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Facts about Vermont on Wikipedia

  • Unlike traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia seems to specialize in pop culture and unorthodox trivia. Here's some tidbits gleaned from entries about Vermont people, places and things.

  • At Middlebury College, (Gov. James) Douglas was a Russian studies major, and still speaks Russian, even using these skills in establishing a sister-city relationship with Karelia, Russia.

  • The (Castleton) College's Georgian Revival campus was featured in the sci-fi movie "Time Chasers," which was spoofed in a classic episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

  • In the Bollywood movie "Salaam Namaste," the lead character craves Ben & Jerry's Belgian Dark Chocolate ice cream during her pregnancy.

  • Mad River Glen is one of the few ski areas in the United States to completely ban snowboarding. This has been very controversial and has caused significant ire in Vermont, especially among the snowboarding community itself.

  • Only France's Minister of Agriculture, Food, Fishing and Rural Affairs (see Minister of Agriculture France) has standards for butterfat content equal to Vermont's.

  • Montpelier is the only state capital without a McDonald's franchise, and it has the last remaining clothespin manufacturer in the United States.

  • Before beginning her career as a full-time artist, Mary Azarian taught in a one-room schoolhouse for three years.

  • "Moonlight in Vermont" is considered an unofficial state song of Vermont and is frequently played as the first dance song at Vermont wedding receptions.

  • Vermont State Police were associated with the cult classic "Super Troopers," ... a 2002 comedy film written by and starring the Broken Lizard comedy group. ... It has become a cult classic, especially on college campuses.

  • Fred Tuttle died of a heart attack after a day spent digging potatoes at his home in Tunbridge. He was buried in his overalls, with a pen in his pocket for autograph signing and a can of Moxie by his side.
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  • WIKIPEDIA: What do they know; when do they know it, and when can we trust it?

    It's spring, so it's time for fifth-graders to write reports on maple syrup. Let's imagine their steps.

    They start by typing "maple syrup" into Google.

    The first link to pop up leads them to Wikipedia, "the free online encyclopedia."

    They click onto that link - possibly never noticing the second source is www.vermontmaple.org - and start taking notes. Some students might do more research - but many may be satisfied with everything Wikipedia puts right in front of them.

    Fifth-graders are not the only ones funneled to Wikipedia. Anyone investigating anything online almost immediately bumps into Wikipedia. Curious about Jim Jeffords, Howard Dean or Bernie Sanders? Wikipedia is top choice in a Google search. Curious about mud season or the Marlboro Music Festival? Wikipedia is the second link. Interested in Norwich University or Act 250 or Bread and Puppet? Wikipedia is the fourth link.

    It's ubiquitous, hard to avoid and an easy source of information. But should you rely on it? Depending on who you ask, Wikipedia is either the best example of what the Internet can offer, or the best evidence that the Web can't be trusted. As comedian Steven Colbert (who encouraged his viewers to manipulate the size of the world's elephant population on Wikipedia) declared on his late-night show: "When Wikipedia becomes our most trusted Web source, reality is just what the majority agrees upon."

    In Vermont, some educators are struggling to determine what role Wikipedia might legitimately play in the classroom. The site is becoming a gateway for information about Vermont - its people, history, tourist sites and institutions. And some Vermonters are trying their darnedest to ensure the state is accurately and comprehensively reflected on the Web site.

    Unlike some Web sites, which burst into the public consciousness, get maximum press coverage and become must-clicks overnight - think MySpace and YouTube - Wikipedia has evolved slowly. It first materialized on my computer screen in the fall of 2003, when I was preparing for a college class that I was teaching. Since I was trying to set a good example of finding reliable sources for my students, I was a little leery of a Web site with which I was unfamiliar. I did some exploration and cautiously decided the site was OK to use in this case. I would use it to show my students how to properly cite material.

    Back then, Wikipedia was 21/2 years old and seemed like just another interesting Web site. My initial foray didn't reveal to me the extent of how Wikipedia worked. Only now do I realize that I cited it incorrectly.

    So how does it work? What is Wikipedia? Here's how Wikipedia defines itself in the "Wikipedia" entry at 9:49 p.m. on March 9 (As you'll see, it's important when citing Wikipedia to give the exact date and time the entry was used: that information can be found at the bottom of each entry.)

