What does decolonisation mean for Wikipedia?

  • April 3, 2021

By Richard Nevell, Project Coordinator at Wikimedia UK

Wikipedia is a magnificent tool for sharing knowledge with an enormous reach. Its pages are read 20 billion times every month. But like the world around us, it reflects some long-standing inequalities. At Wikimedia UK one of our strategic priorities is to increase the engagement and representation of marginalised people and subjects. We want to challenge these inequalities and help redress them by sharing information.

Universities and museums – keystones of education and heritage communication – are currently working out how to decolonise their curriculum and their collections. Doing so widens the variety of voices in interpreting and understanding our heritage. Within the context of higher education, courses often focus on the work of white, western people. Decolonisation aims to bring more diverse research into the curriculum.

Finding the best path to decolonisation can be tricky. Removing a subject from a curriculum, or a group of authors from a reading list, does not address the underlying structural inequalities which mean that reading lists tend to be predominantly white. Widening the range of sources used and exploring how the colonial past influences how particular subjects are approached and researched today is important.

Wikipedia itself needs to be decolonised. It began as an English language project, and while it is available in more than 300 languages English is still by far the largest. The dominance of English and a small group of languages risks eroding smaller languages. For people who speak more than one language, they tend to gravitate to where there is more content – even if it is in a language they are less fluent in. While language is an issue, it is one factor that Wikipedia needs to address and it extends to the content of our pages. The Wikipedia article about historians has images of eight people – all of whom are male and European.

Wikimedia UK is taking active steps to combat this. We run events improving Wikipedia’s coverage of under-represented subjects; we support residencies such as those at Coventry University and the Khalili Collections; and we run an annual conference supporting small language communities, the Celtic Knot. The conference has showcased the work of Welsh, Cornish, Irish, and Suomi communities amongst others and helped foster their work.

Coventry University has a programme of activity which aims to decolonise the curriculum, and our Wikimedian in Residence there, Andy Mabbett, is helping lecturers use Wikipedia as a way students can make information about a wide range of topics more accessible. The Khalili Collections comprise 35,000 items, including collections about Islamic art and Japanese culture. The Resident, Martin Poulter, has been sharing information about the collections through Wikipedia, Wikidata, and Wikimedia Commons, bringing them to a new audience. The images are already seen by a million people a month through Wikimedia.

We are working with organisations such the London College of Communications who have established a Decolonising Wikipedia Network. In the process of learning about Wikipedia and how it works, the students have an opportunity to redress some of the imbalances within Wikipedia. Many of our events try to highlight marginalised communities and figures who have otherwise been overlooked by Wikipedia; it is an ongoing process, often culturally sensitive and one which will take years.

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