Case Study: The North Carolina Collection’s African American History in North Carolina Edit-a-Thon

Written by Emily Jack, Digital Projects and Outreach Librarian, North Carolina Collection Gallery, UNC-Chapel Hill

Our first edit-a-thon at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s North Carolina Collection took place in April 2013. Staff members in the department had noticed some gaping holes in Wikipedia in the area of African American history in North Carolina. For example, there was no article about the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, one of the largest companies founded by African Americans and the largest and oldest African-American life insurance company in the United States.

Several months before the event, we held a staff meeting to brainstorm important topics (people, places, events, institutions) related to the theme of African American history in North Carolina. The list was long – 75 entries or so. Our student intern searched Wikipedia for each item on the list. Anything that was covered minimally or not at all ended up on our list of suggested topics.

Promoting the event proved to be one of our biggest challenges. Despite the barrage of tweets, emails, Facebook posts, and face-to-face conversations we unleashed into the world, the day before the edit-a-thon found us with only four RSVPs on our Facebook event and ten on our Wikipedia meet-up page. Fourteen wouldn’t be a bad turnout, but of course online RSVPs are notoriously unreliable.

But people did show up – about thirteen of them (not counting the event staff), from a wide variety of backgrounds. They included two PhD students in musicology; the mayor of the next town over, who’s an avid historian; a mystery man who wore sunglasses the entire time and may have been editing an article about himself; and a local long-time Wikipedia editor who subsequently became one of our most valuable partners for planning future edit-a-thons.

NC Collection's Tweet about African-American History in NC Edit-a-Thon

The elements of our event that worked particularly well included:

  • Having a way for participants to track which topics they were working on. We asked people to enter their initials next to the topic on our suggested topics list – and also used a flip chart for quick reference. That kept people from making redundant edits and gave us all a visual reminder of how much of an impact a room full of researchers can make.
  • Organizing the room into three stations. One for topic research, staffed by librarians and graduate students supported by a cart full of sources; one for creating a Wikipedia user account; one for help with Wikipedia editing.
  • Providing incentives for participation. Snacks and drinks, of course, but also free posters related to North Carolina history, which we already had on hand, and a tour of the library, which provided a welcome break from editing.

One thing for which I wasn’t prepared was how quiet the room became when people got down to work. In so many ways, preparing for the event felt like preparing for a party – there was food, we sent invitations, we even hung balloons outside. So when the room fell to a complete hush, I was caught off guard.

Aside: At a subsequent edit-a-thon we hosted, we gave red stickers to people who had Wikipedia-editing experience (however minimal). Those people became in-room resources for first-time editors with questions. That set-up facilitated more of the buzzing atmosphere I’d expected, because people felt comfortable starting conversations with strangers wearing red stickers. But either approach (a station with Wikipedia experts or roving editors with stickers) works well.

Our outcomes included seven existing articles improved, and four new articles created. That made only a small dent in our long list of topics, but coupled with the positive feedback we received from participants still represented a successful edit-a-thon.

And when we held our second edit-a-thon with the same theme, we had our list of topics already made.

Tips:

  • Cast a wide net with marketing.
  • Engage local Wikipedians.
  • Keep track of articles updated and created.
  • Provide incentives to participants.

Resources: