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