Librarians Who Wikipedia: Susan Barnum, El Paso Public Library

Monika Sengul-Jones, OCLC Wikipedian-in-Residence /

Wikipedia + Libraries: Better Together is an OCLC project that is building bridges between public libraries and Wikipedia; featuring an online training program for US public library staff hosted by WebJunction in the fall of 2017. Librarians Who Wikipedia is a series of interviews with library staff who engage with Wikipedia

Photo of Susan Barnum

Susan Barnum is a librarian and
Wikipedian. Credit: Susan Barnum

Susan Barnum, Public Services Librarian at El Paso Public Library, taught herself to edit Wikipedia to improve the quality of information online. She also incorporates editing into her librarianship, editing Wikipedia articles in response to patron requests. Barnum has made more than 24,000 edits and created nearly 300 articles, giving special attention to Wikipedia's coverage of Texas, biographies of women and women's history. We spoke with Barnum about why she edits.

How did you get started editing Wikipedia?

I had stumbled across a biography of a prominent atheist in Texas, Seth Andrews. The article was up for deletion. I didn't know Wikipedia articles could be deleted! I started to research the deletion process and learned that there were not enough verifiable references in the article, despite there being plenty of offline resources about this person. This made me aware of the importance of reliably referenced articles on a wide variety of subjects on Wikipedia. This realization led me down—I don’t know what to call it—a “Wikipedia rabbit hole.” I realized that I could do something about the quality of Wikipedia, so I did: I started to contribute more.

Photo of 5 Women Officers of Women's League for 1900 Paris Exposition

“African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition - 5 Women
Officers of Women's League, Newport, R.I.” Susan Barnum uploaded this public
domain image for the Women’s Club Movement Wikipedia article. Credit: Public
domain, Library of Congress Catalog.

How do you decide what to contribute?

My jaw dropped when I saw the statistics on gender—only 15% of the biographies on Wikipedia are about women! I joined the Women in Red WikiProject [which creates articles about women who do not have Wikipedia pages], where I’m now a volunteer Librarian in Residence to help editors in the project find reliable references. I have a background in fine arts and live where there is a large Hispanic community, so my editing has focused on local Chicana artists. I also edit articles on women’s history more generally and contribute public domain photos. One of my favorites is the photograph of the Women’s Club Movement members. I feel so proud of these five women. They were organized, dignified, amazing—they need to be seen.

A few years ago, a colleague from the local history museum asked for reference materials about Chihuahuita, a historic neighborhood in El Paso. There was no Wikipedia article on it—and it’s on the endangered neighborhoods list! So I wrote the article and sent her the link. It would have taken me just as much time to compile all the references in a Word document. But writing the Wikipedia article makes this information available to everyone; it has longevity and visibility.

What do you like about editing?

I’ve learned a lot; I’ve enjoyed researching and editing articles about feminism and women’s history around the world. For instance, I find that the rhetoric on social media describes how women are treated poorly in the Middle East in a way that makes it sound like they are helpless and not challenging these oppressive regimes. But there are strong women fighting for themselves in these countries! I am bringing these stories to light. Referencing requires access to buried information, often in paywalled newspaper archives. If someone doesn’t mine that out of the archives, these stories will remain in the dark and invisible. I’ve written articles about women whom you can’t Google—there’s nothing on them on the web—but they have many offline references.

Photo of fence on Mexican-American border in historic Chihuahuita neighborhood of El Paso, Texas

Houses are built right at fence built along the Mexican-American border in the historic
Chihuahuita neighborhood of El Paso, Texas. Sue Barnum took this photograph in April 2017
to use in the article she wrote about the neighborhood after a patron requested reference
materials. Credit: User: Susan Barnum - Own work. CC BY-SA 4.0

What makes editing Wikipedia meaningful to you as a librarian?

It’s important to me to contribute to a collective body of knowledge that’s accessible to all. I find meaning in leaving a mark on the world by improving Wikipedia. As a librarian, I have all these references. I have access to databases that expand access to knowledge online. I see myself as someone who is a librarian on Wikipedia.

What message do you want to share with public library staff?

It’s worth remembering that your patrons are all online searching for information. As repositories of our local histories, public libraries are particularly well positioned to contribute their unique collections. Some may be intimidated about editing Wikipedia, but there’s a visual editing software that makes it easier.