This week we are starting a new series on historical research. In this blog post we will focus on historical research using Wikipedia, and its strengths and weaknesses. This post is by Stephanie Hanson, History Unboxed’s® Creative Director.
When I was majoring in history, I had to write a senior thesis. The course was called “1968” and my topic had to center around major events that took place in that year. I knew I wanted to write about the American Indian Movement, but had zero background knowledge other than their occupation of Alcatraz Island. My research required primary sources and peer-reviewed sources. But what terms should I put into search engines? “American Indian Movement” alone was too broad. I needed to narrow down my search.
Cue gasps from educators around the world.
Don’t run away yet. Wikipedia is a valuable research tool. You just have to know how to leverage its strengths and avoid its weaknesses.
So what are Wikipedia’s strengths?
It can give a broad overview of a topic. It’s a great place to learn about a new subject, especially if it’s complex. You can get an idea of the vocabulary, people, and events before you go on a deeper dive.
Each article has a list of citations. These can be some of the first sources you check out through your local library. Many articles also have additional resources linked at the bottom.
What are Wikipedia’s weaknesses?
Although it has fared well in comparisons with other encyclopedias and increased accuracy over time, there is still room for error. If you take notes from Wikipedia, confirm the information with a second source.
Even though new articles are added every day (currently over 6 million), Wikipedia doesn’t have everything. It can reflect societal biases and have gaps in some areas.
What next? Let’s do a quick walk through, based on my original research project.
- Open up www.wikipedia.org
- Type your topic into the search bar.
- Read the article once through.
- Click the links or hover over them for definitions if you aren’t familiar with the words or phrases.
- Jot down the names of the important people, places, dates, and key words related to your topic.
- Write down any questions you have after reading the article.
- Record any information you want to confirm with a second source.
- In the reference sections, some sources will be links to websites and some will be links to books. Explore the website links and write down any books you might want to refer to.
- Repeat this process for the sources in the bibliography (not all articles have a bibliography).
- Explore any external links.