WikiSpeaks: What It Means to Be a Wikipedian in Residence

Mary Mark Ockerbloom, the Science History Institute’s expert on all things Wikipedia, discusses the ways in which the site has changed and improved.

In the past few years Wikipedia has gone from being a relatively unreliable website containing material that anyone can revise to a highly respected and well-sourced platform with dedicated editors. Many of those editors are volunteers, but some, including the Science History Institute’s Mary Mark Ockerbloom, write for Wikipedia for a living.

Having contributed to Wikipedia for over a decade, Ockerbloom has considerable insight into the ways the site has changed and improved as well as areas in which it still has room to grow. Distillations sat down with Ockerbloom recently to discuss earlier days of the internet, bias in the Wikipedia model, and just what is so controversial about Bakelite.

Q: What do you do as Wikipedian in residence at the Institute?

A: I write new Wikipedia articles on the history of science and improve existing ones, and I release images that are public domain or for which we own the copyright. I also do outreach in the broader Philadelphia and Wikipedia communities.

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Ockerbloom (right) leading a WikiSalon at the Science History Institute.

Q: How did you get interested in this kind of work?

A: In the early 2000s I created a website called Celebration of Women Writers to combat the lack of information about women authors online. As the site gained traction, readers wrote to me suggesting writers and works to add, and I recommended that they create Wikipedia pages on those topics. Then I learned how to make Wikipedia pages myself. This was around 2005 when there were far fewer Wikipedia restrictions.

Q: How has the field changed over the years?

A: So many people are making content for the site now that Wikipedia has created rules to filter out poor-quality content. That’s important: it’s quality control. Wikipedia uses a system of checks and balances that tries to stop inaccurate, unimportant, biased, and promotional content.

Q: How does systemic bias affect Wikipedia content?

A: The same filters that block fake news also can block needed content. One rule is that information must be based on reasonable sources, but fewer of these sources exist for, say, material on women and minorities. A New York Times obituary is considered a reasonable source, for example, but the Times has recently acknowledged that they have not covered women and people of color fairly. Name recognition is also important, and that is often challenging with science-related content. The people making decisions at Wikipedia aren’t necessarily familiar with the field, so they may not have heard of the scientists I’m writing about. The problem comes up with artists, too. Some nontraditional artists or art professionals may not fit the Wikipedia mold for notability, but does that really make them less notable? I recently fought to get the art curator Jan Allen through, and I lost. She’s had significant influence in her field and she is a creator, but she did not fit into the standard categories.

Q: What are some of your favorite articles that you have created for Wikipedia?

A: Some of the controversial articles have been the most memorable. Believe it or not, there was intense fighting about the Bakelite page. Real Bakelite is uncommon today, and people have strong feelings about what is and isn’t true Bakelite. I added an image of Bakelite buttons from our collection that created a dust-up. I substantially reorganized and rewrote that page in repeated visits over three years. And I’m proud of the Robert Brattain page, which I created; the John Harvey Kellogg page, which I fleshed out to include much more scientific information; and the clear toy candy page, to which I added a set of the Institute’s photos demonstrating how the candy is molded.

For more Wiki fun, join Ockerbloom for our monthly WikiSalon, a casual gathering of Wikipedia enthusiasts and those interested in learning more.

Emilie Haertsch

is the Institute’s communications coordinator.