KCPL’s new Wikipedian in Residence gives us the tools to edit our own stories

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Illustration by Katelyn Betz

In June 2021, the Kansas City Public Library announced a new staff position that reimagines the “traditional” librarian role with a digital twist: the Wikipedian in Residence. Miranda Pratt, who graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2019, is filling the post for the inaugural year-long tenure.

Wikipedia is a crowd-sourced and open-source digital encyclopedia, meaning anyone with access to a computer and extra time on their hands can contribute an article or make edits to its content. Those who do volunteer their time to work on the backend are known as “Wikipedians.”

There has been a growth in paid Wikipedia in Residence, or WiR, positions at private institutions such as Harvard University, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Smithsonian Institution Archives over the last ten years. In 2018, New Zealand even received a grant to host a national “Wikipedian at large” position. But Pratt will be the first WiR to hold a paid position at a public library in the United States. 

“People have done Wikipedia work at public libraries,” says Pratt. “But it’s usually libraries; other public institutions are underfunded. [And it’s often] just one person doing a bunch of work and there’s not really a specific allotment of the position.” 

Pratt’s job is multifaceted and, in many ways, community-facing. One of their primary responsibilities will be to update and edit Wikipedia and its metadata based on resources from the library.

“A majority of my personal edits will be made utilizing the materials from the Missouri Valley room, [a physical archive] located at the Central Branch of KCPL. Since their collections are so focused on local history, it makes a lot of sense for me to pull and cite resources as source material,” says Pratt.

Additionally, they’ll be pulling research from some of the library’s digital databases, including Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Pendergast Years, and Civil War on the Western Border. They’re also working towards linking the “Hispanic Oral History Project,” housed in the Missouri Valley database, on Wikipedia so it gains more traffic.

KCPL’s Central Branch, where Miranda Pratt will be editing in the Missouri Valley Room

“For my personal work, I’ll be looking at [these resources] with an eye on equity,” says Pratt, who is taking an approach of telling history from the bottom up. This means they will focus on the stories of citizens, the working class, and marginalized folks as they’re editing.

They will also lead-free workshops teaching folks how to edit Wikipedia, and host events to encourage the growth of the local Kansas City Wikipedia community. As the library stated when they announced the position, the WiR “highlights the role of the collaborative online encyclopedia in shaping public understanding of our community’s history.”

“Going to art school, ‘the archive’ is this whole concept, right?” Pratt says. “You use ‘the’ before ‘the archive,’ and it’s so inaccessible. When I was in school, I found myself making work about the archive. And then I realized it didn’t make any sense. Like, I could just work in an archive.”

While studying fiber and creative writing, they began a work-study job at the Jannes Library at KCAI and did an internship at the Spencer Art Reference Library at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The internship was centered around writing one Wikipedia article, an intensive process that took Pratt three months. When they graduated, they worked across a number of industries including as a lunch person, a barista, and a full-time employee in The Nelson’s library, hosting Wikipedia-related events.

“People can do really poetic things with archives, and they are doing really poetic things and really powerful things about their own histories,” says Pratt. ”And I think that knowing how to use Wikipedia is just one tool, and this can help people find specific information.”

For those of us who grew up with Wikipedia at our fingertips in school, we know most teachers are adamant that it isn’t a reliable source for research. A former president of the American Library Association, Michael Gorman, argued that academics using Wikipedia were “the intellectual equivalent of a dietician who recommends a steady diet of Big Macs with everything.” But there’s a growing movement of Wikipedians worldwide, such as Pratt, who would disagree with this stigmatization of free knowledge.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to cite an encyclopedia. [It’s] just supposed to give you an overview of a topic so you can learn how to research deeper. I don’t think it’s inherently bad to start out at Wikipedia, because it has so many sources, and so many people are editing these articles. Especially articles about really ‘notable topics.’ Often, you can find more reliable information than in other places.”

Wikipedia is currently the fifth most visited site on the entire internet, and all of its information lives outside of a paywall. Through the Google Knowledge Graph project, Google uses information from Wikipedia to display knowledge panels for general search results. Megamedia sites like Facebook and YouTube use the site to fact-check their own content. 