    "Wikipedia is a multilingual, Web-based free-content encyclopedia project. Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers; its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the Web site. The name is a portmanteau of the words wiki (a type of collaborative Web site) and encyclopedia. ...

    "The project ... has over six million articles in 250 languages, including 1.6 million in the English edition. Wikipedia has steadily risen in popularity since its inception and currently ranks among the 12 most-visited Web sites worldwide."

    The origin of Wikipedia dates back to 2000, when Jimmy Wales, an Internet entrepreneur, started an online encyclopedia called Nupedia. About a year later, the editor of Nupedia, Larry Sander, proposed using wiki software. Wikipedia.com was launched in January 2001, and for a while both Nupedia and Wikipedia existed - until the two merged in 2003.

    In late 2002, Wikipedia stopped accepting advertisements and the site moved to wikipedia.org. The nonprofit Wikipedia Foundation was formed in 2003; it relies on private donations and regular fundraisers for financial support. Only six people are paid employees - everyone else volunteers, including the 1,156 administrators.

    Perhaps the most important thing to understand about Wikipedia - both its genius and its Achilles heel - is that anyone can create or modify an entry. Anyone means your 10-year-old neighbor or a Nobel Prize winner - or an editor like me, who is itching to correct a grammar error in that Wikipedia entry that I just quoted. Entries can be edited by numerous people and be in constant flux. What you read now might change in five minutes. Five seconds, even.

    Wikipedia does have rules: Articles must have a "neutral point of view" and no original research is allowed, meaning entries must have citations from previously published material. Hundreds of software robots troll the site looking for vandalism and errors (one, for example, searches for foul language).

    The theory behind Wikipedia is that after thousands of people read and correct and improve an entry, it will reflect the complete, current and unvarnished truth. It is an idealistic goal, because it assumes that information is best shaped through a democratic process. Just like crafting legislation, consensus editing on Wikipedia can be both lengthy and acrimonious. There are no backroom deals, though - all the arguments can be found under the "discussion" tab for each entry.

    Unlike traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia has no peer editing. Studies comparing Wikipedia and Britannica have shown a similar error rate, although Britannica is slightly more accurate (the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three, according to Nature magazine). At the end of each article are references and links for further research.

    Wikipedia is sometimes the first to admit when something is wrong. When I first visited the Act 250 entry there was a warning on top: "This article may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia's quality standards." The entry on Killington cautioned: "This article or section is written like an advertisement." The maple syrup entry warned: "This article does not cite its references or sources" - a red flag for possible inaccuracy. (Timothy Perkins, director of the University of Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center, told me he checks the maple syrup entry every six months or so for accuracy, and has made corrections.) Many Wikipedia entries on controversial topics, including "Palestinian refugee" and "intelligent design," are locked so only administrators can do edits; users who consistently vandalize are blocked from using the site.

    I've now read dozens of Wikipedia articles. It was fun looking up my high school and college, and checking out Vermont entries. I haven't found it rife with errors - although I'm no expert. The entry on The Times Argus has a minor inaccuracy. A porn star was described as the creator of the cotton gin. Apparently Yale students have created fake entries. And I'm not sure I would trust the elephant article since Colbert's fans enjoy messing with it.

    After a little digging, I figured out that the entry on the state of Vermont has been changed 1,000 times just since Oct. 30, 2006. The frequency of editing means that if you cite Wikipedia, in any kind of a research paper, you really ought to indicate the day, hour and minute it was written. Seconds after you finish your paper, the entry could be substantially different.

    This very process of how entries are written, expanded, debated and discussed is what some scholars find exciting. Wikipedia, to quote one professor, is "a community of people who want to create knowledge" - which is pretty cool. This, they argue, is the future of information.

    "The great lesson of Wikipedia in my mind is that there is always more to know, every bit of knowledge is up for debate," explains Jason Mittell, a professor at Middlebury College. "Wikipedia contains the most current thinking on any topic. As the world changes, Wikipedia will change faster than any other press out there." Mittell, who teaches film and media culture, describes it as "potentially transformative."

