An article in the New York Times recently discussed the merits for cultural organisations of liaising with members of the public to increase knowledge of a museum or library’s collections. In the article, entitled “Museum Welcomes Wikipedia Editors”, collaborators working with the Smithsonian Institute were encouraged to edit existing Wikipedia pages or to create new ones based on archival content. Based on an idea established by Liam Wyatt (Wikimedian and founder of GLAM-Wiki), an edit-athon, usually supervised by members of an organisation’s staff, consists of staff and gifted amateurs, “lured….by the prospect of disseminating knowledge, a behind-the-scenes tour and a free lunch” [New York Times, July 26th], who want to edit and/or expand upon the entries in Wikipedia’s digital encyclopaedia. In the case of the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum in Washington, this meant identifying topics on Wikipedia that they felt needed more information or new entries and creating a list which contributors could choose from to work with.
The Bodleian Library in Oxford conducted an edit-athon this year in relation to their Queen Victoria journals, with the intent of improving the Wikipedia entries on figures and events mentioned within the journals.
The New York Times article notes the elephant in the room: that more and more online users are eschewing the websites of cultural organisations and going straight to Wikipedia for their information. It is beholden to us, then, as the people within those organisations, to ensure the accuracy of the articles within Wikipedia and to embrace it as a new knowledge base, rather than ignore the fact of its use and to dismiss it as inferior due to the fact it is edited by members of the public.
I love the idea of an edit-athon and think it could be an interesting and fun tool for the National Library to employ, not just for their artefacts generally but for their forthcoming Chaucer exhibition specifically. For example, what are the articles within Wikipedia like for the artefacts within the exhibition? What are their counterparts within Wicipedia like? One use of QR codes within an exhibition setting (incidentally, the topic of my current report) is often to link back to appropriate Wikipedia articles. If we do that, and the articles are not appropriate or not fit for purpose, we are undermining the very intent of an exhibition, which is to disseminate knowledge.
Of course, one small downside (although this does negate the rather tired argument that the problem with Wikipedia is that its additions aren’t monitored and are therefore inaccurate/inferior) is that Wikipedia won’t accept an edit or an addition to their encyclopaedia without citations, to ensure validity. To that end the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia has begun adding a Wikipedia citation code to the bottom of each object record, so that when someone comes to edit an article which relates to one of the museum’s pieces and needs to reference it, the code can be grabbed quickly and inserted into Wikipedia’s editing interface. I’m not proposing that this is feasible for all artefacts within the National Library’s collections, which run into the millions, but it is certainly a very good way of navigating the divide between the physical record of an item and its digital counterpart, with the citation code representing a very neat bridge between the two.
I’m giving edit-athons generally a big thumbs up. I think they could potentially be a wonderful way of collaborating with the local and student communities here in Aberystwyth, in a relatively non-pressured setting: around a table, with laptops, and some free sandwiches afterwards. And I think I can speak for everyone when I say, most people will go a good long way for a free lunch, so a trek into the digital hinterland shouldn’t be any great stretch of the legs.