In the process of writing my blog post on the poet Caroline M. Congdon, I came across an entry for her on the website Find a Grave. Congdon’s entry includes nothing more than her name, birth and death dates, and an image of her tombstone. There is no other biographical information about her listed on the site. The sparse nature of Congdon’s entry started me to thinking: Could the model of Wikipedia editing marathons be applied to addressing the scarcity of the historical record with regards to women’s history on Find a Grave?
Editing-thons of Wikipedia allowing users to create, add, and curate content have been incorporated into successful scholarly and classroom endeavors, especially in the case of women’s history. Many of these efforts have sought to broaden the exposure and the qualities of entries dedicated to women in the fields of science, the arts, and literature. These editing marathons have provided a way for scholars and classrooms to broaden the way that they connect to a larger public. Of course, these collaborative endeavors are facilitated by Wikipedia’s promotion of collaborative editing, but more on that later on in the post.
The entries on Find a Grave, especially those related to women writers, could benefit immensely from a Wikipedia-style collaborative editing project. The quality of the entries on Find a Grave varies greatly in the level and detail, and often the narrative of entries is framed by a specific goal of the entry’s author. For instance, the entry for Caroline M. Congdon contains no biographical information about her beyond her birth and death dates and a listing of possible family relations. On the other hand, Sarah Helen Whitman’s Find A Grave entry seems like an improvement from the entry on Congdon, but as you can see, there are some particular problems:
In this Find a Grave entry, Whitman’s fame and her entire life story derives from her relationship with Edgar Allan Poe, not her own merits as a person and a poet. Find a Grave users have their hearts in the right place and appear to genuinely consist of individuals interested in history and genealogy, the preservation of cemetery records, and a commitment to often marginalized and forgotten personal and local histories. However, many Find a Grave biographical entries are sparse when it comes to details, derived from sources like Wikipedia, or contain inaccuracies.
Find a Grave seems ripe for an organized exercise in public scholarship similar to the Wikipedia editing marathons; Find a Grave, however, is vastly different than Wikipedia, and a massive editing project could be a difficult undertaking. The content generated on Find a Grave shares some similarities with Wikipedia, namely the investment of the users in the subjects that they write about on the website. Content on Find a Grave is created by users invested in documenting cemeteries and graves across the United States and the world. In large part, that desire to document graves is what drives the creation of entries on Find a Grave, not necessarily biographical or contextual information.
Beyond user initiative in creating and maintaining individual records on the site, Find a Grave lacks Wikipedia’s relatively easy and simple collaborative form of editing. Once an entry on Find a Grave is created, any suggested edits must be approved by the user that maintains the particular entry. Editing entries on Find a Grave relies on not only a willing user, but a still active one, too. Find a Grave allows the transfer of individual grave entries from user to user, but such transfers are predicated on specific genealogical criteria. Requesting users must be within a prescribed number of generations in relation to the subject of the entry they request to take over.
An organized project of editing entries on Find a Grave could be a significant undertaking, but it is possible that it could work, and it could offer a significant public engagement opportunity between Find a Grave users, historians, and literary scholars. Find a Grave is driven by a community of dedicated users invested in the histories and personal stories of the topics they are write about, and it is possible that passion could translate to a collaborative partnership with those seeking to highlight women’s history on Find a Grave.