Home 9 Blog Posts 9 Wikipedia@20: Part 3- Librarians Explain their Involvement

Wikipedia@20: Part 3- Librarians Explain their Involvement

by | Jan 18, 2021 | 0 comments


By: Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries

“As the largest source of free knowledge on the Internet, Wikipedia is at the crossroads of diverse cultural and national groups largely characterized by distinctive ideologies.” University of Manchester doctoral student José Gustavo Góngora-Goloubintseff wrote in Nature in 2020: “As several studies on Wikipedia have highlighted, the ideological stance of the authors is known to pose challenges to neutrality, often leading to ‘edit wars’ that ultimately cast doubts on Wikipedia’s credibility when presenting seemingly controversial subjects.”

Two Northwestern University researchers recently published the results of their study to determine the impact that “Wikipedia’s volunteer-created content plays in helping search engines achieve their core goal of addressing the information needs of millions of people.” Their study’s “findings reinforce the complementary notions that (1) Wikipedia content and research has major impact outside of the Wikipedia domain and (2) powerful technologies like search engines are highly reliant on free content created by volunteers.” Their research cautions that “essential volunteer-created content is to highly profitable intelligent technologies, an important data point for growing discussion about what groups are benefiting from existing power dynamics between tech companies and the public.” 

“The main defense of Wikimedia projects against fake news is the work done by community members and especially by patrollers, that use mixed techniques to detect and control disinformation campaigns on Wikipedia,” Wikimedia Foundation’s Diego Saez-Trumper explained in a 2019 article. “In order to keep Wikipedia as free as possible from disinformation, it’s necessary to help patrollers to early detect disinformation and assess the credibility of external sources. More research is needed to develop tools that use state-of-the-art machine learning techniques to detect potentially dangerous content, empowering patrollers to deal with attacks that are becoming more complex and sophisticated.”

The quality debate continues to take center stage in the health sciences. “Different from major media outlets where the health content is often attributed to a respected health professional,” Penn State University researchers wrote in a 2020 Health Communication  report. “Crowdsourcing sites delegate content generation to a large and unknown crowd by affording collaborative editing. Although this affordance allows for wide participation from laypersons, the veridicality of the resulting content created in the process cannot be assured, especially given uncertainty about the pedigree and uncertainty of the layperson sources involved in generating the content.”  


In this anniversary year, many librarians have stepped up to report their rationale and efforts to improve Wikipedia’s reputation and content for the common good.  In 2020 Zachary McDowell and Matthew Vetter, both from the University of Illinois, Chicago, penned an article, titled “It Takes a Village to Combat a Fake News Army: Wikipedia’s Community and Policies for Information Literacy.

In the article, they note that:

“Wikipedia, nearing its 20th year, however, has developed numerous practices and policies to ensure information validity and verifiability. This article explores the connection between participation in the Wikipedia community, the development of critical information literacies, and the ability to navigate the current new media landscape. Analysis and review of Wikipedia’s community policies and the procedures resulting from these policies demonstrate the encyclopedia’s unique capacity to protect against problematic information. We ultimately argue that Wikipedia has become and remains one of the few places on the internet dedicated to combating fake news, and make recommendations on how to leverage Wikipedia practices and policies for information validation outside of the encyclopedia.”

In their article, McDowell and Vetter explain that “numerous studies have favorably compared Wikipedia’s accuracy to ‘traditional’ encyclopedias. That does not mean the encyclopedia does not continue to battle misinformation and inaccuracies, but that it has remained as or more reliable on major topics as other ‘more trustworthy’ publishers… Recent research illustrates that students who engage with Wikipedia and its community are experiencing information literacy in much more effective ways, learning the necessary skills to combat misinformation and recognize valid information sources.”

Writing in the 2019 British Journal of Social Psychology, a group of researchers wrote results of their important study, Collectively biased representations of the past: Ingroup Bias in Wikipedia articles about intergroup conflicts, which was able to clearly “demonstrate ingroup bias in Wikipedia – a finding that is of practical as well as theoretical relevance” to everyone concerned with the value and development of Wikipedia.


In a presentation on Librarians and Wikipedia at the 2019 Annual Conference for the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA)Wynand van der Walt provided some important foundational values for Wikipedia involvement by librarians: 

“Libraries are fundamental allies to the mission of Wikimedia: collecting and disseminating the sum of all knowledge.

  • Both aim to bring knowledge to a wider audience,
  • To create spaces where learning can happen,
  • And people can find the resources they need and
  • Wikimedia projects form a central point within the semantic web – our information highway”

In a presentation at the 2019 Annual Conference for the Library and Information Association of South Africa, van der Walt presented his study, Librarians as Wikipedians. His paper encouraged fellow professionals to take a more serious look at Wikipedia and explored our professional responsibility to participate in the ongoing development of this key resource. His outline and rationale provided a concise and clear overview of the perspectives of a Wikipedian/editor. 

