Social Impact LIVE: Sophia Leveque on #DisruptWikipedia & Social Justice

September 25, 2019 @ 4:30 pm

Wikipedia is now the most-used reference website in the world. But is it a space of exclusion and privilege? What information is allowed to be posted and who is able to post? CSSW librarian Sophia Leveque discusses her work with the #DisruptWikipedia campaign on this week’s episode of Social Impact LIVE.


Richard Hara: Hello, and welcome to Social Impact LIVE. I’m your host Richard Hara. Before we begin, I have some great news to share today. Social Impact LIVE has won an award from the University Professional and Continuing Education Association for excellence in streaming content. So, I want to extend a great big thank you to our guests, to everyone working behind the scenes, and to Season One host, Michael Friedman, and to our audience especially for making this show a success.

Today, I’d love to introduce to you our guest Sophie Leveque, Social Science and Social Work Research Support Librarian at Columbia University. In the past, prior to coming to Columbia, you worked at Marsh’s Library, the oldest public library in Ireland, and you’re also the author of Trans / Active: A Biography of Gwendolyn Ann Smith, who I understand began the Transgender Day of Remembrance, in honor of those killed in anti-transgender violence. So, it’s great to have you here today, and I understand that you’re spearheading a campaign across the university to address what many in the librarian community see as a problem of inclusivity and privilege with Wikipedia? Is that correct?

Sophie Leveque: Yes. I think people outside the library community see this as a big problem also.

Richard Hara: As well. Okay, well, we’ll take a deep dive into all of that. I just wanted to remind people that about 10 minutes from the end of our show, we’ll have a question and answer period with you. So, as you’re listening, please feel free to write in your questions so that we can discuss them at the end. So, okay, before we get to Wikipedia’s problem, I want to hear more about you, and particularly, how, what was your path to becoming a librarian?

Sophie Leveque: My path was pretty direct. I was an English major at Wake Forest University, and when I graduated, I did a fellowship, and the fellowship was in the library. So I worked in the dean’s office and I did an archival processing project, I did a lot of programming. I got exposed to all of the work that libraries do in academia, and I fell in love. So, I wanted to find a way to become a librarian, and that took me to Ireland, where I did my master’s in Library and Information Studies at University College Dublin, and I got some amazing internship opportunities there. I worked at Marsh’s Library, the oldest public library in Ireland, and I also worked at the Royal Society of Irish Antiquaries, or maybe it’s Antiquaries of Ireland, and I did more processing work and that’s kind of why this social agency collection here, at Columbia, is sort of in my skill set, because I have done processing before.

Richard Hara: Okay. So, so that’s your path to being a librarian and your maybe personal connection to Wikipedia, because I understand that there is a connection there?

Sophie Leveque: Yes, there is. There is a connection. I discovered Wikipedia like most people do. I did a lot of like quizzes, quiz nights, and you’d quick, you know, you’d quickly check, what’s the answer on Wikipedia after to see if you got it right – and so, informally, I think that’s how most people do use Wikipedia, is to check their knowledge – and when I graduated from college, I missed homework and reading. So, I attended a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon (I am a nerd, I know) and at the Edit-a-thon, we were trying to create content for sort of queer activists, and I was given the name Gwendolyn Ann Smith. She founded Transgender Day of Remembrance, which is an internationally acknowledged day of mourning, and I couldn’t find any articles written about her, even though she was, you know, to me, a hero. And the reason that this is hard is because on Wikipedia, you have to have four citations to outside articles for a page to be valid, but that sort of makes it hard, if you have a marginalized identity, because probably, there aren’t four things out there that have been written about you, and that made me angry, and so I decided that I wanted to create a source. So, I wrote a book. I interviewed Gwen for many months and we created a book together. I can’t believe it happened, still.

Richard Hara: Well, it’s… so, it’s interesting. So, your experience, sort of, crosses from, you know, sort of the digital, right, realm, publishing, and so on, and, and I mean for a lot of us, yes, Wikipedia is this resource, right. We use it to check on facts, sort of, it’s the first thing that comes up in a search, right? Usually, a Wikipedia entry. And so we take it for granted, but you know, I don’t know how many people actually contribute, you know, articles or edit entries in Wikipedia and so on, and from what you’re describing, it sounds like it’s fairly complicated in that there are rules, and, and guidelines that maybe are a barrier to some people?

