Friday, August 5, 2011

Birmingham Characters: Bhamwiki Founder, John Morse

by M. David Hornbuckle

The bio page for John Morse, aka Dystopos on, links to an article in The Onion titled, "Area Man Way Too into Local County History." Indeed it is uncanny how much the subject of this satirical article actual resembles Morse, who founded the local wiki website in 2006.
After five years, Bhamwiki currently contains more than 8,300 articles, and though there are 332 registered users, Morse writes and updates many of the articles himself. "There is one other guy who writes almost as much as me, and another guy who mostly fixes my typos," Morse says. A handful of other contributors have come and gone over time, but Morse is by far the primary contributor. According to Wikipedia, Bhamwiki is the seventh largest local wiki in the world and is only behind Davis,California in U.S. local wikis. The other big ones are in Germany, Austria, and Spain.
"I have to credit my mom," Morse says about how he first became interested in local history. During Spring break when he was growing up in Vestavia, instead of going to the beach, Morse's mother took him to local sites such as Ave Maria Grotto, the Southern Museum of Flight, and Rickwood Caverns. He also got some of his documentarian tendencies from her. Whenever she heard that a building was being torn down, she would take the camera out of the closet and go photograph it.
Later, while studying architecture at Tulane, Morse came across a history of Birmingham, written in 1887 when the city was only seventeen years old. "All the principles were interviewed," he said. And though the book mostly consisted of boosterism and racist propaganda, he was fascinated. "I think I kept checking it out for six months or so." He then wrote a thesis entitled "Recasting the Model Village" and was situated in the former mining town of Docena, which furthered his interest in all local history.
Along the line, Morse became interested in Wikipedia and contributed to a few articles about the subjects that were of interest to him. He liked the wiki concept because it is a living document. "I'm not good at finishing things," he says. "And a wiki is never really finished. It's always growing." He soon discovered, however, that he couldn't reasonably go into the level of detail he wanted to on Wikipedia, so he had the idea to start a local version. At this point, the two sites have a symbiotic relationship. A lot of Bhamwiki articles started as Wikipedia articles, he says, and vice versa.
It keeps him busy. He notes that the more things he documents, the more things he starts to notice that also should be documented. He would like at some point for a person to be able to walk down Highland Avenue and be able to read about everything he sees on Bhamwiki. "That would make a good iPhone app," he says.
Some of the articles require frequent attention to stay up to date. One article that Morse keeps up on a weekly basis is on Birmingham homicide statistics. He tracks of all the cases that are documented in the newspaper, and he lists pertinent facts for each incident on the wiki. He also does his best to keep a running tab of which ones have had arrests, which have had convictions, and which remain unsolved. "I met a retired homicide detective, and he told me this was better than anything they had at the department," he says.
   is a remarkable resource for anyone interested in local history.

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