Before July 31st, 2018, the opening paragraph for the Wikipedia page on Dolley Madison described her as being noted for her “social graces,” and how such graces increased her husband’s popularity. Now, her opening paragraph reads that she was a political innovator for hosting events at the White House in which both political parties were invited at the same time, essentially setting the stage for modern bipartisanship. Her opening paragraph went from describing her in terms of her husband to describing her in terms of her accomplishments in building political institutions.
Why did this change on July 31st? The Center for Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society hosted its first-ever Wikipedia “edit-a-thon,” an event where participants work together to edit Wikipedia pages. Across the world, galleries, libraries, archives, and museums have been hosting Wikipedia editing events, oftentimes supplying their vast resources and knowledge in the process. A number of notable institutions in New York City have hosted edit-a-thons, including the Museum of the City of New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the New York Public Library. Here at the Center for Women’s History, we realized we had an opportunity to improve the information about women on Wikipedia. With inspiration from our Women’s Voices exhibit, information from our Women and the American Story curriculum guide, and content from our blogs, we ventured into the world of Wikipedia editing.
Our event was an internal edit-a-thon for staff and interns from across New-York Historical. We were fortunate to have Megan Wacha, the president of the Wikimedia Foundation’s New York City chapter, come to give us a presentation on the vast world of Wikipedia, along with Richard Knipel, the Met Museum’s “Wikimedian-in-Residence” who has spearheaded many of the Met’s Wikipedia projects, and Ann Maatsuchi, librarian from Laguardia Community College and Wikipedia editing coach for Wikimedia NYC. Valerie Paley, our Chief Historian, presented on the mission and values of the Center for Women’s History, helping to set the tone for the editing ahead.
At the beginning of our edit-a-thon, I spoke about the gender gap in content on Wikipedia to illuminate the ways in which we could help improve Wikipedia and make our resources more widely available to the public. For example, only 17% of biographies on Wikipedia are about women, and many of the pages about women are often of lower quality than those about men. However, here at the Center for Women’s History, we have the resources to help fix that. We have a curriculum library packed with valuable information, including our Women and the American Story curriculum guide. We have a Massive Open Online Course, “Women Have Always Worked,” about women in American history, and we have many deeply-researched posts about women’s history on this blog, as well as our museum blog, Behind the Scenes, and our Library blog, From the Stacks. Using this information, we can join forces with many other institutions across the world that are trying raise women’s representation on Wikipedia above 17 percent. Pushing that number up and improving the quality of entries about women is important, because, for many people, Wikipedia is the point of entry knowledge on a topic, and is often the only resource that they will come across. Wikipedia entries are also at the top of Google searches for information, and Wikipedia supplies data to other programs and search engines.
Moreover, editing Wikipedia provides an excellent way to acquaint people with technology. Learning how to edit Wikipedia can be a person’s first encounter with using a computer markup language, a good entry to “coding.” As many of us know, there is also a gender gap in computer skills and people entering STEM fields, something we are actively working to address at New-York Historical Society through our Tech Scholars program for young women. In fact, this gap in STEM skills and information about women available online is directly related, as about 90% of regular Wikipedia editors are male. Hosting an edit-a-thon for women’s history helps us address these two problems together. Doing so increases women’s knowledge of, and confidence with, computer skills, while fixing the most widely available online source of information about women’s history.
Our event was a large success, with about 20 people gathering to edit Wikipedia from 12:00 P.M. until 5:00 P.M. In the course of the afternoon, we created 3 articles, edited 41 articles, and added over 7,000 words to Wikipedia. Interns from across departments got the opportunity to meet one another, and our staff was able to learn more about numerous Wikipedia collaborations, in New York and beyond. More broadly, our event highlighted the interconnections between women, the humanities, and technology, in the service of all who search for information about women’s history online.
— Elyse Wien, Center for Women’s History
Top image credits: Participants in the Center for Women’s History edit-a-thon, July 31, 2018. Photo credit: Nick Juravich, New-York Historical Society.