On Tues., March 4, LITS hosted a Wikipedia edit-a-thon to encourage more female editors to write for Wikipedia and to support the representation of women on the online information hub.
The event took place in the library atrium from 4-8 p.m. and was open to all members of the community regardless of experience. This was the third edit-a-thon that MHC has hosted. LITS hosted one this past October and the first edit-a-thon occurred in March 2013.
The event was conceived by Leslie Fields, head of Archives and Special Collections, who explains that the idea came to her when she was asked to do some research on successful MHC alumnae for the college’s 175th anniversary. She was surprised that while there was a lot of information about these women in the MHC collection, there was hardly any online data. That is when she began to think about adding information from MHC to the web.
Around the same time, Sarah Oelker, RIS Science librarian, was trying to increase library participation in Wikipedia. She had initially suggested the idea of an edit-a-thon prior to last year, but for one reason or another, nothing materialized.
Alice Whiteside, Library and Instructional Technology consultant, had become familiar with edit-a-thons after hearing about ones happening in California, and they “peaked her interest,” especially after learning about the gender imbalance among Wikipedia contributors.
These women, along with Amber Welch, LITS consultant, have since coordinated all of MHC’s edit-a-thons.
The goal of the edit-a-thon was to improve and expand the representation of women on Wikipedia. Currently, nine out of ten wiki editors are men. This is a problem, explains Whiteside, because “Wikipedia is a crowd sourced resource, and it’s only as good as…the community of editors…It’s pretty clear that the interests of editors is reflected in the quality of materials.”
Whiteside further explains that the diversity of the editors is important to create a well-rounded source of information. Women are not well-represented in this particular reference source because the editors are simply not interested in writing those types of articles.
MHC aimed to change that during the event. Participants chose their articles to edit from a list compiled by the coordinators. For this particular edit-a-thon they focused on articles about women which were either incomplete or lacking in content. “We were looking for articles that are stubs, very short,” explains Oelker, adding, “those are the easiest to start improving.”
To help brainstorm topics for the event, they solicited suggestions on a flip chart in the library atrium in advance. They organized the suggestions by each woman’s name and what category she’d fit into. “We added a lot of people based on that,” explained Oelker. “Women in civil rights, women in science, women in the video game industry were just a couple of [the types of articles they worked on improving].”
An article that was improved was about MHC alumna Gloria Johnson Powell ’58. According to her newly updated Wikipedia page, Powell was an important figure in the Civil Rights movement and one of the first African-American women to attain tenure at Harvard Medical School. Prior to the edit-a-thon her article didn’t have much information in it and had been put up to be nominated for deletion a few years ago. Whiteside worried that “if someone didn’t know anything about her, they might think she isn’t an important person because there’s not much substance.” Developing strong entries on women like Powell ensures that they are recognized for their personal achievements, and the achievements of women as a whole.
LITS provided participants with all the reference material they needed to expand an article. They set up a cart of reference books, pulled from their own collections and some encyclopedias and biographical works. They also taught participants who have never edited before how to successfully edit Wikipedia articles. Fields explained that being a wiki editor is not as hard as students may believe. “You start by creating an account, then learn the basics of how to  some simple things, [and then] you can start from scratch and then learn things and keep going.”
First-time edit-a-thon attendee, Sana Asif ’15 agreed, “It was a great opportunity to learn about inspiring women…while also brushing up on my technical skills and knowledge of the Wikipedia system…but I wish more students had attended.”
For this particular event LITS had “a lot of people…interested [in] and chat[ting] with us,” reported Fields, “but fewer sitting down to actually edit.”
To encourage future participation, the coordinators are considering options like a workshop, so students can learn as a group, then edit together. “We think that might be a way to get people past [initial fears and hesitations]…and help them embrace Wikipedia. We want…our students to be empowered about Wikipedia,” said Oelker.
By the end of the event, members of the MHC community had edited a number of articles on a variety of women, including Florence M. Read, Lucy Weston Pickett and Gloria Johnson-Powell. MHC editors, both new and experienced, successfully helped increase the recognition of women’s achievements on the internet.
Contributors not only experienced a small victory for women via their edits, but for themselves, too. Fields enthused, “I love the moment when you change something and you see it go live and you’re like ‘I did that, I put that up there.’”