Wiki Scholars: Historians and the National Archives Team Up for a Course to Improve Wikipedia’s Articles about Women’s Suffrage

AHA Session 50
Friday, January 3, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Madison Square (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Lindsey Passenger Wieck, St. Mary's University
Collaboration and the Ethics of Contributing to Wikipedia
Lindsey Passenger Wieck, St. Mary's University
Wikipedia, Archives, and Public Outreach
Cassandra Nicole Berman, Brandeis University
Building a Course to Bring Historians to Wikipedia
Ryan McGrady, Wiki Education Foundation
Critical and Feminist Methods: Teaching with Wikipedia
Erin Siodmak, Hunter College, City University of New York

Session Abstract

When people want to learn more about a historical person or event they see in the news, their first stop for more information is typically Wikipedia, which plays a major role in shaping public understanding of a wide range of subjects. As the product of mostly volunteers, however, its quality and coverage are uneven and reflect the interests and biases of its predominantly male editors. Many areas would benefit from a more diverse community, whereas others may require contributors with more training or specialized knowledge.

There is an exigency in the popularity of Wikipedia, but also an opportunity for subject-matter experts to channel their knowledge. But while the community of volunteers who edit Wikipedia has long understood the potential for experts to be valuable contributors to the encyclopedia, its unique writing environment can be jarring and difficult to adapt to. Some of the ways in which it differs from academic writing are particularly pronounced when writing about history: original research is not allowed, and primary sources are typically discouraged in favor of using secondary sources.

When the National Archives and Records Administration began preparing its 2019 exhibit, Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote, celebrating the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, it knew that visitors to its exhibit would turn to Wikipedia to learn more about what they saw. It teamed up with Wiki Education, a non-profit that builds connections between academia and Wikipedia, to offer a professional development course to train historians and other academics to contribute to Wikipedia articles about women’s suffrage. That course, NARA Wiki Scholars, brought together twenty scholars in fall 2018. Participants were drawn to the course for a number of reasons: to give back to a resource that they have learned so much from, to inform their own research or pedagogy, to expand the ways they communicate research in their discipline, and out of a passion for open source information and for learning the skills they need to contribute to the movement. All helped close the gender content gap on Wikipedia and better represent historical knowledge for the benefit of learners everywhere. Using resources from the NARA and elsewhere, they made 1,525 edits to 50 Wikipedia articles, adding a total of 50,900 words. These edits included improvements to articles not just on well-known people, events, and cases, but also to less prominent subjects and those which were not previously represented on Wikipedia, including individuals whose struggles for voting rights were not resolved by the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

This roundtable/practicum hybrid session includes three academics who participated in the Wiki Scholars course. They will share their experience, how it has informed their teaching, its connection to their specific fields, and how it has enriched their professional goals. A Wiki Education staff member will offer additional context for the course, discussing its background, development, and demonstrating the tools, trainings, and other materials used in the course, some of which are publicly available.

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