13 Mar 2013

Taking Libraries to Wikipedia / Wikipedia to Libraries

Guest Post by Gerard Gregory 

Wikipedia is very open about its lack of credibility as an authoritative source. Libraries sing from the same hymn sheet, but in doing so often seem to unnecessarily distance themselves from or appear antagonistic towards the resource. The reality is that libraries and Wikipedia share very similar goals around providing public access to content. Wikipedia presents real opportunities for Irish libraries, and new developments in the world of Wikipedia could potentially increase the level of public engagement with library collections. They could also help improve basic research skills and even provide professional development prospects for unemployed graduates who might be locked in the unforgiving cycle of being unable to get a job without relevant experience.

John Mark Ockerbloom, a digital library architect and planner at the University of Pennsylvania. has developed an experimental service for Wikipedia pages called Forward to Libraries that allows you to click from a Wikipedia article to related resources on a library catalogue. The “Resources in your library” links will perform a keyword or an author search of the library catalogue of your choice using authority-controlled headings. Users can register their preferred library (which will set a cookie in their browser recording that choice), or select it for each individual search. The documentation for the Library resources box template is online. From a user’s perspective the registration feature would benefit if it was more like the Library Links option in Google Scholar which personalises your Scholar results much more seamlessly and links to up to five library collections, but on the whole this addition to Wikipedia is a really innovative way of connecting the hundreds of millions of people who consult Wikipedia every month to libraries. It might still be in an experimental stage but the opportunities for Irish libraries are quite clear. Once a library is registered people in the locality will be able to link to the library catalogue from a Wikipedia page of interest. Onsite or on-campus browsers could pre-install the cookie and default to the library when a user follows one of the links.

The Forward to Libraries project is not the only project that connects Wikipedia with libraries. The GLAM-WIKI project introduced the idea of the Wikipedian in Residence. GLAM stands for Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums but the project also incorporates other cultural institutions such as theatres, zoos, botanical gardens, public broadcasters etc. A Wikipedian in Residence is a person who dedicates time to working in-house at an organisation and, amongst other things, facilitates content improvement in partnership with the organisation and the Wikipedia communities. In their profile of the work undertaken by Liam Wyatt, the Wikipedian in Residence at the British Museum in 2010, The New York Times wrote that “in today’s Wikipedia there is renewed value in old-fashioned expertise, whether to provide obscure details to articles that have already been carefully edited or to find worthy topics that haven’t been written about yet”. Librarians are well positioned to offer such expertise.

A very original example of work done by Wikipedians in Residence is the VIAFbot project coordinated by the OCLC Research Wikipedian in Residence Max Klein and the British Library Wikipedian in Residence Andrew Gray. The VIAFbot linked authority file records to biographies on Wikipedia. You can see the VIAFbot at work and watch Max Klein discuss the project here. You may have already seen the Authority Control links paced at the bottom of Wikipedia articles by the VIAFbot over the last few months.

Wikipedian residencies need not be as technical as the VIAFbot project. A project could involve creating Wikipedia content to include articles on topics or items from a collection that so far have not been contributed to Wikipedia or it could involve putting Forward to Libraries links into high profile articles using either library activity data or Wikipedia statistics as a guide. You could also use the case studies from completed projects available on Wikipedia for direction. To my knowledge there have been no Wikipedians in Residence in Ireland. This means that there could be opportunities for recent graduates here to proactively develop a residency idea and try to work as interns or volunteers in any type of GLAM organisation. The British Museum residency, the very first of its kind, was self-initiated. The level of engagement with Wikipedia by high-profile organisations ought to get Irish organisations curious at least.

If traditionally the problem with Wikipedia has been its amateurism and unreliability then the inroads made by the likes of the VIAFbot project in applying authority control and the Forward to Libraries project in bringing library catalogues into articles mean that the scepticism of some librarians towards Wikipedia is becoming increasingly harder to defend. Libraries need to be where people will use them and these types of projects are really great ways of doing that.

*Guest blog posts represent the personal views of the poster and do not represent the official opinions or commentary of libfocus.com


  1. That's an interesting post Gregory. I suspect Wikipedia might be a more reliable project for libraries than Google Scholar in the long run, and one with a broader potential reach.

    D-Lib magazine had an article in their most recent issue on 'Using Wikipedia to Enhance the Visibility of Digitized Archival Assets' which is worth checking out. http://www.dlib.org/dlib/march13/szajewski/03szajewski.html

  2. There's that phrase again "go where your users are".