Clearly, Wikipedia is a huge, constantly changing resource that continues to evolve and change. 


Alie Visser

In 2019 two Western University (Canada) librarians presented a session titled “Demystifying Wikipedia” at the Intersect Unconference in Buffalo, New York, to inform (and hopefully inspire) librarians to take an active role in Wikipedia’s development. Alie Visser and Erin Johnson’s presentation was recommended to me for its intelligence and passionate support for the Wikipedia ‘experiment.’ As their presentation introduction noted, “in its short history, libraries have historically stigmatized this resource for its crowd-sourced editing system and inconsistent source quality. Increasingly, librarians from around the world are collaborating with Wikimedia to improve its authority by linking to open resources, hosting edit-a-thons, and integrating our organizational structures into Wikidata.”

Erin Johnson

Johnson and Visser have extensive experience with editing Wikipedia for improved quality.  They also have presented at both the 2019 Unconference, in Buffalo New York, and later at the 2019 ATG conference. Their experience and perspectives provide a clear understanding on how librarians see their role – and work to improve – Wikipedia. They chose to respond in a single voice to our questions: 

NKH: Could you have imagined the growth and importance that Wikipedia has grown to have across the globe, across user groups and in all types of settings? Are you surprised by the rapid adoption and global excitement/involvement especially by librarians? Or, is this more the right solution at the right time?

AV and EJ: The rise of Wikipedia over the last 20 years is not surprising to us when we consider the power of open information. Wikipedia is multilingual, accessible for offline use in remote areas of the world with devices such as Raspberry Pi, and has a robust and collaborative editing community.

The library community was slow to adopt Wikipedia and it has only really picked up pace in the last decade. In a 2011 Against the Grain interview, librarian and Wikipedia editor Phoebe Ayers noted that “there haven’t been any formal efforts by library associations to encourage working on Wikipedia that I know of. Volunteer Wikimedia groups have worked with some libraries, certainly, but we don’t have a formal program to do so” (50). Librarians, as a profession, have been wary of crowdsourced information and its quality, which we still see even today (e.g. the popular RADAR Framework).

During the pandemic, working from home has provided a space to grow a community of practice around Wikipedia and Wikidata in libraries. One such example can be found at our institution, Western University, which hosts a monthly Wiki Tuesday meetup. Since the meetings have gone virtual there has been an increase in participation, versus the in-person sessions we were holding pre-pandemic. In some ways it is the right time – for students and users in general — to begin editing Wikipedia. Many libraries are closed right now due to the pandemic and for those who relied on print materials it is a difficult time, especially if their institution doesn’t have an emergency temporary access service (e.g. HathiTrust). Open reference sources like Wikipedia are invaluable tools for building online information equity.

NKH: Social Media have exploded in the past ten years. Today we have multimillionaire teen ‘influencers’ as well as bots and efforts to twist truth and impact elections, opinions, create fear and sometimes provoke hate and crimes. Quality is certainly one aspect of Wikipedia that has been stressed from the start. How do you see the alt-development of Wikipedia and the broad-based editing/oversight that it uses? Can it overcome some of the critics that still exist?

AV and EJ: ‘Fake news’ has become a common term in the media and the validity of our sources has become even more important. This holds true for Wikipedia too — it is a source that we should question. In our minds we should be questioning the quality of all of the information we consume. One great feature in Wikipedia is the ‘View history’ tab, which can reveal insights into which topics are being manipulated and how. 

sample wiki edit page

Every article also has a discussion tab where editors can deliberate to consensus. Wikipedia has a strong editing community and practice in which all edits by new users are vetted to mitigate vandalism. All statements made on the platform are to be accompanied by a citation and if they don’t have at least one, they are flagged. This is a clear signal to the reader that the information may not be accurate and its sources should be evaluated further.

In general, Wikipedia is a source that on average receives 2.5 million consultations daily (Pageview Statistics).  It is indexed by Google and is frequently the first search result. It is convenient, free, and continuously updated. Based on these factors, Wikipedia has already overcome its critics. We would even venture to say that there are far more Wikipedia users and editors than there are those that criticise it.

NKH: What role/involvement does the Wikipedia organization itself have over the editing process to keep checks on even the edits and their work? There have been studies and charges that the editorial process requires greater racial/global depth than it currently has. Do you believe that greater age-ranges of contributors/editors is needed as well? Do you have ideas on how that might be done?