    Grace Armstrong, one of Mittell's former students, writes in her blog: "One of Wikipedia's most interesting roles ... is as a collaborative conversation about information, rather than a simple repository of facts. One of the most exciting things about new media such as Wikipedia is their ability to broaden and deepen the abilities of both the academic and non-academic communities to access, understand, and contribute to the expansion of human knowledge."

    Wikipedia may be the best-known "wiki" on the Web, but there are hundreds of others (check out www.wikia.com). Perhaps the most trafficked are the wikis for popular culture. The one for Star Wars ("Wookieepedia"), for example, has more than 45,000 articles. Lostipedia, for the television series "Lost," has more than 1,300 articles in four languages. There are wikis for music (5,700 articles) and genealogy (5,000 articles). Conservapedia is a site that describes itself as "a much-needed alternative to Wikipedia, which is increasingly anti-Christian and anti-American."

    And businesses are beginning to turn to internal wikis, finding they are a good way to share information with employees. Both Dartmouth College and Norwich University use these; so does the CIA.

    But Wikipedia has drawbacks, to be sure.

    "You are really at the mercy at whoever edited it last," remarked Sandy Duling, the library director at Castleton State College, when asked about Wikipedia. Its ephemeral nature, and susceptibility to vandalism and inaccuracy, is at the heart of the debate over whether and how students should use Wikipedia.

    Middlebury College has become a focal point of this debate.

    In January, Middlebury's history department announced its students can no longer cite Wikipedia. This statement, which has been written about in the higher education trade press, The New York Times and on countless blogs, has been both derided and praised.

    The precipitating factor for the Middlebury history department decision came when some students used Wikipedia - and not the assigned reading - to study for exams. The students presented the same wrong information, and the professors traced the mistakes to its source.

    The problem with Wikipedia is that it can't be trusted, explains Middlebury's history department chair Don Wyatt. "It's mostly about error. ... That error is directly linked to the method of compilation, which is ... a method whereby anyone can supply information and alter information. ... (Students) misused the resource in the sense that they accepted it as more authoritative than it is."

    Some critics are astounded Middlebury students don't already know that Wikipedia - and all encyclopedias, in fact - should never be cited in college research. Even Wikipedia issued a statement supporting Middlebury's policy, saying its articles are not authoritative and should be used only as a starting point. But still, there are proponents who argue Wikipedia is the threshold to an exciting, new brand of interactive research.

    In high schools in Vermont, the issue seems less cut and dried.

    Linda McSweeney of Spaulding High School in Barre, and a number of other school librarians, reported that some teachers allow Wikipedia to be used as a source, a few ban it, but the challenge is to always teach students to be critical of sources. "My personal opinion," said McSweeney, "is that Wikipedia is a good source for popular culture topics. ... When you're trying to find information on Ella Fitzgerald or John Coltrane, Wikipedia is one of the best places to go."

    But acceptance of Wikipedia at high schools is driving some colleges crazy. "Nothing infuriates faculty more than the words Google and Wikipedia," said Janice Beal, coordinator of public services at Kreitzberg Library at Norwich University. But students "want to use it. ... The increasing emphasis is to wean them off the popular stuff. It's harder and harder to do when they come in as freshmen." She says they are "accustomed to Googling everything," instead of relying on more scholarly Internet databases.

    Wyatt agrees. "The technology is so seductive that it's drawn nearly all students in," he said. "I think people can be nurtured into laziness."

    Part of the problem is limited resources in high schools. Libraries at public schools can't afford to buy updated books or subscribe to online databases, and many students are not inclined to travel to a research library.

    "Our library is very, very weak. It's not updated. Its resources are not specific," confirms Cathy Butterfield, who teaches social studies at Montpelier High School. Middlebury College's history department will appreciate Butterfield. She just started banning Wikipedia as a research source.

    "Last November students had to research a leader and write a persuasive piece. Many used Wikipedia and just had very superficial information at best, (and) some of it was not correct," said Butterfield. "I will be banning it from my bibliographies from now on," she wrote in an e-mail.

    In a follow-up interview, she said her students often don't question what they find online, including on Wikipedia. "They misunderstand how things are posted and published. They think it's legitimate," she said.

    Still, Wikipedia is hard to avoid. And even history professors take note. Both Wyatt and James Overfield, chair of UVM's history department, admit to using it. "A day doesn't pass when I don't look at Wikipedia," said Overfield, whose department has not felt the need to ban students from using it.

