Working with Wikipedia to bring history facts to light

Posted on July 18th, 2014 by The British Newspaper Archive

The Wikipedia Library

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

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

We asked Simon Tushingham, one of Wikipedia’s volunteer editors, to explain how The British Newspaper Archive has helped with his recent contributions.

 
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Simon, a Wikipedia contributor 

I have a History degree from the University of Cambridge and Wikipedia has always been a way for me to explore my interest in Indian and local history. When I got access to The British Newspaper Archive through the Wikipedia Library, I saw it as an opportunity to explore one of Salford’s local history mysteries.

Sir James Farmer

I discovered the mystery by speaking to several people who had been apprentices at the Sir James Farmer Norton & Co Ltd engineering firm at the Adelphi Ironworks in Salford.

None of them could really tell me anything about Sir James Farmer, though they knew lots about the products the company had manufactured. These were sold worldwide and many are still being used and resold now. Some of the products were truly innovative, such as a fast printing press.

The only information they really knew about Farmer was that he was once Mayor of Salford. Although the company did produce a celebratory booklet for an anniversary, there really doesn’t seem to have been much written about the man who started it all.

Starting Sir James Farmer’s Wikipedia article

Sir James FarmerBecause of his impact on my friends and our community, I suspected that Sir James Farmer may have been one of the more notable of the many self-made, often world-changing, engineering men who inhabited Manchester, Salford and the surrounding areas in the 19th century. He needed a Wikipedia article!

Wikipedia’s model for article development supports the ‘from little acorns…’ approach. If I could start an article about Farmer, then perhaps at some time in the future someone might find more information and add to it.

Wikipedia also has limitations. Inaccessible verifiable information usually means no article – it is meant to be an encyclopaedia, after all, so there needs to be some type of public and reliably documented conversation to show that it is of interest to the public. I couldn’t use the primary source material available at a couple of archives and there wasn’t really much else that I could find without trawling through microfilms.

Using The British Newspaper Archive

Enter The British Newspaper Archive! Forget spending days, probably weeks, twiddling at a film reader, I could get access to the most important information about Farmer with one simple search.

In the space of a couple of hours, most of which was spent being pleasantly distracted by other news articles surrounding the ones about Farmer, I’d gathered enough material to justify an article.

The man is now recognised on a major educational project that gets millions of viewers. I’ve planted that acorn and given him some of the recognition he deserves. Hopefully, given time, much more can be said about him and his company.

Sir James Farmer’s obituary

Here’s an example of what I was able to find at The British Newspaper Archive. Farmer’s obituary was published in the Manchester Times in 1892 and included an illustration of him:

 

Obituary of Sir James Farmer

Manchester Times – Friday 28 October 1892
Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

View the whole newspaper page

 
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You can read Simon’s article about Sir James Farmer at Wikipedia.