06 February 2023
A Year In Three Wikithons: The Lord Chamberlain's Plays
The second year of the Wikimedia residency has allowed us to pay specific attention to the work being done on the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays, specifically the excellent research project work by Professor Kate Dossett (University of Leeds). Kate teaches American History at the University of Leeds, and is currently working on ‘Black Cultural Archives & the Making of Black Histories: Archives of Surveillance and Black Transnational Theatre’, a project supported by an Independent Social Research Foundation Fellowship and a Fellowship from the Eccles Centre. Her work focuses on the understudied area of Black theatre history in the first half of the twentieth century, and when we had the chance to collaborate, we leapt on it!
One of the things we wanted to do was run a series of three Wikithons, each celebrating a different aspect of the collection: in this case, the role of women; the ways in which censorship impacted creativity for Black theatre makers and the political surveillance of Black creatives. Alongside these Wikithons, we are developing a Wikibase structure to enable users to search the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays index cards from anywhere in the world. A blog on this work is forthcoming.
What transpired from our Wikithon dream was a series of three excellent events, interactions and collaborative work with a number of exceptional researchers and historians, all mixed in with a year of administrative tumult as we felt the impact of numerous strikes (academic and transport), the Royal funeral and the ongoing implications of the pandemic.
This was an important learning opportunity for us to examine the role and impact of Wikithons, and consider different methods of delivery and engagement, tying into bigger conversations happening around Wikipedia on an international scale. It was a year in three Wikithons!
Event One (March 2022)
Our first event took place in March 2022. Having only just gotten over the dreaded Covid myself, the long-term impact of the pandemic was sorely felt: we were just out of some winter restrictions, and we felt it was best to hold this event as an online session, due to the uncertainty of the months ahead. Further to this, we had to look at dates that would not interrupt or clash with the ongoing University and College Union strikes. Once we had this in hand, we were ready to open the (virtual) doors to Black Theatre and the Archive: Making Women Visible, 1900-1950.
We were lucky to have speakers from the Library, Alexander Lock and Laura Walker, to talk about and contextualise the materials, while Kate herself offered a thematic and political overview of the importance of the work we were to embark upon. Despite the strikes, the pandemic and the demands of early 2022, 9 editors added over 1600 words, 21 references and 84 total edits. Changes made on this day have now been viewed over 25000 times. For a small batch of changes, that is a significant impact! Articles edited included Elisabeth Welch, Anna Lucasta and Edric Connor. I was grateful to Stuart Prior and Dr Francesca Allfrey for the training support at this event, and to Heather Pascall from the News Reference Team who offered her expertise on the day. The British Newspaper Archive also gave us access to their online resource for this event, which was both generous and very helpful.
Event Two (November 2022)
After a summer of political upheaval, a royal funeral and further transport strikes, we finally made it to Leeds Playhouse on the 7th of November 2022. As luck would have it, there was a train strike running that day, but as most of our participants were local to Leeds, there was thankfully very little impact on our numbers. Leeds Playhouse was the perfect home for this Wikithon: Furnace Producer Rio Matchett was a fantastic ambassador for the venue, and made sure we were fed and watered in style. Hope Miyoba was there to support me in training both sessions and I am so grateful to her for her support, particularly as my laptop wasn’t working!
We took over the Playhouse for the full day, running Wikithon sessions in the morning and afternoon, with a lunchtime talk by Joe Williams of Heritage Corner Leeds which was attended by morning and afternoon attendees, as well as some members of the public. Joe’s talk on Sankofa Yorkshire was a brilliant overview of Black creativity in the Leeds area throughout history, and informed a lot of our conversation around the politics and practicalities of Wiki editing in an equitable way. Articles edited included Una Marson, a central figure in Kate’s research and the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays.
It was fantastic to be in person again, and to meet the excellent community of creatives at Leeds Playhouse. Joe’s talk was inspirational and the questions it provoked regarding the way in which the Wikimedia guidelines for notability can negatively impact the prevalence of Black creatives on Wiki were a much needed point of discussion.
Event Three (January 2023)
Our arrival at the iconic National Archives building at Kew was long awaited and months in the planning. Drs Jo Pugh and Kevin Searle were exceptionally helpful and supportive as we planned our way to the ‘Black Theater Making and Surveillance’ event in January 2023. We were delighted to be in the building, and even happier to welcome Perry Blankson of the Young Historians Project to present his work on The Secret War on Black Power in Britain and the Caribbean. Gathering in a central space in the Archives, Dr Searle curated an amazing selection of archival materials for participants to view and utilise, including documents from the Information Research Department.
Our conversations on this day turned towards the idea of Wiki notability and the use of primary sources in establishing authority on Wikipedia in particular. I was grateful once again to Stuart Prior and Dr Francesca Allfrey for their support and training assistance, and moreover for the thoughtful and important conversations we fostered around the ways in which the politics of the present day can cloud and impact what happens on Wiki and how events and politics can be reported. A truly breathtaking moment was when Dr Searle and his colleagues allowed us to look at the Windrush manifest, a material reminder of a significant and hugely important moment in modern Britain. It was wonderful, also, to welcome Dr Cara Rodway, Head of Research Development and Philip Abraham, Deputy Head of the Eccles Centre, to join us in seeing this final event in the Wikithon series.
Despite a year of unforeseeable events, disruption and obstacles, I am immensely proud of what this series of Wikithons achieved, bringing aspects of modern society into direct conversation with our literary archives, asking questions about race, equality and diversity in Britain. We were lucky to work with creative practitioners and speakers like Joe Williams and Perry Blankson, and to be afforded the chance to really think about what it is to edit Wiki, and to try to improve the world in this way. It has allowed me to think more deeply about the wider Wiki conversations around how best to engage with and train new Wiki editors, and how to look at collections in new and impactful ways. I am very grateful to the American Trust for the British Library and the Eccles Centre for American studies for their support in achieving this work.
This blogpost is by Dr Lucy Hinnie, Wikimedian in Residence, British Library. She is on Twitter @BL_Wikimedian.