Recently, at a colleague’s urging, I tackled creating a page in Wikipedia for a significant female librarian. I chose Mary Wright Plummer, who was the second female president of the American Library Association, and who also served as President of the New York State Library Association, the New York Library Club, and the Long Island Library Club. Perhaps even more significantly, she was credited with originating the idea for a code of ethics for the profession.
Of all things, I happened to be in the OCLC Library when I began this project in earnest, which meant I could easily pull print sources such as A Dictionary of Eminent Librarians and Dictionary of American Library Biography to cite. This was important, since Wikipedia requires citations for everything declared about a topic or individual. Links to other appropriate Wikipedia pages were also created, such as the American Library Association and Melvil Dewey, with whom Ms. Plummer studied. I also added links to some of her works which were online in full at the Internet Archive, as well as links to WorldCat and VIAF.
Ms. Plummer was clearly an important contributor to librarianship in the United States by any measure. Flush with excitement at creating my first Wikipedia page from scratch (I had contributed other bits before but never a complete page), I submitted the article for review. I soon received a message that there was a backlog and it was possible I would not hear anything for up to six weeks. I heard back in about a month.
My article had been rejected. Apparently I had not documented her importance sufficiently enough, using independent sources. Her presidency of the American Library Association notwithstanding, nor her obituary in the New York Times. At this point I walked away, not having enough motivation and/or time to fight for Ms. Plummer’s inclusion alongside such luminaries as Princess Peach.
My colleague, who is more experienced with the ways of Wikipedia, stepped in and added more to the article and argued for its case on the reviewers talk page. That carried the day and the article was allowed in. But it’s fair to say that without her intervention there would not be an article for Mary Wright Plummer in Wikipedia today.
At this point I was well primed to read “The Decline of Wikipedia: Even As More People Than Ever Rely on It, Fewer People Create It” in MIT Technology Review (November/December 2013). In it, the author describes an effort that has passed a pinnacle of participation and is in decline — a decline that has been fueled, the author argues, by making it very difficult for new people to contribute in any serious way. Rather than being “The encylopedia that anyone can edit,” as is the claim, it presents, claims the author, “a crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers.” I can’t say that I disagree with this, having emerged bloodied from the fray.
But (and it’s a big “but”), let’s not be hasty and throw the baby out with the bathwater. Wikipedia enjoys a privileged position in the universe of Internet information resources, and much of that position has been earned. For the topics that it chooses (using “it” quite loosely) to cover, mostly it does a fairly decent job. What clearly needs to happen is to diversify both those who contribute and the topics that are covered. Achieving the first of these goals will surely assist the second.
To at least some degree, the existing Wikipedia community understands this. Now what is needed is to ramp up efforts to accomplish these goals. This may be Wikipedia’s winter of discontent, but that doesn’t mean with the appropriate energy and attention it can’t lead to a rosier springtime. It will just require those who are already the keepers of the gates to work at opening them up wider, and soon.