Using Wikidata to promote epistemic equity

Thami Jothilingam
Thami Jothilingam
Image by Jordan Kawai, all rights reserved.

As a cataloguer for the University of Toronto Scarborough Library, Thami Jothilingam sees infinite possibilities for Wikidata. That’s why she signed up to take Wiki Education’s Wikidata Institute course.

“Metadata is foundational to knowledge creation, as it forms the building blocks of knowledge infrastructure,” Thami says. “Historically, the form and process of this knowledge creation was performed primarily by the socially privileged groups in a society, which has resulted in epistemic bias in library discovery and access. Wikidata is the largest global free and open knowledge base that enables and democratises the creation of knowledge infrastructure, access, and discovery.”

Thami says she was also drawn to the course on a more personal level, too.

“As someone who is both BIPOC and queer and thus belongs to multiple marginalised communities, it is important for me to learn the skills to identify the absences/silences/erasures in knowledge creation/infrastructure and to also actively find tools to fill those gaps with a vision to contribute to epistemic equity and inclusivity,” she says. “I think Wikidata is one of those powerful tools, and I wanted to learn more about it.”

The course gave her those skills. Meeting twice a week for three weeks over Zoom, the Wikidata Institute provided practical knowledge about Wikidata and a community of other scholars studying alongside her. She says the combinations of practical, hands-on exercises, coupled with the engaging and thought provoking discussions in class, made this a perfect introduction to Wikidata for her.

“I am a cataloguer and a community archivist, and learning and exploring the endless possibilities of Wikidata and open linked data helped me to rethink the metadata creation process,” Thami says. “I strive to be mindful and conscious of the archival praxis with which I engage and what informs that praxis — what we archive, how we archive, and how we share/disseminate it. I believe in open knowledge and open access, and Wikidata helps to realise that vision both individually and collectively. Wikidata also helped me to rethink the entire process — how knowledge is organised and classified, how the ontologies are being made, how to democratise that process, how to make that knowledge creation process open and perform it collaboratively, how to navigate and find tools to address coloniality of knowledge, how can we develop and ensure a praxis with epistemic equity and inclusivity.”

As part of the course, Thami created several new Wikidata items, including one for I. Pathmanabhan Iyer, a collector, publisher, and community archivist from Sri Lanka. His 80th birthday was during the course, so Thami felt inspired to create his item in remembrance of his birthday. She also created other new items related to the Upcountry Tamil community in Sri Lanka.

“Sri Lanka’s Malaiyaka Tamilar, or Upcountry Tamils, are the descendants of nineteenth-century Indian labourers who were brought to work on the country’s British-owned tea, coffee, and rubber plantations. This community has suffered political disenfranchisement and discrimination, while adequate healthcare, education, and economic opportunity remain inaccessible to this day. I have been working closely with some grassroots organisations from the community for over a decade now, and it is important to rethink and see past the colonial and postcolonial traces, and to decolonise the power structures that were built through words and languages,” Thami says. “By creating more data, linked data, particularly metadata in multiple languages related to social and cultural histories of marginalised communities, we can develop ethical, equitable, and inclusive models for ontology development, data creation, access, and discovery.”

Thami’s engagement with Wikidata didn’t end with the conclusion of the Wikidata Institute course. She’s now working with a faculty member to develop a digital history project assignment that involves creating metadata from an archival collection. Students will work in groups to create metadata, and Thami will help move that information to Wikidata. Thami also collaborated with UTSC Library’s Digital Scholarship Unit to contribute about 800 entries to Wikidata from the S. J. V. Chelvanayakam Fonds.  

“I like when you create new items and find other items/instances to be linked, and it’s very thrilling when everything comes together, linked, and you can follow the links as if you’re following a narrative, a data narrative in this context,” she says. “Wikidata is the largest free and open knowledge base in the world, and anyone from any field of study/work can contribute and engage with it to develop it even further.”

Image credit: Loozrboy from Toronto, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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