AV and EJ: Wikipedia is structured in a way that enables an editor to grow and take on various roles within the larger community of editors. For example, there are administrator roles that come with the ability to enforce good behaviour, so if an editor violates the Wikipedia community’s standards, they can be temporarily blocked. Administrators are also able to mark articles as protected, so that only admins or accounts with a minimum number of edits can edit them. This type of control measure can be used to maintain an article’s integrity by protecting those with a history of vandalism.

One of the primary measures of editorial control is built into the collaborative structure of Wikipedia, whereby active editors monitor articles that they care about (using tools like the watchlist or automated software) and they are notified when an article has become contentious. Many bad edits are corrected through active editorship before requiring intervention from administrators. While there are many editorial controls in place with Wikipedia, we do need to be critical of the known lack of diversity in its editorship.

As you mentioned, studies show that Wikipedia editors are predominantly male and of the Global North. This leads to systematic bias in Wikipedia’s content, despite the editorial controls that are in place. For example, a lack of articles related to notable women and/or people of colour, or entries about historical events with errors of omission. An increase in female editorship and BIPOC editorship has the potential to round out Wikipedia content with a diversity of knowledge inclusion. It can act as a means of embedded editorial oversight to decrease the level of male, Western Eurocentric biases that is currently noticeable in the encyclopedia’s content.

The power to shape Wikipedia is literally at the fingertips of each person who develops Wikipedia editing skills. Librarians are well-equipped to be conduits in teaching these skills. As a profession, we can nurture spaces that introduce and encourage Wikipedia editorship, particularly with women and members of BIPOC communities. Their contributions can balance Wikipedia’s article content and improve the online resource that many use daily. 

Unlike Wikipedia, librarianship is a female dominated profession so, generally speaking, librarian editors can help shift the gender imbalance. Yet, just like Wikipedia, librarianship can be criticized for its lack of diversity (Schonfeld and Sweeney, 2017). Simply becoming editors is not enough — how can we contribute to Wikipedia in ways that mitigate the eurocentric imbalance of Wikipedia editorship? Whether public or academic, librarians can improve Wikipedia by incorporating editing skills into our practice.

We can use it as a tool for teaching digital literacy, embedding Wikipedia into classroom teaching or community events. This can create active learning spaces with the potential to expose a diversity of cultures, genders, and ages to Wikipedia editorship. We can also host edit-a-thon events that teach editing skills through participation in existing projects that are centered on expanding and enhancing Wikipedia content. For example, ‘Wikiproject: Women in red,’ which is focused on ‘improving content systemic bias in the wiki movement’ or ‘Wikiproject: Indigenous peoples of North America,’ which seeks to ‘improve, maintain, and organize the information in articles related to Indigenous peoples of the Americas’. We can get involved, and we can encourage library users to do the same.

From our local context, we have ten Canadian GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) institutions represented in the listings for GLAM-Wikimedia collaborations. This is a small sample of the overall number of cultural institutions in our country. 

As a profession we talk about our values in open information, yet we still seem to be hesitant to give Wikipedia the full ‘librarian’s seal of approval’. Interestingly, four of these recently added institutions have joined the movement since January 2019. It does seem like we are beginning to cultivate a grassroots community of practice around Wikipedia editorship within librarianship, but we have a long way to go to institutionalizing Wikipedia editorship as a common practice of librarians. In learning how to edit Wikipedia, librarians can actively work to maintain and improve Wikipedia content — information that gets an average of over 2.5 million pageviews per day. As Wikipedians, we become librarians equipped to teach editing skills and advocate to a diverse population of library users the high value of their contributions to Wikipedia.

NKH: What are the top five take-aways you’d want readers to get from your perspectives as librarians and Wikipedia users/enthusiasts? Especially for those who are still highly critical of its widespread use in the academy?

AV and EJ:

  1. No one has ownership of content on Wikipedia – it’s collaboratively owned and maintained. Stop criticizing, start editing. You have the power to fix the problems you see on Wikipedia.
  2. You can lead an information seeker to Britannica, but they’re still going to use Wikipedia. Teach them how to evaluate and enhance the information they find.
  3. Wikipedia is an excellent tool for teaching digital literacy skills.
  4. Libraries and the Wikimedia Foundation have many overlapping values. Editorship of Wikipedia supports a key value of librarianship in open and equitable access to verifiable information.
  5. There is a wealth of help available to libraries wishing to leverage Wikipedia in their work. Connect with the growing community of GLAM institutions active on Wikipedia through the Glam-Wiki initiative. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

In the last part of this series celebrating Wikipedia’s 20th anniversary we look at growing efforts to use Wikipedia data for altmetric applications.

Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.  herther@umn.edu


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