Interview with CJH's Leanora Lange
Wikipedia for Special Collections: A Conversation with Center for Jewish History’s Leanora Lange
Tell us a little about your experience with Wikipedia. When did you first get started editing? Has your education related to your Wikipedia interests?
CJH created an account when we had our first Edit-a-thon here at the Center for Jewish History in January 2013, hosted by my colleague Kevin Schlottmann. My interest in Wikipedia had already been sparked by my education at the Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science. In a course on knowledge organization at Pratt, I learned that DBpedia, one of the major hubs of data that is used to create Linked Open Data, is extracted directly from Wikipedia. This means that the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit is a huge contributor to the possibility of a new kind of web, one that links data in meaningful ways rather than just linking from one document/webpage to another.
I am fortunate to have the chance to work on a Linked Open Data project called Linked Jazz (linkedjazz.org) with Cristina Pattuelli, Pratt’s professor of knowledge organization, and a fantastic research team. We’ve been investigating possibilities with Wikipedia because we’ve recognized how crucial a strong Wikipedia is for the possibility of a strong web of data.
What topics do you most edit on Wikipedia?
I make small changes to pages that are relevant to the collections that I process at the Center for Jewish History. I mainly process collections held by the Leo Baeck Institute, one of the five partner organizations at the Center for Jewish History. Almost all of my edits have been related to German-speaking Jewry per the Leo Baeck collection. Because of the nature of the grants under which I currently work, the topics have largely centered on Jewish-German emigrants in the 1933-1945 era, the Holocaust, and post-World War II restitution claims.
I most commonly make edits like adding a link to the finding aid for an individual or organization whose papers I just processed, adding authority control numbers, or adding an infobox. I've also created pages for organizations where they didn't already exist or translated pages that exist on German Wikipedia into English.
My colleagues and I have been collecting ideas for larger editing projects that could be undertaken during an Edit-a-thon.
Tell us a about the dynamics of your Wikipedia work at CJH? How does it relate to the work you do as a librarian?
I've become involved with Wikipedia because I believe that as a professional in the field of libraries, archives, and museums, it is part of my ethical duty to make information and resources accessible. Providing a small amount of very useful information on Wikipedia, like adding a link to a finding aid, is an easy and effective way to be an active information professional. That said, the editing that I’ve been doing really ought to be seen as part of a collective effort that has been undertaken by the archivists and other colleagues with whom I work at CJH.
We have incorporated Wikipedia editing into the workflow of all of the processing archivists working at the Center’s processing lab. We have a quick online report form that we fill out when we’ve finished processing a collection, and since January this report has included questions related to Wikipedia editing. There is also a space to fill out suggestions for more in-depth edits that could be made in the context of an Edit-a-thon.
A few of us have become particularly enthusiastic about editing Wikipedia and have been developing a newly-created Wikipedia Subcommitee. We will discuss and assess our current editing practices, brainstorm new ideas, and plan Edit-a-thons relevant to our work at CJH.
What concrete successes have you been able to track that result from your activity on Wikipedia for CJH?
Our approach is simply to include Wikipedia as part of our regular workflow: every time we finish processing a collection, each of us checks to see if Wikipedia edits related to the collection are warranted.
Since the end of January (that is, since our first CJH Edit-a-thon), we have created six new pages and made edits like adding links, authority numbers, and infoboxes for thirty-seven collections. While that number might not be enormous, that's at least thirty-seven Wikipedia pages that are better due to the minimal effort of just checking whether the relevant page could use a little help and improving it when beneficial.
What are your goals as a Wikipedia editor at CJH?
Editing Wikipedia is part of being an information professional. I cannot claim to be creating or organizing all of the world's knowledge single-handedly, but I can make contributions within the context of my work that help users connect to relevant and useful information resources.
The more editors we have from diverse places and with diverse expertise, the more we will benefit from free, open access to better information and to the resources referenced within Wikipedia articles.
What types of projects do you foresee being helpful for Wikipedia and CJH?
I plan to play a large part in pulling together our next Edit-a-thon at CJH. Edit-a-thons create the opportunity to improve information and have the potential to be a great community outreach tool. I am also looking forward to brainstorming with others in the newly-formed Wikipedia Subcommittee at CJH on this and other future efforts. Increased interest in Wikipedia across the LAM field is beneficial for Wikipedia and for CJH.
What is your advice to researchers, students, and teachers that are wary of using Wikipedia as a reliable source?
Wikipedia is imperfect. So are many other reference resources. What sets Wikipedia apart is that it completely owns up to its imperfection. The source of anxiety for many researchers, students, and teachers concerning Wikipedia’s reliability is also the source of its strength: anyone can edit it. Articles may contain misinformation or information that is lacking in one way or another, and articles on certain topics may not exist at all, but when issues arise, it is far easier and quicker to correct them than it would be for a traditional reference book or encyclopedia.
Wikipedia offers amazing learning opportunities about the reliability of information in any form, but particularly on the internet; the platform encourages students and researchers to approach what they read with a critical eye and question whether the information presented is complete and accurate.
I’m among the librarians and archivists who see Wikipedia as a fine place to start research; it offers a quick overview of a topic and is based on the principle of citing sources. Any Wikipedia article ought to be linked to some other resources. These are not the only ones to check, obviously, but it’s a place to start.
Short answer: If you don't think Wikipedia is good enough, make an account and make it better!
About Lea Leanora Lange is an archivist at the Center for Jewish History, where she processes collections and coordinates digitization projects. She is also a librarian at the Cooper Union and a team member of the Linked Open Data and digital humanities project, Linked Jazz. She holds an M.S. in Library and Information Science from the Pratt Institute, an M.A. in German, and a B.A. in German and Theater.