In short, Wikipedia isn’t going away any time soon. Knowing how to navigate—and even edit and improve—the encyclopedia is crucial to operating in our modern information age and combating the tides of fake news.

“There’s this thing called lateral reading which I think especially people in [younger generations] do,” says Pratt. “You have five tabs open, and you’re fact-checking each tab against the other. But a lot of people will only read one tab, and you could be on a site that’s a conspiracy theory. When you get immersed in this one site without checking it against five other ones, then you could believe the site. Wikipedia helps really quickly check for stuff like that.”

On July 30, Pratt hosted their first free, public workshop through the library entitled “Wikipedia 101.” They began with an access check, inviting Zoom participants to evaluate their wellness that day and whether they felt more comfortable turning off their cameras, muting themselves and participating over chat, or exiting the call early.

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Kansas City Public Library Plaza location. // Photo by Jim Nimmo

Throughout the workshop, Pratt provided a brief Wikipedia overview. Using the article on “Cats” as an example, they walked us through the anatomy of a typical page and dove into the nitty-gritty of editing principles and Wiki ethics. We learned an active vocabulary for discussing Wikipedia culture; biases that arise on the site; movements to improve its content; and even got our first glimpse into how we can become contributors.

“I’m hoping to grow a community of people [who regularly attend events] that are less intimidated by the internet because Wikipedia culture can be very toxic,” says Pratt. “It’s like any forum that’s open, where anybody can comment anything. But I want to have enough people who know what they’re doing and how to navigate the platform that they can feel comfortable writing their own histories.”

In a world where academic knowledge becomes paid content on sites such as JSTOR, or is hidden in physical archives only accessible to a local community, Pratt’s position at a public institution is groundbreaking. It is a position rooted, ultimately, in information activism. It is a position to address inequities and barriers to access of that forbidding archive. 

“The people that know how to use libraries are the people that work in libraries because you have to know how to research and all of your research methods—even keyword searches,” says Pratt, “[There is] a generational gap and an income gap, and all sorts of intersectional gaps in this kind of research knowledge.”

During their “Wikipedia 101” webinar, Pratt quoted Merilee Proffitt, author of Leveraging Wikipedia: Connecting Communities of Knowledge on the significance of Wikipedia to the public library.

“Wikipedia has the visibility on the open web that libraries lack,” Proffitt writes. “Libraries, whether public or academic, hold collections that can bring depth to Wikipedia articles and can provide high-quality support materials in order to help build better articles.”

Unfortunately, Wikipedia isn’t an information access utopia, either. Unless you’re lucky enough to find and land a position like Pratt’s, Wikipedians work on a strictly volunteer basis. Paid editing is a controversial topic within the Wikipedian community—but, without it, only those who can afford to take the time to learn the backend and make edits are able to do so.

“You have to be a certain class, and a certain race, certain sexes, certain gender identities, in order to have the time to edit Wikipedia,” says Pratt.

In 2010, United Nations University-Merit conducted a survey to study the demographics and motivations of Wikipedia editors and readers. They found that “among respondents, only 12.64% of contributors [were] female.” Contributors who identified as neither male nor female numbered at 0.63% of surveyed participants. According to a statement from KCPL, “Fewer than 20% of [Wikipedia’s] biographies feature women and fewer still highlight women of color or those in the LGBTQIA+ community.” 

As Pratt explains, “[Wikipedia hasn’t] even taken data on a lot of queer people, or Black and brown people. They don’t take data on any of those intersections. Then, the information that you’re reading is super skewed because people aren’t writing their own histories.” 

Pratt will be addressing this issue on a local level throughout their tenure as KCPL’s WiR.

“[I’ll be] building the Kansas City Wikipedia community beyond that which already exists, which is pretty small and not very diverse on many different factors of intersectionality. I think I found a lot of Wikipedians that are really into writing about architecture, but I found fewer people that are into writing about people that are currently active.”

Part of this community-building includes workshops like “Wikipedia 101,” where Pratt also seeks to educate us on the flaws that exist within Wikipedia’s system. Due to a lack of diversity in contributors, the information on Wikipedia is often skewed and reveals contributor biases. 

