Breaking Barriers: Adding Biographies of Female Archivists and Archivists of Color to Wikipedia

By: Stephanie Collier, with April Anderson-Zorn

Women currently are represented by fewer than one in four biography pages on Wikipedia.[1] People of color constitute even fewer. Over the past few months, I have researched several notable women and people of color in the archival profession in hopes of giving them the acclaim they deserve. Thanks to a Strategic Growth Grant from the Society of American Archivists in 2019, the Dr. Jo Ann Rayfield Archives at Illinois State University received funding to properly research and publish biographies of several archivists who have greatly contributed to the archival profession and beyond. Through this grant, we (April Anderson-Zorn and Stephanie Collier) have successfully created 21 new articles (so far) on Wikipedia and added substantial new research to a dozen existing articles, including the page which describes the Society of American Archivists.

However, it has not been entirely smooth sailing. Wikipedia’s approval process is often a roll-of-the-dice. When a new page is submitted, a randomly-assigned administrator looks over your work and, in one fell swoop, can decide whether your article is worthy of publication. I have been denied several times, consistently being told that my entry covers someone who is not noteworthy. Even when sources abound and the work of a female archivist — such as Tonia Sutherland and Debra Newman Ham– has wide recognition, the archivist might still be overlooked in favor of pages for white or male archivists with similar or even less significance.

For example, I recently researched Edie Hedlin and submitted her page for review. I spent an entire day looking through online databases and search engines and compiled every single thing I could find on her, which was not much. On a whim, I submitted it while in the back of my head I knew it would not get approved. There’s hardly a paragraph and the sources only briefly mention her. Other people with better sources and longer careers have been denied, why should this one be approved?

In less than twelve hours, I was proven wrong, as shown in this spreadsheet which documents our success rate as of June 24, 2020. This is not an indictment of Hedlin being a subpar archivist; her Wikipedia page says just the opposite. Rather, it is an indictment of how Wikipedia reviews pages for publication. Hedlin is attached to institutions like the Smithsonian which, in addition to her race, gets her approved for notability while similar archivists who are not white consistently need more sources from more notable institutions to certify their importance. For example, in early October I started researching and wrote an article for Diana Lachateñeré. The article was denied, so I immediately reworked the piece. The article sat waiting for review for over four months. Her page was approved on March 9th. She has many published writings, has overseen several projects at Schomburg, and was a founding member of the Archivists and Archives of Color Roundtable. In short, she is an accomplished archivist worthy of our collective memory which Wikipedia still appears reluctant to give.

Many recent articles point to Wikipedia’s white male biases.

Even white women often have difficulty meeting Wikipedia’s qualifications for publication. I started going through the list of the presidents of the Society of American Archivists and counted all the women and people of color who did not have a Wikipedia page. Overwhelmingly, the women and people of color showed significant contributions both within the archives community and outside, while the white male presidents with Wikipedia pages often had only a few sources and showed an equal number of archival contributions, if not fewer than their female and non-white colleagues.

In the last six months, I have edited and submitted dozens of articles for Wikipedia. Almost all of them have been women and people of color. While white archivists have, by and large, been accepted, I’ve been notified of their status sooner than those of people of color. Regardless of the fact that they are notable in their field and do exemplify significant professional stature, (not to mention the fact that the pages we’ve created are considerably longer and fuller than their white colleagues who have already been approved), Wikipedia editors have decided to deny these submissions.

And I have not dismissed the constructive criticism of editors. Sometimes their comments are necessary for the articles’ improvement and more or different sources are needed to show that person’s significance. But often, very often, a number of archivists who have greatly added to their field have been looked over and ignored. What is history if it only recognizes politicians and wealthy people in power? We cannot exclude those who have made significant achievements outside the paradigm of society’s expectations. And many of these archivists have achieved notable status outside the archival profession. It is time they are recognized.
This is not a story of disappointment or deferred gratification, but also a project of real achievement. Six months ago, over thirty living and deceased archivists did not have the online recognition that they do now. Our initial goal of 15 archivists has been surpassed and we are now on our way to 50 Wikipedia articles on archivists! So we are moving forward, even if at a sluggish pace, and the general public will have a greater understanding of archivists and the archival profession through access to new and improved pages on Wikipedia.

Stephanie Collier has an M.A. in History from Illinois State University.
April Anderson-Zorn is the University Archivist for Illinois State University.


The names below are those of archivists who have not yet been approved by Wikipedia. They were all recently edited and resubmitted and sit waiting for their status, as of July 15, 2020. Some are shorter or have fewer sources than others that have been approved, but many existing articles were approved with far less.

Robert Clark
Thomas Battle
Elisabeth Kaplan
Jennifer Meehan
Ellen D. Swain
Judith Beale
Karen Mason
Eva S. Mosely
Mary Caldera
Tonia Sutherland
Holly Smith
Elizabeth Myers
Turry Flucker


Notes

[1] Some studies suggest that the number of women represented by biographies may be as low as 15.5% of the total number featured by biographies in Wikipedia (about 1.4 million biographies, according to DBPedia 2014 dataset). See Eduardo Graells-Garrido, Mounia Lalmas, and Filippo Menczer, “First Women, Second Sex: Gender Bias in Wikipedia,” uploaded to arXiv in February 2015, freely accessible at First Women, Second Sex: Gender Bias in Wikipedia. By July 2020, the WikiProject Women in Red argued that the percentage has increased to about 18.5%. See WikiProject Women in Red or @WikiWomenInRed on Twitter.

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