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Penn Museum faculty and students held the Wikithon through Zoom. (Photo from Sarah Linn)

Penn Museum faculty and students celebrated Women's History Month last week by creating and editing Wikipedia articles about notable women affiliated with the museum.

The group convened over the Zoom video-conferencing app on March 26 after their plans to meet in the Penn Museum were disrupted by the coronavirus. Despite the lack of in-person collaboration, the group published three new pages and added new information to 20 other Wikipedia articles.

The event was a Wikithon, or edit-a-thon, where people collaborate to create and edit articles on Wikipedia. This Wikithon focused on women who were, or are currently, affiliated with the University or the Penn Museum. The students edited articles for three hours, with professors and museum staff offering advice and helping with citations and images. 

The students created Wikipedia articles for Deborah A. Thomas, a current Penn Anthropology professor, Sophia Wells Royce Williams, a philanthropist and photographer who was a Penn Museum donor, and Mary Virginia Harris, an artist who contributed to the Museum’s gallery. Each article was curated using sources from the Penn Museum, the organizers said.

Other notable women whose articles were edited during the Wikithon include Penn art history professor Holly Pittman; Maria Martinez, a Native American artist whose work is featured in the Penn Museum; and Zelia Nuttall, an anthropologist who represented the Penn Museum at the coronation of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra.

College junior Regina Fairbanks was inspired to help organize Penn Museum's Wikithon after she attended one at Philadelphia's Science History Institute. Fairbanks said she solicited help from Heather Sharkey, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, and Sarah Linn, research liaison for the Penn Museum, to plan the event. Many of the student participants were current or former students of Sharkey's.

“The Wikithon I went to was dedicated to Ada Lovelace Day for women in science, which got me thinking about women at the [Penn] Museum or women archaeologists who were missing from Wikipedia,” Fairbanks said.

One of the three Wikipedia articles the students created is for Sophia Wells Royce Williams.

According to WikiProject Women, only 17% of Wikipedia's biographies cover women. Sharkey added that there are more discrepancies on Wikipedia than just a gender gap, noting that “people from rural areas, or people from historically non-dominant ethnic and social groups are not covered thoroughly."

To remedy these gaps in coverage, the Wikithon students added information to articles about female Penn scholars and Native American artists whose pages had little to no detail, Sharkey said.

“As Penn students, we have access to all these databases and journals that the average person doesn’t have, so that puts us in a unique position,” College junior Nitin Rao said. “It’s really cool to be increasing the recognition of these people who have given so much to Penn and the world.”

Although the organizers felt the event was successful, they admitted they were worried about the fate of the event once Penn announced the shift to remote instruction, since the participants could no longer meet in person.

“It would have been easy to say, ‘Oh well, we couldn’t do it',” Sharkey said. “But it seems more important to do it now as a way of building community when this pandemic has scattered us all.”

The organizers said the only major obstacle was the Wikithon’s lack of access to the Penn Museum’s physical resources. Despite the difficulties of moving to a digital platform, Linn said the organizers would be open to hosting similar events.

“We’d love to host another one, hopefully in person, but we’ll see how this goes. At this point, I would say yes to another virtual event," Linn said.

The organizers said they hope to open future Wikithons to students and faculty across Penn's campus outside the Penn Museum community.

“When I study the accomplishments of these Penn people, it makes me proud to be at Penn,” Sharkey said. “I feel a kind of a debt to the people who came before us, so it feels good to be doing this.”

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