UAlberta’s first Wikipedian in Residence

In the new, donor-funded position, Erin O’Neil shows how an online encyclopedia can serve academia.

By Anna Holtby - 17 August 2020

Wikipedia: a site that settles friendly debates and reminds us of forgotten facts. Now, thanks to donors, the University of Alberta community is learning how to use and improve the crowdsourced encyclopedia.

The U of A Library hired graduate student Erin O’Neil this year as the university’s first Wikipedian in Residence. Similar positions are popping up at universities across the country as post-secondaries hire experts to teach staff and students how to engage with Wikipedia in an effective way.

When O’Neil stumbled across the job posting, she had to Google the title. She discovered she was uniquely qualified for the role, given that she is a digital humanities graduate student and longtime volunteer Wikipedia editor. 

The Wikipedian in Residence is supported entirely through the Library Project Leadership Fund, an endowed fund set up in the late 1980s with just over 1,000 donors. “Thirty years ago, gifts from passionate donors allowed the library to set up a fund for unique projects. Now that money is opening up avenues of learning that didn’t even exist back then,” says O’Neil.

Wikipedia launched in 2001 as an online resource created and maintained entirely by volunteer editors. It’s the fourteenth most popular website in the world — seven spots ahead of Netflix. The site turns 20 years old in 2021 and is going strong — so strong that editors make 1.9 edits per second and create nearly 600 new articles every day

While Wikipedia was once dismissed in academic circles, its global popularity is undeniable. That’s why O’Neil is teaching students and staff how to view and improve the site from an educated perspective.

"Thirty years ago, gifts from passionate donors allowed the library to set up a fund for unique projects. Now that money is opening up avenues of learning that didn’t even exist back then," says O'Neil.

Part of O’Neil’s role is to help make the U of A Library's vast resources available on Wikipedia by teaching staff how to add and edit pages. For example, they have digitized a presentation copy of Treaty 6 held in the Bruce Peel Special Collections and added it to a number of relevant Wikipedia articles. Ultimately, the U of A's Wikipedia work will put the Library’s collection in front of more people and improve the online encyclopedia.

O’Neil also ran a Wikipedia 101 online course for staff and students over the summer, with lessons on everything from “situating Wikipedia in pedagogy” to how to add images to the site. Part of the course teaches how to use Wikipedia with an eye trained for bias

“We need to be discussing this at universities,” says O’Neil. “It’s important to ask, ‘What are the implications of open knowledge? Whose voice is heard?’”

To this end, she facilitated a Wikipedia “edit-a-thon” in March where she encouraged participants to look for local female artists who didn’t have a Wikipedia page and create one. “Part of what I love about teaching Wikipedia is that it demystifies the platform. People all of a sudden realize that it’s not this impenetrable resource. They realize they can make it better.”

Staff and students across the university are now working collaboratively to improve the site. And, just as a community can make a difference on Wikipedia, O’Neil reflects on how a community of donors launched all this — and what that means for the future.

“Donor support from years ago helped create a brand new role and digital initiative. But in some ways, that’s just the beginning. These Wikipedia pages we’re building out now, I wonder where that knowledge and effort and energy is going to take us in another 30 years.”