For better or for worse, Wikipedia is the first place most people look when they want to learn about someone or something online. I don’t use Wikipedia as my sole source for important facts, but it’s a great first stop when I’m researching a topic, and it often helps me find the more reliable resources I end up citing in articles I write.
Last month on her PLOS blog Absolutely Maybe, Hilda Bastian wrote about her efforts to improve the Wikipedia pages of black women in science by both expanding on the articles and by adding pictures to ones that don’t have them. She writes:
As I’ve been combing through what seems like a bottomless pit of digitized old black and white photos of white scientists, the Black History Month stories and tweets about African-American women scientists were mostly about the same small group – although this year, plus the fabulous supersonic boost by Margot Lee Shetterly and the women of Hidden Figures.
That’s not because the supply of African-American women scientists from the past with gripping stories is tapped out. It’s not. Rather, when it comes to the stories of black women scientists, Diann Jordan writes, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few”.
There is some randomness about whose stories have been told, who had compelling, high quality photos taken, and which images have surfaced online. Mostly it’s not random, though. The odds are stacked against visibility in the historical record, as it was in life – and for many of the same reasons.
Vivienne Malone-Mayes is one of the women Bastian mentioned in her post. Malone-Mayes got her Ph.D. in math from the University of Texas in 1966 after navigating challenges such as being ostracized by her fellow students and being barred from classes taught by R.L. Moore, venerated pedagogue and notorious racist. She was the first African American professor at Baylor University. Her Wikipedia page was bereft of a photo because there wasn’t one available with the correct license. I am a Baylor alumna, so I wrote to my alma mater about making a picture they have in their archives available for Wikipedia. Hours later someone from the photo collection had changed the license uploaded it to Malone-Mayes’ Wikipedia page!
It only took me a few minutes to compose the email that liberated the photo, and it gave me a nice feeling of accomplishment for the day. Bastian has another post on her blog about how people can help get missing scientists’ faces added to their Wikipedia pages with tips you can use whether you have minutes or days you can devote to it. She also started the @MissingSciFaces Twitter account to encourage people to help write and share stories of scientists from underrepresented groups. I just signed up for a Wikipedia account, and I’m hoping to start contributing to Wikipedia pages of mathematicians from underrepresented groups and other math articles. I’m new to Wikipedia (as a contributor; not as a consumer), so I’ll be using WikiProject Women Scientists and Women in Red for inspiration as I get started. If you are so inclined, I hope you’ll join me.