Memorial University has a writer-in-residence, occasionally dancers- and filmmakers-in-residence, and now, for the first time, it has a Wikipedian-in-residence.
Writer Jenny Higgins has taken on the part-time residency, which will be based in the Centre for Newfoundland Studies (CNS), and is funded by a generous donation bequeathed to the Queen Elizabeth II Library.
Colleen Field, acting head of the CNS, felt the position was a great fit for promoting the resources of the CNS, as well as the Archives and Special Collections. The two units preserve and promote materials that deal with many aspects of Newfoundland and Labrador culture and history.
She remembers a time before the media-rich environment gave rise to Wikipedia. She witnessed first-hand the magnitude of work that went into producing multi-volume encyclopedias.
“Digital literacy is a must-have skill set for student success.”
“The Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador has always been our go-to resource for overview articles,” said Ms. Field. “It was a huge endeavour to produce and we saw the researchers, who were guided by an editorial board, in the CNS doing the research for years. But the reality today is that people go to Wikipedia first.”
Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. It currently has 5,947,292 English entries.
“Digital literacy is a must-have skill set for student success,” said Susan Cleyle, university librarian. “Academic libraries are playing an increasingly important role in developing critical thinking, communications and information management skills as students, faculty and staff navigate a digital world.”
If people are using Wikipedia for Newfoundland and Labrador research, let’s try and make it better, says Ms. Field.
“I knew Jenny was a great fit.”
Straddling print and digital
Ms. Higgins is an author who specializes in Newfoundland and Labrador history.
She is also responsible for an online encyclopedia of sorts: the Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador website.
Her previous job experience means she is very familiar with the history of the province and also has a lot of the original historical source material collected in the CNS and Archives and Special Collections.
“I can identify Wikipedia articles that are weak and need improvement.”
Ms. Higgins was also the interim director of Memorial’s Writing Centre for a period of time and she noticed that the vast majority of students use online resources in addition to print ones.
“With a general background in Newfoundland and Labrador studies,” explained Ms. Higgins, “I can identify Wikipedia articles that are weak and need improvement and I can identify gaps as well.”
Ms. Higgins uses the subject matter of her most recent book, Agnes Ayre’s ABCs of Amazing Women, as an example of a historical gap on Wikipedia: women’s suffrage in the province.
A researcher would find it difficult to find any mention of Newfoundland and Labrador suffrage on Wikipedia.
A work in progress
“I want to co-ordinate with students and professors and get into classrooms to teach students how to contribute to Wikipedia themselves, to share with students how to be editors and how to expand and improve existing articles and create new ones using quality sources from the CNS,” Ms. Higgins said.
“Another thing I can do is get students to think critically about the information they do come across on the internet.”
According to Ms. Higgins, the power of Wikipedia can be harnessed for good and the results will lead to better research.
“When Wikipedia is used in the best way, it is the best use of the internet,” she said. “Everybody, in a well-intentioned way, contributes their knowledge to Wikipedia. It’s free. There are no ads. There never have been and never will be. It is just people sharing knowledge to the best of their abilities and it’s always a work in progress, it can always be changed. I love that.”
Ms. Higgins will take part in an event co-hosted by the Newfoundland Quarterly, Memorial University Libraries and the Newfoundland Labrador Public Libraries called Mind the Gaps: A Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon on Thursday, Oct. 24, from 4-7 p.m. at the AC Hunter Library.
She is also currently developing workshops and shorter in-class presentations for the campus community about how to edit Wikipedia, with a special emphasis on expanding and improving Newfoundland and Labrador content. If you would like to invite her into your class, please contact her via email.