Researchers and amateurs together on an Internet lexicon of local history

Librarians, researchers and other professionals cooperate with amateur historians on the creation of a new Norwegian Internet lexicon of local history – heavily inspired by Wikipedia.

The Norwegian Institute of Local History (NLI) is the initiator of this wikibased Internet lexicon. This spring a preliminary version of the lexicon was placed on the Internet and would appear to be the first example of its kind based on organised cooperation between researchers and amateurs.

A local history network of professionals established by the Institute together with the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority plays a central role in the project. This network consists of some 300 members from research and educational institutions, archives, libraries, museums and others engaged in documentation, research and dissemination with regard to local history.

This network will provide the Institute with the administrators who will be responsible for quality control of articles and contributions submitted to the lexicon by amateur local historians and other enthusiasts. In addition, experienced and active Wikipedia users will act as administrators, while the Norwegian Wikipedia community has assisted with both the idea and the implementation of the project.

That it should be local history providing the impetus for the first Internet lexicon to welcome contributions from amateurs is a reflection of the fact that local enthusiasts and writers on rural subjects have traditionally played a significant role in this field of study. Local history yearbooks are often the result of collaboration between professionals and amateurs.

Marianne Wiig, adviser and wiki-project manager for the Norwegian Institute of Local History, emphasises the benefits of such co-operation, since amateur enthusiasts have specific local knowledge to supplement the work of the professionals. She confirms that there have been many positive reactions from experts in this field.

Continual updating

Although the wiki-format is best known through Wikipedia, internationally there are in fact a great many wikis covering all manner of subjects, both great and small. Several Norwegian wiki-based sites with an academic content are to be found, such as the one devoted to the history of art ( The local history wiki-project, however, will be the first to be launched by a research institute.

The Internet lexicon will consist of two parts. The main section will be constantly updated, like Wikipedia, and will be produced by professional historians and amateur enthusiasts working together. It will be supplemented by articles taken from Norsk historisk leksikon (the Lexicon of Norwegian History) by agreement with Cappelen Academic Publishers Ltd. Articles from this publication will not be open to any further editing. In the ‘live’ part of the lexicon users will find not only typical articles but also information from primary sources, for example where contributors have conducted interviews or collected their own material.A new editorial role

At the start some 400 local historical articles are already in place in addition to the older material from the Lexicon of Norwegian History. The more recent material includes both typical lexicon entries and articles of the type to be found in public documents, farm and family records and local genealogy. Since last year the Institute of Local History has engaged professional historians, M.A.graduates and writers from the Wikipedia environment in Norway to produce these articles.

Marianne Wiig points out that in the initial stage the Institute has financed the writing of these articles with a view to providing a guideline to potential contributors once the lexicon has been opened. Manuals of style and guides to working in the field of historical study will also be made available to users.

The Institute’s wiki will not be as open as Wikipedia, where even unregistered users can edit articles. Only registered users will be permitted to write articles on local history. Avoiding vandalism and false information is naturally regarded as particularly important in a project initiated by a national research institute. Normal editorial practice, however, cannot be applied to a wiki, where the central factor is that users are able to edit each others’ articles.

Marianne Wiig underlines that the Institute cannot be responsible for every single article and that full esponsibility will lie with the individual author. The administrators will be able to go in and bring to a writer’s notice any errors of fact or unsubstantiated source material.

Practical cooperation

Local history as a field of study has a long tradition of amateur contributions. As work on the Internet lexicon has gradually proceeded, the initiators’ ambitions with regard to cooperation between professional historians and enthusiastic amateurs have only grown. According to Wiig it is gradually becoming clear that there will be an interaction between professionals and amateurs, resulting in their supplementing each other in one and the same article.

During the development of the lexicon project the Institute of Local History has enjoyed the collaboration of several of the most active participants in the Norwegian Wikipedia environment. In fact, approaches made by these contacts were a contributory factor to the project being launched in the first place. They had noticed the enormous amount of local history information in Wikipedia and felt that it was often too specialised for a nationwide lexicon.

Wikipedia’s press contact, Chris Nyborg, has been engaged by the Institute to work on the local history wiki. He points out one particular aspect of the wiki format which promotes participation, namely that links can be created to pages not yet in existence. In this way users are made aware of what is lacking, they become enthusiastic and contribute new information.

A successful wiki project exploits the dynamic which the researcher, Yochai Benkler, in his influential book The Wealth of Networks defines as central to Wikipedia. The wiki format makes it possible for users to contribute in many different ways, be it correcting punctuation, filling gaps in references or writing complete articles from the bottom up. This opens the way for people with completely different interests and expertise to participate in the same wiki project. The local history lexicon will use the same software as Wikipedia

Collecting local wikis

The Internet lexicon produced by the Norwegian Institute of Local History arrives at much the same time as various other similar wiki projects throughout the country. The rural district of Kodal in the county of Vestfold has already a wikibased lexicon of its own, while in Stavanger the municipal library has obtained funding from the Archive, Library and Museum Authority towards establishing a local history wiki for the city. The library has joined forces with the local newspaper, Stavanger Aftonblad, which already had plans in the same direction.

The Fredrikstad Museum and the municipality of Skedsmo are working on similar projects. The former, which has also received financial support from the Authority, will become a part of the Institute’s lexicon, while Skedsmo still has participation under consideration.

Marianne Wiig’s hope is that as the Institute’s project gains greater publicity, more and more individual projects will wish to participate.

Translated by Eric Deverill

Freelance journalist, editor and blogger