Wikipedia, Libraries, & Neutrality

This piece is substantially based off of a column I wrote for RUSQ that will appear early next year.


Broadly construed, there are two camps of opinions surrounding Wikipedia in librarianship. The first is that Wikipedia is not an academic quality source. It is something students need to be warned away from. The community authorship of wikipedia is typically the source of this criticism; since “anyone can edit” the online encyclopedia, there’s no way to tell whether you’re receiving high quality information written by experts or the ill-informed opinions of internet trolls.

The other camp is far more positive regarding Wikipedia. After all, the values of the Wikipedian community clearly align with our own. The ultimate goal of the project is not to give a venue for poor research or fringe theories, but to enable free and open access to information. While Wikipedia isn’t flawless, many of its articles compete with more established reference sources. Famously, Nature performed a comparison of scientific articles and found Wikipedia to be comparable to Encyclopedia Britannica. But following the study, a community project to correct the identified errors in Wikipedia sprung up, fixing them all in a little over a month.1 With this common ground, it’s no wonder that libraries have found Wikipedia to be a valuable partner in publicizing our content. Articles like Using Wikipedia to Extend Digital Collections, Putting the Library in Wikipedia, and Wikipedia Lover, Not a Hater: Harnessing Wikipedia to Increase the Discoverability of Library Resources all discuss the value of working with Wikipedia to highlight library digital collections and metadata, not against.

A good example of Wikipedia driving traffic to library special collections was brought to my attention by fellow Tech Connect author Margaret Heller, who pointed me towards the Google Analytics Usage Reports for CARLI Digital Collections. CARLI regularly sees Wikipedia as one of the top external traffic sources, with Wikipedia being noted in last few quarterly reports as a traffic source leading “to home pages or images from multiple CARLI Collections”.

The Problem with Neutral

I must admit that I side with the pro-Wikipedia folks. I love using Wikipedia as a resource—as a procrastination-enabler I have open several articles on roguelikes that I’m reading while I right this—and I love contributing to it in whatever small ways I can, from fixing broken markup to citation hunting. But Wikipedia is imperfect in ways more insidious that its anonymous authorship or occasionally inaccurate details. Rather, one problem lies within one of the five pillars that define the philosophy of Wikipedia; “Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view”.

Neutrality has been under fire from #critlib lately, a group of librarians emphasizing critical theory especially with respect to information literacy instruction. ALA Annual featured a well-attended presentation entitled “But We’re Neutral!” And Other Librarian Fictions Confronted by #critlib. A seminal article appearing earlier this year in Code4Lib by Bess Sadler and Chris Bourg begins with a rousing section labelled Libraries are not Neutral:

In spite of the pride many libraries take in their neutrality, libraries have never been neutral repositories of knowledge. Research libraries in particular have always reflected the inequalities, biases, ethnocentrism, and power imbalances that exist throughout the academic enterprise through collection policies and hiring practices that reflect the biases of those in power at a given institution. In addition, theoretically neutral library activities like cataloging have often re-created societal patterns of exclusion and inequality.

Wikipedia shares this problem; while it appears neutral on the surface, its topical coverage and treatment of subjects reflect the skewed power relations of our society. A 2011 study found that 91% of editors were men. The same study shows that few editors come from the Global South and that the English Wikipedia receives far more focus than other languages. Another research paper from 2011 goes a bit further in demonstrating that “male articles are significantly longer than female articles”.2 The editorial gender gap has real effects on the encyclopedia’s content; it’s not just that having editors of all genders is good in its own right, it’s that Wikipedia’s claims to objectivity and neutrality are jeopardized by the disbalance.

Art+Feminism

So what’s a concerned librarian to do? I think the wrong thing would be to denounce Wikipedia. For one, the alternative sources we or our patrons would turn to are no less problematic. Encyclopaedia Britannica has a well-documented history of supposedly scientific articles written from the dominant viewpoint (c.f. the racist description of black people in the 1911 edition). What’s more, Wikipedia is going to be used. It’s massively popular. Sticking our heads in the sand because it doesn’t live up to its own standards of neutrality improves nothing.

Luckily, there are several Wikipedia projects focused on recruiting editors from underrepresented groups and addressing lackluster coverage of particular topics which we can support. One such project is Art + Feminism. In its own words:

Art+Feminism is a rhizomatic campaign to improve coverage of women and the arts on Wikipedia, and to encourage female editorship…Content is skewed by the lack of female participation. Many articles on notable women in history and art are absent on Wikipedia. This represents an alarming aporia in an increasingly important repository of shared knowledge.

