Black Artists Get Wikipedia Pages at Last, Thanks to an Edit-a-Thon

Anonymous volunteer editors decide who's in Wikipedia, and anyone can join the effort.EXPAND
Anonymous volunteer editors decide who's in Wikipedia, and anyone can join the effort.

Two days ago, Stacey Allan, a Wikipedia expert from Cal Arts, and Denise McIver, the California African-American Museum librarian, held an "edit-a-thon" to add black visual and performing artists to Wikipedia. When the day ended, arts experts and everyday citizens had added 15 noteworthy African Americans—who until then had been non-existent on the globally influential encyclopedia.

Wikipedia encourages everyone to learn its editing system, then add people, institutions, events and facts that have been overlooked. It's the sixth most-used Web site in the world, a powerful guide that can help decide who, and what, is important. But plenty gets left out — and left behind. 

Unforgetting L.A.: Stacey Allan of CalArts, Takako Sakamoto, a California African American Museum volunteer, and CAAM librarian Denise McIver.EXPAND
Unforgetting L.A.: Stacey Allan of CalArts, Takako Sakamoto, a California African American Museum volunteer, and CAAM librarian Denise McIver.
Teka-Lark Fleming

For example, of tens of thousands of volunteer “Wikipedians” who write up the topics, only 9 percent are women. The famed Wikipedian Adrianne Wadewitz, a California scholar who died at age 37 after a rock-climbing accident, is credited with writing a staggering 50,000 contributions to Wikipedia, and fighting to change the lack of female input in Wikipedia.

As the Los Angeles Times said in her obituary last spring, “She became one of its most valued and prolific contributors as well as a force for diversifying its ranks and demystifying its inner workings.”

In that same vein, Allan held a Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon last year at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture to add pages describing the accomplishments of worthy but Wiki-invisible female architects.

At last weekend's event, held at the California African-American Museum (known as CAAM), Allan continually reminded people about the intent of the regular workshops they've dubbed “Unforgetting L.A.: Wikipedia-Edit-A-Thon.”

“What we’re trying to do is 'write people in' who aren’t presently featured in Wikipedia or to improve the pages,” Allan says.

One of those added to the massive collection of human experience was Los Angeles mixed-media artist Mark Steven Greenfield, who has a show at the CAAM—but not a Wiki page.

Now, after a small team typed up his achievements, Greenfield not only got the familiar-looking Wiki page with his name at the top, but a far broader, globally accessible, presence.

“There is a void when it comes to African-American culture and history,” explained Amina Hassan, author of Loren Miller: Journey of a Civil Rights Attorney and Journalist. “CAAM is an important institution, and Wikipedia is important for research.” 

See also: Wikipedia Becomes a Battleground for Art Activism

Says Allan, "We look at things that were happening in the past in Los Angeles that haven't received their due, because they are not part of the dominant discourse of art history."

After inviting the public to join in, experts showed them how to correctly digitally archive and edit important events and people left out of Wikipedia.

A wide spectrum of people showed up, including members of the historical council at the museum; author Hassan; Staci Steinberger, assistant curator of decorative arts and design at LACMA; and visual artists Steven J. Brooks and Karien Zachary.

Artist Brooks spent time working on the Wikipedia page of prolific Los Angeles-based and Compton-raised mixed-media artist and photographer Willie Middlebrook.

Middlebrook died in 2012. He had more than 200 solo and group shows and two NEA fellowships — a Getty Trust Visual Artist Fellowship and the Brody Individual Arts Fellowship through the California Community Foundation.

He was a lively fixture of the Los Angeles’ art scene. Now he has a lively Wikipedia page.

The non-hierarchical nature and horizontal organization of Wikipedia—it allows anyone to edit, add information, update or fix factual errors—is strictly monitored. An entry will be flagged and then removed for inaccuracies, self-promotion or PR spin masquerading as objective content.

But more Wikipedia editors are constantly being sought because the vast encyclopedia needs improving. 

Seventh-grade media communications teacher Hanief Saterfield said, “I am a teacher and many of my students go to Wikipedia. I like knowing that it’s editable. I would like to learn to edit and add pages, and I would like to teach my students how to do that.”

Artist Karien Zachary and middle school teacher Hanief Saterfield took the edit-a-thon workshop.EXPAND
Artist Karien Zachary and middle school teacher Hanief Saterfield took the edit-a-thon workshop.
Teka-Lark Fleming

LACMA curator Steinberger said she's been “doing research on a lot of African-American designers and craftspeople” and had hoped to publish something but hadn't had time. Coming to a workshop where she could add such histories to Wikipedia “seemed like a good venue.”

Sharon Kyle of LA Progressive, a social justice publication, said she “just stumbled upon this. I really didn’t know why I was coming down, but I knew it had something to do with Wikipedia.”

Some people, it turned out, were there to figure out how to create their own Wikipedia page — which is actually a no-no among seasoned Wikipedians.

"I have a show coming up at the Museum of African-American Art and at the Arcadia Arboretum, and I just need to, for myself, bring my social media skills to a more modern level," said artist Karien Zachary.

Zachary may not find that as easy to achieve as she'd hoped.

Wikipedia's thousands of volunteer writer-editors watch out for promotional pages. They also remove or block changes and additions made by those who add a strong bias or rewrite accepted facts.

“Someone from the Senate tried to erase the word ‘torture’ from Wikipedia,” artist Brooks explained. “You can’t do that.”

That anonymous Wikipedia user, typing on one of many computer IP addresses registered to the U.S. Senate, twice tried in early December to remove a phrase including "torture" that got added to Wikpedia in relation to breaking news about CIA interrogation techniques.

The anonymous editor argued to other Wikipedians that he or she was "removing bias," but was overruled by the equally anonymous collective of editors.

The non-hierarchical nature and horizontal organization of Wikipedia—it allows anyone to edit, add information, update or fix factual errors—is strictly monitored. An entry will be flagged and then removed for failing to be fair or accurate. 

But more Wikipedia editors are constantly being sought to help in the gargantuan effort. Many Wiki pages still begin with an admonishment that the content on that page is one-sided and may have been written by the very subject of the page. The public is then invited to add a fuller picture of reality.

“Unforgetting L.A.” is held every other month at different locations. 


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