Recovering Histories event: 3 student researchers looked at the gaps on Wikipedia and where important histories were not (yet) represented online. CC-BY-SA by Ewan McAndrew

Three students co-authored an application to take part in a Student Experience Grant project over a 14-week time period, learning how to edit Wikipedia and how to fill in diversity gaps on the website:

  • Eleanor– PhD Student researching LGBTQ+ History.
  • Sian – PhD student researching Black History.
  • Kirsty  – Undergraduate student researching Gender History.

Each student specialised in a particular aspect of diversity which Wikipedia was lacking coverage on. These were black history, LGBTQ+ history and women’s history. Through these three specialisations each student was able to increase their knowledge in their specialised area, digging through Edinburgh’s history in the matter. For example, Kirsty, one of the students, was able to delve into the University’s rich sporting history and learn about the impressive sportswomen that spent time at Edinburgh University. Kirsty also showed off a poster presentation on the Student Experience Grant project at the University’s GenderEd annual showcase & networking event.

Through the project the students developed knowledge of the gaps on Wikipedia and created worklists of pages in need of creation or updating to improve diversity of representation on Wikipedia. These worklists were utilised in a final end of project event, with 50-60 signups. The hybrid event was held in the Project Room of 50 George Square with students, staff and members of the public taking part in learning new digital and information literacy skills and contributing their scholarship openly to improve coverage of, and understanding about, LGBTQ+ History, Gender History and Black History in Scotland.

This event included many University of Edinburgh students who were introduced to editing Wikipedia, through a led tutorial, and given the aforementioned pre-researched worklists to help contribute to Wikipedia as a whole. The event featured a panel discussion and display of the work of the three primary students involved in the project, educating those in attendance about the disparities within Wikipedia and how they can help improve this as information activists.

Recovering Histories event, CC-BY-SA by Ewan McAndrew, University of Edinburgh

The event also included representatives from University of Edinburgh, University of Dundee, Wikimedia UK, the Devil’s Porridge Museum, Sussex University, University of Cape Town, Swansea University, Birkbeck University London, UCL, University of Leeds, the National Gallery of Ireland, Victoria University of Wellington, Kiel University, ZBW Leibniz, Manchester Metropolitan University, Staffordshire University, National Galleries Scotland, Arts University Bournemouth, University of Kent, Lothian Health Service Archives.

In addition, the structure of the project allowed all three students to specialise in their interests. This allowed each student to delve further into an area of interest/specialisation which was rewarding for all involved. They each created a poster which was printed out to display in the final end of project editing event for all to see.

Event page with worklists created:

Main learning points

  • Gained professional experience using their research skills outside of their main study.
  • Expanded awareness of information activism as a whole and the role of information in dictating awareness of those often ignored by society.
  • Had the opportunity to expand their network by making connections with the Scottish Portrait Gallery.
  • Organised and hosted an edit-a-thon at the University.
  • Eleanor has subsequently organised her own editathon on LGBTQ+ art on Wikipedia and been in discussions about presenting at the Queering Wikipedia conference 2023.

Scotland, Slavery and Black Histories poster, CC-BY-SA by Sian Davies

Reflections from Sian:

“I have been looking at Black history, specifically focusing on Scotland’s links to transatlantic slavery to try to address the silences on Wikipedia related to this topic. By adding in information to existing pages as well as creating new ones, I hope this work, however marginally, contributes to public understanding of the varied and widespread connections between Caribbean slavery and the making of modern Britain. Examples include adding in details such as William Wright’s, a renowned Scottish Botanist, ownership of enslaved people and how he developed an interest in botany while in the Caribbean, and adding in William Forbes of Callandar’s, a Scottish industrialists, connection to transatlantic slavery through his production of sugar boiling pans sold to planters in the Caribbean. I also developed a new page for Leith Sugar House, to show how some of built environment of Scotland is also connected the Caribbean and the profits made from slavery. “

Gender History poster, by Kirsty Vass-Payne, CC-BY-SA

Reflections from Kirsty:

“Higher Education Institutions, and the student bodies within them, are heavily involved within diversity-based research and movements throughout society.  However all too often work fails to extend beyond the reach of the university community. Information activism is an often unappreciated but vital part of diversity and equality movements. Work to increase representation of marginalised communities online helps to make the histories, achievements and movements of communities suppressed in mainstream media available to all. Wikipedia is the perfect website for such work. Further Wikipedia involvement can be vital in transforming this information to a wider community.

