Adding NC women’s history to Wikipedia

Jan Davidson, a museum historian for the Cape Fear Museum in New Hanover County, North Carolina, had thought about editing Wikipedia articles, but she’d never actually clicked the edit button. The Cape Fear Museum is a Smithsonian Affiliate. As part of the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative, these Affiliates were invited to participate in a series of courses on Wikipedia editing taught by Wiki Education. Jan signed herself up.

“This seemed like a controlled way to learn more, with people who had interests in common, and with a teacher who I could ask for help,” she says. “My cohort was great, full of interesting people from around the country, which made me extra excited about being involved with the Affiliates, and I enjoyed our instructor’s positive attitude to all our questions.”

The course was designed to encourage Smithsonian Affiliates staff to add biographies of women relevant to their collections to Wikipedia. In the last years, Jan spent some time researching for projects related to the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which provided great fodder for her Wikipedia work, too.

“I started by adding Lethia Sherman Hankins, who was a local politician, educator, and community activist,” she says. “I figured if I only added one person, I wanted it to be her. Cape Fear Museum has a collection of materials relating to her life, and she is one of a handful of African American women who have served in local government here.”

Moving her first new article live was so much fun that she didn’t want to stop there. Next, she wrote the biography of Mary Ethel Williams Barrett, who was the first director of the Wilmington Art Museum. Still inspired by the course, Jan then wrote the biography of Katherine Mayo Cowan, the first woman mayor of Wilmington. Two of the three articles ended up with other Wikipedia editors questioning if they met Wikipedia’s notability standards. Jan believes this experience reflects some of the gender biases of Wikipedia. Still, she sees value in editing Wikipedia. 

“I enjoyed adding the articles, and the course, and I think I will likely continue to add things to Wikipedia,” she says. “I’m a public historian, and a public servant; part of my job is to provide information to folks who ask, so I think adding historically accurate information to Wikipedia definitely fits into the parameters of my job.”

Jan encourages other Smithsonian Affiliates and museum professionals more broadly to participate in future courses like this. Wikipedia, she says, is a great starting place for research, with footnotes linking to useful references. That makes contributing to the articles an important part of the museum profession.

“This is a great way to share what’s in your collection, on your website, and provide an additional avenue into the scholarly work so many of us do in our organizations,” she says. “I write a lot, but I don’t publish in traditional academic places, so adding materials to Wikipedia puts the history out there for more people to explore.”

Image credit: Musehist, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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