Bending Wikipedia Towards Justice

a quick talk for UNH’s Art+Feminism edit-a-thon

Jessamyn West
Mar 30, 2018 · 8 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Group gathered at Virginia Key Beach, a Florida segregated beach. 1945. This image was added to Wikipedia and to the relevant article during #1lib1ref 2018.

I gave a short talk before an Art+Feminism Wikipedia edit-a-thon from a list of notes. Here is a more formal essay generated from those same notes.

I’m a Wikipedia superfan and have been since I knew what Wikipedia was. I feel like I have a realistic view of Wikipedia, but I do it anyway. The idea of a reference source that people can contribute to and improve has always resonated with me. I feel this way despite some of Wikipedia’s other shortcomings, and I’m here to talk about why.

When I started editing, I lived in rural Vermont where I still live. I would look up a local town and all that I would find was a page with bot-generated census data and maps. Even though Wikipedia was an encyclopedia anyone could edit, it wasn’t an encyclopedia that anyone did edit. And to some extent that is still true, still feels true.

My first edits were to make sure that if a Vermont town had a website, that website was linked on the Resources section of the town’s Wikipedia page. Winters are long and I am a librarian and this work suited me. I started doing this back in 2005, back when Vermont towns having websites was more unusual than it is now. You don’t have to take my word for it, you can see my edits. I got deeply into Wikipedia culture, participated in referendums on article deletions, joined the welcoming committee, tried to find a place there.

But I didn’t really find a place there. I had some negative interactions with other users and got exhausted with the bureaucracy. I had the time and the patience for editing, but not for constant ongoing disputes… arguments that were weighted towards those who had the most free time. So I re-tooled and found other ways to contribute. I became a member of the Wikimedia Advisory Board. I helped their Abuse Team create training modules. I attended Wikimania in London and gained a new appreciation for the many other ways I could work with the project.

Image for post
Image for post
Wikimania London 2014 group photo. There’s me!

When the #1lib1ref program started up in 2016, I again felt like there might be a place for me. This campaign was all about getting librarians to interact with Wikipedia, to use their skills at tracking down references to help Wikipedia with its [citation needed] problem. And that was a cause I could get behind. I participated enthusiastically, adding citations, enjoying having a hobby where I could look things up. My first #1lib1ref edit was on the Free Your Mind… and Your Ass Will Follow article. I added a link to a source I’d found in Google Books. I mostly found articles needing help using the Citation Hunt tool, my approach was a little random, but I’m a fan of the random walk.

By the second year of the campaign I’d hit my stride in the mechanics of adding citations and I adjusted my focus. I did a lot of work adding images from public domain sources. And I focused on articles about African-Americans, stories that were only partially told on Wikipedia, stories that could use illustration and authority according to the rules of the resource.

First impressions matter. A page on Wikipedia with a [citation needed] banner can create concern about the entire article, not just the sentence that’s being evaluated as lacking. I wanted more articles to look authoritative and complete. I wanted to see more black faces, and particularly female black faces, looking out from Wikipedia. I worked on the articles of Willye Dennis a librarian and legislator from Florida, and Annette Lewis Phinazee the first African-American woman to earn an LIS Ph.D. from Columbia University, and Pauline Young a librarian who helped found the American Federation of Teachers. I created an article for Jewell Mazique, a labor activist who had been photographed by the US Office of War Information while working at the Library of Congress. I included this quotation in the article, about how she preferred social causes to a socialite life.

The frills of social life hold no charms for me, I am more concerned for instance with what the political leaders of Paris decided to do about their colonial possessions than what the Paris designers decide about what women will wear.

Image for post
Image for post
Jewell Mazique working at the Library of Congress

So I don’t mean to set aside the very real critiques and criticisms that are associated with Wikipedia. Similar to places like Reddit, I’ve found that while there are places that are very inclusive and welcoming within the Wikispace, an average interaction for someone not familiar with the culture is likely to be off-putting or confusing. Also similar to Reddit, the US Wikipedia community is overwhelmingly young, white, and male.