Sophie Leveque: Yeah. The inclusivity and privilege problem of Wikipedia is twofold: it’s who is editing and, and also the content. But they feed into one another, and so, really, the biggest problem is who is editing. In 2011, the Wikimedia Foundation released data about who was editing, and only nine percent of the editors identified as cis women and only one percent identified as trans women. So, not a lot of women editing and there were no stats on race or socioeconomic background, so we can only guess that those would be also dismal, and this all cropped up last fall, actually, Donna Strickland won the… sorry, won the Nobel Prize, sorry, for Physics. Here we go, sorry, and she was not on Wikipedia, and actually, she was not notable enough for a Wikipedia page, which doesn’t make any sense. She won the biggest prize there is to win for physics, and so Wikipedia, the Wikimedia Foundation, again, said, “Oh well, only 18% of all pages on Wikipedia are about women,” and that goes directly to who is editing.

Richard Hara: So, I… I mean that information is rather stunning, and it makes me wonder, is this, I mean, is this all hidden? There just, there is no data, there is no information from Wikipedia about the participation of different groups in, in terms of writing, contributing content, and so on? I mean, you sort of dug this up on your own, or…?

Sophie Leveque: No, it’s… the information is out there.

Richard Hara: Okay.

Sophie Leveque: The Wikimedia Foundation is very open about the, the fact that it’s mostly white men who edit, create content and that the topics on Wikipedia are overwhelmingly white and Western, especially North American, and it’s just I think that most people don’t interrogate where their information is coming from, and that’s part of what I do as a librarian at Columbia, is giving students the skills to interrogate their information and find what they need.

Richard Hara: Yeah, when I think about libraries, I think about these sort of stately rooms with oak paneling and you know, pictures of certain kinds of people on the wall, et cetera, but you don’t have that on a digital web, on a website, right?

Sophie Leveque: Mm-hm.

Richard Hara: It’s, it’s kind of, again, you know, you really have to sort of look behind the screen, literally, to, to sort of, figuratively, to understand what the potential biases might be, and so on. So, okay, so there is this problem, right, of inclusivity and privilege with Wikipedia, and maybe other sources of online information, reference materials and things like that? Can I generalize, or is that sort of taking it too far? Do you think this is specific to Wikipedia?

Sophie Leveque: No, it’s definitely not. I think most things in Western culture are still dominated by men and whiteness, and unpacking that, you know, everyone needs to do that work, and it trickles down in many ways in the academy with reference materials. The concept of peer review is a lot of times considered the gold standard in research, because your article was sent blindly to experts in the field, and they didn’t know who wrote it, they offer critique, and then only after that is it published. But who, who are experts? You know, still, in most things, it’s white men and also then, you know, that’s another structure that is creating the value of whiteness and Western-ness in academia, even though it’s so-called the gold standard.

Richard Hara: Okay, but isn’t something like Wikipedia meant to address that, kind of…? I mean, it’s open source, so to speak, or everybody can participate. It’s supposed to be kind of egalitarian and so on, and how is it that it’s just sort of, I guess, reproducing, you know, these, these, these forms of inequality that that are more generally out there?

Sophie Leveque: Yeah, it’s, it’s a really great question because it’s sort of the chicken and the egg question. Is Wikipedia just reflecting inequity in the culture that already exists, or is it creating more inequity with the sort of systems that in its openness it has? And some ways that we can think about this critically is that in Wikipedia, it has to be notable for a page to be live, and to be notable, you need those four citations to outside sources, and then the other thing is that notability is agreed upon. Wikipedia runs on consensus, and consensus, if everyone is the same kind of person, is actually not introducing us anything new. So, I think the most important thing about, like, our interaction today is that you’re learning and our audience is learning that they can and should be editing Wikipedia and that they are 100% qualified to add citations, to create new pages. The library is hosting a series this semester of Edit-a-thons, and we had our first one a few weeks ago. We partnered with AfroCROWD, which is an organization in New York City, but also all over the world that does work specifically to create pages for people of color, especially from the Caribbean, and it’s super-important work and it’s totally run by volunteers, and they just want to educate as many people as possible so that people are aware that it’s a problem.

