’s attempts to edit the page on the Haymarket riot and trial.  Messer-Kruse edited that article to reflect his own discoveries in, and analysis of, primary sources; he cited both the primary sources and his own peer-reviewed scholarship in secondary sources. However, editors reverted his revisions and explained to Messer-Kruse that his changes reflected a minority viewpoint and that Wikipedia relies on consensus, not new scholarship. One editor chastised Messer-Kruse for his repeated attempts to correct what he believed was an error in the article:

I hope you will familiarize yourself with some of Wikipedia’s policies, such as verifiability and undue weight. If all historians save one say that the sky was green in 1888, our policies require that we write ‘Most historians write that the sky was green, but one says the sky was blue.’ … As individual editors, we’re not in the business of weighing claims, just reporting what reliable sources write.

Here, then, is the collision of cultures, and one of the likely reasons professional historians are reluctant to contribute to the encyclopedia. Finding and interpreting (or reinterpreting) primary sources is the foundation, after all, of the historian’s vocation, and Wikipedians want their sources to be at least one published generation removed from the primary source—though Wikipedians acknowledge that in some cases it is appropriate to cite primary sources. Another reason more professional historians don’t contribute to the online encyclopedia: most tenure and promotion committees do not value online engagement if it isn’t peer-reviewed, even though it’s common for historians to write articles for encyclopedias with a more academic audience. This cultural disconnect explains why, for example, I’m not particularly motivated to author a Wikipedia article on Ellen Trueblood, as much as I’d like the world to know more about her work.

To get a better sense of Wikipedia’s process and product, let’s look at other Idaho examples. First, there’s the page for J. R. Simplot, the state’s late potato magnate. The article, which has been edited 265 times since its creation in 2004, is a typical blend of personal and professional biography, touching on Simplot’s early life, entrepreneurialism, marriages and death. The “talk” page for the article doesn’t host much discussion beyond suggesting additional secondary sources for the page; most notable perhaps is a Wikipedian contesting the classification of Simplot as an atheist.

As an illustration of Wikipedia’s process, another page on an Idaho phenomenon—the Aryan Nations—is less pedestrian and more enlightening. While the J. R. Simplot page has been visited only about 6,500 times in the past 90 days, the page for the Aryan Nations has been visited nearly 31,000 times in the same period and edited 892 times since it was created in 2002. The talk page comprises an alternately lively and semiliterate discussion of the leadership of the hate group. At one point the group split into two factions, each claiming its new head to be the true successor of the movement’s late leader, and the Wikipedia page had to be “locked” against further changes while editors unaffiliated with the group attempted to sort out fact from fiction. At first, the Aryan Nations members were citing their own websites as sources, a move that contravenes Wikipedia’s editorial policy. The members displayed increasing Wikipedia savvy, however—to the point where one suggested editors refer to a reliable government source: the FBI. (Take a moment to revel in the irony.)

COMMUNITY VS. INDEPENDENCE

By making it easy to search multiple databases with a single query, Ancestry does just the opposite of Wikipedia: it privileges primary sources and trusts each individual researcher has the skills to interpret a wide variety of documents, including censuses, enlistment records, ships’ crew lists, death indexes, historical newspapers and more.  As I have written elsewhere, this trust may be misplaced. Andy Hall provides one example of how a misreading of a document can lead to a profound misunderstanding of small and large historical forces.

If Wikipedia’s community of editors works together to craft consensual narratives, Ancestry offers no narratives at all—only fragments that researchers must piece together and interpret. Bits of story and history might be implied by the connections within a family tree, but the trees are by and large authored by individuals. This, as I noted earlier, is a source of frustration for serious genealogists.  As Kerry Scott explained to me,

On Ancestry, you work parallel to other researchers, but you don’t necessarily interact with them. In fact, one of the great frustrations of users of Ancestry’s public trees is that it’s very hard to get others to correct mistakes.

For example, I can see right now that someone has a grandparent of mine married to the wrong person and living/dying in the wrong place on his Ancestry tree. I personally knew that grandparent, so I know when and where he died and who he was married to…but the guy with this errant tree hasn’t responded to messages. I can put my own tree out there with correct info and source citations if I choose to, but I can’t correct his.

She elaborates on her blog:

Recognize that nearly every public tree you find on Ancestry is full of crap. I love Ancestry—for the records. The trees? CRAP. I’ve been a member since the mid-1990s, and you know how many public trees I’ve found that turned out to be mostly correct? Two. Two trees in nearly 20 years. DON’T BELIEVE THE TREES, PEOPLE.

