by Krista McCracken
Discussion around the value of contributing to Wikipedia and its use as a resource has been occurring since the establishment of the collaboratively written encyclopedia in 2001. You don’t have to look very far to find someone decrying the crowdsourced material as rubbish or others proclaiming it as the best thing since sliced bread. In between these two extremes thoughtful discussions have provoked questions about the academic implications of editing Wikipedia and historical narratives as presented via Wikipedia as truths.
A number of Active History posts have been written about how historians engage with Wikipedia as editors, academics, and public scholars. In 2010 A.J. Rowley’s “Is Wikipedia Worth the Trouble?” evaluated Wikipedia as a user generated resource and in 2011 Jim Clifford wrote about editing Wikipedia, challenges of academics engaging with Wikipedia, and problems around citing original research. In 2012 Ian Milligan explored the history of Canada as represented on Wikipedia and in 2013 Jonathan McQuarrie reflected on his experience editing William Beverly Murphy’s Wikipedia entry.
All of these posts bring up the issue of accuracy on Wikipedia, the potential value of contributing to public knowledge, and perceptions of history online. Trained as a public historian and as someone working outside of academia I came at Wikipedia from a different angle. My interest developed from the perspective of someone employed in the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAM) sector wishing to increase the profile of a heritage institution and highlight the material held in an archival collection.
My initial stumble into Wikipedia came about as part of curating a display on Brian Vallée, a documentary film producer, author, and vocal advocate for victims of domestic violence. He was born in Sault Ste Marie and I had the idea of promoting his fonds as part of our outreach programming. A colleague loved the idea of promoting a local author’s archival collection and promptly Googled Vallée to try and find out more about him. He was struck by the fact that most of the Google results were from Vallée’s own website and newspaper articles. There was no Wikipedia article.
Shortly after I also discovered that a whole host of local and Indigenous history topics that relate directly to our archival collections don’t have Wikipedia entries. The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, most of the Residential Schools in Canada, important Indigenous leaders and individuals involved with reconciliation were all absent on Wikipedia. This absence was particularly stark when looking for entries related to Indigenous women who fell within the intersection of two very underrepresented groups on Wikipedia.
A bit overwhelmed by the range of possibilities for contributing to Wikipedia I started to look around at how other archives and GLAM organizations have approached Wikipedia contributions. Many GLAM organizations have examined the use of Wikipedia as a form of digital outreach and as a way to promote collection assets in the public sphere.
Each individual heritage or cultural organization goes about using Wikipedia in a unique way. But some of the more common outreach initiatives include:
- Creation of an institutional Wikipedia page for the GLAM institution in question. This page can highlight the mission, history, and services provided by the organization. It can also serve as a starting point to illuminate the significant holdings held by the organization.
- Creation of Wikipedia pages for the people and events documented in the organization’s archival, museum, or library holdings. Quite often archivists and other heritage professionals write collection histories or biographical statements for donors. This practice uses the same skills as writing a Wikipedia article and often the information can be re-purposed to create a Wiki page.
- Integration of information about holdings through the improvement of links and references. It is possible to cite archival sources in Wikipedia articles and often digital holdings can be referenced as further reading or other sources.
- Rare books described in library or special collection catalogues can be linked to pages and ‘works created’ lists commonly included on author related Wikipedia pages can be improved by the inclusion of ISBN numbers.
- Adding public domain or creative commons licensed images held by the organization to existing pages. Images can also be added to the Wikimedia Commons for future use.
- Holding edit-a-thon style events to encourage staff and wider community participation in the improvement of Wikipedia entries relating to the organization’s holdings.
- Some cultural institutions have also stepped up to the plate to participate in the Wikipedian in Residence program which builds institutional capacity around engagement with Wikipedia and often contributes content relating to the institution’s holdings.
There is also a huge amount of documentation available to GLAM organizations looking to become more engaged with the Wikipedia community. The Wikipedia Library includes a best practices guide for Librarians, Archivists and Cultural professionals interested in linking their collections on Wikipedia. The guide explains the ways in which cultural professionals can use their collections on Wikipedia while still adhering to the editing principles around neutrality and verifiability.
The Glam-Wiki initiative also has a wealth of resources highlighting the value of cultural organizations contributing to Wikipedia and a beginners guide for individuals unsure of where to start. The technical side of editing Wikipedia doesn’t have to be a scary thing. It is very well documented and there are many welcoming groups within the GLAM sector who are happy to help organizations and individuals looking to become more involved. Additionally cultural professional organizations are increasingly offering workshops on Wiki editing that can serve as an introduction.
It is possible for archives, libraries, museums, and galleries to engage with Wikipedia in a meaningful way that is beneficial to the organization while still adhering to contribution guidelines. So start exploring and be bold.
Krista McCracken is an Archives Supervisor at Algoma University’s Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre and Arthur A. Wishart Library. She is a co-editor of Activehistory.ca