Who’s Wiki-wor­thy?

Jour­ney­men ac­tors, po­lit­i­cal mis­tresses or Pad­dles the cat? Nikki Mac­don­ald in­ves­ti­gates which Ki­wis are deemed wor­thy of recog­ni­tion, and who de­cides.

Waikato Times - - Weekend -

Wikipedian Mike Dick­i­son types ‘‘Bev­er­ley Anne Hol­loway’’ into Google and hits en­ter. Only 10 min­utes ear­lier, a vol­un­teer ed­i­tor pressed ‘‘pub­lish’’ on a Wikipedia ar­ti­cle she’d cre­ated about the New Zealand en­to­mol­o­gist.

Yet there it is, al­ready at the top of Google’s search re­sults. With­out that Wikipedia en­try, the best you’d have got when re­search­ing Bev­er­ley Hol­loway would have been an ob­scure sci­en­tific re­port about the New Zealand bat­fly or a pass­ing me­dia ref­er­ence.

Now Hol­loway’s memo­ri­alised in an in­ter­na­tional en­cy­clopae­dia, and all with one tap of Siob­han Leach­man’s key­board. Leach­man’s not a his­to­rian or sci­en­tist – she’s a trained lawyer and stay-at-home mother of two. Her ar­ti­cle wasn’t vet­ted. She sim­ply found and ref­er­enced pub­lished sources, checked the sub­ject met Wikipedia’s no­ta­bil­ity cri­te­ria and dis­played to the world a bi­og­ra­phy that would tra­di­tion­ally have been ag­o­nised over by pro­fes­sional his­to­ri­ans or bi­og­ra­phers.

‘‘Do you feel the power? Oh God, yes,’’ Leach­man says. ‘‘But the nice thing about it is it’s demo­cratic power – any­one can have this.’’ Which is why about 20 peo­ple have swapped a sunny spring evening for this Edit for Eq­uity work­shop – to be part of the ex­tra­or­di­nary democrati­sa­tion of knowl­edge that Wikipedia rep­re­sents.

Sci­ence PhD stu­dent Ge­or­gia Car­son ran from a lab to get here: ‘‘It’s im­por­tant. Wikipedia af­fects what peo­ple choose to write about.’’

ESOL teacher Vic­to­ria Quade wants to pro­file her mother, Helen Tip­pett, Aus­trala­sia’s first fe­male ar­chi­tec­ture pro­fes­sor

Ed­u­ca­tor Kate Pot­ter worked for the Na­tional Li­brary’s He Tohu project, help­ing tell the sto­ries of women who signed the suf­frage pe­ti­tion. Or­di­nary women, she says, be­fore cor­rect­ing her­self. ‘‘Al­though no-one is or­di­nary.’’

Who we memo­ri­alise in print, with hon­ours, in dic­tio­nar­ies of bi­og­ra­phy, holds a mir­ror to what we value as a so­ci­ety. And it turns out democra­tised knowl­edge is an al­to­gether im­per­fect beast.

When Cana­dian sci­en­tist Donna Strick­land won the No­bel Prize for physics in Oc­to­ber, she had no Wikipedia ar­ti­cle. That was em­bar­rass­ing, but not unique to fe­male win­ners. The real up­roar came when it emerged some­one had ear­lier tried to cre­ate one, but it had been de­clined.

Any­one can cre­ate a Wikipedia ar­ti­cle, but it has to meet the cri­te­ria Wikipedi­ans have crafted to de­ter­mine whether some­one is no­table enough to merit in­clu­sion.

If some­one fails the grade, vol­un­teer ed­i­tors chal­lenge the en­try with blunt take-downs: ‘‘No claim to no­ta­bil­ity. Pro­fes­sor do­ing what pro­fes­sors do’’, for Kiwi pro­fes­sor of health Jackie Cum­ming. (Her ar­ti­cle sur­vived af­ter she re­ceived me­dia cov­er­age.) Or the dis­missal of Welling­ton home­less man Ben Hana, aka Blan­ket Man. ‘‘Why is this bum and a crim­i­nal on here?’’ asked one ed­i­tor. ‘‘This is an en­cy­clopae­dia, not a com­pen­dium of agree­able peo­ple,’’ an­other ed­i­tor coun­tered.

B-list names are dumped as ‘‘jour­ney­man ac­tor’’. Po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates get axed be­cause they haven’t won any­thing. Even Pad­dles – Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern’s late cat – was twice tagged for dele­tion, but sur­vived.

Strick­land’s ar­ti­cle was writ­ten by a first-time ed­i­tor and sub­mit­ted via an op­tional ap­proval process for new vol­un­teers. There’s dis­pute about whether she met the no­ta­bil­ity cri­te­ria pre-No­bel. The furore fired de­bate about who de­cides – and how – whether some­one should be memo­ri­alised. There’s noth­ing new about the ag­o­nis­ing chal­lenge of de­cid­ing who is note­wor­thy. The Dic­tionary of New Zealand Bi­og­ra­phy (DNZB) ar­guably kicked off the dis­cus­sion, with its five vol­umes of 3000 Ki­wis who made their mark be­fore 1960.

Tra­di­tion­ally, dic­tio­nar­ies of bi­og­ra­phy fea­tured bish­ops and politi­cians. Ed­i­tor Dame Clau­dia Or­ange says the DNZB wanted a broader cross-sec­tion. ‘‘If you’re think­ing of what makes peo­ple note­wor­thy, I think it’s the abil­ity to be seen to con­trib­ute in some way.’’

