The Wikimedian On a Mission to Connect Everything

From her home in Wellington City, New Zealand, Siobhan Leachman is devoted to doing what she can to make it easier for the public to access information about scientific discoveries. In particular, she wants to highlight the contributions of women in science.

Siobhan Leachman at BioBlitzWBN 1
Wikimedian Siobhan Leachman, taken at the 2019 Wellington Botanic Garden BioBlitz. Source

Leachman is a volunteer Wikimedian, digital curator, and citizen scientist. She uses open content to create open content. Her mission in life: To connect everything. And in doing so, she relies on the Internet Archive—and adds to its resources. 

The Wayback Machine is vital to Leachman’s work, which focuses on putting reference citations in Wikidata or Wikipedia. If she comes across a broken link in her research, the Wayback Machine is her go-to source to recover it. As Leachman edits an article and inserts the digital URLs, she also saves her work through the Internet Archive for others. 

“It’s part of my workflow and just takes a couple of minutes,” she said of sharing the references she finds with the Wayback Machine. “It means the information is there in perpetuity. Five years down the road, what I was using as a reference is still there—rather than worrying about the link disappearing into the ether.”

Leachman got started as a digital volunteer for the Smithsonian transcribing journals. “I just fell in love with doing it,” she said. “I’d end up going down these research rabbit holes, finding out about the people and I’d want to know more.”  

In her research, Leachman has gravitated to natural history, learning about different species and wanting to preserve knowledge about New Zealand’s biodiversity. She reviewed diaries of scientists collecting specimens and was spurred to do more research about their lives. 

Leachman uncovered many women who had made contributions, but whose stories were not chronicled. One  of the scientists she’s researched is Winifred Chase, an American who participated in a botanical expedition to the South Pacific in 1909 with two other women. Leachman helped trace lantern slides created by Chase on the journey to New Zealand, which she incorporated into her Wikipedia entry on Chase’s life.

To complete the profiles of the scientists she’s researching, Leachman tracks down information about their lives and work through genealogy sites, as well as year books and natural history society journals found in the Internet Archive and borrowed via her Internet Archive account. “It’s absolutely thrilling. I love the stories,” she said of her research. “It’s as if you are reaching across time.” Leachman pieces together details and writes articles about female scientists, and in doing so, has become an advocate for open access.

“I’m keen on showing that women have contributed to science forever. It’s just not well documented,” said Leachman, who found many of the subjects she’s covered were amateur botanists or entomologists. “They’ve done a lot of work, but it’s like me—unpaid, a hobby. But they still contributed to science.”

Although some did not have university qualifications, women played a role over the years, said Leachman, and it’s important they get the recognition they deserve.

She often links her findings to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a worldwide consortium of natural history, botanical, research, and national libraries working together to digitize the natural history literature held in their collections and make it freely available online. The Internet Archive partners with BHL and its member libraries by providing digitization, storage and access for scanned books.

Closer to home, the New Zealand National Library recently faced a dilemma about what to do with low-circulating physical material it no longer had the space to store. Leachman applauded the Library’s initial plans to donate 600,000 excess books to the Internet Archive, but laments the announcement this week that the donation is on pause. Once digitized, the books would have been accessible to anyone through Controlled Digital Lending, and could have been linked to Wikipedia. In Leachman’s view, the donation and digitization of these books would greatly improve access to the knowledge held within these publications for the benefit of all—not just New Zealanders, but for the world. She is hopeful that this hiatus will be short-lived and that the National Library will soon be sending those books to the Internet Archive for the good of all.

Added Leachman: “The Internet Archive rocks my world. I just love it. It’s so easy to get what you need. I just think it’s amazing.”

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