Members of the U.Va., Charlottesville community revisit local African American history through Wikipedia edits

U.Va. Library has spearheaded an effort to update local Wikipedia pages to be more inclusive of African American history

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Participants at the event use archival resources available at the Special Collections Library to update Wikipedia articles to include greater detail and explanation regarding local African American history. 

Amanda Pallas | Cavalier Daily

Approximately 20 students, faculty and community members gathered in the Harrison Auditorium of the Special Collections Library Friday to update and create Wikipedia pages about African American history in Charlottesville — including those related to areas of cultural and social significance to the local African American community. 

To update the pages, participants used a variety of old resources that are held in the Special Collections Library. Some of these resources included old copies of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune, the Charlottesville Tribune, yearbooks and student handbooks.

“We had a wide range of participants, including a woman who had been a student at Burley High School, one of the segregated Charlottesville schools we were working on,” said Molly Schwartzburg, a University librarian who oversaw the event. 

Schwartzburg said that the idea of this event surfaced when the Library’s “Wikipedian in Residence,” Lane Rasberry, held an orientation for the library staff a few months ago. His presentation, combined with Schwartzburg’s recent interest in Charlottesville's historically African American newspapers, sparked the idea.

“As I did the preliminary research for the event, I was struck by how poorly Wikipedia represents Charlottesville's history,” Schwartzburg said. “But the sources are so rare that unless one is working in a special collections library, it would be very difficult to correct that problem.”

The library staff decided to create an event that would make it easy for a large group of people to use the resources to update Wikipedia. Some of the Wikipedia pages they edited included the City of Charlottesville, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune — a historically African American newspaper in the area founded in 1954 but dissolved in 1992 — and the Jefferson School, a local high school built during the 1920s for African American students, which now serves as the home for the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. 

In late August 2018, Schwartzburg — along with Rasberry, Maggie Nunley and Krystal Appiah, the instruction librarian for Special Collections — planned a practice run in preparation for Friday’s event. Originally, the event was only going to rely on the Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune, however Schwartzburg decided to broaden the scope of the resources to include all kinds of African American authored and owned publications.

“As a researcher it is important for me to find ways to share the research that I do with the public, to contribute to the accuracy as well as the broader scale and perspectives of research that is there,” said Curry Assoc. Prof. Patrice Grimes, who participated in the historical rewrite. “[I came to this event] because it is important for me to teach my students how to fact check and contribute to media sources accurately and in a quality way.” 

The event was created with the aim of making little-known or glossed over facts and information regarding African American history in Charlottesville available online. More specifically, edits to City of Charlottesville Wikipedia page, for example, included additions relating to local African American social and cultural history.

Additionally, this event gave people the opportunity to work with original resources while editing Wikipedia. Even though most of the people who attended had never worked with Wikipedia before, everyone was able to come together and do research for a good cause, according to Schwartzburg.

“I thought it would be super fun because I had never done Wikipedia editing, and I thought that would be useful [since] I’m doing research for school so it was like killing two birds with one stone,” third-year College student Sally Duncan said.

According to Schwartzburg, there will be more events similar to Friday’s editing session in the near future. Many participants expressed interest in any future events that included editing Wikipedia using the resources available in the Special Collections Library. In a matter of three hours, they were able to add 5,500 words to 30 different articles.

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