Wikipedia Wunderkind: Barbara Page Helps Readers Of The Online Encyclopedia Understand Women’s Health, Among Other Topics

By Marylynne Pitz
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Women make up 20 percent of Wikipedia’s writers and editors, while about 80 percent of Wikipedia articles are written and edited by educated white men who are in their 30s and live in America or Europe. Barbara Page, a visiting scholar at the University of Pittsburgh is bucking that trend. Page uses her access to archives, databases and medical journals to write Wikipedia articles focusing on women’s health, her favorite subject.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Barbara Page grew up in a frosty part of northern Michigan known for its ski resorts.

“We had a snowmobile and a toboggan,” she said, adding that’s probably why most of her five siblings moved to Florida.

When she was 15, a public library opened 7 miles from her hometown of Gaylord, a small community 50 miles south of the Mackinac Bridge.

“I’d never seen so many books in one place. I love the smell of books,” Mrs. Page said, recalling the thrill of checking out two chemistry texts before studying that subject as a high school junior.

By then, a seventh-grade science teacher had fueled her fascination for learning. Now, the 58-year-old is the seventh-most-active medical editor on Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia started in 2001.

Since September 2015, as a visiting scholar at the University of Pittsburgh, Mrs. Page has used her access to archives, databases and medical journals to write 52 new Wikipedia articles, many of which focus on women’s health, her favorite subject. That dovetails with her pursuit of a nursing degree at Community College of Allegheny County.

“I have many sandboxes,” she said. “I think I can help women.”

Wikipedia’s article on rape is viewed 3,000 times a day. Mrs. Page contributed clinical content on the probability of being infected with HIV from a rape, how evidence is collected from a rape kit and what someone can expect when going to a hospital to report a sexual assault. She wrote a separate article about serial rapists.

She prefers a computer screen to a big-screen television. “I don’t watch television. I never liked it,” she said.

Women make up 20 percent of Wikipedia’s writers and editors, while about 80 percent of Wikipedia articles are written and edited by educated white men who are in their 30s and live in America or Europe. That particular demographic, Mrs. Page said, is unlikely to write about uterine prolapse.

“Thirty-year-old men don’t know that’s what grandma’s problem is,” said Mrs. Page, who does not get paid for her Wikipedia contributions.

Mrs. Page began writing for Wikipedia in 2007, after finding errors in an entry about the monarch butterfly.

“It took me three months to write an article on monarch butterfly migration,” said the mother of six and grandmother of four.

On Friday evenings, she can be found in her home doing research for articles that she believes “will help you ask your doctor the right questions,” including subjects such as reconstructive surgery after cancer.

“Lots of strange things can happen as you age. Part of this is self-education,” she said.

At first, her new hobby presented many challenges.

“I had to learn the coding. I had to learn how to do table formatting. It’s like learning another language,” she said.

More recently, Mrs. Page contributed to an article about sexually transmitted infections in mothers and newborns. Some of the bacterial infections cannot be cultured, making them difficult to study, she said.

“I write a lot of articles about bacteria. I don’t know why I like bacteria,” Mrs. Page said.

Mrs. Page is one of nine Wikipedia scholars who have been matched with a university. The Wiki Education Foundation started the visiting scholar program 2 1/2 years ago, and its goal is to improve the knowledge and references available on Wikipedia, said Ryan McGrady, community engagement manager.

“Libraries want their collections that they have spent a lot of money on to have as much impact as possible. And one way to do that is to have them cited on Wikipedia,” said Mr. McGrady, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“We got lucky with Barbara. We could not have asked for a better representative of the program. She’s just so enthusiastic and productive,” Mr. McGrady said.

Nor has Mrs. Page confined her research to women’s health. Using the archives at Pitt’s Center for American Music, she expanded the Wikipedia entry on Stephen Collins Foster, one of America’s best-known composers, who was born in Pittsburgh.

Besides adding information and correcting errors, Mrs. Page appended an image of the telegram Morrison Foster received telling him of his younger brother’s death in New York City.

Her abiding passion for science was sown at Spring Arbor University in Spring Arbor, Mich., where she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology in 1980. This year, through her CCAC program, she studied the fundamentals of nursing and visited patients at UPMC McKeesport on Fridays, where she relished working with patients her age and older.

“That’s my favorite part. When you’re in the hospital, they’re glad you’re there. You’re taking care of them. You talk about things like Woodstock and landing on the moon. I’m in that generation. The younger students will stand there and look dumbfounded,” Mrs. Page said.

Ed Galloway, head of the University of Pittsburgh’s Archives Service Center, said allowing a Wikipedian access to the school’s medical journals, digital content and archives is part of a strategy. He hopes Mrs. Page’s use of Pitt’s vast collections in her article references will lead internet users to discover Pitt’s finding aids and archives.

“We’re trying to meet our users where they are,” Mr. Galloway said.

In a way, Mrs. Page has two masters. Pitt wants her to highlights its academic holdings while Wikipedia is eager for her to generate new articles and improve existing articles.

“Ryan wants me to improve articles that reach a certain status. They are featured articles — the best that Wikipedia has to offer,” she said.

One requirement for a featured article is that it be “stable,” or accurate and reliable. Authors submit the article and a reviewer will suggest additions, deletions and corrections.

“The person who reviews the article will define the stability of the article,” Mrs. Page said.

But, because any Wikipedian can alter an entry, changes that are made are not always to the author’s liking.

“I just went back to the rape article. They were moving references and taking out some of my content. That’s almost like vandalism,” Mrs. Page said.

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