Collaborating with the library to increase women on Wikipedia

Tamar Carroll teaches in the Department of History at Rochester Institute of Technology. She’s incorporated Wikipedia editing in several courses.

Several years ago, I was inspired to assign a research assignment in which students either write a new or substantially edit an existing Wikipedia entry on a notable American woman, after reading about other instructors’ experiences teaching with Wikipedia in the volume Writing History in the Digital Age. Women are under-represented both as editors on Wikipedia and as subjects of entries, and because I work at a technical institute with a heavily male student body, this seemed like a perfect fit for my U.S. women’s and gender history survey course. After all, we can not only investigate why women’s history is missing, but also work to correct the gap.

Indeed, students have reported a great deal of satisfaction in sharing information about the lives of women who have inspired them with the world, via Wikipedia. One student, who took the course back in Fall 2013 and researched and wrote about Mary Stafford Anthony, sister of the suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony, emailed me recently to tell me that the assignment had been the most meaningful of all the work she had completed as a student at RIT. My students frequently exceed the assignment requirements of adding three substantial paragraphs and five new sources, getting genuinely excited about the contributions they are making to Wikipedia. Along the way, they learn to think critically about how knowledge is constructed and gets circulated, and how to find sources that are both reliable and verifiable.

The success of this assignment rests largely upon my collaboration with Lara Nicosia, the RIT librarian for the College of Liberal Arts, who has enthusiastically and expertly provided professional and technical support for the class. We spend three full class sections with Lara. In the first session, Lara introduces the students to the concept of encyclopedias in general and Wikipedia in particular, outlining the rules of evidence employed by Wikipedia and its editorial process. Importantly, Lara incorporates hands-on work from the start, getting them used to editing Wikipedia in their sandboxes.

In the second library session, Lara demonstrates the library databases and other resources most useful to the students in conducing biographical research on American women, and the students must apply what they have learned by creating or adding sources to a “Further reading” section of an existing entry. At this point, students are free to choose their own subject to write about, or to consult with Lara and I for suggestions. They spend the next two months conducting research and writing up their findings, turning in bibliographies and a draft to me and doing peer editing in class. Every year, several students also consult one-on- one with Lara for assistance in the research process. We return to the library’s computer lab about two-thirds of the way through the semester, when the students make their entries “live” on Wikipedia, and greatly benefit from Lara’s editing experience in resolving any snafus in the process.

An unanticipated but beneficial result of our collaboration has been Lara’s successful advocacy for adding subscription-based resources like American National Biography and Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 to RIT’s library. Being able to show that my classes are using these resources has helped Lara make the case for funding these valuable additions to our library, which benefit scholarship and teaching at RIT more broadly while raising the profile of the humanities on campus. Lara has also integrated Wikipedia programming into the library at RIT, hosting regular events with the goal of building a community of Wikipedia contributors on RIT’s campus.

“From a librarian’s standpoint, everybody complains about Wikipedia and all the problems – then fix it!” Lara says. “That’s the power of the tool. You have that power. People who have access to high quality information and research skills have a social obligation…. to give back by improving Wikipedia. It falls on us to make it the best it can be.”

Incorporating Wikipedia into our 100-level coursework and library programming here at Rochester Institute of Technology has helped to move our students from being passive consumers of news and information to active participants in the evaluation and dissemination of knowledge online, while working to reduce Wikipedia’s gender bias.

ImageWomen on Wikipedia Edit-a-thon 2017 (RIT), by Colalibrarian, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


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