Digital Harlem and Wikipedia

One of the purposes of this blog is to raise awareness of Digital Harlem and draw visitors to the site. When we created the site and the blog, I unreflectively adopted the adage ‘if you build it, they will come,’ expecting that simply being online would draw an audience.  Perhaps that was once the case, but it is not any longer, as the scale of the Internet dwarfs any project and swamps search engines — even a search for “Harlem 1920s” produces 2,510,000 results.  I have come to realize that what I need to do to help people find both the site and the blog is actively engage with other digital history sites, to participate in what has been labelled crowdsourcing.  (It is revealing of what scholars think they can gain from the Internet that I’m often asked about crowdsourcing as a way of adding material to Digital Harlem, but never about contributing knowledge from the project to other sites).  The most prominent example of crowdsourcing, and the site that dominates search results, is Wikipedia.

Recently, other digital scholars have begun to discuss engaging with this online encyclopedia. Eric Meyer, in the Joint Information Systems Committee report on the usage of digital resources published last year, suggested including appropriate links in Wikipedia as a way to increase discovery of digital projects. University of Houston librarians reported earlier in 2011 on a project to ‘evangelize’ the content of their digital library on Wikipedia by uploading images and inserting them into appropriate articles. Engaging with Wikipedia is relatively straightforward for libraries and archives with images and other media they are prepared to put into the public domain. For digital humanities projects that involve something more than digitization, however, the task is more complex, requiring editing Wikipedia entries. The Writing History in the Digital Age collection to which I recently contributed includes several insightful chapters on writing for Wikipedia. But much of the discussion has focused on contributions by students, not scholars. One reason is that an author cannot straightforwardly claim credit for a contribution in the ways to which academics are accustomed. It is also the case that historians feel they have little meaningful to gain from engaging with Wikipedia. However true that might be for some scholars, it is not the case for those creating digital history.

The 5 Pillars (fundamental principles) of Wikipedia

Making a contribution to an entry that connects it to a digital history project is not straightforward.  Most fundamentally, where sites like Digital Harlem place a premium on providing access to primary sources, Wikipedia guidelines suggest limited use of such material – the governing principle is that  “articles should be based on reliable, published secondary sources….A primary source may only be used on Wikipedia to make straightforward, descriptive statements that any educated person, with access to the source but without specialist knowledge, will be able to verify are supported by the source.”[1]  At the same time, in a particular problem for Digital Harlem, the policy against including copyrighted material prevents the inclusion of screenshots of maps from the site in Wikipedia entries as Google Maps is copyrighted. Both those disconnects between Digital Harlem and Wikipedia’s approach can be mediated by this blog. Wikipedia‘s guidelines do state that blogs “are largely not acceptable as sources,” as they are self-published. Moreover, citing yourself is identified as a potential conflict of interest. However, the guidelines allow some leeway to those editing in an area in which they have academic expertise, for who it is the case that, “Using material you yourself have written or published is allowed within reason, but only if it is relevant and conforms to the content policies. Excessive self-citation is strongly discouraged.” In addition, it is possible for me to edit entries using the Digital Harlem Blog as a source on the basis of the exception for “Self-published expert sources…produced by an established expert on the topic of the article whose work in the relevant field has previously been published by reliable third-party publications.” To date, while I have been queried about using this blog as a source, I have not been challenged nor have my contributions been removed, in large part because the editors I’ve encountered have been appreciative of my willingness to contribute my expertise, which is not always the case. [2]

Wikipedia entry on Harlem

The remaining issue is identifying articles to edit that connect a project to Wikipedia. There is a single Wikipedia entry on Harlem, of which one section is devoted to the history of the neighborhood, with an organization that confusing spreads historical content across the historical and thematic sections.  My contributions on everyday life in the 1920s could have gone in a section on the neighborhood as a ‘center of black life,’ or one on the 1920s focused on the Harlem Renaissance and Prohibition, ending up in the later after discussions with the editors most involved with the entry.  I’m still trying to work out how to edit the sections on culture, crime and politics to connect them to Digital Harlem; hopefully other editors will undertake a reorganization of the entry that will make that task easier.

