Ask A Librarian: How to get started adding citations to Wikipedia

It is fine if you don’t like Wikipedia. I do, despite its shortcomings. An easy way to get started, if it’s the sort of thing you’d like to try, is by adding citations which is a kind of natural librarian thing. I wrote an email to an online friend spelling out ways to get started. There are a few helpful tools and some “good to know” stuff. Adding citations can be a good way to get started and has maybe three steps

    1. Find something that needs a citation
    2. Find a citation for that thing
    3. Format and insert that citation (and add a note, and then if there are no more cites needed, remote the “citation needed” banner)

1. Finding where citations are needed
There’s a decent tool where you can find pages that need citations and it can be a great option for library type people because (I find) it’s kind of like scratching an itch. It’s called Citation Hunt.

It will drop you into a citation but you can kind of ignore it and, if you prefer, look for topics that you are interested in. You have to kind of start typing and then wait a bit for the list to populate. Sample screenshot. Click the topic and “I got this” and it will send you straight to the article

Screenshot of this tool showing a search for "Vermont" which shows a drop down list of matching categories

So I clicked actresses from Vermont and went to a Suzy Chaffee article. Some of these articles have inline “citation needed” marks, some of them have big banners across the top, like this example.

(that one is particularly bad because there are NO citations which is… not good)

2. Getting citations

So then you go looking for decent citations. I have a subscription and that helps. But really something authoritative online (Wikipedia people are fussy and don’t find things like social media posts, or IMDB or other crowdsourced sources reputable) is usually fine. Think secondary sources most of the time (i.e. a newspaper article about the person is better than an article written by the person). The big deal is just that it confirms the fact. In some cases social media can be okay if the person tweets “Hey this is my new baby!” you can use that as a cite for “soandso had a child in August 2020” I try not to overthink this most of the time.

3. Putting the cite in citation format

And hey there’s another good tool for this, Citer!

The more information you can include with a citation, the better. The Citer tool can take most newspaper URLs, online articles in standard formats, and Google Books links and turn them into a Wikipedia-formatted cite. You then copy/paste that cite and you are good. Usually they go at the end of a sentence even if the fact you are citing is in the middle of a sentence.

If that doesn’t work, or if you need to make one by hand, you can also use the little citation tool in the editor (I use the old code editor but I assume it’s similar – click Cite in the toolbar and then go to templates here…)

screenshot of a segment of a wikipedia editing toolbar showing the section where the citation tools are in the upper left.

My favorite thing is that if you’ve got a good source that you can use for multiple facts–if I am being super nitpicky I’ll put a citation on every sentence–is the REF thing in the lower corner. SO in this case, you’d copy the whole thing once, and then if you want to cite it again you just use the REF name.

screenshot of the add citation box with the little section where REF goes (lower left) highlighted

You can see this in action in the tiny page I just made for Leroy Keith.

(go to the edit tab and then if you look in the first sentence of the second paragraph you can see there is a cite that just says <ref name=”College” /> and that is basically saying “Use the reference again that is named College”)

Once you’ve done that, preview to make sure it doesn’t look bad, Wikipedia will toss up an error if you have the date format wrong or a few other things but if there are no errors, you can leave a little edit summary, can be super simple, and then hit “Publish Changes” and you’re done!

I’m sure there is stuff I’ve left out that maybe feels obvious to me and is not at all obvious to not-me, so feel free to email with questions.

The Wikipedia community tends towards obnoxious nitpicky White men, so I try to keep my head down and just try to make my little corner of it better. A few places/projects I like:

Women In Red which aims to take “red links” (i.e. ones without articles) and get articles written. A nice supportive group of mostly-women.

Requested images of people

Adding images is its own pain but if you have good sources of public domain images sometimes it’s fun to add an image to a page that didn’t have one.

And here’s my page, I have an “edit help” page which can link to information on how to do citations and some other things,

Feel free to keep in touch or ask questions.

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