Thursday, November 28, 2019

Donating to Wikipedia

As a professional writer, I depend on Wikipedia as a first source for framing information. This week, I sent them $50. I last gave $20 in 2012. So, it has been a while. I have been working steadily this year, and I got a check for a freelance article just as they were posting their pleas. Giving was easy. 

When I was a substitute teacher in Albuquerque in 2002-2003, the school board advisors warned us not to accept Wikipedia or other citations to online references. Even in 2014, one of my co-workers in the Texas Military Department warned me against Wikipedia because "anyone can write it." In reply, I told him about my experierence with the Encyclopedia Britannica.

In 1995, the American Numismatic Association granted me their George Heath Literary Award for an article I wrote on the origins of coinage. Inspired by Carl Sagan's Cosmos episode "Backbone of the Night" I was collecting ancient Greek coins from the towns and times of philosphers. I wrote an article about the origins of coinage and sent it to The Classical Numismatic Review. It was rejected. I called the editor (something I would not normally do) and asked how I could fix it for him. Kerry Wetterstrom (later the editor of The Celator), asked me about my research. I told him of the books from the MSU Library. He replied that they were out of date. He sent me a list of books and articles to read. I re-wrote the article for him and he published it. He also suggested expanding it and sending it to the American Numismatic Association of which I was a new member. They rejected it because it contradicted all the standard references on the editor's shelf. Kerry recommended that I ask that they submit it to their museum curator, Robert Hoge. He endorsed it. 

The problem is that the Encyclopedia Britannica for many decades carried an article on Money written by Charles Seltman. Seltman's own theory was that coins were invented by Greek merchants who sought to avoid re-weighing bullion bits. Everyone looked to the EB as the authority. Collectors today still repeat the old say-so. But it just ain't true. Even in Seltman's time, there were several competing theories on the origins of coinage. He ignored them all. Just for one example, German archaeologist Ernst Curtius pointed to the Temple of Juno Moneta and the fact that temples receive votive offerings. The "Temple Theory" was supported ten years after Curtius's death when the oldest coins yet discovered were found at the excavation of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Writing 20 years after that, Seltman was more than remiss in not mentioning it. 

In 1999-2000, I was the international editor for Coin World newspaper. I was assigned an article about banknotes featuring naval battles. I found the $100 gold note from 1875 with the Battle of Lake Erie as a vignette. I then researched the battle from the EB and the Grolier American Encyclopedia. Whether it was just rum go, a sticky wicket, and a bit of bad luck or hearty crews of plucky Yankees depends on who you ask. 

Later, I researched the Spanish Armada, again from the EB, but also from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. The story is pretty much the same, the facts being what they are, but the nuances are colored very differently. 

In summary, whatever deficiencies Wikipedia suffers are in the fabric of all research and reporting. Wikipedia does not carry advertising. They survive solely on contributions. I am not endorsing that as a business model for everyone, but it works for them. Their annual report, balance sheet, and statement is audited by KPMG. You can read it on their website here

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