Richard Hara: So this is a grassroots movement. I mean, we don’t have to wait for Wikipedia to go and fix the problem, say, we don’t have to wait for Facebook and all these others, right?

Sophie Leveque: Yes.

Richard Hara: So, so you’re organizing these kinds of events that that can directly impact and hopefully, address some of these, these issues of inclusivity and privilege. So, can you tell me a little bit more about what, Edit-a-thon? How did they get started, what do they look like, you know?

Sophie Leveque: Yeah.

Richard Hara: Do you bring cupcakes and what?

Sophie Leveque: We love cupcakes.

Richard Hara: Okay.

Sophie Leveque: So, first of all, I’m not doing anything alone. I have a fabulous team of librarians: Kimberly Springer, from the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia for oral history; Darold Cuba, our very first Wikipedian-in-residence at Columbia; and Meredith Wisner, who is a Barnard librarian who has been doing Edit-a-thons at Barnard for a few years, and she’s sharing her expertise with us; and finally, Eamon Tewell, who is also a Columbia librarian, is helping me. So, all of the brains together are working to have Edit-a-thons. So, what is an Edit-a-thon? Usually, there is instruction on like why it matters, and then the help on creating an account, seeing how to use the tools inside the platform, and then like a lot of pep talks, because a lot of people think that they have to have a PhD to be able to edit Wikipedia, but you don’t. You just have to be able to read and write, and I know everyone at Columbia can do that and so we’re having these Edit-a-thons. The next one is actually in the School of Social Work. These… I hear something, sorry. The School of Social Work is co-hosting with the library. So there will be one here on October 16th, and then the last one will be at Barnard, and there will be, hopefully, a livestream. The panel from the kickoff is on the Columbia Library Facebook page, so you can see our experts talk about why it’s important.

Richard Hara: So, people are there with their computers or…?

Sophie Leveque: Mm-hm.

Richard Hara: And sort of… you’re training them on how to add entries and things like that. So, the goal is, is to… I mean, obviously, you want to bring content into Wikipedia that is representative of diverse populations and peoples and so on, and their experiences. Is it also trying to, and this is where I think the danger lies, sort of create or somehow undermine this sense of consensus that that sort of drives people in different directions or polarizes? I mean, what do you, what do you see as, as the true impact of these Edit-a-thons?

Sophie Leveque: The impact of Edit-a-thons is that individuals are empowered to edit, and there are organizations like AfroCROWD that have already done the work of gathering the pages that need editing, and there are stubs, that’s the Wiki word for a page that has been created but has no content. So, AfroCROWD gathers all the stubs and has them on a platter, so that people can choose one and start editing citations, so that you don’t have to go into the wilderness of the Internet and try to find someone to write about. People are doing that work but it will take all of us to edit, to make it representative of our world.

Richard Hara: Yeah. Yeah. So, I think that’s a really important point. It’s not a technical issue that we’re trying to address here. We’re talking about people and empowerment, and, and, and capacity, right? To go out and, and to have their voices heard, which is, which is tremendous work and not the kind of work that immediately leaps to mind when I think of librarians. So, so thank you. And I think it speaks to just again, your role, right, here at an institute, institution of higher, higher learning in a certain capacity, and, and how do you see the role of librarian and libraries, more generally, kind of evolving in the 21st century to, I think, almost play a more activist role in, in terms of how we manage information in our society?

