Wikimedia UK: at the coalface of open knowledge
THE desire to share information is ancient. The earliest surviving dated, printed, book – the Diamond Sutra in the British Library – has a dedication saying: “for universal free distribution”. This fabulous snippet of general knowledge was not tailor-made for this article. It comes off-the-peg, direct from Wikipedia, or, more precisely, a page which cites the article making the claim – an article that also says the urge to share knowledge is probably as old as the urge to hide it.
Resolving the tension between our instincts to share and hide knowledge is one of the jobs of Wikimedia UK and its Chief Executive Lucy Crompton-Reid. For centuries the trend in our culture has been to lock down information. It means that the task of freeing it up again will be a cultural one, more face-to-face than modem-to-modem. As such, Lucy does not need to be a technologist. Her task is communication and she said her career, which has included roles at the House of Lords and the Refugee Council, “has not featured technology at all, other than the fact that in all of those organisations I’ve been working in we have been grappling with how to use technology to increase access for more people to what we are doing, whether that’s arts or political engagement”. Instead it requires an understanding of the open knowledge movement and the organisations and people who aren’t yet engaging with it.
The Coronation of Alexander (434,480 views), one of the most visited images uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by the National Library of Wales.
The open knowledge movement is ideological and, in some quarters, purist in its approach. The idealism sometimes has to be tempered. “I’m idealistic but pragmatic,” Lucy says. “I’ve worked in the cultural sector for 20 years and I understand what a struggle it is to keep going financially. When I’m talking to people from the museums and gallery sectors about keeping information behind paywalls I am sympathetic, as sometimes a paywall might genuinely represent a vital income stream. So, from my point of view, coming from the cultural sector, I can see where some of the reluctance to engage might come from. To overcome this, I might ask them to look at whether they are keeping information behind a paywall by default. Often it’s actually costing them more money to market and administrate than the paywall is generating. We’re trying to work with people to find ways to increase public engagement with their collections and their content, which means addressing and working through concerns about financial implications as well as cultural and technical barriers, it is about partnership and collaboration.”
Medium or message
The work of Wikimedia is not for the sake of growing Wikipedia. “One of the misunderstandings is the conflation of Wikipedia the website and Wikimedia, which is working to increase open knowledge,” Lucy says. “Wikipedia is a website and Wikimedia is a global movement of organisations and people, the biggest organisation in that context is the Wikimedia Foundation in the US. Wikimedia UK is a separate registered charity. Obviously, we work with Wikipedia, so it’s technology driven in terms of the platforms, but it’s about working primarily with the cultural and educational sectors, as well as other organisations and content holders. “It really straddles those different sectors which is a great thing in terms of the opportunities it affords us but quite hard when you’re trying to describe neatly what it is.” For now, Wikipedia is the best advocate and route into the movement. “Wikipedia is the most well-known and it’s usually the route into a relationship with an institution. Generally, people will know Wikipedia but often the most interesting project for them might not be Wikipedia, it might be Wikidata for example.”
There are many ways to help individuals and institutions to see the benefits of open knowledge. One is to identify a champion within an institution: “You need people who are passionate and recognise the potential, who are either senior themselves or who are influential enough to get senior level buy-in.”
But there is no fixed formula for attracting new collaborators, she says: “We’re starting a project with the University of Exeter that has come about because they were at a Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities (DCDC) conference. I gave a talk there in November and now we’re developing a programme off the back of that. It’s about catching people’s imagination and changing their levels of perception of what Wikipedia is and how their institution can genuinely benefit from open knowledge, and work with us to create change.”
What’s in it for me?
Time and other resources are tight for most information professionals. Any distraction from the day job might prompt the question, “what’s in it for me and my employer?” There are lots of answers but some effort will be required and some ¬engagement with the community. The obvious starting point is getting an institution’s details and some of its content on Wikipedia to see if this boosts online visibility. “However well visited your library or website may be”, Lucy says, “it doesn’t have the sort of visitors that Wikipedia has.” The analytics for page visits are easily accessible and can help build a case for a library’s value. The National Library of Wales put 15,000 images on Wikimedia Commons between 2015 and 2017 which now get around 15 million page views per month between them.
Siege and destruction of Jerusalem, one of the most visited images uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by the National Library of Wales: (267,184 views)
From the start the process requires learning about how Wikipedia works and involving the local community in projects – more work, but it will build computer literacy, digital skills, critical thinking and increase access to knowledge.
Larger institutions might choose to appoint a Wikimedian in Residence – the first was in 2010 at the British Museum. These often create more opportunities at a local level. For example Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service uploaded content on Wikidata (working with Wikimedia UK’s Wales programme manager). It’s now possible to find monuments in Wales, within a ten-mile radius of your location, that don’t already have a Wikipedia page. Cue projects to fill that gap.
Another Welsh project in the offing is a list of the coordinates of as many libraries in as many sectors as possible across Wales. CILIP Cymru Wales, with the help of members of SCL Wales, Whelf, Awhiles and Further Education Librarians have been building a data set (collecting information already available online) to map library branch locations in Wales. It’s part of a joint advocacy project in response to the Welsh Government’s Prosperity for All strategy. By sharing the data collected with ¬Wikipedia it will become open wiki data and available for anyone to use for their own purposes – if they search for libraries in Wales – and update or add to. One sector that has not been added yet is school library provision, which would be a valuable resource. Trickle down can also trickle up. Following a collaboration with Wikimedia, improving Wikipedia is now part of the ¬Catalan Public Library Network’s overarching strategy for ¬preserving local heritage and knowledge.
