Edited August 27 at 2:25 p.m.
You Can (and should) Edit!
In a 1954 article she wrote for The Parish News—a publication of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn, N.Y.—composer, playwright, novelist and activist Shirley Graham Du Bois described why she began writing her era’s young adult novels about historical figures:
“I began this writing because I felt that Negroes were misunderstood, and were not known, and were outside of history. As I went into research, however, I became aware that this was not as narrow a problem as I had thought. It wasn’t only the Negro. I began to realize that as I was trying to widen the horizon of other people, my own horizon was widening.”
From its start in 2001, Wikipedia—the free (and advertising-free) online encyclopedia—has promised to put the power of including people, topics, ideas and social movements in the hands of those who volunteer to edit it.
Wikipedia Edit-A-Thons Bring Digital Community Together
This month, the American Women’s History Initiative joined forces with Wikipedia for an edit-a-thon to teach participants how to edit, while at the same time enhancing information about the suffrage movement and the 19th Amendment.
For several years now, the Wikimedia Foundation and a wide range of partners have hosted edit-a-thons that bring together scholars, Wikipedians, librarians and the public to help enhance and expand Wikipedia’s knowledge base.
Understanding the best way to encourage people to become editors and help diversify content is through practice, the edit-a-thons provide opportunities for sharing tips and knowledge about how to edit Wikipedia, how to add images and content, and how to write for an online encyclopedia.
The stakes in knowledge production have always been high. Including people, events and topics in history—and so to public view—has been a process long monopolized by powerful knowledge brokers, scholars, journalists, public relations specialists, politicians and more.
Shirley Graham Du Bois understood this monopoly all too well. Describing why it was a white man—Herbert Aptheker—and not a Black man who wrote a groundbreaking history of slave rebellions, Graham observed:
“Because he was a white man, it was possible for him to go into the South, into the archives, and national and the libraries in the deep South, and go get behind and go into their papers and have them bring out papers for him which they didn’t even know they had, in some instances, and to go through some of these papers. Now a [B]lack man couldn’t have done this. … It just would have been an impossibility.”
Wikipedia’s Promise of Inclusion “Only Partly Realized”
Wikipedia’s promise has only been partly realized. The online encyclopedia is part of a broader internet culture fueled by the very prejudices and problems social media have helped expose and amplify.
White men still comprise the majority of editors. The content of the English-language Wikipedia reflects that perspective: Of the more than 1.5 million biographies on it, only 17 percent are about women.
Wikipedia insiders have also criticized the online encyclopedia’s suppression of Black history.
And it’s true that the culture of Wikipedia isn’t particularly friendly to newcomers—especially when those newcomers represent perspectives at odds with those of its predominantly white male base. As both Bryce Peake and Darius Jemielnek have pointed out, Wikipedia’s editing policies—created to ensure the credibility of the information it publishes—can be weaponized by editors who make their reputations on the basis of aggressively undoing and deleting entries.
For editors creating or editing Wikipedia content on those marginalized within Wikipedia’s vast database, it can be frustrating to write topics in for which secondary sources are scarce—a problem well-documented by contributors like mathematician Marie Vitulli, who has worked to write women mathematicians into Wikipedia.
When historians and journalists haven’t written about these women, there are no secondary sources to cite in support of an entry, making it difficult to meet the notability requirements. And there are far too many reasons why women and people of color couldn’t benefit from the legacy-building machinery of universities.
Still, Wikipedia is a an incredibly important site of struggle in ongoing info wars—a quick glance at the history of Wikipedia pages that like Susan B. Anthony’s or Kamala Harris’s have generated controversy will suffice.
Despite educators’ tendency to discourage students from using Wikipedia, Wikipedia is so much more than a source or a final destination. It’s a portal into other sources. Adding to and enhancing that portal to include knowledge and perspectives hitherto suppressed or marginalized is an important political project.
As the Wikipedia page we wrote at one edit-a-thon put it:
“Rosa Lee Ingram … was at the center of one of the most explosive capital punishment cases in U.S. history.”
But she wasn’t included in the largest reference site on the world wide web until a group of volunteers wrote her in.
And the group of Black women activists who defended Ingram and her family—Sojourners for Truth and Justice—also didn’t appear until we wrote them in, at another edit-a-thon.
Wikipedia is also a powerful tool for teaching us all—through the practice of editing and creating entries—how to evaluate sources and write content that is based on peer-reviewed research and credible sources, not propaganda and falsehoods.
At a time when research of all sorts is being discredited and undermined by the Trump administration, Wikipedia can help educate people about the importance of peer review and scholarly work. As imperfect as they are, Wikipedia policies are helpful tools in removing false or spurious information, requiring editors to support assertions by using evidence, something in short supply right now.
Sure, it’s frustrating when you can’t write someone or something in because no secondary sources exist—but it’s also exciting to encourage students, journalists and scholars to create those secondary sources by writing and publishing articles about those individuals and topics.
The exclusion of knowledge produced from the standpoints of women, people of color, indigenous people, LGBTQ people, disabled people, and all those defined by a so-called majority as minorities has long been a strategy for suppressing dissent and challenges to bigotry and discrimination. Like many people from groups marginalized from creating knowledge about the world, Shirley Graham Du Bois knew the cost of being outside of history.
She paid that price herself: Her novels about Black surveyor and mathematician Benjamin Banneker and Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, credited with being the first non-indigenous settler of Chicago, remain out of print. Her many groundbreaking accomplishments—the first Black woman to write and produce an opera; the first Black woman to head a Federal Theatre Project; the first woman to found and develop a national television system—for decades remained outside of history.
The history of Shirley Graham Du Bois’s Wikipedia page illustrates the promise and the problems of ensuring her story is told, highlighting the importance of diversifying the community of Wikipedians.
Get Involved! Women in Science Virtual Edit-a-thon: Monday, Aug. 31
The Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, along with the Smithsonian Institution Archives, is hosting its second Women in Science Wikipedia edit-a-thon—part of an effort to increase the representation of women on Wikipedia and to close the editor and content based gender gaps on the site. The editing efforts will focus on women in science at the Smithsonian from the Vicki Funk List.
The event is Monday, Aug. 31, from 12p.m.-2p.m. ET.
Register here via Eventbrite.
All are welcome to attend—there will be a training at the start for those new to editing Wikipedia.