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Wiki-History 101

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales visits VCU, and one local historian does a little editing.

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Wikipedia has emerged as the world's most-considered authority on just about everything, but its knowledge of Richmond history appears to be a bit limited. In the wake of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales' visit to Virginia Commonwealth University last week, Style decided to take a look at the "free encyclopedia's" stab at our own history.

Bill Martin, director of the Valentine Richmond History Center, studied the city's entry at Style Weekly's request and found more than a few glaring omissions. The usual suspects — William Byrd, Patrick Henry and the Civil War, of course — are all present, but "the history of Richmond is much more complex than what is reflected," Martin says. "Certainly the core history is there, but there are so many things that are missing."

Among the major omits:

  • Many early leaders such as U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall and William Foushee, the city's first mayor.

  • The entire period of post-Civil War Reconstruction and the equally important Readjuster Period that followed.

  • Aluminum giant Reynolds Metals and tobacco firms other than Philip Morris USA in a section regarding industries that have defined the region.

  • Richmond's significant role in the nation's civil rights struggle and major players such as legendary attorney Oliver W. Hill.

    Those omissions become more glaring, of course, when you consider what does make wikiRichmond. The site, known for its devotion to pop culture, makes ample room for Ukrop's Super Markets and hardcore blood-and-guts rockers GWAR.

    Wales, speaking last week to several hundred VCU students and faculty as the finale to the school's "Creating Culture" series, says he and the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation are seeking to compile the sum of all human knowledge while admitting the site is flawed as a resource tool. In research efforts, he says, "Wikipedia always discourages using Wikipedia for citations."

    Wikipedia draws more Internet users each day than CNN and the BBC combined, he says, and has an error rate comparable to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He argues that the editors keep the site honest and objective, for they compel themselves to self-regulate any entry that contains biased or incorrect — if not missing — information.

    "Most of the articles are pretty neutral and measured," Wales says. "People are careful about how they say things." Anyone who disagrees with an entry can post an edit or discuss it in the site's "Talk" section.

    The entire 20th century receives only a glossing-over from Wikipedia editors, Martin says, though he wasn't particularly taken aback by that. The Valentine recently posted an online Richmond history quiz at www.iknowrichmond.com, and that era revealed itself as a period about which even locals are weak in knowledge.

    On Wikipedia, Martin says, "We go from Patrick Henry to the Civil War and miss what is a much richer period that we want to talk about."

    Martin and Wales do agree that the Internet shouldn't be used as a primary source in any type of research. Wales says he's found errors in his own Wikipedia listing more than once, and Martin urges those interested in Richmond's past to visit local institutions such as the Valentine and the Virginia Historical Society, where they can not only read about the complete history but also see and touch artifacts from the city's equally elegant and turbulent days gone by.

    As sites like Wikipedia continue to promulgate popular culture over historical truths, Martin predicts that "museums actually will become more valuable in the future because they will be the places where people can go to the source. There's wonderful peer review on the Internet, but everyone should test everything they see." S

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