Serious genealogists, and especially professional genealogists, cultivate an independent streak.  Perhaps this characteristic emerges from years of family members and friends failing to recognize the value and professionalism of their research, or from librarians and archivists’ interactions with novice genealogists whose breaches of archival etiquette have soured librarians on genealogy more generally. Or perhaps the trait is a function of the arcane nature of most genealogical research—it is a deeply personal quest to understand the quotidian lives of largely unremarked-upon ancestors; unlike on Wikipedia, there is no “notability” threshold in genealogy. Regardless of this independence, genealogists do reach out to one another via blogs—one major hub of such activity is Geneabloggers, which maintains an impressive list of individuals’ genealogy blogs—and there are plenty of helpful how-to guides available, including one from the National Archives, and one blog that has an entire section devoted to technological tools for family history research. Compare those to Wikipedia’s sometimes opaque tutorials.

AN ALTERNATIVE MODEL FOR WRITING HISTORY

Neither Ancestry nor Wikipedia replicates the professional historian’s process and product—and that’s a good thing, though I suspect many academic historians might disagree. Just as with citizen science, the bar for entry into amateur historical practice should be sufficiently low that anyone with a persistent curiosity and some basic research skills can join in. The digital, social technologies of the past decade simultaneously allow community to thrive on Wikipedia and let individual researchers take control of their own genealogical domains.

Still, the gender divide of the sites’ participants is cause for concern, particularly on as highly trafficked (and apparently increasingly trusted) a site as Wikipedia. U.S. history in particular has for centuries been written by privileged white men, and such historiography has, over the past generation, been criticized for its various myopias and its exclusion of women and people of color. I don’t have sufficient data to explore in exactly what ways authorship on Wikipedia and Ancestry might be influenced by participants’ gender. The availability of such data—gained perhaps through access to the sites’ analyticstext mining of each site, interviews and a good deal of ethnography or participant observation—could go a long way toward better understanding how gender inflects participant collaboration, perceptions of expertise, building consensus and establishing community on each site.

There are other models between the tightly patrolled community of Wikipedia editors, the free-for-all family trees of Ancestry, and the individual-empowering blog platform. In talking with one of the founders of the Davis Wiki, for example, I learned that one in seven residents of Davis, California has contributed to the extensive community-information wiki—compare that to Wikipedia’s 0.0016 percent. Boise’s much smaller (but ever-growing) community wiki, the Boise Wiki, also invites anyone to co-author community history by sharing their experiences past and present in Boise.

These lower-trafficked regional sites, where participants are encouraged to contribute under their own names and which make writing and editing simple, offer a promising venue for amateurs and enthusiasts to craft history. Perhaps most significantly, these two wiki communities have intentionally decided not to pursue Wikipedia’s neutral point of view policy. Anyone may contribute her perspective, and editorializing is welcome; many of the Davis Wiki articles about restaurants, for example, are appended by several years of restaurant reviews by Davis residents. Other articles host debates on municipal issues, creating an historical record of residents’ views on contentious subjects, such as the proposal to ban leaf-blowers. Such an editorial decision may open the wikis to claims of bias, but the sites are becoming a place where writing history becomes a fun collaboration, even if the perspectives are at first partial and incomplete. (When I had my graduate students launch the Boise Wiki, more than one student confessed she wrote on the wiki as a way of procrastinating on her other work.)

While local wikis can provide a place for historians to collaborate, it’s difficult to replicate Ancestry’s huge trove of primary source documents. While institutions like the Library of Congress have digitized such culturally significant ephemera as WPA posters and baseball cards, it’s much more difficult to find information on individual people and local histories. Another solution is for states and historical societies to share primary source documents online, though a lack of funding limits such efforts. Furthermore, most archives are reluctant to post high-resolution scans online or to allow people to share digitized documents with others because the scanning, reproduction, and licensing of such images—including many in the public domain—is a revenue source for cash-strapped libraries and archives. When they do share documents, such as this image of a McCall sawmill posted by the Idaho State Historical Society, they often make it intentionally difficult for people to download and reuse the image, even for educational purposes. In this example, the sawmill image is on a federally-funded site aimed at making it easier for teachers to access and use primary-source documents, but the average user isn’t going to know how to download the images there.

In an ideal world, historians—amateur or professional—could liberate these primary sources from paywalled sites like Ancestry and from the DRM-rich technology used by some archives to limit the circulation of the documents they hold in public trust, then share them on community wikis. Relative to Wikipedia, with its editors patrolling content for notability, objectivity, and adherence to editorial standards, and to Ancestry, with its key content fragmented into ten million documents behind a paywall, such community wikis offer a friendly space for regional history—and, I argue, particularly Idaho history and women’s history—written by locals to emerge.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.

  • Greg Hampikian

    Great piece. Thanks for the insights.