There’s a heavy reliance on verbal explanations and written policies; the solutions offered to many novice user queries are often links to pages of supporting documentation about a particular policy or the lengthy history about why a certain word choice is preferred. This goes double for social justice or “controversial issue” topics. It’s daunting to new users at best, and obstructionist and enraging at worst. And ultimately, nearly everyone working on the project is a volunteer, so it can be tough to get fussy about tactics when people are working for you for free.

At the same time, Wikipedia has some strengths that are fairly unique. It has amazing search engine optimization; it shows up really high in search results for topics without a lot of other internet coverage. Many of the Vermont town Wikipedia pages I edited are still on the first page of results when you search for the town in Google. Wikipedia content, since it’s freely available, propagates widely and is often packaged to be used within other systems such as personal assistants. Content on Wikipedia goes places quickly. The public domain photos of Jewell Mazique were in the Library of Congress’s online archive for decades. Once they were in Wikipedia, you could see a picture of her on the first page of a Duck Duck Go search for her name. I did that. And it’s reproducible. You can do that.

Image for post
Image for post

After the #1lib1ref campaign wrapped up in 2017, I spent a lot of time interacting with the organizers about it... hounding them to complete their wrap-up post, wanting to hear how it went, wanting to make it better. In late 2017 I was brought on as a super-part-time consultant to work on the project from the inside, not just as a superfan. So this year’s campaign, for me as an editor, was a lot like last year’s. A personal concentration on people of color, activists mostly. But also, I got to do more official-type outreach to try to show people how they could make Wikipedia look more like them, work more like they wanted it to. Because my thing is Community Engagement, which is not just working the existing community, but also helping new people find a place for themselves within the community.

I assigned my students from my LIS Community Engagement class the job of making an edit (and tracking down their own “how to” materials), and then report back on how that experience felt for them. I made helper documentation that looked like what I would be looking up, not just generic terms.

Image for post
Image for post

I worked with people in other language communities to get handouts translated into their own languages. Wikipedia exists in 288 languages; we made “official” handouts for four. I think one of the things that appeals to me about this work is that there’s always more to be done.

And above all, I was grateful. I thanked people for making their photos public domain, I thanked people for their edits, I thanked people for their feedback. We celebrated the 10,000th #1lib1ref edit which was done on Serbian Wikipedia. People are volunteering, for the most part. Saying you recognize their work, that you’re happy they’re participating, that they should be bold and try things, even if they’re not quite sure what they’re doing (it’s policy, after all) goes a long way to helping people feel like the work they are doing is useful. It might make the difference with them sticking around when they’re feeling harassed by bots, nerdsplained to on Talk pages, or just generally confused by a community that hasn’t, historically, seemed like it was for them. Blog posts on the main Wikimedia blog supported this approach. When the campaign wrapped up, it was a resounding success and I wrote the wrap-up along with the folks from the Wikipedia Library.

As someone who has struggled with finding my place within Wikipedia, but is pretty comfortable with my place in the larger internet, I felt like I could use my position of relative nerd privilege — I know the system, I have local reputation, I’ve “paid my dues” — to help others who didn’t feel quite as secure or quite as comfortable. And, with the exception of this essay I’m writing and some timely tweeting, I just got out of the way and let the work speak for itself. So the next time you Google the Revolutionary People’s Communication Network, you’ll learn about it, not get directed to a website offering a “revolutionary service that emphasizes privacy and social sharing” that also has better SEO than Eldridge Cleaver.

And that makes the internet more like the internet I want. Where Dick Gregory is remembered for his activism, accessibility devices are shown in their human contexts and cultural and civic accomplishments are appropriately honored.

It’s hard putting yourself out there. With Wikipedia, putting yourself out there can also means putting yourself, or people like you, in there. Because the encyclopedia that everyone can edit, isn’t the encyclopedia that everyone does edit. But it can be. Thank you for the work that you are doing for Art+Feminism. I look forward to seeing the work you do.

Please see for more information on this campaign and to learn how you can help improve coverage of cis and transgender women and their accomplishments, feminism, and the arts on Wikipedia.

today in librarian tabs

Today in Librarian Tabs by Jessamyn West

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store