Digital archivist brings forgotten stories to light on Wikipedia

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Photo by C. M. Stieglitz via the Library of Congress, public domain/CC0.
The Wikipedia article on author Lillian Smith’s novel Strange Fruit is one of Toncray’s favorite contributions to Wikipedia. Photo by C. M. Stieglitz via the Library of Congress, public domain/CC0.

“There are so many people who have sunk into obscurity and had their stories forgotten. We can’t put all of them on Wikipedia, but we can work on ensuring that we do what we can,” says Wikipedia editor Shalor Toncray.
A master’s student in the Library and Information Science program at Drexel University, Toncray has been editing Wikipedia as Tokyogirl79 for over a decade. Through her volunteer work with WikiProject Virginia and the Library of Virginia (LVA), she has helped bring Virginia history to life.
“One of the things that surprised me was how few Wikipedia articles there were for postbellum former slaves turned politicians,” Toncray says. To her, it is a reflection of the racist undertones she sees in the southern U.S. today. However, through Toncray’s editing, she has helped to remediate this problem and add narratives of those previously forgotten to Wikipedia.
“When I edit Wikipedia I feel like I’m helping to make a difference,” she told us. “I’ve learned of more interesting things via Wikipedia than I would have if I hadn’t started editing. I also have that lovely glow of knowing that I’m helping put out information, especially if it’s a topic that might not have otherwise been added.”
That sentiment is what led her to become an active editor on Wikipedia, eventually influencing her academic and professional pursuits. Thanks to Wikipedia, she became interested in digital archiving, the focus of her master’s program.

Originally, I just read Wikipedia and eventually began wondering why certain articles weren’t created or expanded,” she remarked. “After looking at a fairly obscure article I knew a little bit about … I realized that I could edit it just as easy as the next person—and that there was a distinct possibility that the article could languish on Wikipedia for months or years without being improved. So why not me?

Toncray even credits her editing experience with helping to land her volunteer position with the LVA, an archival institute dedicated to preserving “Virginia history, culture, and government”. Students in her field are encouraged to gain hands-on experience at local libraries. Given her background with Wikipedia, the LVA was a sound choice.
“The LVA was interested in expanding content on the site and adding sources (primary and secondary) to ensure accuracy,” she says. “I listed Wikipedia experience on my application, [and that] got me in the door.”
The institution’s large archive, as well as engagement in local activities, are what attracted Toncray to the LVA. One of their biggest goals is to improve the accuracy of articles on Wikipedia by cross-referencing sources to make sure that information on Wikipedia matches up.

Photograph courtesy of Shalor Toncray.
Photograph courtesy of Shalor Toncray.

Working with a library is especially fulfilling for Toncray because she can use her access to primary sources to help verify the accuracy of content on Wikipedia. “How many of us have become frustrated when we found that something was unavailable online in any format?,” she asks.
Another goal for the LVA is to let people know that the Library itself can be used as a source, either as a primary source, which links to the library’s archives, or as a secondary source, using material written by the library’s scholars. It also hopes to “ensure notable people are recognized for their accomplishments—something that fits well with Wikipedia’s own goals”, Toncray remarked.
Through her work with the LVA and GLAM, Toncray has gained a newfound appreciation for people who work with institutions and the pedagogical aspect of such work. Ultimately, she hopes to ensure that LVA has a Wikipedian-in-Residence in their facility or remains active in GLAM through edit-a-thons or other events.
In addition to her work with the LVA, Toncray is a volunteer administrator on Wikipedia, where she also helps guide new contributors and ensure that articles are well-sourced. Most of her work as an administrator focuses on cleaning up Wikipedia by way of speedy deletions.
One of her favorite contributions to Wikipedia is the article on the controversial novel Strange Fruit. “That’s an article I turned from a two sentence stub into what it is today. It was sort of surreal finding all of this coverage for the book—it was a stage play, an Academy Award nominated short film (loosely based on the book and the song) … it was even banned from being mailed at one point in time,” she said.
And her thoughts for new editors looking to emulate her contributions? “It’s not going to be easy, but it’s worth it.”
Katie Koerper, Public Relations Intern
Wikimedia Foundation

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