October 2019 | XXXVII. Issue 5 »

From Foe to Ally: the Role Libraries Can Play in Improving the Accuracy and Completeness of Information in Wikipedia

September 27, 2019
Eric Edwards, Illinois State Library

Wikipedia and librarians may not seem as if they are natural allies in improving access to information that is accurate and current. As with many online databases that the public has the ability to edit, Wikipedia has its drawbacks in the completeness and relevance of its content, especially if that content reflects primarily the specific knowledge, interests, and biases of those making the edits. But this doesn’t mean that librarians should simply spurn Wikipedia. In fact, library staff and users can play an active role in editing Wikipedia, particularly by ensuring the accuracy of existing entries and adding new ones. While the process of improving Wikipedia’s overall value as an online encyclopedia is often incremental, librarians and the broader community can use their knowledge, dedication, and enthusiasm to give that process a jump-start.


One impetus behind a number of Wikipedia-editing projects has been to increase diversity, in not just the groups and individuals the online encyclopedia covers, but also the makeup of the editors themselves. A 2011 survey by the Wikimedia Foundation discovered that approximately 91 percent of editors were male. Ongoing work in improving Wikipedia strives to close this gap.

Devising a theme or topic around the library’s collection is another useful starting point. Consult the library’s resources and special collections to help determine what the focus of the project should be, and how the project could best benefit the library’s staff and users. The Spurlock Museum of World Cultures, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, based its Wikipedia project on its W. Dale and Jeanne C. Compton Collection of Native American Art.

Regardless of the edit-a-thon’s focus, it might help if the library connects the editing initiative with a larger event or project, especially as a way to promote it. For instance, the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Paul V. Galvin Library linked its edit-a-thon (focusing on women in STEM fields, including members of underrepresented groups) to its Women’s History Month celebration. Both the Spurlock Museum and Western Illinois University’s Malpass Library drew inspiration from the Art+Feminism project. The project is a campaign of wiki-a-thons focusing on increasing the number of Wikipedia entries covering cis and transgender women, the arts, and feminism. The project encourages participation by all people, regardless of identity.

An edit-a-thon can also serve as an opportunity to improve students’ knowledge of Wikipedia. For instance, a faculty member might want to have a wiki-editing assignment. The collaboration can then grow into a larger, campus or community-wide event. In particular, students could benefit from learning how Wikipedia requires citations for its articles, especially if those students have a tendency to apply sources to papers or other assignments after completing them, instead of during the writing process itself.

It might even be possible to tie an edit-a-thon to a library project that is not strictly Wikipedia-related. For example, Milner Library at Illinois State University sought to add demographic terms to records in its catalog, which would make it easier for finding information on members of underrepresented groups. In the process of identifying the records to which librarians would need to add the terms, however, participants discovered that Wikipedia could serve as a useful source for compiling a list.


Once a library has determined the focus of its Wikipedia-editing project, the next step is to compile a list of which entries to add or correct. The Pritzker Military Museum & Library used standard collective biographies for the subject matter (such as Reina Pennington’s Amazons to Fighter Pilots: A Biographical Dictionary of Military Women) to determine if Wikipedia already had an entry on a particular person.

In deciding to focus on African-American authors and compiling as comprehensive a list as possible, Milner Library staff compared the Library of Congress criteria for applying the term “African-American” with the Wikipedia listing of authors identified as African-American. If there was a high correlation between the two lists, then that demonstrated Wikipedia’s usefulness for identifying authors who are part of a particular demographic group.


For the most part, a Wikipedia edit-a-thon should not require prior Wikipedia-editing experience on the part of volunteers. It is likely that volunteers will have experience using Wikipedia, but not actually editing it. That is why training is important. Wikipedia, while it may seem “user-friendly,” is actually quite complicated. In particular, volunteers may not understand that, while entering an edit is straightforward, making certain that the information it contains follows all of the Wikipedia community’s standards, while actually adding value to the body of knowledge on the particular topic, is significantly more difficult. Although the edit-a-thon should not require any formal knowledge of Wikipedia, participants can create their own Wikipedia accounts ahead of time. Depending on the equipment a library has available, participants might benefit from bringing a laptop or another device for making the edits.

