Librarian Jessamyn West on accessible histories and Wikipedia

When we upload a new video to YouTube, we try and make sure viewers who wish to find additional information can do so, often linking to our own resources, notable articles or explainers, or a Wikipedia page. Sometimes, as is the case with a recent video for Elizabeth Hubbell Fisk, we found that despite her interesting story, she didn't have a page of her own, although her husband (one of Vermont's Lieutenant Governors) did.

So, we gave librarian and technologist Jessamyn West a heads up. She been an advocate for making information accessible online, and has documented her efforts to create pages for underserved peoples who should have one. Within a couple of days, she put together an excellent page for Fisk, and it prompted us to have a chat with her about this type of work and how it can be useful for those wishing to use the website as a tool to inform their members or the public at large.  

You’re a librarian who has written a lot about technology and accessibility, and one project that you’ve been working on over the last couple of years has been to try and close the gap between Wikipedia pages dedicated to men and women. What got you started down this path?

I'm not sure I remember. I've been editing Wikipedia for 20 years. I know I originally got involved with it to add information about Vermont's towns. If the town had a website, I'd make sure it was in the "external links" section of the Wikipedia page for the town. 

Looking at my own editing history, I mostly did that and made small edits to pages about library topics until I started editing Wikipedia in earnest over the past six or seven years. During that time, the Wikipedia page about me was nominated for deletion four times. This is a normal part of how Wikipedia works, sort of, but often new Wikipedia articles about women or non-binary people will get nominated for deletion significantly more than articles about men or about many other topics.

Since I was working on library topics, this included working on articles about library workers who were often women and seeing the odd sort of attention, as well as reading up on Wikipedia's gender bias made me want to help in that direction.

There is a terrific project, Women in Red, which gives newer editors a lot of support, advice and community to work on Wikipedia pages about women. This can include helping save them from deletion, adding photographs, or writing newer biographical articles. I find that having a larger project to be involved with helps keep me on task.

It's nitpicky, fiddly work but I really enjoy it.

Wikipedia is a vast online encyclopedia that anyone can update: how do you view it as an educational resource, and how can you get the most out of it, or ensure that the information that’s included on a page is correct and accurate?

Well I think those are two questions that are slightly separate. I think the thing that makes Wikipedia useful are its currency (not always but often, especially about breaking news) and its references.

So if I am reading an article about a current news story, I'll often drop down to the citations to see who is reporting in authoritative ways about a thing. If it's a controversial topic, I'll check the "Talk" page (the tab that is sort of "behind" the main article page), which is where people ideally hash out disputes about the article topic. That can give you a much richer idea of many ways of looking at a particular topic. And as far as correctness and accuracy, if I am dubious about a thing personally, I'll drop down to the source and see if I can figure out where that information came from.

I should also mention that if you see a simple typo or something that is obviously wrong on Wikipedia, you should feel free to fix it! I see a lot of people complaining about various issues with Wikipedia but fewer who do something about it. And I get it, not everyone wants to make "fixing Wikipedia" one of their hobbies and there are legitimate criticisms about the project, but I do like to encourage people to try if they think it's something they might enjoy.

We recently got in touch because we came across one of these examples: while processing a recent collections video about Elizabeth Hubbell Fisk, we noted that her husband, Lt. Governor Nelson Wilbur Fisk, had a page, but she didn’t. How common is this, and how do you go about building a page for her?

It's fairly common, especially with famous men. In this case there was an article about Nelson Fisk because he had an important position as Lieutenant Governor. People writing biographies often just write the one and don't branch out and say "OK, was anyone else in his family famous?"

Writing an article takes some work, so you might have a famous person with a somewhat famous partner or, as in the case of Elizabeth Hubbell Fisk, a spouse who was fairly well-known at the time but has a less well-known legacy than a former elected official. Elizabeth Fisk's life is fascinating because she was doing a few things that were really not being done at the time, designing and hand-weaving home goods as well as running a business doing that along with her friend Anna Bailey Smith (the wife of Vermont Governor Edward Curtis Smith). 

