Wikipedia wants you

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 30, 2012 - 5:53 PM

Saturday's Wikipedia edit-a-thon gives ordinary folks the chance to keep history alive - and accurate.

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A blackout landing page is displayed on a laptop computer screen inside the "Anti-Sopa War Room" at the offices of the Wikipedia Foundation in San Francisco, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012.

Photo: Eric Risberg, ASSOCIATED PRESS - AP

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If Madeline Douglass has one of those days -- you know, when you wonder if your life has made a difference -- she need only Google "Mabeth Hurd Paige."

Up pops the Wikipedia entry for Paige, one of Minnesota's first female legislators, elected in 1923. Paige fought for better working conditions for women, targeted loan sharks, and sought care for orphans and the mentally ill. "Other legislation that Paige introduced outlawed 'counterfeit correspondence schools' and protected the environment.[3]"

That [3] is Douglass' legacy -- a footnote that marks her contributions to building the entry at a Wikipedia edit-a-thon in February at the Minneapolis Central Library.

Another grass-roots effort to improve the online encyclopedia is set for Saturday. Anyone interested in history or research can show up for a day of digging deep into the library's special collections of Minneapolis history and exposing them to the light of computer screens.

"It's not easy," Douglass said of meeting the on-site experts' standards, "but it's fun to try. And while it's a collaborative medium -- there might be a dozen people working on the same thing you are -- I had a sense of something that I started. It's really incredible to take something that was in a storage box and make it accessible to anyone in the world."

The edit-a-thon is a rather new concept in Wikipedia's evolution. When the site was launched in 2001, skepticism abounded, partly because it was something new and different, but also due to its open nature of authorship. No longer did experts in a field submit articles to be bound within the gilt-lettered volumes. In this new digital world, they were supplanted by anyone with an interest -- or, in some cases, an agenda.

Ted Hathaway, manager of the Central Library's history collections, said that while errors did get entered, the premise was that anyone with better information could correct them. Today, he said, "if Wikipedia has sins, they are more sins of omission. There's stuff left out. There's not enough information here."

History is then, but also now

Librarians know of the wealth of information that lies in their civic basements, and it pretty much kills them that it remains unknown to most citizens. Edit-a-thons enable regular folks "to write about things on the local level that the Encyclopedia Americana never would have covered," Hathaway said.

One example: One corner of Minneapolis' Seward neighborhood was called "The Hub of Hell" because of the brawling underworld crime activity in its saloons, bars, nightclubs and a bowling alley. The moniker gets only a passing mention in a Wikipedia page about organized crime, and Hathaway knows there's so much more to tell about the likes of Tommy "The Bomber" Ogdahl and Perry "The Scholar" Millik.

"We're encouraging people to get involved in enriching Wikipedia about things in their own community," he said. "It doesn't have to be something super-duper arcane."

Another example: While biking along Victory Memorial Highway, Hathaway saw the refurbished memorials to Hennepin County residents who'd died in war. "I thought I'd read a little more about it and sure enough, there was a Wikipedia entry, but it had been updated only through 2010." So he added the 2011 improvements to the entry, as well as a Star Tribune link.

Experts at the edit-a-thon will help participants learn how to navigate library collections to find information, then how to make it Wiki-ready.

Douglass said she emerged from February's session both intimidated and impressed by the Wikipedians, "who are a culture unto themselves, a fascinating group of brilliant people with a whole discipline and a system."

While she shared the early view of Wikipedia being not entirely credible, that's changed. "They really care that everything you put in complies with their rules and their system and it's really become a very authoritative source."

Wikipedia is on its way to becoming a go-to source for another reason: Last March, Encyclopedia Britannica said it would no longer publish its print editions, but would focus on its online version, for which there's a charge.

Wikipedia says it has 23 million articles, with editions in 285 languages. The Web information company Alexa cites Wikipedia as the sixth-most-read website in the world. (The others? Google, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo! and Baidu.com, a Chinese search engine.) Last year, it had about 2.7 billion monthly page views from the United States alone, according to TechCrunch.com.

Douglass, a librarian with the research unit of Valspar Paint Corp., hasn't yet created a Wikipedia page on her own, but figures that may come with more experience.

"I'm old enough to remember life before the Internet -- card catalogs, newspapers, even just talking to people," she said, laughing. "This is a pleasure, but it's also a responsibility to contribute to the body of knowledge. It's something we're driven to do as part of our contract here on Earth."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

  • WIKIPEDIA EDIT-A-THON

    What: Increase the depth of information on Minneapolis history topics on Wikipedia. Library workstations will be used, but bring your own laptop, if possible.

    When: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sat.

    Where: Minneapolis Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mall, Special Collections room.

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