Until recently, it was rare to encounter one's own writing cited online. If you had that pleasure, you were probably a professor, the author of a reference work, a professional historian or journalist ... in short, you were paid for your work and did it exclusively, or nearly so. But as anyone with a passing interest in the Internet can tell you, Wikipedia — where I've been a contributor for over five years — has changed everything.
Not counting my work as an Amazon.com editor, the first time I discovered someone had cited my writing was in April, when a commenter on VintageSeattle.org linked to the article I'd started almost exactly four years before on the Lacey V. Murrow Floating Bridge. Soon after, Seattle's street layout came up in the comments to Crosscut deputy editor Lisa Albers's post "The newcomer name game." Not wanting to cite my own article on the subject, I went looking for information at "Seattle 101" on the city's Web site ... and there it was, linked from the bottom of the page, next to probably their best piece of advice: Buy and carry a street map. (Speaking of maps, the debut of my cartography on the greater Web happened in 2006, when the Washington State Democrats used one of my maps to illustrate their slogan "Let's make Eastern Washington blue!")
I've edited articles ranging from Korean romanization and Shibe Park to Finchley Road tube station and — for the life of me I can't remember why — Natural afro-hair, but by far the majority of the 4,000-plus articles I've worked on, and almost all of the articles I've created, have to do with Seattle, Washington state, or the greater Pacific Northwest. But why? It's not as if my training is in local history: If we went by credentialed expertise Ã la Wikipedia's predecessor, Nupedia (or Britannica or Encarta, for that matter), I'd only have written about linguistics or — more likely — not be a contributor at all. And why Wikipedia in the first place?
A Seattle native — born on Capitol Hill, raised in Washington Park, matriculated at Montlake — I've been an amateur of the city since I was six, when my father bought me a copy of Sophie Frye Bass's Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle at the MOHAI gift shop. My favorite chapters were, and still are, those on the pioneer town's streets, how they got their names, and how they'd changed through the years. One of my most cherished childhood memories is sitting in the front seat of Dad's car (that wouldn't pass legal muster today) with a dogeared city map in my hand, directing him down various avenues and boulevards through neighborhoods we'd normally have no cause to traverse. (I called it "exploring," and recommend it to all parents with a budding roadgeek in the family.) I read whatever I could find on the area, from Spiedel and Morgan to Dorpat and Sale. But there existed no comprehensive reference along the lines of Weinreb and Hibbert's London Encyclopaedia until the debut of Walt Crowley's HistoryLink.org in 1999.
Now, HistoryLink was more than welcome — Britannica and Encarta had no room for Kirkland, let alone South Park or Georgetown — but as the name implies, the site is a historical encyclopedia. (Speaking of Kirkland, its HistoryLink article was written for launch and only covers the city's development through 1988.) Wikipedia certainly wasn't designed to fill this gap, but it does so admirably. As the Boston Globe notes, it's full of would-be historians. It also doesn't suffer from the constraints of space, publication cycles, small staff size, or need to make a profit that hamper its competitors. When I first stumbled across the site in 2003, brought there by a Google search on the word "wiki" (then emerging as the information-sharing medium of choice at Amazon.com), the basics were there, but I found the articles on Washington's counties somewhat lacking. Written, as they were, by a rather ingeniously programmed "bot" drawing upon census information, they were missing basic details such as county seat and etymology.
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