My HASTAC project for the year has been to create a Wikipedia page for Robert Penn Warren’s little-known book Who Speaks for the Negro? In 1964, Warren travelled throughout the United States to interview a large number of men and women who participated in the Civil Rights Movement, both key figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and those little-known figures whose names might have been lost to history otherwise. He recorded these interviews on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, carefully culling some into his book, in which he narrated and mediated on some of the major trends and events he saw during the movement. A large portion of the interviews, however, did not make it into the book; these tapes, held at the University of Kentucky and Yale University libraries, have been digitized into an online archive by the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. In a pleasing turn for those of us worried about the state of the book in a digital age, the online archive has revived interest in the book; in 2014, Yale University Press published the first reprint of Who Speaks in decades.
Mona Frederick, the director of the Warren Center, tasked me with creating a Wikipedia page for the book and the archive. Having used Wikipedia both as a teaching tool and a learning tool, I was slightly wary of my ability to do the page justice. I was plagued with ambivalence: How often had I cautioned my undergraduates not to use Wikipedia as a trustworthy source? On the other hand, how often do I myself turn to Wikipedia as the primary source for accurate and factual information? How could I write about a book in such a trustworthy, unbiased fashion, when my discipline taught me to be critical and argumentative about any and all texts?
What I didn’t realize and still don’t quite fully comprehend is that Wikipedia is not so much a collection of analytical essays than a web of information; a single Wikipedia page is not so much a research paper as a single node that ties together all the other potential nodes elsewhere. This is not to say that you can be lax about the accuracy of your information (although the line between accurate and ridiculous has been toed to great effect), although Wikipedia has more and more become a recognizably reliable source of information. What I mean, though, is that working with Wikipedia forces you to come into contact with the massive number of other people who are also working with Wikipedia; the point of creating a page is to get traffic by linking to other pages, and that traffic means your article is being vetted by peer reviewers. That networking is both the best and hardest part about creating a Wikipedia entry.
Let me demonstrate this in my own process. The actual Who Speaks page was so very easy to create. The writing itself took barely four hours, followed by a few edits here and there arising from Mona’s and my discussions. I submitted it to be actualized, and it was a real page in a matter of hours. (I have to admit, I still get a bit of a thrill when I search for “Who Speaks for the Negro” in Google and the Wikipedia page automatically pops up. I imagine it’s a microscopic version of whatever feeling Edison got when he saw his lightbulb somewhere other than his lab or his friends’ houses. Caveat: I know nothing about the history of lightbulbs.) The entire process took less than a month. I spent the rest of the year methodically creating links to and from the page: I would go to the page of an interviewee, if it existed; looked to see where I could legitimately insert a mention of his/her interview for the book without the citation sticking out like a sore thumb; and reading the interview transcript to see what interesting tidbit I could use to link the person to the book’s page. I learned a lot about the Civil Rights Movement (I study Victorian literature, so this was a new field for me). But more than that, I learned about Wikipedia’s web-like relational structure, which I will be presenting on briefly at the HASTAC conference.
Wikipedia itself gives you a list of links to your page, which can be really satisfying in its length; the more links to it, the more popular it becomes, the more legitimate and important the topic of your page seems. Not all of those links were hand-created by me, but the majority was. It was also a temporal record for what I had accomplished throughout the year. But the list doesn’t seem quite sufficient in representing what the page does, which is link together otherwise unrelated or only tangentially related topics. Basically, I made someone’s game of the Six Degrees of Wikipedia one step easier. In some cases, the links were never so far apart: Malcolm X, for example, would already have been linked to the Civil Rights Movement page even without my intervention. Other connections were somewhat more tenuous. Would Kenneth Clark, who with his wife Mamie theorized the psychology behind African American children’s preference for white dolls, have been connected with the Nashville Sit-ins, when students, both black and white, sat at the “whites-only” luncheon counters in protest of segregation? Maybe, maybe not—but that maybe becomes a definite through the Who Speaks page. In a way, creating the Who Speaks page was a bit like retracing Warren’s own process: by bringing together all the different corners of the Civil Rights Movement, he, too, created a web of related persons, places, and events. The way he narrativized these interviews in his book created stronger lines here and there, while the digital archive of the interviews gives a more holistic picture of all involved.