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W&M takes Wikipedia by storm to increase representation of women

Gathered in the Ford Classroom basement of Swem, hunched over laptops and eating a catered lunch, over 20 people — mostly women — were rewriting history.

At least that’s what they were doing on Wikipedia.

On Nov. 3, the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture at William & Mary organized a Wikistorm, a massive Wikipedia editing effort to add more pages about women to the site. The event was centered around the centennial celebration of coeducation at William & Mary, taking place during the 2018-2019 academic year.

{{youtube:medium:left|JLG8ynE7I3M, W&M's Omohundro Institute hosts a "Vast Early America WIkistorm" to add 100 women to Wikipedia}}

The Omohundro Institute, an independent research organization with William & Mary as its founding sponsor, brought together experts on Wikipedia research entry with students and faculty, mostly of history, to add notable women to the annals of Wikipedia in order to better represent the efforts and accomplishments made by women throughout early American history.

Karin Wulf, professor of history and director of the Omohundro Institute, acknowledged the challenges facing the legitimacy of adding names of individuals who may not be traditionally accepted into the long-established discourse of American history.

“Wikipedia has a notability requirement: What makes something notable? But of course that’s the entire challenge of individual women. Historically, women’s activities have not been seen to be notable.” she said. “In other words, there’s a kind of bias against anyone who is not a prominent male figure in all of Wikipedia. So we have to ask ourselves as we’re here how do we get women included in the general body of knowledge, and how do we think about how our entire framework of notability, prominence, and importance is structured?”

To aid in that decision-making, experts and academics in the field of early American history, specifically those who focus on early American women, were brought in, including Emily Sneff and Katy Telling, first-year history Ph.D. students. Both study early American history, explaining how that was a main motivation to receive their doctorates from William & Mary.

“I study early American women,” said Telling. “In a very basic way, I think they’re cool and interesting. I think more people should have access to them because I know about them from doing a ton of archival research and deep-diving.”

In addition to the accessibility, Sneff added that adding these women to Wikipedia would allow people to feel more motivated to read up on them.

“There’s a difference between reading about someone in a book and seeing their name on Wikipedia,” she said.

Many Wikipedia pages on women in history end in a “red link,” or a link that does not have a page written for that person. Too often, women are the ones who are subject to a red link, said Sneff. Part of the goal for the Wikistorm was to address a number of those red links.

“When you see a name that’s either not a link or a red link, and you know that they don’t have a page, then there’s a level of importance that’s given to the people who do have pages,” said Sneff. “You think, ‘Is that the bulk of their contribution? Or was there more to them as a person?’”

With workshops from Wikipedia editing experts, the academics present were working diligently in their efforts to widen the scope of those included in the historical narrative, including some noteworthy names.

Steven Pruitt ’06 was a staple for the day’s work: after all, he has logged in over 2.5 million Wikipedia edits since his first Wikipedia page upload back when he was a sophomore at the university in 2004.

{{youtube:medium:left|iCQdu4uZK9g, Wikipedia's top editor discusses the need for more women's biographies on the site}}

Additionally, the day was set in honor of the late Mary Maples Dunn ’54, L.H.D. ’89 and former OI Council member, whose work on the history of early American women set the stage for much of the work the Omohundro Institute does today. Her husband, Richard Dunn, a fellow historian, was present with their two daughters to edit Mary’s page in her honor.

“This is both a very Omohundro Institute and William & Mary story,” said Wulf.