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A Wikipedia Workshop Fills in the Gaps on Women Artists

Karen Winslow was searching for information in 2014 about the Irish metalwork artist Mia Cranwill. She needed details for a paper she was doing for her art-history degree.

There didn’t seem to be much out there, though, Winslow said.

The National Irish Visual Arts Library had a few photographs, a gold coin designed by Cranwill, and one page written by the artist. But that was it.

“The entry on Wikipedia at the time was very thin,” says Winslow. She was afraid, she said, of Cranwill (1880-1972) “sinking into obscurity”.

That was what prompted Winslow to join a workshop on Wednesday at Trinity College, where about 30 people gathered to use their own academic experience, or online research, to improve articles about women and the arts on Wikipedia.

Wednesday’s get-together – officially called the Visualising Women: Trinity College Wikipedia Edit-a-thon – was run by the library’s teaching and support team.

It was part of the “Art+Feminism” campaign, an international movement that works to improve the quality of articles about notable women artists on Wikipedia.

At the moment, fewer than 10 percent of editors on Wikipedia are women. As of March 2018, only 17.53 percent of biographies on English-language Wikipedia are about women.

“Don’t Worry, You Can’t Break It”

At Wednesday’s workshop, there was a focus on the art and research collections at Trinity College.

“Although I knew prior to the workshop that minority groups were under-represented on Wikipedia, I hadn’t realised how big an issue notability is,” said Siobhan Dunne, a sub-librarian at Trinity College, by email.

“Not everyone gets a Wikipedia page; editors have to prove the subject’s worth, but there is simply far less web content available on many deserving women and minority groups throughout history,” she said.

Events like Wednesday’s help to demystify Wikipedia to users, said Dunne. Those who had been to previous events jumped straight in, typing away on computers.

Meanwhile, Rebecca O’Neill, a project coordinator for Wikipedia Ireland, who also helped run the workshop, gave first-timers – more than half the group – a run-down of Wikipedia’s inner workings while the computers were warming up.

O’Neill started editing in 2011, and has created 147 articles, mostly about women in the arts and sciences, she said.

“There is now a movement throughout the various Wikimedia organisations to critically examine who it is we don’t currently serve, and how we can fix that,” she says. “This is a huge task, but one that I feel very strongly about.”

As Winslow sees it, too many Irish artists, and particularly women, don’t get acknowledged while they’re alive, “much less when they are not walking this earth”.

She recounts the day she went to see the “pitiful remnants” of Cranwill’s life in a single archival box. “I cried walking back to the Trinity campus. Her metal works and jewellery designs and block prints are beautiful renditions built on the Irish Celtic past,” Winslow said.

A Lack of Diversity

These Wikipedia edit-a-thons are good places to meet people with common interests, says Valerie Connor, who works in the arts and teaches in higher education.

She came to the workshop because she has been engaged in feminist theories and practices since she was an undergraduate art student, she says.

“I met people I probably would not otherwise and made meaningful connections with them based on our interests,” she says.

Beside her, Niamh Brennan worked on an article about stained-glass artist Wilhelmina Geddes. “I can’t believe I’ve missed out on her work,” says Brennan. “I learned so much about her when I was working on her shiny new Wikipedia article. By the end of her life, Wilhelmina was considered to be the greatest living stained glass artist of her time.”

Brennan was inspired by the workshop, and is planning “a very special project”.

Her 84-year old mother, Deirdre Brennan, is a poet, playwright and writer in Irish and English. “She’s won lots of awards, has fourteen books under her belt, […] is included in lots of anthologies – but has no Wikipedia article. I think she deserves one,” she says.

O’Neill says she is still amazed at the women who have short articles, or none at all on Wikipedia.

What about Mary Guiney, the head of the family that used to own Clery’s department store?  Or Catherine Corless, the historian who researched and built public awareness of the mass grave at a mother-and-baby home in Tuam? Neither has her own page on Wikipedia.

The majority of editors are men from the United States and United Kingdom, and “their interests generally don’t include women, and in particular woman from minority countries or ethnic groups”, she says.

“It isn’t quite as simple as that, but generally the lack of female editors is seen as the main issue for the lack of articles about women,” she says.

At the workshop, O’Neill noted the lack of diversity in the Wikipedia editing community.

Women are only one group who are under-represented, she says. “Cultures and groups of people who don’t have a tradition of written history tend to be overlooked,” she says, or written about with a “Western gaze”.

“For quite a number of years, groups of editors, and then local Wikimedia groups have created writing drives, awareness months or other activities around traditionally poorly represented subject topics on Wikipedia,” she says.

At the moment, there’s no plan for another Art+Feminism workshop in Dublin, but she would love to run similar events, “particularly if there are student unions, small galleries or other organisations that would be interested”, she says.

“We also run a monthly editing event in the TOG Hackerspace in Dublin 8 on the last Wednesday evening of every month. It’s entirely open to the public,” she says. All you need is a laptop.

Zuzia Whelan portrait
Zuzia Whelan

Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at zwhelan@dublininquirer.com.

 

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