The 1Lib1Ref campaign is an annual campaign which first took place in ¬January 2016, to celebrate Wikipedia’s 15th birthday, and now takes place every year. Under the tag line of “Imagine a world where every librarian added one more reference to Wikipedia” – the page also says “Libraries are fundamental allies to the mission of Wikipedia”. To information professionals, Lucy says: “Active involvement in Wikipedia or Wikimedia should be important on a personal level, just to recognise their own roles in contributing to what is the most influential source of information in the world.” As well as the stated aim of 1Lib1Ref – to get librarians to add references and improve the reliability of sources – Lucy said: “As a movement and as an organisation we are trying to diversify the editor base, and one of the issues is around gender. There’s a big gender gap – it’s a heavily-female dominated workforce, so it’s bringing in that gender perspective.
“We probably won’t get perfect data on how many people have participated and how many references were added but that’s secondary to the fact that we are engaging people. Even if they don’t edit or add a reference this year they might go on to do so next year or to hold an event within their library and get in touch to see if we can get a volunteer trainer for them. It’s fairly slow burn but it’s about year-on-year trying to build on engagement with this specific target audience of librarians, which is ongoing.”
Profession at risk?
Wikimedia and Wikipedia are shining examples of where
volunteerism has worked. For information professionals, this could spark fears that their paid roles are at risk. “I understand the fear but I don’t think it’s justified,” Lucy says. “I think the more information people have access to, the more they need information professionals who can help them to navigate and understand that and improve information literacy. Essentially the remit of Wikimedia UK and Wikipedia is very similar to a library in terms of increasing access to knowledge, but Wikipedia can’t exist without libraries, can’t exist without references, can’t exist without sources. That’s why a lot of our events and editathons are held within libraries, because then you have access to that rich information that exists in books. “It’s not like Uber and Black Cabs where people only take a finite number of taxi rides, people’s appetite for knowledge is arguably infinite. And therefore I think they can only be complimentary. But I do understand that it can look like there’s this sort of free service that is of course free at the point of use, but it has overheads and costs.” She said: “The solution, I think, is finding ways for us as a charity to work with the sector effectively. The best way forward to ensure that we are increasing audience engagement and we’re increasing information and digital literacy, by working together and that by working together we can be greater than the sum of our parts.
“That’s easy for me to say, not being a librarian, but for example I don’t think that the current issues with public libraries has anything to do with the fact that there’s all this digital information. It’s about ideologically-driven austerity measures, so I think we need to work together to make the case that having access to information and being able to understand it and navigate it and properly interpret it is increasingly important.”
Putting the UK into Wikimedia
Different nations have different attitudes to information. Lucy says: “We are the national chapter for the global movement, but we are an independent charity in the UK. We have the freedom and autonomy to follow the strategy we want, and therefore it is localised. We can work with an institution here – a university, a small archive, in a way that it wouldn’t be logistically possible for the Foundation to do from San ¬Francisco.” With people on the ground, Lucy says, “you get the cultural shorthand from working and being in a place. For example, we have a member of staff in Wales and we’re just recruiting one in Scotland because it benefits us to have a person who understands the difference between the Scottish cultural scene and barriers and legislation. Whilst it’s really important that we’re part of a global movement, it’s also essential that we operate on a regional, national and local basis.”
Another friendly feature of Wikimedia UK is that it does not have its head in the clouds when talking to small organisations. It has a nine-strong team that faces the same problems as any other cultural charity. It receives an annual grant from the Wikimedia Foundation, the rest it raises itself. The fact that it is associated with Wikimedia does not make it immune to digital pressures: “We have the Wikimedia UK website which is not Wikipedia. It can be an effort to keep that up to date, which is probably much the same for lots of your readers’ websites. So I understand how we’re all trying to integrate our ¬communications and our digital communications with social media. As a charity we face exactly the same challenges.”
Lucy said: “As more people have come in from more diverse backgrounds, it has broadened the range of views within the movement. One of the big issues currently there is androcentrism – that it’s a white male western perspective – and there are a lot of stories that are absent from Wikipedia and the other projects and therefore a lot of knowledge that isn’t being shared or being accessed. As an example, the Arabic Wikipedia has around 0.5 million articles, many of which are ‘stubs’ [short introductory articles] while the English language Wikipedia has over 5.5 million; so there’s a massive discrepancy there. There are not 10 times as many English speakers as there are Arabic speakers.
She said: “We do know there is systemic bias and that the editor body does not represent our diverse society. We need to, and we are, trying to increase representation and diversity in terms of editors. “However, I think it would be almost impossible for a special interest group to create structural bias at scale on Wikipedia, they just wouldn’t be able to do it given the way Wikipedia works, with its large community of volunteer editors.”
As the volume of content and the number of editors increase, so the likelihood of bias diminishes. Once derided as an unreliable source, the increased size and vigilance of the Wikipedia community has seen this reverse, with established institutions including the British Museum, British Library, Wellcome Library and the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh now engaging in Wikimedia projects.