For me building a page is a pretty routinized process. I get together at least 2-3 links from reliable sources. The one from Vermont Public didn't have a ton of information but it gave me a name, a date range, a location, and some details, which was a great starting place. I have a simple template for building short Wikipedia biographies which gives me a skeleton and then I start filling in details. 

Most biographies on Wikipedia follow a standard format where you include their basic information in a pretty standard way: the lede, early life and education, career, what they might be specifically known for, later years, death, and legacy. In most cases you can follow that format and just fill in the blanks. It's important to remember that Wikipedia is trying to be an encyclopedia, so you want to write more like a reference work and less like a feature piece where you might write with more superlatives, anecdotes, or slice of life stories. 

How can local historians and historical societies take advantage of this as a resource or tool?

Well, there are ways to start small and ways to go big. Starting small would just be making use of Wikipedia as a tool and possibly looking into uploading images of materials to Wikimedia Commons (a related project full of digital content which is all free to use), which can support content already on Wikipedia. Checking out your own local history on Wikipedia and making small edits or adding citations. There is a project called 1Lib1Ref which is all about helping people add good citations to Wikipedia.

Also at a basic level, sharing information you have about local people or places that contributed to history on your own website can help Wikipedia by providing reliable sources for information. If you have photographs, adding them to Wikimedia Commons or putting them on your own website with a free license can really help.

I will often poke around the Vermont Historical Society's website if I'm looking for inspiration. This can be tough lately because many organizations share information on social media. Which is great, but can also be harder to cite for Wikipedia. One of the best sources I found about Fisk, for example, were various links pointing to a website by a researcher that was all about her, with many photographs and citations, but it was no longer online. The Internet Archive helped me find an archived version of what the website about her used to look like. They have many scans of out-of-print history books too, and a keyword-searchable complete run of Vermont Life thanks to Middlebury College Special Collections.

In a slightly larger way, places that own content or just want to encourage community content can hold scan-a-thons or edit-a-thons where people get together and learn to edit Wikipedia as a group. You don't need to have fancy equipment to do this, just a way to get a decent scan (or even a photograph) of a famous person from your local history can be a great way to contribute. Unlike Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons is mostly built as a resource, so you could put a set of images up there without having to have the usual Wikipedia notability hurdles. I often encourage people to start there.

As you’ve built pages for long-forgotten women, are there any names of Vermonters that stand out for you?

Part of what makes me good at some of this is that I don't hold on to the names super long so I can keep moving forward. I'll often look at my "watchlist," the Wikipedia tool so that you can see what edits are made on pages you have edited, and I'll struggle to remember a person's name even if it's an article I wrote. I recently created the page for Johnson Woolen Mills which is one of those legendary Vermont names.

I created Jane Lindholm's page and am a little surprised more people haven't fleshed it out. I am proud of Christine Hallquist's page which I mostly created and built out when she was campaigning for Governor.

But yeah it's the quirky old-time article that often pique my interest, ones where there's barely enough information to support an article, such as  the Daisy Turner article. She's decently well-known here but there aren't a lot of independent sources. And I added a small part of a photograph that was a low-resolution version of one that is in the Vermont Historical Society collection according to fair use guidelines.

Or Brianna Maitland, who disappeared twenty years ago. I expect if anything happens with that case it will show up on Wikipedia. Similar with Paula Jean Welden. Not a household name by any stretch, but her disappearance quite likely led to the formation of the Vermont State Police. Emily Davenport is one of those "her spouse had an article about his achievements and she had only the barest of stubs" people and I helped add more relevant details.

But I often rely on tips from people who say "Isn't it odd that this person who should be famous doesn't have a Wikipedia page?" and I'll look into it. A lot of the time, they're right. It's a fun librarian hobby and great for those long winters.

To stay up to date with the Vermont Historical Society, sign up as a member, subscribe to our newsletter, or follow us on social media

Find us on Instagram