Wiki Article Reflection

By Nicole Bare Kinney

I wrote my Boise Wiki article on animals at the Idaho State Historical Museum.  I realized pretty quickly that I would have to think outside the box to find a subject that had not already been done.  Most basic Boise attractions are covered in the Wiki, which is a good thing.  I also had to find something about which I knew a substantial amount, and something about which I could easily access more information.  The history museum was a natural choice because I am there a lot for work.  I really like the stuffed animals at the museum and people are constantly asking if we still have the two-headed calf, so I chose to focus on that aspect of the museum.

One of the first challenges I faced was making sure that I could write about a slightly funny topic in a respectful but engaging way.  I hope I struck that balance.  Another challenge that arose quickly was the issue of taking photos. I emailed Sarah Phillips, one of the curators, and since the museum allows guests to take photos at the museum, I did not have to jump through any hoops to be able to post photos online.  That was a real relief, and I was not expecting it to be that easy.  The biggest problem I experienced was that I was not able to change my title after I started the article.  I really want to change it to “Taxidermy at the Idaho State Historical Museum” because “taxidermied” is not a word.  This was really frustrating for me.   A final challenge was balancing professionalism in my writing with making my article interesting.  I am not used to this type of writing so it took me several drafts to find a balance with which I was satisfied.

I tried to find good examples of this in other articles, but I found there to be a real spectrum of writing quality on the wiki.  Some articles were really dry, some were not well written, and some were quite excellent.  I think this is one of the main liabilities of writing a local history on a Wiki.  The goal is to make an engaging, interesting, and informative website, but when the editors cannot totally and completely control what gets posted, this becomes a difficult goal to achieve.  Another main liability is, obviously, accuracy.  Anyone can write what they want.  However, the fact that anyone can edit the page also means that if someone writes something inaccurate, another person can potentially catch that and correct it.  In contrast, if an author or journalist writes something inaccurate, readers can complain all they want but they cannot do anything about it.

Overall, I enjoyed this assignment, and I think if I were to continue contributing to the Wiki I would learn from this assignment and could probably do a better job next time.  I would at least make sure I liked my title before posting my article.  After doing this assignment I decided that a local Wiki is a good asset to a city.  If the overall goal is complete professionalism and accuracy, a Wiki will not achieve that, but it is a great tool to give people a feel for a city and a way to spark interest in the history of a city.

Interview with Cathy Moran Hajo

Recently I interviewed  Dr. Cathy Moran Hajo, Assistant Professor of History at NYU, and the Editor and Assistant Director of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, via email. (Check out her project at  I came across her project through the recommendation of another professor at NYU whom I originally contacted.  I was really curious to find out how a person becomes a digital historian, and what role digital history plays in the whole field of history.  Dr. Hajo was a great interviewee, and gave me a lot of insight about how she got where she is, why she is passionate about what she does, and the challenges and advantages of being in her field.

The most important thing I learned about becoming a digital historian is that the skills we are learning in “‘analog’ history,” as Dr. Hajo put it, will still be extremely valuable in doing digital history.  Dr. Hajo said that she developed her digital skills while she was working on the MSPP. SInce technology is constantly changing, Dr. Hajo recommended that students who are interested in digital history stay up-to-date on new tools, subscribe to digital history blogs, and not try to do it all.  “Focus in on the kinds of work that you would like to be doing, and then figure out the skills that you need for that aspect. “

Dr. Hajo and I also talked about why she cares about digital history in the first place.  For Dr. Hajo, digital history is about giving complete, accurate accounts of history to a wider range of people than would have access to analog primary source documents.  Dr Hajo was very adamant  that in order to truly “immerse ourselves” in history, we need to look at primary source documents.  This is particularly important because people often use their version of history to make a political argument.  Obviously, it’s not uncommon for people to cherry-pick information and quotes, taking what happened completely out of context to serve their argument.  Furthermore, some people completely fabricate stories.  By giving the general public access to the original source, digital historians are empowering people to do their own research and form their own opinions, instead of taking someone else’s word for it.  “We can’t retreat to a scholarly corner when historical texts are used for overtly political purposes and used badly,” said Hajo.

Next, Dr. Hajo and I discussed  the issues of relevancy, funding, and the struggle for legitimacy that digital historians have to face. I was really curious to know Dr. Hajo’s opinion about whether digital publications receive as much respect among academics as traditional publications.  Her opinion was that they don’t, for a variety of reasons.  First, because older, more prestigious faculty usually haven’t published in this format.  Also, in Dr. Hajo’s opinion, it is more difficult to understand the historical skill and the interpretation that go into any digital project.  She didn’t elaborate on this, but I think what she is saying is that digital history is about more than just scanning documents and putting them on the internet.  In the same way that researchers, archivists, and curators have to make sense of a jumble of items, digital historians have to do the same.  The difference lies in the tools that they use.

I questioned Dr. Hajo about the lack of funding available for humanities in general, and while she was realistic, she had some good news about the digital humanities.  It’s clear that right now, science is where it’s at, and humanists have to fight to convince others of the relevancy of their work.  However, Dr. Hajo said that digital projects often have an easier time getting funding because digital projects tend to be seen as more attractive and more accessible than print projects.  Unfortunately, however, digital humanitarians have to deal with changing technology.  “You cannot promise that the resources we build will be around 10 years from now–we can make our best case for it by using open-source and popular tools, but there is no telling when the next big thing will shake everything up.” Another advantage of the digital humanities that I had never considered is the ability to know how many people are using a particular resource.  If many people are using a resource, that organization can make a better case for their relevancy and continued funding.  If many people are not using a resource, humanists have a chance to fix that.

The main thing I learned from my interview with Dr. Cathy Moran Hajo is that the digital humanities are a two-edged sword.  Digital tools are exciting and the possibilities those tools represent are infinite.  However, digital tools are constantly changing, and digital humanists have to adapt quickly.  Digital projects can sometimes have an easier time finding funding, but generally have a harder time gaining legitimacy among traditional humanists.  Digital projects open up primary sources to a much wider range of people, but the work to do this is difficult and time-consuming.

I saved Dr. Hajo’s best observation for last.  I think this quote shows that Dr. Hajo respects the field of history deeply and that she hasn’t gotten so caught up in the “digital“  that she has forgotten the “humanity.”  She wrote, “Another challenge is to not fall into the trap of shaping historical inquiry to the tools that are out there instead of trying to develop or demand tools to do the kind of historical inquiry that you want…We need to stay historians first and digital second.”