What goes into a Wikipedia article? A lot more than you’d think!
One of the longest lasting lessons from my very first high school English class was to not use Wikipedia as a source because, as my teacher said, “just anyone can edit it.” That editing, I found out last semester, was a lot harder than most people think.
Last semester I enrolled in ENGL 326 “Digital Humanities.” My career goal is librarianship, and though it wasn’t your typical English class, it provided a lot of good insight into using and creating digital humanities projects to preserve and teach information. Our two large projects in the class were to create a Wikipedia article and then create our own digital humanities project. It was the Wikipedia article that I became obsessed with over the course of last semester and devoted a lot of time and energy to.
The first and most important step of contributing is understanding Wikipedia’s goals and guidelines. Despite my high school teacher’s comments that just anyone can edit a Wikipedia page, the editing process is strictly structured and is closely monitored by human moderators. Wikipedia articles are meant to be like encyclopedia entries. They’re quick overviews of subjects that can help readers find sources to learn further and to connect topics together. Wikipedia is not a primary source, and editors and moderators alike put a lot of time and effort into creating neutral, informative articles that are based on reliable sources.
A Wikipedia article isn’t so much written as built. They grow sentence by sentence, source by source. Good quality Wikipedia articles have been edited by many people and reviewed continuously for quality checks. If you’re ever curious about how a Wikipedia article has grown, any user can access the history of the article and the Talk pages. The Talk pages are where Wikipedia editors discuss things such as sources, word choices, and suggestions. The Talk page is also where you will find the quality grade of a Wikipedia article. The grades for articles range from Stub-Class to FA-Class. While Stubs are very basic and incomplete, FA-Class articles include all relevant information about a topic and are considered to be professional quality. All of the classes, in order, are: Stub, Start, C, B, GA, A, FM, FL, and FA.
For my Wikipedia article, I chose to create an article about the historical Kansas Industrial School for Girls in Beloit, Kansas.
The Kansas Industrial School for Girls in Beloit, Kansas, c. 1940.
I was raised in Beloit, Kansas, and even though I lived only a mile from the Girls’ School while it was still open, nobody in my town ever talked about it. That always baffled me, because as a long-standing institution, it seemed like the Girls’ School would have been an important piece of Kansas history. When I realized there hadn’t been a Wikipedia article for it in the past, I knew this was my chance to dig deeper into the history of the institution, what happened there, and why it closed in 2009.
Finding answers to those questions, however, was a lot harder than I originally thought it would be. The school itself opened in 1888 and sources outside of the original biennial reports are few and far between. The Girls’ School was opened as a correctional facility for young women who were sentenced by Kansas courts for reasons ranging from childhood delinquency to perceived sexual promiscuity to murder. Because of the attitude surrounding young, court-sentenced women in the late 19th century and early 20th century, sources such as newspaper articles about the day-to-day operations or testimonies of the girls who were sentenced there are hard to come by.
This meant that most of the sources that I used for the article were from reports made by the Girls’ School to the State of Kansas. Luckily, reports up until 1958 were not only digitized, but available at Hale! Unluckily, that left roughly 50 years of operations for me to find elsewhere. After consulting with one of the reference librarians at the State of Kansas Library in Topeka, I ended up taking a trip to visit the capital library and gather all of the information I could about the Girls’ School in one afternoon.
If you’ve never been to the library of the capitol building, I encourage you to go! Besides being absolutely gorgeous (and a little terrifying; the second floor is made of glass!), the library houses a treasure trove of information about Kansas. I spent nearly four hours amongst the stacks and sifted through 50 years of reports and publications from the Girls’ School, and I still feel like I barely skimmed the surface of the information that’s there.
In the end, I cited twenty-six sources in my original Wikipedia article, and included three external links for more learning about the institution. Every sentence (but one) has a corresponding citation. Despite having my own opinions about the Girls’ School, everything in the Wikipedia article, as it stands right now, is fact. Though it was challenging to separate my opinions from certain sections of the article, and it was an entirely different writing style to what I’m used to, I feel like I did a good job of presenting the information in Wikipedia’s standard, neutral tone. The article moderators must have thought so too, because by the time I made my last edit, the article earned the grade of a C-Class Article.
From my research, it is my opinion that the Kansas Industrial School for Girls was an institution that tried, in most cases, to do right by the young women sentenced there. So many of the reports from superintendents showed a genuine compassion for the girls and a want to help them succeed. I feel like the stigma that surrounded the school by the time I was growing up was unwarranted. Some parts of the school’s past are undoubtedly dark and I don’t wish to downplay the impacts of that history. But I believe that the school acted as a safe haven for more than a few girls in its hundred-and-twenty-one-year tenure.
I won’t spoil the story of the Girl’s School because my Wikipedia article is live! This project really opened my eyes to the work and intense research that Wikipedia article editors put into their articles every day, for free. This definitely won’t be my last time editing a Wikipedia article, either. Once I have some free time, I plan to continue updating the page for the Kansas Industrial School for Girls, so please stay tuned! And if you’re interested in editing a Wikipedia article, I highly recommend jumping right in. In addition to Digital Humanities, Wikipedia also offers classes and trainings on editing articles.
So yes, anyone can edit a Wikipedia article, and I’m so glad I took the opportunity to contribute!
— Leah Hennes (BA ’23)