    At Middlebury, Mittell argues that the history department may be over-reacting. He also says it may be missing the opportunity to radically change the process of research. He suggests students start with Wikipedia, go off and do their research, and then return and update Wikipedia to share their new knowledge. Here's his blog entry on the subject: "... In the traditional academic formulation, students gather research to assemble into a project to be read by an audience of one, after which the professor (hopefully) returns the paper with comments exclusively for the author. Arguably this interchange results in student learning, but it is a singular exchange with few ripple effects beyond the individual.

    "But wikis are not a 'read only' medium - they are inherently a 'read/write' format. Reading a Wikipedia entry is only one part of the equation - to truly use Wikipedia requires people to become editors. Personally, I feel empowered and engaged by editing articles on wikis, knowing that by improving an entry I'm giving back to a shared resource. I believe in encouraging students to use their knowledge gained in a course beyond the confines of the classroom - wikis provide a simple and accessible interface to share and disseminate knowledge."

    Wikipedia thrives only because of the diligent efforts of its contributors. Sandra Ordonez, a spokesperson for Wikipedia, describes their effort as virtual volunteerism. And there are millions of them - all around the globe.

    But problems do arise. Congressional staffers have been caught adding "political spin" to articles. Microsoft even offered to pay someone to edit entries. As a result, public-relations firms, campaign workers and anyone else with a potential conflict of interest is not supposed to edit. "Wikipedia is not the place for self-promotion," Ordonez said. "It works off good faith ... We really try to trust people."

    For public relations people, however, it's very tempting to check out what Wikipedia says about the entity whose message they are paid to protect.

    For example, Jennifer Francouer, a staff person in the UVM communications department, frequently makes edits to the UVM entry.

    "You never know what's going to be there from hour to hour," she said. Pranks are common. Like the time the art at Fleming Museum was described as being inspired by hallucinogens, she said.

    Recently, someone had added a section on "UVM Student Abductions," about Michelle Gardner Quinn, the student who was murdered last fall. Francouer removed it. "It was almost like we condone it," she said. "It doesn't belong in an encyclopedia entry."

    As more public relations people awaken to the fact that they may have to pay attention to Wikipedia, more edits might occur.

    "Now that you mention it, I probably should look at (Wikipedia)," said Jason Gibbs, spokesperson for Gov. James Douglas. "It's one of the responsibilities of my job." He added: "If I do find anything inaccurate, I would do my best to set the record straight."

    Most Vermont contributors to Wikipedia seem to have purely altruistic motives. More than 40 Wikipedians say they live in Vermont or are interested in Vermont; their interests range from Vermont history to the Red Sox. Some of them have informally bonded in an effort called the "Wiki Project: Vermont." They are an ad hoc group that tries to improve entries about Vermont.

    Volunteers from across the country have created Wiki projects for all kinds of topics - including such subjects as "Gilbert and Sullivan," "Gay, Lesbian BiSexual and Transgender Studies," and military history. Wikipedians who have these interests at heart go online to discuss their topics and collaborate on entries.

    The Wiki Project: Vermont got under way in December 2004. Its mission statement explains: "This Wiki Project intends to organize, format, expand, and exemplify Vermont related articles on Wikipedia," the project states. It goes on to say ... "Our to-do list is located below, and is in a constant state of flux."

    And much is to be done. Articles that need to be expanded include the Long Trail, Camel's Hump, Marlboro Music Festival, Redfield Proctor, George David Aiken, Philip H. Hoff, Madeleine M. Kunin, Jim Douglas, St. Johnsbury Academy, Shelburne Museum, Horace Fairbanks and the Vermont Marble Museum.

    The list of entries to create is even longer: Rivers like the Batten Kill, Lamoille and Otter Creek; museums like the American Museum of Fly Fishing, Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium, Fleming Museum, Helen Day Art Center, National Museum of the Morgan Horse, President Calvin Coolidge Homestead, Rokeby Museum, Thomas W. Wood Art Gallery and Wilson Castle; events like the Vermont Maple Festival and the Vermont State Fair.

    Despite the gaps, Vermont Wikipedians - who go by screen names like vter4life, firebringervt and Solonvt - have been hard at work. They may have different backgrounds and interests, but they have a strong sense of ownership when it comes to Wikipedia.

