Meet Sarah Stierch

01 Aug, 2014

Meet Sarah Stierch

The Berkeley Center for New Media is turning 10! To celebrate, we’re sharing ten stories of BCNM’s life so far. This month, hear how BCNM Susan B. Miller Fellow Sarah Stierch supports open source information through diversifying Wikipedia and digitizing small museums’ archives.

Recuperating at her parents’ house after a car accident, Sarah Stierch was reading a Wikipedia article when she noticed a grammar mistake. Desperate for entertainment, she created an account and edited the error. For a while afterwards she would occasionally make other corrections, but it would take a project cataloging public art in Indianapolis for Sarah to become a driving force in diversifying the most visited reference website in the world.

Sarah’s route to Wikipedia and now UC Berkeley is unconventional. An event and community organizer since high school, she worked first as a makeup artist and DJ. The love of art and its associated identities that she formed through this experience inflected the academic lens she adopted when she returned to university. Sarah received her BA in Native American Studies, focusing on the portrayal of indigenous Americans by Europeans, those of European descent, media producers, and Native Americans themselves, as she honed an appreciation for source and tone bias.

Upon graduating, Sarah became involved with a project to document and create a virtual tour of public art installations in Indianapolis for Foursquare. At the same time, she was to document these installations on Wikipedia. Sarah soon found herself a part of the Wikipedia community. While she returned to school to earn her MA in Museum Studies at George Washington University, she remained in close touch with this group, and it wasn’t long before she was reaching out to the museum and art gallery world to arrange tours for those involved in Wikipedia editing.

Most editors, Sarah soon realized, however, are white cisgender males who either work in a technical field or are advocates for open source information. Given her background studying bias, she was attentive to how the collective interests of this group led to a clear prejudice in article content. Certain topics received great detail, while others — especially those related to women — languished, requiring an all-male editorial effort if they were to be written at all. For example, in sports writing most male professional athletes boast exhaustive profiles, while female athletes have only comparatively cursory biographies. A lack of editors of color shows in a dearth of well-crafted articles relating to luminaries from minority communities, and in the tinges of pro-European/colonial attitudes in articles about indigenous and minority populations. Even in articles relating to the LGBT community, the mostly white cisgender gay male editorial population poorly fleshed out topics relating to LGBT women, the trans community, and queer people of color.

Fueled by these discrepancies, Stierch became a strong advocate for increasing the number of female editors — at the time, only 10% of the editorial population. She has since worked with the Wikimedia Foundation to create a more user friendly platform for those starting as editors through Wikihow, and has organized multiple “edit-a-thons” in which participants convene to write articles, often focusing on creating content around overlooked or misrepresented people or subjects. As the Susan B. Miller Fellow of 2013-2014, Sarah held a successful edit-a-thon at Cal, which produced excellent results, including pages forález_de_Fanning and

Although Stierch initially found the editing culture rife with issues of sexism and racism as she watched behind the scenes editorial battles unfold over the content of hot-button articles such as “abortion,” “feminism, “ and “men’s rights,” she is optimistic about the future of Wikipedia’s content. She notes that Wikipedia sees the issue of its lack of editor diversity as a serious problem with its mission to create accurate and balanced information. With increasing numbers of female editors raising their voices on Wikipedia editing discussions, there is a shift in sensitivity to issues of representation and tone previously unchallenged.

But structural issues remain. In the search for “authority,” there is a bias against oral and informal documentation, which often leaves out the indigenous and minority voice in colonial and civil rights struggles. The lack of editing consensus on sources not in the language of the Wikipedia site in which the article is produced, further results in a poor representation of those articles. Foreign events and people often receive cursory treatment as a result. These policies are sparking debate within the Wikipedia community, and Sarah is hopeful that she will see change there, too.

Which means that Sarah is now pivoting to new challenges.

Armed with an arsenal of knowledge on open information from her time at Wikimedia, she is returning to her love of art and museums as she helps information repositories create open source policies and programs. Inspired by the OpenGLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) initiative of the European Commission to reconnect with the museum and art community and bring vast amounts of archived information out of institutional obscurity into public access, Sarah is consulting with museums across the country.

Closer to home, Sarah is also drawing attention to historical articles through new digital means. As part of her Susan B. Miller Fellowship, she is collaborating with BCNM DEs Tiffany Ng, Cesar Torres, and BCNM board member Perrin Meyer on “Hack the Bells,” a contest celebrating the Berkeley Campanile’s centennial. The international competition mandate calls for the reuse and remixing of the sound and images of the campanile’s carillon. The winning work will not only receive a $700 prize, but will be acquired by the University and the Anton Brees Carillon library. And, the recordings provided for participants to use in their creations have all been licensed as open source!

Through BCNM and her partnering institutions, Sarah is making strides in fostering an awareness and enthusiasm for open source information and technology.

Interested in creating a new fund that encourages the online representation of minorities? Or a grant to assist museums in digitally preserving and sharing their archives? Support BCNM in its mission to bring together the humanities, arts, and sciences to critically analyze and shape developments in new media from cross-disciplinary and global perspectives by donating today. If you have other ideas to help develop the future of BCNM, please contact us as well.

Front page banner: "Summer of Research Presentation, Sarah" by User:Victorgrigas - Wikimedia Foundation. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.