Posts tagged Haymarket riot
Those of us in the Academy are (our should be!) quite aware of the limitations of Wikipedia. Of course, some of the weaknesses are the same as they have been for any encyclopedia. Students too often think research begins and ends with them (alas, even in college). Too many citizens share that approach. Also, encyclopedia entries cannot take the time to be as nuanced as perhaps they should. In the case of Wikipedia, this can become a real problem. Recently, Timothy Messer-Kruse wrote from personal experience about how this is so (http://chronicle.com/article/The-Undue-Weight-of-Truth-on/130704/). I’d recommend reading the article, but in a nutshell, Dr. Messer-Kruse edited a Wikipedia entry on the Haymarket trial of 1886 based upon primary source research he had done through the Library of Congress. Wikipedia reacted by deleting his comments and noting he had to cite reliable sources! He tried again, again citing the court documents and also his own published work. It didn’t matter.
Now, on the one hand, one might argue that such is all an encyclopedia can do. It must simply add up the number of secondary sources making a particular point (that no evidence was presented by the prosecution at the trial–yeah, that was the point). Anyone stating otherwise, even if supported by primary sources, won’t be given a say. To some degree, that is what encyclopedias have always done–tried to present the general consensus on a given topic. Furthermore, Wikipedia is not a peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps it shouldn’t be expected to prioritize primary source scholarship.
On the other hand, it is difficult to understand how a platform that is supposed to be open to editing can dismiss the actual primary sources (say letters or diaries or court documents) in favor of historiographical ignorance (which happens for various reasons–no judgment intended at all toward other scholars of the Haymarket riot and trial).
Furthermore, this is a perennial problem within American Orthodox history. Both Matthew Namee and I have encountered it on more than one occasion, especially when discussing what we’ve called “the myth of unity”–the idea that all Orthodox in America were always under the Russians until 1917 and/or that the Russians always worked hard to demonstrate that they always clearly had jurisdiction everywhere and anywhere on the North American continent (or perhaps Americas more generally). Often those screaming the loudest were used to doing “history” work by collecting a bunch of secondary sources together. Similarly, when discussing Archbishop Arseny of Canada, those who seemed most upset with what I found in the court documents were not those who had actually read the court documents (we at SOCHA read them and made them available). Sometimes, people simply like the “conventional mendacity” (to quote Lord Acton) built up over the ages.
One of the long-term goals of SOCHA is to provide a platform that highlights primary sources and their importance. Exactly how this will be done is still coming into view, but certainly this blog is a beginning. We have posts by the four of us directors as well as by others who are knowledgeable in particular primary sources. We will continue to provide informative articles based on primary source work. More than that, once we are able to move forward with our future digitization project, readers will have access to primary sources themselves. We even envision a platform in which readers will be able to submit primary documents to the database. This will make it similar to Wikipedia, in that people will be able to add to the knowledge base and influence what is known and learned. Yet, it will differ in that it will be source material that is added, not conventional mendacity nor even a well documented interpretation. There will be limitations, of course, as readers won’t be spoon fed interpretations but would have to read, say, Bjerring’s writings themselves to determine what he tended to emphasize in his extant sermons, but I think this is actually better. Encyclopedias can be nice starting points, but a platform that forces people to think critically and rely on primary sources is better.
Of course, scholars and researchers are seriously questioning the degree to which people are prepared to think critically (you could follow the trail starting with this: http://chronicle.com/article/Academically-Adrift-The/130743/) but that’s a different discussion for another time.