Wikipedia in Action at the Schlesinger Library

Wikipedia editor at the Schlesinger Library_photo by Tony Rinaldo
By Jennifer Gotwals, Lead Archivist

Wikipedia has name recognition second only to Google’s. Since the website’s creation, in 2001, more than 31 million articles have been posted. Although anyone can contribute to Wikipedia, one of the most salient criticisms of its content and culture is that the majority of its editors are white men. Women and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the content of its articles as well.

Librarians and archivists at the Schlesinger Library are determined to help address these imbalances. We have been engaged in adding information about our collections—and about women and women’s history in general—for several years. We’ve held three Wikipedia edit-a-thons at the library, and have participated in training and hands-on sessions for other Harvard libraries, Simmons College women’s history classes, and a New England Archivists conference.

Shaun Chaudhuri '15Shaun Chaudhuri '15

Our most recent edit-a-thon was by far the largest and most successful. On March 2, 2015, 30 people gathered in the library to learn how to add and improve entries on women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and to tour the library and learn about its holdings. A featured event of Harvard College Women’s Week, the edit-a-thon was cosponsored by Harvard Women in Computer Science. Students and staff members from the Harvard College Women’s Center helped to organize and publicize the event. Schlesinger Library staff members created a robust list of possible biographies to add or improve, focusing on women whose papers we hold, Radcliffe College graduates, and former Bunting Institute science fellows.

In a packed room that buzzed with excitement, Harvard undergraduate and graduate students, few of whom had been to the Schlesinger before, learned to make edits in Wikipedia and shared the entries they worked on. Several students focused on improving the pages of their mentors at Harvard, including the computer scientist Radhika Nagpal, an advisor to Harvard Women in Computer Science and the 2012–2013 Radcliffe Alumnae Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute.

Amanda Strauss, Research Librarian, Schlesinger LibraryAmanda Strauss, Research Librarian, Schlesinger Library

Although we envisioned this edit-a-thon primarily as a way to engage Harvard College undergraduates with the library, deep Radcliffe connections were everywhere. Sarah S. Richardson, the 2012–2013 Hrdy Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, attended with students in her Harvard College course Gender and Science: From Marie Curie to Gamergate. Fernando Berdion Del Valle, a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, came to learn how to improve the Wikipedia entry for Berta Lutz, a Brazilian biologist, feminist, and diplomat who was one of four women to sign the United Nations Charter in 1945. Berdion is working with Kathryn Sikkink, the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute, on her project about international human rights.

Carrie Jiali Tian '16 and Magdalene Zeir '16]Carrie Jiali Tian '16 and Magdalene Zeir '16]Pupa Gilbert, the 2014–2015 Perrin Moorhead Grayson and Bruns Grayson Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, came with a specific request: she did not have a Wikipedia biography and wanted to create one. Wikipedia discourages individuals and entities from creating their own pages, so Shaun Chaudhuri ’15 volunteered to write an entry for Gilbert, a biophysicist whose research focuses on seashell formation.

Attendees created new entries for the theoretical physicist Cynthia Roberta McIntyre, the botanist Alice Rich Northrop, and the historian of science Helen Meriwether Lewis Thomas. Students strengthened a number of other articles by conducting extra research and adding links to related topics. And participants learned how easy it is to edit Wikipedia—which we hope they will continue to do, with an eye toward correcting the gender imbalance among entries and editors.

How to Edit Wikipedia

Wikipedia is a crowd-based encyclopedia, and anyone with Internet access can edit or create entries for it. Wikipedia has a volunteer group of experienced editors who review new entries and provide feedback on how they can be improved.

We recommend that new editors create an account in Wikipedia. You don’t have to use your real name or even give an e-mail address. All edits you make will be tracked with your account name, and other editors can use it to contact you to clarify edits or suggest improvements to articles.

Every Wikipedia entry has an “edit” tab at top right. If you click on this, you can see the “back end” of Wikipedia, where you can make changes to an entry. If you want to correct someone’s birth date, for example, or make additions to an article, this is the quickest way to do it.

We find that it’s easiest for new editors to model their first entry on an existing one. If you’ve created an account, you will have a “sandbox” link to the right of your username at the top of the screen. The sandbox is where you can work on new entries, and it looks a lot like a word processor. Wiki mark-up language is a modified version of HTML; when you edit in Wikipedia, you’ll see a guide in the editing window that looks very similar to that in a word processor, with buttons for adding links, italicizing text, and adding references.

A helpful online tutorial is at A few guidelines to follow: Because Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, the editors take care to respect its neutral point of view. Partly as a result of this stance, Wikipedia entries require secondary sources for factual verification. These include published books or articles, newspaper articles, websites, and finding aids. If you want to add some factual information, you need to include the source of your knowledge. Entries may not use material (text or images) that has been copyrighted by someone else.

Have fun editing!

Join us on April 7, 2016, for the "Strong Voices, Indigenous Women" Wikipedia edit-a-thon, which is free and open to the public.

Photos by Tony Rinaldo

Search Year: