Upgrading Wikipedia

The Internet's largest encyclopedia gets an edit from Barnard women

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm

Illustration of Wikipedia logoWikipedia is the fifth-most popular Internet site in the world, with more than five million entries in English. Many of us gravitate there for a quick search on a person or subject. What makes Wikipedia unique is that its entries are contributed by users all over the world. But a 2010 study found that the overwhelming majority—87 percent—of those who write the entries are men.

Megan Wacha ’04 wanted to do something when she learned of this gender imbalance. Digging deeper, she learned that most of the men writing Wikipedia entries were also white and middle class. “Women and other perspectives weren’t represented,” recalls Wacha, who was Barnard’s performing arts librarian at the time. “Wikipedia is the top resource people go to for information. It’s important to me that my community, history, and perspective are represented, and that those communities can see themselves there.”

Resolving to take action to correct the gender bias, Wacha founded the College’s “WikiProject,” an annual event that trains students, alumnae, and staff to create and edit Wikipedia articles. In March, Celia Knight ’74 attended the sixth annual WikiProject because she had often wondered how people write, edit, and critique articles on Wikipedia. She learned that editors must cite the sources used and include a verifiable link. Editors also provide an “edit summary” to explain the changes.

At this year’s event, “Hack the Canon: Feminist Artists, Sabra Moore, and the Heresies Collective,” participants were encouraged to use materials from the Barnard Archives. They had the option to work on entries for any of 56 pre-selected artists and organizations that lacked a page or needed more information—such as those of Moore, who has played a major role in the feminist movement since the 1970s (see "Audacious Acquisitions" for more on Moore), quilt-maker Faith Ringgold, painter Joan Snyder, and Heresies, a feminist journal on art and politics, published from 1977 to 1993 by the feminist group the Heresies Collective.

Rebecca Breslaw ’17 edited three articles, including one on Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuña. “It doesn’t surprise me there are these inequities on Wikipedia,” she says. “If we don’t fix it, no one else will.”

The library’s work on Wikipedia has also been integrated into the classroom. English and Africana Studies Professor Kim F. Hall assigned students in her “Worlds of Ntozake Shange [’70]” class to create or improve articles related to Shange, the Black Arts Movement, soul food, and spoken-word poetry. “Shange is all about transforming arenas dominated by men, and these students were becoming some of the most knowledgeable readers of Shange’s works, so why not empower them to share their expertise with the public?” Hall says. “They had a palpable sense of their own command of a topic, and one student wrote it was a rare opportunity to ‘apply what they learned and share it with the world.’”

Wacha, now the scholarly communication librarian at the City University of New York, is a board member of Wikimedia New York City, which helps promote educational initiatives and events around Wikipedia, as is Alice Eddie Backer ’96, a lawyer, blogger, and podcaster. Backer got involved in 2015 after the lack of diversity among editors led her to launch the crowdsourcing initiative Afrocrowd to get more people of African descent to edit articles on the site. Afrocrowd has helped translate pages about African women from English into other languages.

Meredith Wisner, Barnard’s research and instruction librarian for art and architecture and the event’s organizer, was thrilled at what was achieved. “We want people to take ownership of Wikipedia,” she says. “And to be bold about it.” 

— Illustration by Johanna Björk

Latest IssueWinter 2023