    One such Wikipedian is Jim Hood. Many Montpelier entries can be traced to him. Known as, "gearedbull," he's contributed to the articles about the Statehouse, the state flag, the coat of arms and the state motto.

    Raised in Middlesex, a graduate of U-32 High School in East Montpelier, Hood lives in Boston but visits central Vermont regularly. "I've got Vermont under my skin," he explains. "I still identify with it even though I don't live there day to day.

    "I have a substantial library about Vermont," he adds, describing the two bookcases in his apartment filled with tomes about Vermont architecture and political history. "I grab my books, see if my memory is as I thought it was.

    "Today, after lunch I wrote a little article about a tract of land in Vermont called Kings College tract," he said. "I pulled out three books here ... got the basic facts down." Poof: now Wikipedia has an entry explaining this odd land transfer, which gave Columbia University land in Vermont in 1764.

    Acknowledging that one could become addicted to Wikipedia, Hood says he tries to moderate his time on it. He communicates with other Vermont Wikipedians, chatting about facts and wording in the "discussion" part of Vermont entries.

    Hood says one of his missions is to try to assure that Vermont is portrayed accurately. "People get very glassy eyed, wet eyed about Vermont; they portray it in their mind as this little peaceable serene republic, where everyone gets along," he said. "It's a place I love ... but it's not La-La Land. There's junk cars and the occasional person who shoots someone."

    Another prolific Vermont Wikipedian is Jessamyn West, 38, who works in the library at the Randolph Technical Career Center. She transformed from a Wikipedia user to a contributor two years ago, after visiting the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington.

    "I went to Wikipedia, and saw that their entry for Brownington didn't include this massive stone building. I thought, I should find the information and put it on there so other people can find it and learn about it," she explains.

    Since then, she says, as she scrolls through a long list of her contributions, she's made "a couple thousand edits." Her mission last winter was to figure out which Vermont towns had official town Web pages, and making all those links available. Today, thanks to her efforts, visitors to Wikipedia entries on Clarendon, Bethel and dozens of other Vermont towns can link directly to the town's Web site.

    West points out that because of the way search engines work, many Vermont towns may be difficult to find online. "Wikipedia understands how to structure information so it makes sense to computers as well as humans," she explains. "By linking the town's Web site in Wikipedia, that will make them more findable on Google."

    With a degree in library science and membership in the American Library Association Council, she has also contributed to entries about libraries. She's a fan of a parody TV show called Reno 911, and watches that page, too, as well as the entry for a band she likes.

    Every page West edits she adds to her watch list; 10 to 15 Vermont towns get revised each day, she says. She removes any vandalism she sees.

    "I see a lot of kids edit Wikipedia, add their names and friends' names to it," she said. "It's why I have a watch list." The next project she's considering: going back to the Vermont town entries and adding links to public libraries.

    All the Wikipedians I spoke to view it as the people's encyclopedia, and their expressed mission is to improve it. "I have some sense of ownership," explains Jared Benedict (aka redjar), who created the mud season entry and added longitude and latitude information to town articles. "A lot of the pages I've edited are under my wing. I staked my claim and work on my own little corner."

    Visit the discussion page of some Vermont articles, and you'll see passionate and lengthy debates. You'll see how additional information is added, bit by bit, day by day, by a diverse group of people. Mittell of Middlebury describes this as "collective intelligence" - our knowledge of the world being created incrementally, by everyone, through collaboration, discussion and problem-solving. It's a very different model than the pre-Internet past, when knowledge was concentrated within a small group of erudite scholars.

    What's fascinating about Wikipedia, however, is that while it does encourage some to actively participate in the accumulation of knowledge, it is also leads others to passively accept that information. As scholars debate the value of Wikipedia, users have to decide whether to ignore it because it is just "democracy run amok," as one professor describes it, or to subscribe to Jessamyn West's view:

    "In library circles, sometimes, there are people who complain: 'I found something wrong on Wikipedia.' I wonder, 'Did you change it?' We are all responsible (on Wikipedia). That's an unusual way to feel about a Web site. You are responsible if you see a mistake. Everyone should be responsible for making Wikipedia better."


    Susan Youngwood is a Times Argus reporter and editor.




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