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Drafting History

November 6, 2009 • History Factory

Sometimes Wikipedia gets it right. How right? So right that the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., uses the city’s Wikipedia page as its go-to recommendation for callers seeking information on D.C.’s past, according to the Washington Post.

That’s a touching vote of confidence for Adam Lewis, the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.’s membership coordinator, who also happens to be one of the Wikipedia page’s main contributors. Until recently, his co-workers were unaware of his moonlighting activity—but that didn’t stop them from unknowingly recommending his work.

Thanks to the anonymity of the Web, that Wikipedia article you just checked to resolve a friendly lunchtime debate about who won the World Series of 1962 or when New Orleans stopped being the capital of Louisiana could have been written by anyone. Your doctor? Your daughter? Your co-worker (who was so smugly certain he was in the right)? You’ll never know.

Maybe it was even written by you. And if not—and you’re confident in your knowledge—why not take a stab at it? After all, it didn’t take a Ph.D. for the 22-year-old Lewis to become Wikipedia’s Washington, D.C., guru. All it took was the time to write, the patience to check sources, and a willingness to be called out for being, occasionally, wrong.

And called out he has been. As the Washington Post notes, Lewis originally misattributed the D.C. building height limit as being tied to the height of the Capitol. (Coincidentally, the misinformation was sourced from a Washington Post article.) It took a professional historian to catch the error. But without Lewis’s original, if-faulty, draft, would the correct information ever have been shared? It’s unlikely. Many people are willing to point out errors; few are willing to sit down and draft the initial text. And all history—all writing—has to start with a draft.


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