“Filling in the gaps”: Plants and people meet on Wikipedia

Wikipedia’s goal of reaching the sum of all knowledge is a little bit closer to completion after the “Plants and People” edit-a-thon, held in January at the New York Botanical Garden‘s LuEsther T. Mertz Library.

The edit-a-thon invited Wikipedia users, old and new alike, to add information about women in botany to the encyclopedia, as botany and science as a whole have a historical gender gap extending back hundreds to thousands of years.

“In the field of botany, women have probably contributed nearly as much as men,” says Esther Jackson, one of LuEsther T. Mertz’s librarians, “but women weren’t always ‘professional’ collaborators with degrees and credentials, so it can be difficult to find information about the women who did so much foundational botanical work. We really wanted to utilize the great research collections at the botanical garden to highlight the work of some significant scientists who aren’t as well known or well remembered.”

By focusing on women in science, the garden has joined a movement of Wikipedia projects that are making dents in Wikipedia’s gender gap, like WikiProject Women scientists and Women in Red. One of the articles edited during the edit-a-thon, for instance, was about Cynthia Westcott, a twentieth-century botanist who was nicknamed “the plant doctor” after the title of her first published book.

Jackson sees the New York Botanical Garden’s mission as syncing well with Wikipedia because of the institution’s role in educating people. Over a million individuals, many of which are students with family or classmates, pass through the garden’s gates each year, but there’s simply no way to uproot a garden and bring it to people outside of New York City. While various collections—including the C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium, gateway to the digitized specimens of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium—are accessible to people around the globe, not all of the botanical garden’s resources are so highly visible. Wikipedia and the internet gives them a chance to take some of their knowledge, locked behind geography and time, and bring it to the world.

“Institutions like ours tend to have no shortage of scholarly information,” Jackson says, and “when information or a resource is shared through Wikipedia, exponentially more people will find it. As a library, we want our collections to be accessible and visible, and the edit-a- thon was a great way to shine a light on some of our materials.”

Twenty-three people came to the edit-a-thon, at least fourteen of which were beginners or had never edited Wikipedia before. Many of them were from area institutions, including a contingent from JSTOR, and the prevailing feedback from an exit survey with these new users was that the environment of learning from expert editors and from each other was accessible, helpful, and welcoming.

The botanical garden partnered with Wikimedia New York City, an independent chapter working to advance the Wikimedia movement in the region, to put on the edit-a-thon. If you’d like to host a similar event at your own institution, check out GLAM-Wiki’s page on sharing knowledge.

Video by Victor Grigas/Wikimedia Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0. You can also watch it without subtitles on Commons, on YouTube, and on Vimeo.


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