Working with Wikipedia to better document our past

We’ve recently donated 100 subscriptions to the Wikipedia community through the Wikipedia Library, a grant-funded program which makes it easier for experienced volunteer editors to access research materials.

The Wikipedia Library
The Wikipedia Library

It’s very exciting to be involved in this new partnership which allows us to contribute to one of the most frequently used reference tools in the world, and demonstrates how historical newspapers can help improve public information about historical topics from around the world.

We asked User:We Hope, one of Wikipedia’s volunteer editors, to explain how has helped with his recent contributions.

Newspapers for Wikipedia references
Since I’ve always been interested in the past and what really happened in it, I’ve tended to draw quite a bit from newspapers. For me, accessing older newspapers is like traveling back in time for facts which may have been lost to later publications.

I’ve done quite a bit of work on Wikipedia around articles, such as Red Skelton and Perry Como, where my main sources were older newspaper stories. These sources allow me to “get closer” to when they were happening and allows us to present somewhat different information on Wikipedia than may be found in books on the given subject. When working on Red Skelton, I found that two book sources listed his son’s birthdate incorrectly. A newspaper article on the boy’s death said he was ten days shy of his tenth birthday; checking California vital records showed that the newspaper story had his birthday correct.

Wikipedia is a wonderful environment for capturing this information and correcting it for public record: almost everyone visits Wikipedia for research, and providing both the older sources alongside new sources ensures that future researchers can discover the same information I did.

Exploring an old locomotive
Recently, I have gotten interested in the locomotive William Crooks, because I discovered the engine while upload public domain railroad photos and postcards to Wikimedia Commons. The old engine has an interesting history: it was built in 1861, almost destroyed by fire in 1868, and saved from the scrapyard by the Great Northern Railway’s president, James J. Hill, around the turn of the century.

When researching the Wikipedia article, a copy of an old railroad brochure about the train helped to fill in some information, as well as providing photos of the William Crooks in various places after it was officially retired. The brochure helped document its many tours made under its own power across the country, such as the 1927 Fair of the Iron Horse in Baltimore and the 1939 World’s Fair, but there still was not enough information to do much expansion of this article–not until

Having access to the older newspapers available on, I have been able to add much more specific information. For example, I found an article with an interview of Albion Smith, who restored the locomotive after the 1868 fire and was one of its early engineers. Mr. Smith was instrumental in saving the old engine from the scrapyard by speaking to James J. Hill about the situation. Another interview in the article was with John J. Maher, who started as a fireman on the William Crooks Mr. Maher, helped highlight the earlier wood-burning days of the locomotive. These interviews allowed me to better document the trains transformation from wood-burner to a coal-burner. Moreover, many of my other clippings I hope to further expand the article with.

William Crooks Locomotive Article
Newspapers article with interviews regarding the William Crooks

More than just individual research for articles
Having access has also made it possible to verify the copyright status of comic strip images uploaded by various users over the years. Our community on Wikipedia and sister sites like the free media repository Wikimedia Commons, wants to ensure every piece of material is free from copyright claims when we publish it so it can be easily reused by our readership. We carefully screen images uploaded by our thousands of contributors to make sure the copyright statements are accurate. Sometimes older images are uploaded to Wikipedia under a public domain claim due to age, but were not in fact public domain, or couldn’t be easily checked for their copyright status, because they had been uploaded without contextual information like dates of first publication. Having access to a larger collection of newspapers provides us the needed information so that I can double-check the original publication status of the comics, and allows us to send those images Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia’s sister database of free use images, to be used and enjoyed by more people.

Freckles and His Friends
An example of one of the comics discovered on

In other contexts, I am using the to explore other topics, such as documenting the biographies of public figures like Ruth Etting, the stars of the Amos ‘n’ Andy television series, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and Paul Weston, the bandleader and composer for more expansions of articles. Being able to capture all that research with clippings allows me to share them with collaborators on those articles. For example, I recently worked with fellow Wikipedian User:This is Paul to explore the life and history of murder victim Joan Robinson Hill, who was discussed in the book Blood and Money. We were really successful in expanding the article using information to compile what happened after the book was published. We were also able to add some previously “lost” information to the Wikipedia-Featured Article Jo Stafford. An interview I discovered with Jo Stafford gave her first-hand account of how her hit record “Tim-tay-shun” was recorded with Red Ingle and her use of the name Cinderella G. Stump on the label.

Having access to so many sources means lots of clippings on any given subject and I find that when I start searching on a subject, I start clipping, and clipping, and clipping, because there are just so many good sources that need to be added to the Wikipedia article. If I had one “wish” for a feature to be added to, it would be some type of folder system where one could sort all clippings a member had about a given subject for ease in finding when editing Wikipedia. However, all in all, this partnership has helped make more public a great deal of information about many, many different subjects and I hope we will be able to continue making these discoveries through the access to older newspapers!

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