Sophie Leveque: Yeah. So, I think what you’re talking about is what librarians refer to as “information literacy.” And information literacy is something librarians have always been doing, because we always are working with patrons on, on how to find what really they’re looking for. So, it’s not a new concern, but with the rise of fake news and so much being accessible on the Internet, it’s just sort of relevant in a new way, and there are new skills about, you know, inquiring who wrote what you’re reading. Are they in the academy or not? Neither is a bad thing, and librarians do love doing that. That’s why we do this, but one thing that’s really important, I think, about the Edit-a-thons that are happening this semester is that they are open to the public. So, we don’t want the academy to be exclusive. We want to bring people in, let them use our materials, our resources. And that is a commitment on the library’s behalf, which is, I’m really proud of that.

Richard Hara: That’s, that’s great. So, it’s, it’s reaching out to the community. We’re no longer the ivory tower, right? Hopefully.

Sophie Leveque: Well, we’re working on dismantling that. Yes.

Richard Hara: Dismantling it, and so, so, again, it seems as if libraries and librarians are kind of responding to what’s happening in society, more generally. And again, it’s about people. It’s about empowerment, and so on. So, in terms of our students, and I guess instructors, as well, what else can we do that that would be helpful in this regard to…? You know, and it’s not a matter of sort of saying, “Oh, stay away from Wikipedia,” and I kind of feel like we discourage students from using Wikipedia when they write papers, and so on, but we need to, again, be more savvy consumers, right, of the information and sort of look at what the sources are like, and so on. So, but what are, what are some other ways that students and instructors, researchers, people here at Columbia, and specifically at the School of Social Work, might do to, to sort of do that?

Sophie Leveque: So, your big… it’s a big question.

Richard Hara: Yeah.

Sophie Leveque: How can we, at Columbia, make Wikipedia better and make our world better? And I think that there are couple of things. You can absolutely create a new Wikipedia account and start looking around at the organizations like AfroCROWD that are already doing so much great work. How can you support them? Whether it’s through actually editing or whether it’s through a donation, that’s one avenue, and then I guess another great avenue would be to start maybe looking at information from somewhere different than you normally get it. I get a lot of news from Instagram, but I also now, in my capacity at Columbia, also get a lot more academic, like academic articles. So, I like that I have a little bit of everything and I think that that makes me a better critic of what I’m reading.

Richard Hara: Okay. All right, well, I’ve got a lot of work to do then, in terms of my digital literacy and-

Sophie Leveque: Do you have a Wikipedia account?

Richard Hara: I don’t have a Wikipedia account.

Sophie Leveque: Oh, no. You need one.

Richard Hara: So, I do need one, but… and, and so this is no excuse, but I guess I’m so, I’m more of an antiquarian and, and you know when I think about libraries, when I think about information, again, I, I think about, you know, these sort of basement collections and so on, and actually, we do have a collection, right, of, of books and other materials related to social work agencies and so on connected with the school?

Sophie Leveque: Yeah.

Richard Hara: Where, where is that and what have you been doing with that?

Sophie Leveque: Yeah. The collection he’s referring to is the Social Agency Collection. It is a lot of things that have to do with the School of Social Work at Columbia and its root is that it was all the materials that were at the Carnegie Mansion, when a library for the School was there, not on campus, and it’s got a lot of different kinds of materials in it. I have some things here. There is a lot of magazines. There is also a lot of old books and pamphlets, and posters, and I even have some vinyl records that are actually recordings of lectures. So, there is a lot going on.

Richard Hara: Wow. So, and you’ve got something here.

Sophie Leveque: Yeah.

Richard Hara: If you could share it.

Sophie Leveque: Sure. Oh, this is my book. No, no, no. Okay. So here, I do have… this is the oldest thing I’ve found so far. It’s from 1724 and it’s the original constitution of the Boston Episcopal Charitable Society, and it has handwritten edits in it, so you can see these here.

Richard Hara: Oh, wow. Yeah, 1836. Yeah.

Sophie Leveque: And the annotations say they are from 1837 and 38. So that means that this was printed in 1724 and was kept for a long time, which is precious. And then the other thing I brought is this edition of The Crisis magazine, which is a lot newer. It’s 1947, but the picture is like, oh, very close to campus, and The Crisis was started by Du Bois, and this isn’t an edition that he edited, but I’m hoping to find those in the basement of Lehman Library. But it’s really… I don’t know. It’s amazing to see how much material has changed and also how the representation got better as time went on.