This issue plays out in articles that hit close to home. The Wikipedia page on J.C. Nichols, the real estate mogul who developed large swaths of Kansas City in the early to mid-1900s, never directly states that he participated in segregationist practices of “redlining.” Instead, the article refers to them as racist “deed restrictions” and “restrictive covenants.” Such nuances, while subtle, fail to connect Nichols to a larger national pattern of redlining. 

At the same time, KC Black history is poorly documented—if at all—on Wikipedia, which is unfortunately in line with global trends.

“I recently took stats on [the African American Biographies section of the Missouri Valley Special Collections database] and found that out of the 63 biographies in the portal, only 61% have Wikipedia articles. Out of those articles, 92% could use significant improvement on Wikipedia.”

Pratt will be inputting metadata, such as basic biographical facts, on each person in Wikidata—which functions as a repository for Wikipedia to pull information from.

The exterior of the Kansas City Public Library Central Branch.

“Google search pulls this data for their infoboxes,” Pratt explains, “making them easier to find online and laying the groundwork for other folks to write their Wikipedia articles.”

Pratt is also looking to fill gender gaps in local history on Wikipedia. 

“I did a data assessment on the UMKC Starr Women’s Hall of Fame (which is still very cisgender and straight, etc.) and out of the 25 individuals in the dataset, only 28% have Wikipedia articles. 100% of the existing articles can use substantial improvement.”

According to Pratt, Wikipedians agree that the online encyclopedia will live for quite a while because it “is so open.” So, should we feel absolutely hopeless about the inherent flaws in the system?

“I think we have an opportunity to change [the biases],” says Pratt. “Wikipedia is being used by all sorts of organizations to close information gaps and increase diversity online, both in editors and content. We have to focus on increasing our representation and diversity online, correcting these things that are inherently biased, and citing them with sources. And I think anybody can do that.”

Anybody, including us.

“I think that is a really tangible way for Kansas Citians to [get involved],” says Pratt. “Learn how to edit Wikipedia and then write what they believe is important.” 

In addition to future installments of their Wikipedia webinar series, Pratt will be organizing edit-a-thons, virtual or in-person events where folks convene to edit Wikipedia articles on a predetermined topic. Edit-a-thons are open to experienced contributors, as well as those just starting out. 

KCPL hosted their first edit-a-thon in a series of partnerships with the Black Archives of Mid-America August 28 on the history of the Women’s Basketball Association. Pratt hopes to host an edit-a-thon focused on queer history in the future, as well. They envision these events as tools for empowering communities to write their own histories on Wikipedia.

“As a white person working this position, it feels more ethical to me to engage with community partners who have lived experience in areas [such as Black KC history] to collaborate on edit-a-thons where they curate the content and I help with tech, training, and edits.”

Pratt adds: “I’d also like to create a series of Wikipedia ‘zines because I like ‘zines. They’re a fun, accessible way to share information.”

And of course, in the spirit of the public librarian, they make an open invitation: If anyone is interested in hosting Wikipedia events but would like a helping hand, reach out to them. They’re also available for one-on-one workshops, questions, or for help setting up Wikipedia accounts. 

“And it’s all free because it’s through the library, which is really rad,” Pratt points out.

As more and more library science schools across the nation are turning their focus to data and technology under the umbrella of the iSchool, one can only hope that positions like Pratt’s become more widely available at public libraries. The WiR role at KCPL provides an excellent, scalable model.

“That’s the ideal: out of this job, more jobs will come. People besides myself can also do it. It’s really cool to have a job where you can engage the public on this sort of platform,” Pratt says. “I do truly think it will open up more job opportunities for folks at other public libraries in the future. I want more folks to get paid to improve the internet.” 

On Sep. 23, KCPL will host an edit-a-thon on Missouri artists in collaboration with The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the St. Louis Public Library, and the Kansas City Art Institute.

You can reach out to Pratt with any questions about Wikipedia at mirandapratt@kclibrary.org.

Categories: Culture