(Wikipedia Birthday cake, Airplaneman, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

This post is written by new Assistant Wikimedian in Residence, Ellie Whitehead.

23 years ago, on 15th January 2001, Wikipedia was launched as an independent, online open-source encyclopaedia. In its first year it amassed 20, 000 articles appearing in 18 different languages. Since then, Wikipedia has grown to be an internationally known and respected symbol of open knowledge. Its noble pursuit to make knowledge free and accessible to all still remains central to its cause today. Wikipedia is a place where people come together to learn and share knowledge simultaneously – there really is no place like it!

At the University of Edinburgh, the importance of open-access research and accessible knowledge is showcased through its collaborations with Wikipedia, working with Wikimedia UK. It was the first UK University to employ a Wikimedian in Residence to work on a university-wide basis, Ewan McAndrew. I am Ellie, MScR History student and the most recent recruit to the Wiki team at Edinburgh as Assistant Wikimedian in Residence. This blog will discuss my honest preconceptions and prejudgements when I started, what I have learnt so far about Wikipedia, and a call to arms for participation in the 1Lib1Ref Campaign

My preconceptions and prejudgments about Wikipedia

Being a history student, Wikipedia has been a familiar, reliable life-raft in an ocean of scattered and distorted information on the internet. It has been a tool for scoping out the background knowledge needed for my studies. What was the chronology of the October Revolution? Who was Margaret Beaufort? Who was involved in the Scottish Reformation?

Wikipedia has provided answers to all these questions and more – so why did I always feel guilty for using it? Perhaps it is due to being warned that it was “unreliable” and “untrustworthy” since secondary school. Before my role, I am afraid that I was influenced by these opinions and was under the impression that Wikipedia was not to be trusted, could be edited by anyone, and did not care for reliable sourcing of information.

How wrong I was. It is this common misunderstanding of Wikipedia that stands in the way of it being utilised to its fullest extent. Wikipedia is a place of open knowledge that can be accessed for free by anyone and the largest reference work on the internet. Can anyone edit Wikipedia? Yes and no. Anyone can create a profile on Wikipedia and begin to edit, but this account and its edits are monitored.  In English Wikipedia, an account can only create a new Wikipedia article when it has achieved 10 edits or been active for 4 days. In addition to this Wikipedia’s Notability Guide states that above all, for a new page to be created, it “must be verifiable” and that “reliable, independent” sources must be used to support the article. Notability is a core principle of Wikipedia along with neutral point of view, verifiability, and using reliable sources. My preconceptions have turned around since becoming Wikimedian in Residence, allowing me to understand the true merit of Wikipedia and the checks and balances it has in place.

This brings me on to…

What I have learnt so far about Wikipedia

Since joining in December, my experience of Wikipedia has been an upwards learning curve. Coming from a humanities-based background, the initial introduction to the digital world was, admittedly, daunting. However, the user-friendly and open nature of Wikipedia has meant that I have been able to learn many skills and become confident in them in a short space of time. I came into my role with no knowledge of how to create or even edit an article, no knowledge of the many important and impressive projects Wikipedia endorses, and no concept of just how useful it could be for university students and staff alike. I have learnt this, and more, in my short time working here due to the dedication and support of Ewan [mentioned above] and the community of other friendly Wikimedians in Residence around the UK.

I have learnt how well considered each article is, with the importance of reliable referencing and quality sources being paramount.

(Samhuinn Wikipedia editathon at University of Edinburgh editathon – 31st October 2016, Mihaela Bodlovic, CC-BY-SA licence via Wikimedia Commons)

I have also been able to get a taste of the openness and inclusivity of Wikipedia. The non-profit site is maintained and curated by volunteers. This community’s passion for Wikipedia is clear and adds to the special feel of the organisation at all levels of its knowledge creation, curation, and consumption. Something which I was particularly excited to learn about was the Women in Red project. Of the 1,980,258 biographies on Wikipedia, as of 8th January 2024, only 19.72% (approximately 390,582) of these are the biographies women. This project seeks to combat this by organising targeted events to add more women onto Wikipedia. This is a fantastic project which I am particularly enthusiastic about and want to take every opportunity I can to promote it – so watch this space!

In a personal sense, my role so far has allowed me to gain more digital literacy and expand my technological abilities – much to my amazement! So far in my role, I have learnt quite a bit about Wikipedia and its projects and yet there is still so much to learn. I look forward to exploring more in the future.

(1lib1ref, Wikimedia Foundation, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)


Potential for Academia

As previously discussed, Wikipedia is not being used to its full potential due to the misconceptions and judgments made about its reliability or trustworthiness. There has been great advances in the role of Wikipedia in academia, seen through the creation of Wikipedia articles being used for assignments for courses here at Edinburgh and the use of Wikidata projects to help open up and explore datasets such as Mapping the Scottish Reformation and the Survey for Scottish Witchcraft. In this role I hope to further encourage academic involvement in Wikipedia throughout the University and to dispel the myth that it should be avoided.

In particular relation to its potential for academia, and in honour of Wikipedia’s birthday I wanted to highlight the 1Lib1Ref Campaign. This campaign gives the ‘gift of knowledge’ by giving something back to Wikipedia. It encourages librarians to participate in Wikipedia by adding citations to articles that need them. You can find articles that need help by using the Citation Hunt tool (Citation Hunt is basically ‘Whack-a-mole’ for “Citation Needed” tagged text in Wikipedia).  It looks to involve information professionals, and everyone really, in the curation of Wikipedia to help improve articles’ reliability and usefulness. This campaign runs from 15th January (today!) to 5th February every year and is a great way to get involved in Wikipedia. Whilst librarians are encouraged to participate, the campaign is not exclusionary, and anyone can take 5 minutes to take part and give a little knowledge back!

Get editing today and help make fun and impactful contributions to the world of knowledge.

Written by Ellie Whitehead, Assistant Wikimedian in Residence.