Books Letting Go?

Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski. Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, 2011. 336 pages. Paperback: $29.95. Reviewed by Steven Lubar (, Professor of American Studies and Director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, and the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University

It’s asking for trouble, reviewing a book about shared authority. Who would dare claim the authority to review a book about the end of authority? The authors of the essays in the book, after all, carefully distanced themselves and their institutions from any claim to the last word. In a variety of nuanced ways they make it clear that they are acting as co-contributors to the historical record and historical display, sharing authority with communities, artists, and audiences. How might a reviewer review such a book? What ground to stand on? So, an experiment: what if one shared authority in the review, as the case studies here describe sharing authority in museums? What if, instead of one person reviewing the book, we could all review the book? What if the readers of this review could also be writers, rewriting and editing my words, and each other’s words, crowdsourcing a review of a book about crowdsourcing history. How meta! And how very Wikipedia. So this is not a review. It’s a reflection on an experiment of sharing authority in reply to a book on sharing authority. The review—more accurately, the article inspired by the book—is on Wikipedia, entitled, “shared historical authority.” Check it out. It’s impossible to know, of course, what it might look like by the time these words appear as a printed article, or if it will even still exist. One thing is certain, though: it will be the result of a long and complicated chain of authority, some visible, some invisible, some shared, some not. Just as with the

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museum projects described in Letting Go?, there’s still authority, though more complex and interesting than was typical a decade or two ago. There’s also a moral: authority and community is closely related, and, as so many of the essays in Letting Go? suggest, when we share authority, we find community. The Oakland Museum found Native communities to work with, the Museum of the Chinese in America built on dialog with a range of Chinese communities, the Brooklyn Historical Society connected with a diverse variety of groups throughout the borough. I found a Wikipedia community. The Wikipedia article of today began late in the Fall semester 2011 as a class assignment. Letting Go? was on the reading list for my seminar, AMCV2650: Introduction to Public Humanities. The assignment: co-author a Wikipedia article about the topic. Wikipedia allows articles to be created out of public view, and there, in the Wikipedia incubator, twenty students tried to figure out how to self-organize a book and class discussion into a coherent article. I did my best not to give advice or suggest an outline. It wasn’t easy for me, and it confused the students. The result was lopsided, disorganized, and unwieldy. Topics that particular students cared a great deal about (StoryCorps, for example) got a great deal of attention. Large swaths of the book were ignored. Categories were incongruous. And no one wanted to subtract, to edit other students’ work. Not enough authority. I wrestled with my own role in this. I am a laid-back teacher, happy to let students explore, to figure things out on their own. But I found myself, after the students had mostly finished, editing more than I should have. While I had surrendered authority over the writing, I hadn’t surrendered a proprietary interest, or a sense of responsibility, and an implicit set of standards. That is true of most of the projects discussed in Letting Go?, too. Museum staff, and especially project directors, worry about quality and about meeting deadlines. There’s an acknowledgement, in some of these essays, of the challenges and frustrations of working with outsiders with different standards and schedules. Still, we’re willing to let community activists, or artists like Ben Katchor or Fred Wilson, break the rules. But we want museum staff to follow

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them, as I wanted my students to follow them. We hesitate to share authority within the museum. Very few of the essays address how shared authority might reshape the managerial structures of the museum. That’s a tricky topic, one that we should pay more attention to. But we have deadlines to meet and budgets to worry about! The end of the semester was at hand, and the editor at Curator wanted something to publish. I polished the article a bit more (but not as much as I would have had it been my own) and pushed the “publish” button. And immediately got back, in bright Wikipedia-purple, this note: Review pending. This draft submission is waiting to be reviewed. This may take several hours, or days, at busy times. There are currently 302 submissions waiting for review at this page. If the draft submission is accepted, then this page will be moved into the article space. If the draft is declined, then the reviewer will explain here, and close the request for review. If you correct the issues the reviewer brought up, you can then resubmit. A few minutes later, another message from the mysterious authorities at Wikipedia: Comment: This article is carefully-written and almost ready to accept. However the section "Review of Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World" is not written from a neutral point of view, cites no sources, and seems to be "original research" in Wikipedia's terms (seeWP:OR). If this section is omitted or cut down to a brief, neutral paragraph (like the "other examples" then the article will be ready. Chiswick Chap (talk) 16:41, 19 December 2011 (UTC) Chiswick Chap is right; these parts were too long, and not really appropriate for Wikipedia. They were the parts that looked like a book review. Thinking about the students who had worked hard on them, and worrying about my authority to delete them, I nonetheless cut them out. We had a deadline! The reviewer was watching. Suddenly the article under review disappeared, like magic, and a note appears, this time in lime green: Your submission at Articles for creation Shared historical authority, which you submitted to Articles for creation, has been created. The article has been assessed as C-Class, which is recorded on the article's talk

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page. You may like to take a look at the grading scheme to see how you can improve the article. The authorities at Wikipedia had spoken! I was thrilled; we’d been accepted! But we’d been given a C. I considered briefly whether “C-Class” meant that I should give all of the students who had worked on the article a C. And then more information appeared, in more pastel colors: This article is within the scope of WikiProject History, a collaborative effort to improve the coverage of the subject of History on Wikipedia. ... This article has been rated as C-Class on the project's quality scale... This article has been rated as High-importance on the project's importance scale. And these pronouncements came with the authority’s name: Kevin Rutherford. He describes himself on his Wikipedia about page: a student of political science and history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, he’s an avid Wikipedian with more than 45,000 edits under his belt. I sent him an email: why did he approve this article? He had just taken a public history course, it turned out, and knew this was an important topic. My colleagues at UMass should be pleased; one could imagine a self-appointed Wikipedia history editor—or for that matter, many historians—believing that “shared historical authority” should not be rated “high-importance”! But the experiment was just beginning. The magic of Wikipedia is what happens when the article is available, with absolutely anyone able to make changes. Time to let the world know. I turned to Twitter: #amcv2650 has created an article, "Shared historical authority" on Wikipedia. Rest of the world, have at it! A few retweets followed, and people stopped by to take a look: 37 views in the next few hours. Lori Phillips (a museum studies graduate student and the United States Cultural Partnerships Coordinator for the Wikimedia Foundation) jumped right in with suggestions on how to improve the article. It needs a “lead section,” she wrote on twitter, and linked to the Wikipedia manual of style. More authority!

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And much appreciated! I sent her “wikilove”—a star for her Wikipedia home page—by way of thanks. Over the next few days, the History and Discussion tabs for the article started to fill up. Sarah Stierch, another museum studies student, and former Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Archives of American Art, offered excellent advice; another “wikilove”! Benjamin Filene, one of the book’s co-editors, dropped by and fixed a few bits of text. Chiswick Chap cut out some of the text that didn’t belong, including the bit about the origins of the article. In the twentyfour hours after the article appeared, there were some 350 visits. The article will continue to change and improve. It’s still barely C-class, and there’s much to be done. I’m curious to see who will take it on. Like many of the essayists in Letting Go?, I feel responsible for the work I helped create, and want it to be good. But it’s the world’s now, not mine, and I need to, well, let go. But the process has revealed much about shared authority. In the class (in any institution, really) hierarchies shape the sharing of authority. They can be ignored, sometimes, or worked around; but they are there. More importantly, there are structures of community that shape work, whether in museum projects or in the radically shared authority world of Wikipedia. These are the community members and volunteers who contribute their time and build expertise, and take authority for making decisions about what’s good enough, what style is appropriate, what should be edited out and what should remain. In the case of this article, the community that cared were students, especially graduate students in museum studies. As a field, we should be proud of them; they’re reaching a broad audience with a sophisticated understanding of museums. And that, perhaps, is the lesson of this exercise, and also of the book. When we let go, we hope that someone—some community that cares—will catch us. Wikipedia, as well as the most of the projects in Letting Go?, suggests that, if we build the right structures, there will be someone there to work with us. Sharing authority works when there’s someone to share authority with. If we put the time and effort into building and finding the communities to work with, they’ll not only catch us, they’ll help us perform better.

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(By the way, it’s an excellent book. Every museum person should read it.)

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