National Conference of African American Librarians (NCAAL)

Below is my presentation for the 10th Annual Conference of African American Librarians which was held in Atlanta this year. I became involved when I saw a call for presenters who had worked with Wikipedia with a focus on diversity. Tiffany Atwater Lee at the Archives Research Center at the Atlanta University Center Robert Woodruff Library put the panel and proposal together and Curtis Small Jr. at the University of Delaware was the third panelist. It was such a pleasure to meet them both and learn about their Wikipedia related projects! All of our slides can be found on Google Drive here.

Intro: I’m Greta Suiter, Collections Archivist at the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections. I seriously started getting involved with editing Wikipedia after I volunteered to lead an edit-a-thon highlighting collections from the Archives. It ended up being a great way to jump into the world of Wikipedia and has lead to much collaborative work and conference presentations.

Hosting edit-a-thons is a great way for librarians and archivists to share their collections and subject expertise, expand the content on Wikipedia, and teach others about digital literacy, writing, and how to edit. It can be an impactful learning experience that empowers participants to edit one of the most influential websites ever. As we all know if it doesn’t exist on Wikipedia many people are less likely to think it is real or important.

Wikipedia is conscious of its gaps and how it is not actually “the sum of all human knowledge.” Overall it does suffer from systemic bias – the editors, and when you look at the numbers you can see that it isn’t that many editors – around 3500 that are responsible for most of the edits on Wikipedia. And the content that we find represented on Wikipedia will be biased toward their interests. If 80% of editors are white college educated men the content of Wikipedia will reflect their interests. This is one of the big reasons that librarians and archivists should be editing and encouraging others to edit – especially content concerning women and minorities – and especially encouraging women and minorities to start editing.

Wikipedia is aware of this situation and has made some efforts to be a more welcoming and friendly place. The behavioral guideline “Don’t Bit the Newbies” states, “We must treat newcomers with kindness and patience – nothing scares potentially valuable contributers away faster than hostility.” But many new editors still find Wikipedia to be a place difficult to navigate or contribute to.

And it’s been found especially difficult for those working on issues related to underrepresented groups. Encountering accusations of activism, bias, or an agenda can happen and it is especially frustrating when you see the work you are doing as fitting within the Wikipedia mission and ethos, only to be told it is not.

So what are some of the strategies to making meaningful edits that stick in Wikipedia?

One mode of thought is to follow the golden rule – “Articles require significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the topic.” In other words you need to prove that a topic is notable enough to be included in Wikipedia. And “notable” can be highly contentious. Arming yourself with sources that support your notability claim is one of your best chances to prove meaningful edits.

This should be easy for librarians and archivists – we are surrounded by reliable sources! And this is where I’ve found most of my work goes into prepping for edit-a-thons. In locating sources that will assist editors in proving notability. Luckily for archivists finding aids do count as a published source.

Here is an example of a stub article that was created using a collection we had titled Black Women in the Academy – it is a small collection that documents a national conference held at MIT in 1994. It was notable because it was cited as the first national conference with Black women in academia as the main theme. The collection consists of newspaper articles, many of which can now be found online, as well as planning documents and program related material. On Wikipedia newspaper articles are considered reliable sources. The collection had enough different sources to start the article and hopefully more will be added to it in the future.

I wanted to share a little about my process of preparing for edit-a-thons. I like to use Google Docs because of their collaborative capabilities. We’ll use a Google doc for brainstorming themes – here’s an example of brainstorming around a Black History Month edit-a-thon. Finding the sources you want to highlight and the entries that need editing or that don’t exist yet in Wikipedia is important to planning the event.

I also find it helpful to keep running lists of edit-a-thon ideas as I come across them – either content that is missing from Wikipedia or resources that would work well to highlight. A recent thrift store find was the African-American National Biography set of reference books. Resources like these are incredibly helpful to editing Wikipedia. Here’s an example of a recent listserv post mentioning the death of a Mexican art historian. I looked her up in Wikipedia and found Spanish and German language entries but nothing in English. This would make a good project because it wouldn’t focus on finding sources as much as being a translation project.

This leads to an important point: There are many ways to edit. You could focus primarily on grammar and language in articles, or on the look of articles – in Wikipedia appearances matter – articles with multiple headings, infoboxes, and properly cited resources are more likely to not be deleted because they look right. Editors can also focus on adding images to the Commons or adding structured data to Wikidata.

Over the course of 8 edit-a-thons that we’ve hosted at MIT over 2 and half years we’ve found when it comes to encouraging new and diverse editors that themes and aligning with larger initiatives is most successful. For us the Art+Feminism edit-a-thons garnered the most interest and we had almost all women editors with many first time editors showing up. This chart shows when we started using the Wikipedia Dashboard for keeping track of edits. So now we can continue to see the impact of the edits over time.

For the last Art+Feminism event we had 18 participants, 1 new article created, 32 articles edited, 199 distinct edits with over 7k words added to Wikipedia, and an impact of 124k article views. This just goes to prove that the goal of editing does not have to be completely tied to creating new articles, but also editing existing ones.

These are images from the Art + Feminism edit-a-thons. We found holding the events in our instruction space which has plenty of computers, and a large conference table worked pretty well. It is not the most beautiful space and there are no collections housed in the space – meaning we need to bring print collections to the space and it is not a typical awe inspiring, Pinterest worthy depiction of a library space, but it is functional much like Wikipedia itself. As we’ve done more edit-a-thons we have increased the number of organizers which has included getting more librarians involved. I would not recommend taking on planning and hosting an edit-a-thon alone. We’ve always had at least two people help with planning and in case of our last edit-a-thon there were 7 of us planning. Through edit-a-thons I’ve been a part of very fruitful collaborations with library and MIT colleagues as well as becoming involved in the New England network of Wikimedians. All of our events have been open to the public. Keeping track of who is attending and following up with them about other events has been the most challenging aspect of organizing for us and something we are hoping to improve in the future.

In the future we are hoping to host an edit-a-thon during Open Access Week that could focus on the importance of Open Access resources.

Thank you


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