Richard Hara: And certainly, its connection with social work, how social problems were framed and, and, and what that sounded like to people working in the field, certainly, and what they were contributing, I think, to publications like this. I mean, I’m just looking at the front page here in The Crisis, and the masthead, and found it – I don’t have my reading glasses – but it says “A Record of the Darker Races.” It’s interesting just to, sort of, look at what was covered and what was deemed important, so on, and, and hopefully, we can learn from this aspect of, of American history and social work practice to inform our practice today. So, so that’s good. Are you working with anybody on either cataloguing or trying to go through some of this, and digitizing maybe, or anything?

Sophie Leveque: I don’t know. I don’t know if we’re going to be digitizing yet.

Richard Hara: Okay.

Sophie Leveque: It’s a very long term project. I’m starting with the government documents librarian at Columbia, Christina Williams, and we’re trying to untangle government documents from the rest of the collection. So that’s step one.

Richard Hara: Okay.

Sophie Leveque: And from there, then we’ll have an idea of what’s actually a government document, which she will then weed – that’s a library word – get rid of the things we already have copies of or try to rehome them. And then my stuff is a lot of ephemera, or, they used to call it “fugitive material.” So, it’s a lot of paper things that will rot away or are already falling apart, like this. You can see the front page of this is not attached. And that is going to take a lot of work, and I will need help, and I’m still planning for that step.

Richard Hara: Well, hopefully, there is an enterprising PhD student or somebody who is interested in, in, in looking into these materials and working with you on on that project. So, wonderful, and hopefully, we’ll have an opportunity to hear some more about what’s in that collection. Right now, I’d like to turn to some questions that our audience has submitted. So, let’s see. First off, when you try to edit Wikipedia entries to be more inclusive, do your edits sometimes get rejected by the uber-editors? Can you appeal this? So yeah, what does that process look like?

Sophie Leveque: Yeah. It’s a great question. You can go into Wikipedia, and for any page, there is the Edit button, and then there is the Talk button, and in the Talk section, that’s where everyone is saying why they don’t like this change or they think there should be more information. And so in the Talk section, that’s where consensus is reached, and so the more people that we get who are aware of this problem of inclusivity and privilege, then that’s more buddies in this consensus building.

Richard Hara: So, that’s interesting. So then, what’s going on there? It’s, it’s sort of like an online kind of discussion board, or…?

Sophie Leveque: Yeah.

Richard Hara: Yeah.

Sophie Leveque: That’s a great way to describe it.

Richard Hara: Okay, and so, you sort of try to hash out some sort of common…?

Sophie Leveque: Yeah.

Richard Hara: Or, consensus agreement as to whether or not this flies or not?

Sophie Leveque: Yeah, and you’re working with people. People sometimes suck.

Richard Hara: So…Yeah, or put in other terms, I mean, you have to, you have to sort of deal with more psychological aspects of that discussion as of, you know, people’s emotions and so on, as opposed to a cut-and-dried, “Well, these are the facts and you know, we have to go by, you know, objective standards, and..” No, it’s, it’s more a rhetorical discussion.

Sophie Leveque: I think it depends on the page. One thing that is important to keep in mind is that if you’re writing about, say, the founder of Transgender Day of Remembrance, which is what I did, there weren’t a lot of people who necessarily… The uber-editors didn’t care about that page. It wasn’t important to them. And so it was not contentious for me as an editor. But if you were to try to edit, maybe, Thomas Jefferson’s page, to add that he owned slaves, that might be more high profile and get more talk action.

Richard Hara: Okay.

Sophie Leveque:  So it varies. I know that’s not a simple answer, but—

Richard Hara:  Sophie Leveque: Yeah, hopefully.

Richard Hara: All right.

Sophie Leveque: It’s imperfect, but it’s the most used reference website in the world, so it’s kind of what we got. And it just turned 18 this year, so it’s time for it to be getting better.

Richard Hara: That’s fascinating. I would love to see how they’re analyzing that whole, you know, exchange, right. And—and if –how that works. So, next question: I would like to know how the #DisruptWikipedia movement and the campus Edit-a-thons can relate specifically to social work?