Wikipedia entries related to 1920s Harlem (click to enlarge)

With much of what is dealt with in Digital Harlem not easily incorporated into the Harlem entry, I have had to identify a variety of narrower topics.  To date, I have found twenty-nine entries related to 1920s Harlem, of which I have edited eight. The challenge of fitting in with an entry’s existing organization and approach is exacerbated in the case of such topics, which attract less attention from editors and consequently generally have so many pieces missing that there is no obvious place for what I had to contribute.  One example is numbers gambling, which has an entry so confusing in its organization and content that it requires a major rewrite to accommodate the material in this blog — which for the moment would take more time than I have to give this endeavour.

I’m obviously still in the early days of crowdsourcing with Digital Harlem, so it is still too soon to assess its impact on either Wikipedia or in bringing traffic to this blog and the site. In the later case, just over 200 visitors to the blog have been referred by Wikipedia in the last 3 months, almost 1/10 of the total who have been referred by links, but only about 3% of all the visitors in that time.  Those numbers are not particularly significant, but they come from only a small proportion of the entries to which this project has something to contribute, and they don’t measure how many people have read the content from Digital Harlem that I have contributed to Wikipedia – the Harlem entry alone has been viewed over 48,000 times in just the last 30 days.


[1] There is also a guideline for the use of primary sources that concerns how much of a source can be included. The discussion pages reveal that the present guidelines suggestion not including the full-text of primary sources only dates from 2009 and replaced a stronger position: “Do not include copies of primary sources (specifically: text, maps, artworks and other useful images) in Wikipedia.”  For the debate over this rule, see the archived discussion.

[2] Andy Guess, “Making Wikis Work for Scholars,” Inside Higher Ed (April 28, 2008); Martha Saxton, J. Scott Payne, Leah Cerf, and Melissa Greenberg. “Wikipedia and Women’s History: A Classroom Experience,” in Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, eds, Writing History in the Digital Age, under contract with the University of Michigan Press, Web-book edition, Trinity College (CT), Fall 2011

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2 thoughts on “Digital Harlem and Wikipedia”

  1. Yes! Absolutely. I just heard your interview on ABC RN and found your blog as I listened.

    Like libraries and archives, the National Museum of Australia is doing a Wikipedia project which includes editing articles and, soon, donating images. In addition to all of the reasons you outline, we’re also keen to improve the quality of Wikipedia articles on Australian history as a ‘public good’. We know that students and even ‘serious’ researchers use Wikipedia as a starting point – and isn’t it wonderful when an article’s footnotes and links lead to a wide range of authoritative sources?

    Many academics, including those doing public history, don’t yet view Wikipedia as a key online publication where they can influence public discourse in their area of expertise. It’s also a great way of engaging with ‘amateurs’ around the world who are passionate about a topic. Last but not least, there’s a demographic issue: Wikipedia contributors are overwhelmingly young white men and, not surprisingly, it reflects their interests and expertise. Crowd sourced projects are enhanced and improved as the crowd becomes more diverse.

    Thanks for this blog post – I hope that it will encourage more academics to contribute.

  2. […] During the project, Robertson and his colleagues began to use digital tools that were previously unknown to them; while experimenting with them, they found new ways to store and display their data, which led them to a better understanding of the complexity of the data involved. They found that with the help of digital tools such as Google Maps, a linked database and a WordPress Blog, they could create a Digital Harlem, a result which was much more multi-faceted and layered than they had anticipated. It enabled them to realize connections between events and locations, which they would have missed otherwise. However, Robertson also recognized that just releasing their results on the internet did not guarantee that people would find it; he tried to create links that were available to a broader audience, for example by linking the project to the Harlem entry in WikiPedia – which entailed a number of other problems. […]

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