Wikipedia makes available several resources that participants can use for training and guidance. The Wikipedia Adventure tutorial (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:TWA/Portal) is a good place for interns and volunteers to start. As the project progresses, Wikipedia’s Teahouse (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Teahouse) can provide solutions to specific issues or problems as they arise. Participants should not rely on just these online resources, however, especially for problems specific to the particular library’s project. That is why having peer mentors can prove helpful. This is the approach the Spurlock Museum took, devoting the first stage to recruiting women and female-identified students from the local high schools and colleges to learn about Wikipedia and serve as peer mentors. During the second stage of the project, which was open to the general public, the peer mentors helped teach participants how to make the edits and monitored their progress.

Similarly, once the training is complete and participants have started making the edits, library staff and others managing the edit-a-thon will need to provide active support, especially in ensuring that the information participants are entering is as accurate as possible. Galvin Library made available curated resources that participants could use to improve existing articles or write new ones, while also providing them with lists of which references to cite in particular articles.

One of the educational benefits for participants is that they not only learn the mechanics of editing Wikipedia, but also become more familiar with members of underrepresented groups (if that is the focus of the edit-a-thon), including people who are affiliated with a library’s larger institution. For instance, participants in Galvin Library’s event had the opportunity to edit an entry on alumna Gloria Ray Karlmark, who was also a member of the Little Rock Nine group of students who integrated Little Rock (Arkansas) Central High School. Similarly, participants in the Spurlock Museum’s edit-a-thon learned about the Pueblo women artists whose works are in the Museum’s collection.


If a library is undertaking a Wikipedia edit-a-thon for the first time, it might prove helpful to contact institutions outside of the library, including in the broader community or campus that can provide guidance and expertise. Collaboration can not only pool resources, but also draw additional volunteers for the project. For instance, Galvin Library co-hosted its edit-a-thon with The Society of Women Engineers. Similarly, the Spurlock Museum collaborated with the University Library, the Native American House, and the Women’s Resource Center on campus.

In choosing a theme, try not to make it overly broad. A general theme (such as “women” or “African-Americans”) can entice students and other volunteers to join the edit-a-thon, but it can also confuse them, particularly if they are not aware of the scope of Wikipedia’s coverage on a particular topic, or they are not particularly familiar with the topic in the first place. Leaving the topic completely open-ended might confuse them even more. That is why having a list of pre-selected subjects and resources to guide students and other participants in constructing the entries is important.

Once the library has chosen the theme of the project and constructed the list of entries to edit or add, planning the execution of the project itself is crucial. Make certain to allow adequate time to complete the work. Set aside a certain period of time each week for staff and volunteers to devote to the project, to ensure that the library doesn’t neglect, or even forget about, the initiative. Similarly, create a regular schedule, so that everyone involved with the project will know when to participate. Having a “drop-in” policy can help attract more volunteers, but it can also create an environment in which participants are not dedicated to seeing the project through to its completion.

Most importantly, ensure that everyone involved in the project, from planning to editing, understands the “spirit” of Wikipedia. While Wikipedia may not be a perfect resource, the community of site managers and editors is dedicated to ensuring that the information it contains is as complete and accurate as possible. Unfortunately, there might always be people who intend to use Wikipedia for their own ends, however, including by “vandalizing” a page and leaving purposefully inaccurate, and even inflammatory, information. This is especially risky in the case of entries covering political figures or other polarizing individuals and groups. This is why it is important for the librarian leading the edit-a-thon to not just make clear what the expectations are at the outset, but to monitor the project throughout.

Regardless of the topic, the edit-a-thon should be a fun and educational event for everyone involved. Students or other regular library users will enjoy learning about the subjects that the edit-a-thon covers, and community members and other outsiders, including alumni, will value the opportunity to become more involved in the library and its projects.


The author would like to thank the following individuals for sharing their knowledge and experience for the article: Christina Norton, Heartland Community College (formerly of Western Illinois University); Kimberly Shotick, Illinois Institute of Technology; Eric Willey and Angela Yon, Illinois State University; Teri Embrey, Pritzker Military Museum & Library; and Monica Scott, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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