And per­cep­tions of note­wor­thi­ness can change. Some artists or his­to­ri­ans weren’t con­sid­ered im­por­tant at the time, but in­flu­enced fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. Some writ­ers ap­peared in con­tem­po­rary an­tholo­gies, but their in­flu­ence did not en­dure. And there are the eth­i­cal ques­tions.

Look­ing back, if Or­ange could re­write the en­try for Gover­nor Ge­orge Grey, ‘‘we’d be much tougher on him’’, in light of the Wai­tangi Tri­bunal re­search and un­der­stand­ing that’s since emerged. ‘‘But . . . you’d have to stand back and see that per­son in the con­text of the time they op­er­ated in.’’

With 2000 to 4000 page views a day, it’s the most-vis­ited New Zealand his­tory site.

Tim Shoe­bridge man­ages the dic­tionary project for the Min­istry for Cul­ture and Her­itage: ‘‘We are not just Who’s Who. We’re not there to specif­i­cally honour peo­ple. In a lot of ways some of the most in­ter­est­ing en­tries are peo­ple like [Catholic ac­tivist] Pa­tri­cia Bartlett, who thought that ho­mo­sex­u­als were evil. They tell you some­thing about so­ci­ety which isn’t nec­es­sar­ily how we re­mem­ber things to­day.’’

And speak­ing of Who’s Who, that was an in­ter­est­ing win­dow on de­ci­sion-mak­ing pro­cesses. New Zealand’s orig­i­nal, of­fi­cial ver­sion was like the DNZB, but for liv­ing peo­ple. But the later, Alis­ter Tay­lor-pub­lished edi­tions were part of a suite of so-called ‘‘van­ity books’’ that landed Tay­lor in court in Aus­tralia. It emerged that those pro­filed in The Aus­tralian Roll of Honour were asked for bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tails – and hun­dreds of dol­lars – os­ten­si­bly for a copy of the as-yet-un­pub­lished book.

There’s shades of that with Wikipedia, with sus­pi­cions some or­gan­i­sa­tions are pay­ing PR com­pa­nies to cre­ate ar­ti­cles. The same con­cern has been raised about our hon­ours sys­tem.

Dis­cus­sions about note­wor­thi­ness nor­mally take place in se­cret. The pub­lic only sees the medal lists and dic­tionary en­tries. With Wikipedia, that process is laid bare.

The first ar­ti­cle Leach­man cre­ated was also the only one she’s had chal­lenged. A stay-at-home mum, she was bored once her kids went to kindy, so vol­un­teered to tran­scribe his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments for Amer­ica’s Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion.

The 47-year-old came across men­tions of self-taught botanist and col­lec­tor Char­lotte Cort­landt El­lis, who had sev­eral species named in her honour. There was frus­trat­ingly lit­tle about her on­line, so Leach­man cre­ated a Wikipedia bio ar­ti­cle.

Since 2014, Leach­man has been cre­at­ing or im­prov­ing New Zealand Wikipedia ar­ti­cles, trawl­ing sci­ence and arts blogs and hon­ours lists for in­ter­est­ing peo­ple who haven’t yet been pro­filed.

Set up in 2001, Wikipedia used to be ed­itable only if you could write code, which meant ed­i­tors were mostly tech-savvy men. Even now, with a desk­top pub­lisher-style edit­ing sys­tem, 90 per cent of ed­i­tors are men and only 17 per cent of bi­o­graph­i­cal ar­ti­cles are of women.

New Zealand does slightly bet­ter, says writer Anne Else. Our Wikipedia pro­files are 21 per cent women, com­pared with 28 per cent women in the lat­est Dic­tionary of

Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern calls from a van. She’s made time to talk about the hon­ours sys­tem, be­cause she thinks it’s im­por­tant.

About 1000 New Zealan­ders a year are nom­i­nated for hon­ours. Their life’s work is re­duced to an eight to 12 line bi­og­ra­phy. The Cab­i­net Com­mit­tee weighs each per­son’s con­tri­bu­tion, longevity of ser­vice and whether it’s lo­cal, re­gional, na­tional or in­ter­na­tional, and ap­proves up to 400 awards.

Ardern reads every ci­ta­tion – de­cid­ing who is ven­er­ated as a note­wor­thy Kiwi is one of the priv­i­leges of her job, she says. She’s look­ing for a good spread across the re­gions and fields of ex­per­tise – busi­ness, arts, sport, com­mu­nity ser­vice.

She likes to think Ki­wis value those show­ing up con­sis­tently to coach lo­cal sports teams as much as the global-scale en­tre­pre­neur.

‘‘Look at our last list – you have a dame who has worked in the pros­ti­tutes’ col­lec­tive next to a knight who has been prime min­is­ter.’’

The re­cent Na­tional Party do­na­tion con­tro­versy has reignited calls for an in­de­pen­dent sys­tem. Ardern says that’s not some­thing she’s con­sid­ered, but she re­jects the idea hon­ours are politi­cised, or can be bought. She’s never been asked for an honour and the Labour Govern­ment hon­oured Bill English, and the pre­vi­ous Na­tional govern­ment hon­oured Helen Clark.


Siob­han Leach­man is one of about 160 Ki­wis de­cid­ing which New Zealan­ders are Wiki-wor­thy.

Dame Clau­dia Or­ange

Mike Dick­i­son

Dame Patsy Reddy

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