Books, Brownies, and ‘Game Changers’

This is the library’s annual Wikipedia “Edit-a-thon,” in which participants gather to write new Wikipedia entries and update and expand already existing articles.

On March 30, roughly 30 students and faculty gathered in the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library to spend the afternoon glued to their computer screens, fingers flying across keys as they wrote and edited articles on Wikipedia.

This is the library’s annual Wikipedia “Edit-a-thon,” in which participants gather to write new Wikipedia entries and update and expand already existing articles.

Lead Schlesinger archivist Jennifer Gotwals has organized an edit-a-thon at Harvard every year for the past five years, giving each event a different theme. This year’s theme was “Game Changers,” focusing on female athletes. Attendees spent the afternoon posting and expanding articles about women who achieved prowess in their sport but never received much recognition.

Gotwals says she organized the event to combat what she called a “gender imbalance” in Wikipedia’s content as well as the ranks of its editors. Wikipedia itself reports that 90 percent of all Wikipedia editors are male.

“I felt like we at the Schlesinger library could do some work to change that,” she says.

Gotwals adds she wanted to emphasize female athletes in particular to complement an upcoming conference on sex and sports slated to take place at the Radcliffe Institute April 7, titled “Game Changers: Sports, Gender and Society.”

Students and faculty remained at the edit-a-thon for two hours Thursday, surrounded by over 100,000 tomes devoted to the history of women in America. Quiet laughter mingled with conversation as students spread books on tables and flipped through encyclopedias, searching for relevant facts.

Occasionally, participants took breaks from their work to grab snacks from a table by the wall—the Trader Joe’s espresso brownies were the first to go.

Annika L. Gompers ’18, a member of the women’s track team who also participated in the edit-a-thon, says she found creating Wikipedia articles easier than she expected.

Gompers wrote an article about Theresa Manuel, a black basketball player who also ran track. Manuel competed in the 1948 Olympics, making her the first black woman to compete in Olympic javelin and the first African-American woman from Florida to compete in any Olympic category.

“It wasn’t too hard to find news article sources, and putting them together to make a Wikipedia article will be helpful for people who use Wikipedia as a one-stop-source,” Gompers says.

Max H. Moulton ’18, who attended the edit-a-thon, says he thinks the event was a “fantastic idea.” Moulton spent the afternoon composing an article about Aeriwentha “Mae” Faggs Starr, an Olympic track runner who won the gold medal for the United States in the 4 x 100 meter relay in the 1952 summer games.

Moulton says he does not understand why Starr’s success has garnered comparatively little attention on Wikipedia.

“I think Wikipedia is where most people will go first for their information, so it’s a shame that all this great information about her history and her successes has never been documented in a way that would be more accessible,” he says.

Moulton adds he believes that one of the benefits of making information about female athletes more accessible is that in the future, these women “may inspire more people.”

Gotwals agrees, emphasizing that Wikipedia is user-friendly and should be accessible to anyone with Internet access. “Everyone has the skills to enter and engage with [Wikipedia] as a source and be empowered to add information,” she says.

Gotwals adds that she considers the recent edit-a-thon an unqualified success, earning the largest turn-out to date. Moreover, most attendees were “actively engaged,” doing research and writing for the duration of the event, she says, which “was not always the case” in past years.

Gotwals says she thinks programs like the edit-a-thon are an important step towards accomplishing gender parity. “We’re trying to build a space for what we want to see,” she says.