Art+Feminism started out by hosting an edit-a-thon out of the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York City in 2014, with more than 30 other locations worldwide joining in. An edit-a-thon is an event where people gather to perform Wikipedia edits, often centered around a particular theme or project. Higher education institutions and libraries make perfect partners for such occasions. We typically have useful materials to be cited and our students form a large body of potential participates who can be easily incentivized to join in, whether with extra credit or simply some food. So when my library heard of the upcoming 2nd annual edit-a-thon, we immediately began planning to host it. Below, I’ll briefly outline what we did in the hopes it’ll encourage other institutions to join us during this year’s edit-a-thon on March 5th.

Hosting an Edit-a-thon

First, we set up a meetup page on Wikipedia. If you’re unfamiliar with Wikipedia, creating a page like this isn’t a struggle. For one, you can simply copy the entire source markup of someone else’s meetup, then edit your specific details into that skeleton. For two, you can enable the experimental Visual Editor to make Wikipedia even easier to edit without learning wiki markup. The meetup page is an important place for putting up information like timing and directions, but is also a place for us to talk about the impact we made by showing how many editors attended and what articles we improved or created.

While we were putting initial details on our meetup page, we set about securing a location on the date of the edit-a-thon. We discovered that a gallery associated with our school had hosted the edit-a-thon the prior year, but they were unable to repeat it. Our school has campuses in both San Francisco and Oakland, but since Oakland had no other edit-a-thon locations we decided to host it there with the idea that SF locals already had an event nearby.

Our next steps aimed to make the event as easy for newcomers as possible. A staff member pulled relevant materials from our collection, so that researching would be simple and our rarer, more valuable resources might lend some of their information to Wikipedia. We also wanted experienced editors to be on hand during the event. I looked at a local Wikiproject, asking for help on the Talk page and then corresponding directly with a couple editors who had expressed interest. Finally, we managed to secure a visit from someone who actually works for the Wikimedia Foundation that runs the encyclopedia.

During the day, we set out snacks and name badges for everyone. Similar to the color-coded name badges at Ada Camp and other tech conferences, Art+Feminism recommended giving out name badges which signify one’s willingness to be photographed: green meant feel free to take a photo, orange meant please ask permission first, and red meant absolutely not. These steps ensure that everyone is comfortable at the event and not being exposed on the internet against their will. At the start of the day, we explained the coloring system and the Wikimedia staff person gave a short talk on how to write articles that endure, standing up to scrutiny over time. The results of the global event are listed on Wikipedia.

While I feel we accomplished much at our local event, there was one negative experience. An image uploaded to Wikimedia Commons for use on a page was flagged for deletion. The editor flagging it said something along the lines of “this isn’t your personal photo album” as the image was a headshot of a female artist. In the ensuing discussion around the proposed deletion, I noted that the image was about to be used on an article. It was never removed from Commons. Still, the incident underscores cultural problems in Wikipedia. The confrontational style of the discussion lacked good faith. Further, I heard a gendered undertone in the editor’s response; how many pictures of white men are derided as personal photos? While our library staff person was undeterred, moments of hostility like these drive away newcomers.

In Which I Admit I’m Missing the Point

To be fair, Wikipedia itself acknowledges that it fails to live up to neutral status. That the encyclopedia strives towards neutrality is the more vital point. But it’s not as if reaching a supposedly perfect neutrality resolves the issues that folks like #critlib are highlighting. Neutral as a positive value is precisely the problem, because there is no neutral stance that can be taken from outside of society’s power relations and history of inequity. So should we instead be agitating for Wikipedia to become less neutral and take more active stances on social issues? Or are edit-a-thons like Art+Feminism the most viable route towards ensuring topics are covered in a way that surfaces marginalized peoples and their experiences? I have no answers, just food for thought.

  1. See External peer review/Nature December 2005 for Wikipedia’s internal take on the correction process. The original Nature article is paywalled here and is doi:10.1038/438900a. A similar but open access study is doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0106930, Accuracy and Completeness of Drug Information in Wikipedia: A Comparison with Standard Textbooks of Pharmacology.
  2. WP:Clubhouse? An Exploration of Wikipedia’s Gender Imbalance. I’m skeptical of how “male” and “female” articles were defined, but the paper itself is thorough in its argumentation and statistical analysis. It’s also worth noting that this paper, and much of the other literature around the gender gap, ignores genders outside the female-male binary. It’s most useful to conceive of the gap as a disproportionate majority of males than a minority of females, while leaving all other genders out of the picture.

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