November 6, 2015

Wikipedia and Montana History: Engaging the World's Largest Encyclopedia

By Jeff Malcomson, MHS Photo Archivist

When we need that quick information these days many of us turn to the Internet, and often our searching leads us to Wikipedia. With over five million separate articles in English alone, the popular Web-based encyclopedia has been around since 2001 and is now a staple of any Internet search. According to Wikipedia's own article about itself, content is developed "collaboratively by largely anonymous volunteers who write without pay." With over 26 million registered users, or "editors," many hands have built the resource that most of us use almost every day.

One of the main issues in using Wikipedia over the years from a research perspective is the perceived unreliability of the content. Many wikipedia articles are works-in-progress, with some more finished than others. The articles are only as good as the editors' knowledge of the subject and the sources that inform them. Many articles on people, places, and things in Montana's history are still awaiting creation, or in great need of improvement. This realization led me last summer to sign-up for a workshop called "WikiWrite." I wanted to use my knowledge of Montana history and the availability of numerous sources here at the MHS Research Center to improve Wikipedia articles on Montana history topics. That half-day at the MSU Library in Bozeman opened my eyes to the task of editing Wikipedia and gave me the time to learn the basics.
One thing I learned immediately was that Wikipedia itself had a substantial outreach to professionals like me in cultural institutions like the Montana Historical Society. Known as the GLAM-Wiki Initiative, which stands for Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums with Wikipedia, this effort seeks to engage cultural institutions with Wikipedia, to build relationships to add content in the form of article text and digital versions of historical documents, photographs, maps, and works of art.

As Montana Historical Society staff we seek to promote the knowledge of Montana history to the widest possible public, so it seemed natural to explore the use of Wikipedia to accomplish that end. One way to promote the improvement of a particular subject area on Wikipedia is to hold an edit-a-thon. Just like it sounds, this is an event where interested editors get together for part of a day and add content and improve articles usually surrounding a theme. Taking inspiration from our Women's History Matters project, we decided that our first edit-a-thon should focus on creating or improving articles on women in Montana history.

Members of the staff of both the Montana Historical Society and the
Montana State Law Library participate in the first Wikipedia edit-a-thon
 held in Montana this past August in the MHS Research Center.
We hosted this initial event in the MHS Research Center on August 31. It was open to MHS staff and the staff of the Montana State Law Library. Though several staff members assisted in planning and supported the edit-a-thon, we had five active "editors" learning how to edit and improve articles. Together we created four new articles on Montana women Dolly Akers, Helen P. Clarke, Rose Hum Lee, and Beth Baker and improved two other articles on Ella Knowles Haskell and Mary Fields. We also created a "project" page where we placed info about the event and helpful links for our on-going effort to improve Wikipedia entries on Montana history.

As a first engagement with Wikipedia this event was a success.  In the future, we hope to continue to hold edit-a-thons every four months and draw in more MHS staff, volunteers, and even interested members of the general public to participate in this project. Watch for information about our next edit-a-thon coming in early 2016 and, in the meantime, investigate how you can work to improve "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit."