Revising Drug History on the Web (or, what’s up with Vincent Dole’s Wikipedia page?)

When I taught high school a little less than a decade ago, we teachers generally regarded Wikipedia as a kind of academic quackery. The site supposedly lured our stressed, overscheduled prep students by allowing them to tap an up-to-date—but intellectually suspect— knowledge base with just a few keystrokes. Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched the open-source encyclopedia project in 2001, and its rapidly evolving entries vexed research teachers. We were still teaching the Robert Caro Writing Process, notecards and all.

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Caro with his master outline for “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” (Martine Fougeron/Getty for The New York Times)

 

But Wikipedia, as it turned out, developed its own orthodoxy; its accuracy now rivals traditional online encyclopedias like Britannica. Even so, the site has faced objections regarding its hostility to academic specialists and primary sources, and the apparent bias arising from its masculine editorial culture. Yet the critical response from academia has softened from one of rejection—a tough stance to maintain when a site gets some 500 million visitors a month—to reform. Feminist edit-a-thons, class projects to improve wiki entries, and Harvard’s recent job advertisement for a Wikipedian-in-residence all indicate that scholars have decided to take responsibility for shaping content on the widely read site.

We could take the same initiative with drug and alcohol history resources. And we try: Points compiles a list of approved online resources, and a good amount of our daily traffic is driven by historically motivated Google queries.

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