The Archives Behind My Favorite Wikipedia Article

I love Wikipedia articles. The weirder and more specific, the better. “William Walker (filibuster),” “New Jersey Generals,” “Crumhorn.”

But my favorite Wikipedia article of all time tells the story of The Emu War. I will let the Wikipedia editors of the page, principally user Nick-D, tell the story.

“The Emu War, also known as the Great Emu War,[1] was a nuisance wildlife management military operation undertaken in Australia over the latter part of 1932 to address public concern over the number of emus said to be running amok in the Campion district of Western Australia. The unsuccessful attempts to curb the population of emus, a large flightless bird indigenous to Australia, employed soldiers armed with Lewis guns—leading the media to adopt the name “Emu War” when referring to the incident. While a number of the birds were killed, the emu population persisted and continued to cause crop destruction.”

Photo from The Land Newspaper via WIkipedia: By Unknown – The Land Newspaper, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57741583

The rest of the article is great too, and I have been known to inflict dramatic readings on friends. The latest of these performances was given to a captive audience in a packed car this Thanksgiving break, and when it had reached its end, one concerned audience member questioned the validity of the story. I beat a tactical retreat (like the mighty emu) to the footnotes, and was able to confirm that newspaper accounts of the time were, in fact the basis for the article.

Two notes about Wikipedia, for the uninitiated. First, the expectation for Wikipedia articles is that all sources are published sources. This used to mean that primary research was entirely prohibited, but the proliferation of published primary sources (especially newspapers) has allowed Wikipedia editors to independently buttress claims about certain events with these online sources. Broad or radical interpretation of sources is still prohibited, but the benchmarks have moved somewhat.

The second thing to know about Wikipedia is that pages occasionally fall into “edit wars.” These are periods where a person or persons repeatedly modifies a page and other editors change it back. The Emu War page underwent several edit wars several years ago, the details of which can be found in the page’s history of edits and its “talk” page. Interlopers wanted to amp up the comedy of the Emu War, using Wikipedia conventions from other military history pages to declare victory for the emus, etc. Once the dust had settled, editors such as Nick-D had to decide where to draw the line between the ludicrous reality of the Emu War and overdoing it. They debated whether the operation to cull emus with two guys working a machine gun could be called the “Great Emu War,” deciding that because newspaper accounts of the time used that term, they could.

I’m intrigued by this situation in part because I was once a “Wikipedian” for the Mennonite Church USA Archives. Then our strategy was to simply create pages for people and institutions for which the archives was a repository, and leave a tagline at the end to the effect that we had their papers. Now I think the approach would be to use the digitized sources in an archives’ holdings to improve Wikipedia entries and link to the source in the footnotes. Wikipedia may in fact be one of the best ways for archives to give context to their digital collections. If archives are already trying to blog about their collections (and many are), why not include making relative edits and sourcing to Wikipedia in the blogging workflow?

In the meantime, enjoy the Emu War page.

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