THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

13 February 2013

Wikipedia and the British Library

I've been working as the Wikipedian in Residence at the British Library for the past nine months. This is a one-year project funded by the AHRC, which aims to study the ways in which academics and specialists can engage with Wikipedia and similar projects.

It builds on the work previously done by a number of other Wikipedians in Residence at institutions around the world (full list); usually, they've worked with galleries or museums to help improve content relating to the collections of those institutions. The benefits for everyone are clear - Wikipedia improves in quality and scope; the institutions engage communities interested in their material, and reach potentially much broader audiences.

We've tried something a bit different this time around. While we've worked on some content projects, we've focused on working with researchers and librarians to help build skills and give people the confidence to engage directly with these communities. Over the past months, I've talked to well over three hundred people, demonstrating tools and encouraging them to think about making a first step. There are three approaches we've been looking at here:

  • Contextualising research. Part of the perennial problem of academic projects is that they are often very specialised; it can be very difficult to explain the details of the work to a layperson. Wikipedia allows researchers to help improve the "background" material needed to put their work in context, indirectly the supporting public impact of their work. Working with the International Dunhuang Project, the BL hosted a series of workshops over a week; here, curators, Wikipedia contributors, and students worked to write articles about Central Asian archaeology and exploration - see our report.
  • Capturing research. Wikipedia - a publicly-visible, constantly shifting draft awaiting further collaboration - is great for absorbing pieces of secondary research work that may never be formally published elsewhere. As a cataloguer, I used to spend time trying to chase down small details - who did this particular bookplate belong to? was this author the same as another under a pseudonym? what was the original title of this book, and was it first written in Russian or French? Many projects, especially those concentrating on historical networks or correspondence, produce many incidental biographies or summaries of events; Wikipedia can be a very efficient way to get this work out to a wider audience, rather than keeping it in a local silo. Next month, I'll be working with the Darwin Correspondence Project in Cambridge to look at using some of their biographical summaries as the nucleus of Wikipedia articles.
  • Digital content. Wikimedia is one of the largest open-content communities around, and is always keen to use new high-quality material. If your project is producing data or images (or anything else) under a free license, there may well be someone wanting to use it in an interesting and transformative way - and to expose it to new audiences. At the Library, we've been working to get high-quality imagery from our Royal Manuscripts collection (recently digitised) to supplement related articles - such as the beautiful image illustrating the history of the fleur-de-lys in seven languages, below:
  • Clovis recevant la fleur de lys - XVe siècle

If you're interested in what else we've done, you can see an outline presentation I gave to AHRC here.

I'm at the Library until the end of April - if you think you or a group you're working with would be interested to hear more, please get in touch!

Comments

I love the description of wikipedia as "a publicly-visible, constantly shifting draft awaiting further collaboration."

Have you seen much uptake by librarians and researchers?

Journalism used to be the called "first draft of history"; I suppose Wikipedia's mostly the second draft...

We've had a lot of interest, certainly! Not all of that has carried through to actually putting content up so far, but it's early days yet. In a lot of cases, people have said things along the lines of "this looks very promising, and I can see how to fold it into a future project"... so we'll see what transpires.

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