Sophie Leveque: That’s a good question.

Richard Hara: Social work librarian?

Sophie Leveque: Oh yes. So social work students, I think, are all superheroes, because they all believe that change can happen on a one-to-one basis ,with one person, and that change is important. And that is unique. That mindset is very much a gift. It really is what makes social work students superheroes. You will go off and change the world, one person at a time. But that’s the same lens that we need for Wikipedia and its editing. And one edit makes a difference. One new page makes a difference. Because when people are looking up Gwendolyn Ann Smith, founder of Transgender Day of Remembrance, now there’s something there. Whereas before there was nothing, and you might think she didn’t really exist, or maybe that Transgender Day of Remembrance wasn’t important. And so we are validating people’s identities through the content on the reference website.

Richard Hara: Okay, wonderful. Another question we’ve got. Do librarians see Wikipedia as competition?  Is there a trend for students to rely on it instead of consulting them?  Are they worried about that trend? So yeah, so what’s your relationship to Wikipedia? Is it…? Yeah.

Sophie Leveque: Oh, I don’t think libraries or universities are concerned about Wikipedia, because even if you use it as a source, you’re still having to go to those individual citations and pull up the articles. And I think that’s great. There is no right or wrong way to do research. It is an art, not a science, and everyone has different rabbit holes for how they find what they’re looking for. So go to Wikipedia and also edit it.

Richard Hara: Okay, and again, there’s sort of the wisdom of the crowd, right?  And—and pulling people from all over, right, to contribute and so on. But, is there an issue in terms of—people don’t get credit, right, for contributing? It’s anonymous, and—

Sophie Leveque: It’s anonymous as you want it to be.

Richard Hara: Oh, how does that work?

Sophie Leveque: When you create an account, you can create a bio, so my bio says “Columbia University Social Sciences Librarian.” But other people don’t want to put any information and that is also okay. That’s part of, I guess, the freedom and openness of Wikipedia as well is that you can be someone or no one.

Richard Hara: So your bio as a contributor is private, or—

Sophie Leveque: Uh-huh.

Richard Hara: Accessible—

Sophie Leveque:Everyone can look.

Richard Hara: Everybody can look, and they can see. Okay, so there is that kind of level of transparency then about the sources.

Sophie Leveque: Sure.

Richard Hara: In Wikipedia.

Sophie Leveque: Or people can see what I’ve been editing and know that as a librarian, I have some knowledge about how to find things about many kinds of disciplines, whereas maybe other people have niche interests and expertise.

Richard Hara: All right, well all right so—so it’s not as if people are sort of anonymously posting things and not being accountable for the content and so on. So that’s another point that I wasn’t aware of. So thank you, I’m getting an education today in Wikipedia. So, last question. In addition to Wiki editors being mostly white and male, you said that they are also mostly from North America. Is there a movement to get more editors outside of Americas, particularly in the global south?

Sophie Leveque: Yeah, that’s a really great question because Wikipedia editing is very international. Wikimania this year was in Sw—Sweden, it was in Sweden. So that is not here, and I do think that I am not sure about how many editors are from the global south. But one thing I’m very conscious of, at Columbia University, we have students all over the world. So if I can educate as many people as possible while they are here about Wikipedia and about their own expertise as a student, then they can take those skills wherever they go. And the more we talk about it, the more we talk about that the fact that we use Wikipedia  for information, and that that information is bias and flawed, that is success for me. We just start educating everyone about the problems.

Richard Hara: Well, I think there are a million more questions that I could ask. In fact, they’re just sitting at the tip of my tongue here, but I think we’ve come to the end of our time today. I’d like to thank you again, Sophie Leveque, for joining us here today at Social Impact LIVE. Next week, just to put in a plug, we’ll have Columbia School of Social Work faculty members Courtney Cogburn and Desmond Patton to discuss why they decided to create a new minor at the School that brings together social work, technology, and media. So I’m looking forward to seeing you all then and thank you. Have a great day.