Firstly it does not occur to many that they themselves can, and should, contribute their knowledge to Wikipedia. Before entering this project two out of three of the students had not contributed to Wikipedia before. This is often the first, and primary, hurdle to many in being part of the Wikipedia editing community. Herein, raising awareness of the ease at which one can contribute to Wikipedia is vital alongside providing a space in which to edit with support.Through this project Ewan McAndrew assisted the students in entering Wikipedia as editing and taught them the basic understandings and rules necessary to contribute. Although these can be easily learnt online, live teaching can be invaluable in quickly setting up students to edit Wikipedia. Running events on specific topics which include mini tutorials on how to edit are invaluable to adding information on Wikipedia. This is as they target those who are not currently engaged. The more people that are taught to edit Wikipedia, the more who can contribute their wealth of knowledge to Wikipedia. 

Wikipedia is a very large website, and as such the breadth of information that can be added to or edited it never ending. This can be a daunting prospect to many. As such it is much simpler, and more manageable to focus particularly on one area. From here you can create a related a worklist of pages to be added/edited, including details of what is missing. Often half the job on Wikipedia is establishing the gap in Wikipedia as there is often the incorrect presumption that everything is already there. If creating a worklist is untenable there are many project pages/worklists already available that you can work through with students. Examples of this include Women in Red which aims to create pages for women of note.”

Researching LGBTQ+ History poster and the rich important stories to tell, CC-BY-SA by Eleanor Capaldi

Reflections from Eleanor:

“The strand I’ve been exploring on this project is diversifying LGBTQ+ records. These could be of individuals, organisations, projects, either historical or contemporary. Filling in the gaps of LGBTQ+ history is necessary to reflect the diversity of society over time, and to readdress inequalities that have seen these identities suppressed or erased in record. Doing so also has a role to play in validating LGBTQ+ communities as being connected to something larger, this history partly acting as defence against suggestions that being LGBTQ+ is new, and therefore temporary, to be changed. It’s a way to say – we’ve always been here. Given that the historical landscape regarding sexuality and gender has evolved over time, from the law to language, it can sometimes prove challenging to attribute LGBTQ+ identities, even when there are indications. It is a catch-22 – to be accessible on a site like Wikipedia where there needs to be evidence, but for LGBTQ+ lives such evidence may have been erased, or alternatively exist, but as a result of primary sources like oral histories, rather than secondary.

That said there are valuable records that have been created and contributed to, and research projects and efforts to establish and expand LGBTQ+ sources that do exist, and they are increasing all the time. Given Wikipedia’s prominence, their inclusion matters. As such, I’ve been exploring the history of the Lothian Gay and Lesbian Switchboard, the first such telephone support service in the whole of the UK, which didn’t have a Wikipedia entry until it was developed as part of this project. Through researching this organisation, in collaboration with Archivist Louise Neilson at the University of Edinburgh (who hold the Switchboard archives and have recently received Welcome Trust funding to catalogue its contents), it has opened up so many avenues of people and events that were connected to a significant and important part of LGBTQ+ history in Scotland. It is a privilege to be able to contribute in even a small way to place this piece of Scottish LGBTQ+ history into the Wikipedia puzzle. “

New Wikipedia pages about:

Improved pages also include:

In terms of challenges, due to the secondary source nature of Wikipedia there were issues encountered with getting archival information on to Wikipedia, which requires a step in between. Had there been a larger project timeframe there would have been more time to do this. However, due to the short nature of the project archival information was simply used less as it would have been too time consuming to use more.

The legacy of the project

The worklist, gaps and resources identified, still exist and the work will have a further legacy as the work will be continued with other student editors contributing to it either through the student Edinburgh Award for ‘Digital Volunteering  with Wikipedia’ (Oct-March each year) topics or through the monthly Wikipedia editing workshops run by the University’s Digital Skills team. This project has been a source of inspiration for students taking part in the aforementioned Edinburgh Award for the kind of ‘knowledge activism’ and the agency it demonstrates students can have.

Moreover, the three students involved in the project dictated the strands of their research according to interests found along the way, and lines of success in research. As such there was always interesting work to be done and it allowed the opportunity to have conversations with, meet and work with people inside and outside of the University; to raise awareness and provoke ideas of what more could, and should be, done in future.

(Recovering Histories event)