learning by editing

For a spring field study, I’m working with the Historic Maryland Newspapers Project (HMNP), the UMD Libraries’ arm of the National Digital Newspaper Program. NDNP is a NEH / Library of Congress initiative to digitize and aggregate metadata for newspapers dated between 1836 and 1922. (The timeframe expanded from the original 1900-1910 and may expand again.) HMNP has been contributing digitized material and metadata to Chronicling America, the access interface for NDNP, since 2012. My field study is about expanding access to this material by using it to improve articles and citations on Wikipedia.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve created a Wikipedia account, read two books and a lot of articles about Wikipedia and primary sources, notched 10 baby edits with suggestions from Citation Hunt, participated in One Librarian, One Reference, and identified major themes for research using Maryland newspapers. As a new editor, I’m currently taking in more new information about the experience of editing than about the collections I’ll be working with — although this is about to change.

Editing and research can turn into rabbit holes. Short of bot-writing, I don’t know that there’s any efficient way to edit Wikipedia. I don’t agonize over wording but I do like to follow threads. I was also extremely nervous about the initial “mark-making” and may have spent too much time chasing down references that don’t exist because they’re inaccurate. (It’s hard to know!). My supervisor and I talked about how librarians and archivists sometimes shy away from editing Wikipedia because they don’t feel their expertise and intellectual labor are sufficiently valued — and I think that’s true for a lot of subject-area experts. In light of all this, I’m starting to think of editing Wikipedia as a habit to build: a small-scale, regular thing that I can train myself to do without outsize emotional investment. It’s not that I want editing to be entirely task-focused — get in and get out really misses the point of what’s fun about editing — but I do want to make sure I use my time wisely.

Finding evidence is hard… Editing has so far challenged my ability to find, verify, and analyze the kinds of information admissible as evidence to Wikipedia, such as archival finding aids, news coverage, and data. Improving a single article about a medium-sized town in Maryland could mean searching the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties; checking biographical notes in UMD finding aids (which are on track for a major update this year, don’t judge); searching Chronicling America for very old news coverage and Google News for the less old; and trying to remember where to find what educational datasets on NCES and data.gov. I submitted a request for crash data to the Maryland State Highway Administration — trying to confirm a statement that a certain intersection was more or less dangerous to pedestrians than another — and was politely rebuffed. Wikipedia is proving to be a good outlet for practicing a kind of reference at which I’m a bit rusty.

…and so is conveying evidence without an argument. One of Wikipedia’s pillars (main principles) is a “neutral point of view,” which, don’t make me laugh. I should admit that editing, specifically confirming and adding citations, is exposing some personal tropisms towards glossing over things in writing. I didn’t pretend to love The Power to Name or find it easy to read, but I actually left out most of the teeth gnashing because I didn’t think it served the post. I’m as prone as anyone to use stand-in words like challenges, complexity, and resources to mean “I do not really understand what is happening.” None of these behaviors have a place on Wikipedia; our edits don’t really serve a story. In terms of an overarching narrative or argument, only the case for representation seems to make sense — which is why initiatives like the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon and #wikiD matter. It’s going to be a long struggle for me to understand how an item can constitute evidence when we don’t know what case said evidence is meant to support. I don’t think 10-12 weeks is enough time.

Attention-based motivation may vary. According to some of the literature on teaching with Wikipedia, student editors are often motivated by positive attention and discouraged by negative or no attention from the Wikipedia community. I would prefer to fly under the radar for as long as possible, even now that I’m no longer scared to edit and probably won’t be tackling incendiary subjects anyway. But privacy is always a concern.

Checking my habits. Now that I’m picking apart Wikipedia entries, I’m more aware of how frequently I turn to Wikipedia as a a good-enough proxy for an authoritative source. Of course some parts of Wikipedia are better developed than others. Physics and computer science are two frequently mentioned examples, and I trust Doctor Who fans to act out the necessary degree of vigilance over all related entries. But I am glad to be focusing on editing-as-habit, since I’m already an avid reader by habit and not a very critical one either.

Be sure to check out posts by Amy C. and Brianna for more about libraries and Wikipedia.

A page from the August 25, 1921 edition of the Saint Mary's Beacon, digitized by the Historic Maryland Newspapers Project.

Saint Mary’s beacon. (Leonard Town, Md.), 25 Aug. 1921. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82006687/1921-08-25/ed-1/seq-4/

4 replies

  1. I have to say that learning the Wikipedia guidelines was overwhelming at first. I like your idea of editing as habit, something that can be built in to the regular course of research and reference work.


    • It definitely felt like a ton of information to cover, and I ended up reading various versions of the guidelines several times. Who knows how much of it stuck? Just came across this beginner’s guide — maybe some new editors can use it to avoid being overwhelmed like we were.


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