Did you know what the Laurel Sanitarium was?
The Laurel Sanitarium was a prominent mental health facility and women’s nursing home, built in 1905 to treat mental illness and addiction. The sanitarium treated as many as 50,000 patients from its opening until 1963, when its founder Jesse C. Coggins died. The building was subsequently demolished in 1964 to make way for the Laurel Shopping Center. Part of the building grounds were sold to the county government of Prince George’s County, Maryland, which eventually led to the construction of Laurel High School.
I learned about this demolished sanitarium from the humble, two-paragraph Wikipedia article on the subject, linked above. This piece of Maryland local history was not documented on Wikipedia until November 16, 2013, when it was one of the new articles contributed as part of the Laurel History Edit-a-thon. The Laurel Historical Society hosted this gathering, with the assistance of Wikimedia DC, to help improve Wikipedia’s coverage on notable pieces of local history.
To support this effort, we had access to a treasure trove that you can’t find on the Internet: archival copies of the Laurel Leader newspaper, dating back decades. If you look at the references section of the Laurel Sanitarium article, you will see three citations made to an article published in the Laurel Leader, in addition to two online sources. The article in question, “Laurel Landmark Passes As New Community Is Planned On Site,” was published in the Leader on August 27, 1964, and now serves as the source for most of the article.
Wikipedia requires that its millions of articles be based on information already published in reliable sources. To an eager Wikipedian at his or her computer, the easiest reliable source to find is an online source. Yet by partnering with a local historical society—very much in the business of collecting historical sources—we have enabled access to a harder-to-find source of information. We can use this information to help bring Wikipedia closer to completion.
Wikipedia’s mission is to make the world’s information available to all for free, and the help of the Laurel Historical Society and other local historical societies helps make this possible. I would like to thank Lindsey Baker and Abram Fox for organizing the edit-a-thon this past November. Wikimedia DC is very much interested in more of these kinds of events, so if you have any ideas, do let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org!