The Digital Library @ Villanova University and Wikipedia
Over the last few months, the Digital Library embarked on an exciting new project: adding content to Wikipedia.org. We asked our two graduate student workers, Abbie Gruseth and Scott Grapin, to research and write brief biographical entries relating to some of the items that were being digitized.
Wikipedia describes itself as “a multilingual, web-based, free content encyclopedia project [that] is written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world." It was started in 2001, and has grown rapidly into one of the largest reference web sites, with more than 2 million articles in English and another 6.8 million articles in other languages. It often returns high ranking results in Google and is a popular reference source for students.
As we looked for additional information to better describe the items we were digitizing from our personal paper collections, we were confronted with not only what Wikipedia had to offer, but also what it lacked. This prompted the idea that we could in fact add content to Wikipedia, expanding the scope of this resource while also pointing broad sectors of the Internet-using public to our digitization efforts.
The entries Scott and Abbie submitted were primarily related to personal paper collections that are housed in Falvey Memorial Library's Special Collections. These resources can be easily missed while searching the library catalog, since just one record describes an entire collection that often consists of boxes worth of content. One of these collections is the Sherman-Thackara collection, donated by General William Tecumseh Sherman’s daughter, Eleanor, to Villanova College in the 1890s. (1)
Some individuals with personal paper collections held at Villanova, such as General Sherman and Joseph McGarrity, (a Philadelphia businessman and Irish revolutionary), already had wiki entries. To these we added an external link that connects the Wikipedia entry to our digitized collections. Other individuals did not yet have entries. For instance, General Sherman’s daughter, Eleanor, and her husband, Alexander Montgomery Thackara, both lacked articles in Wikipedia. Courtship letters between Eleanor and Alexander make up an interesting part of this personal paper collection. Now, both Eleanor and Alexander have their own Wikipedia entries that link to Gen. Sherman’s entry and to the Digital Library @ Villanova.
Scott and Abbie used a variety of sources to research the brief biographies, including using some of the items we digitized, databases to access historical newspapers and scholarly articles, and research done for earlier Compass articles. They learned not only how to add content to Wikipedia, but how to add notes to cite their sources and how to add external links pointing back to the digitized content in the Digital Library. Once the articles were complete, they were categorized and cross-referenced to other Wikipedia entries to avoid what Wikipedia refers to as orphaned articles.
Each entry generated its own interesting story as research unveiled information that we did not know about these subjects prior to embarking on this project. We invite you to browse through all the articles that we contributed:
· Rev. Thomas Cooke Middleton, OSA, Villanova College’s first librarian;
· William Axton Stokes, a Philadelphia attorney and Civil War veteran;
· Maria Daly Shea, a member of the Lloyd household and heir to the Lloyd family papers;
· The Fatherland, a weekly periodical dating from World War I.
This was a fun and interesting project that brings to the fore many issues in contemporary academic librarianship. For instance, the accuracy of Wikipedia articles is hotly contested between advocates and critics of the site. (2) One point, however, that cannot be argued is the site’s immense popularity.
Some in academia may find it surprising that the Digital Library would undertake an effort to add content to Wikipedia. However, in May 2006, the Washington Libraries Digital Initiatives undertook a similar project that had the goal of “reach[ing] out to our users where they begin their information search.” This effort is described in the May/June 2007 issue of D-Lib Magazine. (3)
The articles contributed by Abbie and Scott added to a collective knowledge outside the staff of the Digital Library and Special Collections. Better yet, since Wikipedia is completely editable, others can lengthen or otherwise alter articles as they discover additional information.
Contributed by Teri Ann Incrovato
- For more about this collection see Polites, Bente. "'My Darling Papa': William Tecumseh Sherman in Falvey’s Special Collections." Compass (March 2005).
- See, among myriad others, for instance:
- Giles, Jim. “Special Report: Internet Encyclopaedias Go Head to Head.” Nature 438 (15 December 2005): 900-901.
- Rosenzweig, Roy. “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past.” The Journal of American History 93 (2006): 117-46.
- Jaschik, Scott. "A Stand Against Wikipedia," Inside Higher Ed. (January 26, 2007).
- Quintiliano, Barbara. “What is this thing called Wikipedia?” Compass (February 2007).
- Lally, Ann M. and Carolyn E. Dunford. “Using Wikipedia to Extend Digital Collections,” D-Lib Magazine 13 (May/June, 2007).