Historians and techies unite to bolster Minnesota’s presence on Wikipedia


On Saturday, February 25, the Special Collections department of Hennepin County’s Central Library hosted an event uniting history buffs with the tech-savvy in order to increase the state of Minnesota’s presence on the user-generated encyclopedia Wikipedia. The goal was that those from the Wikipedia social circle who are passionate about democratic and expansive knowledge access would aid the historical experts as they jointly flushed out the aspects of the state’s past previously undocumented on Wikipedia.

Ordinarily, gaining access to the department’s 25,000-plus documents, papers, letters, photographs, traditional books and newspaper clippings would require making advance arrangements with staff. By teaming with Wikipedia to elaborate on Minnesota’s currently modest historical presence online, the plan was, both sides would come out ahead.

“We thought this was a good opportunity to really connect this collection that has all these original materials to people who may be really savvy about [accessing] resources online,” said Ian Stade, a librarian in Special Collections. “We’re always looking for new ways to get Special Collections connected to people who wouldn’t know about it otherwise.”

Stade thinks “history is moving that way, toward empowering individuals to do their own research and get content online like Wikipedia.” He went on to acknowledge that without Wikipedia, “a lot of public librarians would be in trouble. It’s one of our first resources we look at. We understand that not everything in there is totally correct, but it is a go-to resource, so for us to take the subject of Minneapolis history and have an opportunity to have it built up with more depth is key.”

For instance, Stade mentioned the case of Mabeth Paige, an early state legislator who served shortly after suffrage for women was passed. “We have two boxes and an unpublished book on her here. […] She doesn’t have a presence at all on the Internet right now, but she was an early pioneer in Minnesota politics.”

Throughout the course of the day, nearly a dozen participants camped out at a long table as they plugged their way through a pages-long list of historical figures and institutions. Historians and local Wikipedians sat shoulder to shoulder, each lending a particular area of expertise. Out of all the topics waiting to be covered, Minneapolis resident and historian Madeline Douglass most identified with the very same Mabeth Paige who Stade had referenced.

“This is a woman who was a legislator in Minnesota and we’re adding content as part of the project for the upcoming Minnesota’s Woman’s History Month.” Douglass explained how she feels Wikipedia has gotten a bad rap among academics. “It’s impressive that the Wikipedians here are very dedicated to documenting their research and being very disciplined about what they do. So I think the reputation about Wikipedia being something that’s not accurate or authoritative is really not true.”

Case in point: Todd Murray. Several years ago, he started on the path of becoming a Wikipedia editor by “doing minor edits to articles.” Later, Murray found himself spending more time on articles about the history of Minnesota and the Minneapolis area in general. “I’m actually a software engineer for a living,” he said. “I just kind of do this as a hobby, kind of an interest.” He’d selected several goal projects for the meet-up, including “flushing things out a bit” on the old Abbott Northwestern Campus in the Stevens Square neighborhood, as well as spending some time on local architects and the interesting buildings they’ve created.

So what’s at stake for libraries if all the physical information becomes digital? Ted Hathaway, manager of Special Collections, Preservation, and Digitalization, isn’t worried. “You know, you can talk about books maybe going away as the e-book rises in prominence, for good or for bad, but archives will never go away. That’s primary, original material. You’ll always have to protect that. But we’ll also have electronic resources too.”

Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Collaborative.