The Pan America Union. Photo via the Library of Congress, public domain/CC0.

The Pan American Union. Photo via the Library of Congress, public domain/CC0.

Digital humanities is an area of research where humanities and computing collide; it’s a field of study that creates an opportunity to understand Wikipedia from new perspectives, such as its value in the preservation of historical memory and collective knowledge. For this reason, the Digital Humanities Network (Red HD) invited me to participate as speaker in the XXXIV International Latin American Studies Association Congress (LASA), celebrated in New York City from 27 to 30 May.

Red HD is an initiative created by academics from different Mexican universities. Created in 2011, the group kindles and participates in global discussions on the role of digital humanities. They collaborated with Wikimedia Mexico to create specialized track about knowledge production during Wikimania 2015. On the other hand, LASA is the world’s largest association dedicated to the study of Latin America. It has about 12,000 members, and its annual congress gathers academics, intellectuals, and associations of the region to discuss about the most relevant topics on their respective disciplines.

I had the chance to participate in the session “Latin American Digital Humanities: Emerging Strategies and Spaces II,” where I presented “Archeology of knowledge in the Spanish Wikipedia,” a paper about vandalism on Wikipedia. This text, available under a CC-BY license, explores the possibility of mapping the vandalism in Wikipedia through the View History feature. The result would help to establish correlations between the current narrative in the encyclopedia and the events at a given moment.

My LASA participation helped to encourage a discussion about the role of Wikipedia in the collective construction of knowledge. This debate is not strange to the digital humanities, since it represents an approach to how does the encyclopedia create, consolidate and validate the public knowledge, and it should be in foroms like the LASA Congress to encourage more academics to approach, study, and participate in Wikipedia.

Wikipedia in digital humanities: voices from the academy

“Wikipedia could be the largest digital humanities project we’ve ever seen,” says David Domínguez, faculty member of the College of History at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). “Considering that digital humanities is a field and not just a discipline, there’s plenty of space to work transversally and collaboratively both from and toward Wikipedia.” Isabel Galina from the Institute for Bibliographic Studies at UNAM agrees: “Digital humanities and Wikipedia share similitudes in important topics about finding new forms of production and knowledge. Wikipedia is a functional model and an optimal space to support the teaching and research of the digital humanities.”

Paola Ricaurte, professor and researcher at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Mexico City, thinks that Wikipedia can be used in digital humanities both in teaching and research. “In the teaching side, using Wikipedia as a tool encourages the development of different skills amongst the students. In the research side, [Wikipedia is useful] as a study object from a distant perspective and as an opportunity to open ourselves to the interdisciplinary work.”

Anita Say Chan, from the University of Illinois in the United States, thinks Wikipedia can be key in divulge techniques about how to teach digital literacy. “Of course, it also [serves] to publish, edit, and intervene in debates on the construction of collaborative knowledge, especially in topics related to women and minorities in Wikipedia.” Researcher Enedina Ortega pointed out that “we realized in LASA of the necessity of knowing about more projects, resources, networks, and I think that the Wikimedia initiative plays a very important role on it.”

“Wikimedia is a digital tool for content publication, either as an educational, promotional, or divulgative resource for the different contents produced by the academic agents (students, professors, i.e.) and the non-academic (NGOs, companies, government agencies)”, says Ricardo Fabián Chimal, another researcher. About the LASA presentation, he indicates that “Wikipedia serves as a valuable canvas for data mining and other textual analyses that, based on the composition, omission or alteration of an article, enable us to find relevant information: a hidden resumé, a defensive standpoint about a historical event or a biography, the use of rhetoric, censorship, assumptions on certain social or gender roles, et cetera.”

How do we involve digital humanities in Wikipedia?

Besides encouraging the discussion on the role of Wikipedia in digital humanities, the LASA presentation raised concerns about future participation. Some Red HD members, such as Paola Ricaurte, already work with Wikipedia: “I’m a current member of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Education Collaborative, and I’m developing a mentorship program for teachers in Latin America with Melina Masnatta.” Likewise, Anita Say Chan told me that she participated and co-organized an edit-a-thon on feminist and art in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Other members of Red HD have not participated yet, but they showed interest after the presentation and the work of Wikimedia Mexico. “[I’m] interested in the efforts to create Wikipedia articles on topics that are underrepresented and require more visibility, i.e., those about women in science or in literature, or some cultural traditions”, Isabel Galina said. Ricardo Fabián Chimal, expert in translation, adds that “from the [Wikimedia Mexico] activities, I’d like to participate in the Education Program, but I’d like more to be part of any activity or project related to translation; maybe with the Content Translation tool or [organizing] a translation edit-a-thon.”

Wikipedia is a very fertile ground for the creation of innovative projects related to the digital humanities. The LASA experience, possible thanks to a Wikimedia Foundation TPS grant, resulted in a rich exchange of ideas and future projects (some came in the very near future—I spoke about Wikipedia to Anita Say Chan’s class at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City on 23 June). The visibility of Wikipedia in the academic fora is, undoubtedly, an growth opportunity for our global initiative and a way to reach new horizons for a stronger movement, specially from the knowledge production in Latin America and the Global South.

Pepe Flores, Wikimedia community member