from the Library of Maura

Working on Wikipedia

February 4th, 2014 by Maura A. Smale · 1 Comment

Last weekend I found myself in a room chock full of 30+ students, teachers, and other interested feminists with laptops at the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. As the organizers introduced the event and its goals, several participants with relevant expertise (historians, art scholars) identified themselves and volunteered their assistance. I’m not an art historian, but I raised my hand anyway and came clean as an academic librarian, offering to help with research questions if folks had them.

And then I got perhaps the most amazingly gratifying response ever, as the whole room made an audible “Oooooooh!” sound at the mention of the word “librarian.” True story! (and one that’s kept me smiling for days)

With that auspicious beginning to my first ever Wikipedia edit-a-thon I was primed to have a great time, and the event did not disappoint. Edit-a-thons were happening on February 1st all over the world: I chose to go to the session at the Brooklyn Museum, held in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in a room adjacent to The Dinner Party (how’s that for inspiration?).

While I’ve been a heavy user of Wikipedia for years and refer to it often in my research and information literacy instruction with City Tech students, I’d never edited Wikipedia before last weekend. I came in feeling a bit nervous about my n00b status and wondering about the cliquish-ness of the frequent-editors in the Wikipedia community, as I’m well aware of the under-representation of new voices and especially women on the site. But I think I might be hooked now — it was a huge thrill to contribute to the site, and I’m happy to report that my (small) edits have persisted even to today.

A couple of takeaways for me:

OMG yes, it’s so very clear that our students should be contributing to Wikipedia. I felt this way even before going to the edit-a-thon, but I feel even more strongly about it now. It might be tricky to add Wikipedia editing/content creation to the credit-bearing course we teach at my library, as the content we cover include the information landscape and issues like access to information, intellectual property, and information ethics — all concepts that are likely to be heavily-covered (and possibly contested) in Wikipedia. But I’m going to keep thinking on a way to try, because it seems so much better to have the content that students create available for others to use. And I’m delighted that the graduate students in the course I’m co-teaching with Michael Mandiberg, Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Core 2, will have the chance to edit Wikipedia this semester.

Time: working on Wikipedia takes time, which can be in short supply. Time to research, time to cite, time to write. The organizers of the edit-a-thon had compiled a list of Wikipedia entries that needed work and I chose to work on the entry for Aebbe the Younger, an Abbess in Dark Age Scotland (later sainted) who apparently convinced her fellow nuns to disfigure their faces as Vikings were poised to attack the monastery, thus avoiding rape (though the Vikings did set fire to the monastery and all reportedly perished). Back in the day when I was an archaeologist my research (for a time) centered on the Iron Age through Medieval British Isles, so this entry piqued my interest. But I’d forgotten how little is really known about this time period, even in this area which is relatively rich in historical documentation. I spent most of my edit-a-thon time last Saturday doing research on the open internet as well as in library databases, but found little in the way of new information. I was able to add a couple of citations, and I have copious notes and intend to go back and flesh out the entry more, as well as tidy up/add citations to a couple of other references to Aebbe in other Wikipedia entries. But sometimes an entry is short because there’s just not that much information out there, unfortunately.

Even despite these challenges, the edit-a-thon convinced me to do more editing in Wikipedia in the future. So I count that as a win, and I’m looking forward to getting back to Aebbe’s entry as soon as I can.

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