Libraries Tap into Crowd Power

Wikipedians “smartsource” at their libraries to improve online content

November 1, 2011

Illustration: Lauren Lampasone

Wikipedia wants libraries to join the “crowdsource.”

The notion that the research efforts of a group of people with varying opinions, when aggregated, can result in better information than a specific expert could come up with—aka “crowdsourcing”—has been around for some time. It’s one of the ideas on which the 10-year-old Wikipedia is based. So it seemed only natural when one of the most-consulted websites in the world recently posted a ubiquitous banner stating WIKIPEDIA LOVES LIBRARIES. What has resulted is nationwide “editathons”—editing marathons organized by active Wikipedia users to expand and add depth to the website’s content on a wide range of cultural and historical topics.

Dozens of editathons are taking place across the country, loosely based around Open Access Week in late October. The events have spanned from Atlanta to Boulder, Seattle, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.

“We want to bring Wikipedians to the library,” Richard Knipel, president of the Wikimedia New York City chapter, told American Libraries. The concept was created to supplement the sourcing of Wikipedia’s information, he said. “Ideally we want our searches to be drawn from the whole body of knowledge in the world. Unfortunately, a large portion is still drawn from online available sources, and we want to broaden that.”

Wikipedia has long faced criticism from scholars and others about flawed information in its articles. A study at Carnegie Mellon University (PDF file) two years ago found that one problem with crowdsourcing is that a small number of highly active users can skew how the information is packaged. One solution? A shift toward “smartsourcing.” In other words, instead of soliciting for help more widely, a group (such as Wikipedia) can now sharpen its focus on what it expects from outsiders (online articles on a specific category) and who it is reaching out to for help (librarians and patrons with access to well-sourced information).

In New York, this harnessing of collective wisdom was on display on October 22 at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where the public was invited to contribute to Wikipedia’s articles on musical theater. The six-hour event, which NYPL called “Wikipedia! The Musical!” attracted dozens of people who made use of the library’s special collections to add and update entries to the open-source site. At any given moment between noon and 6 p.m., an average of 20 people plugged away at their laptops and researched materials from the library’s closed-stacks collection of newspaper clippings, videotapes, manuscripts, correspondence, sheet music, stage designs, programs, posters, and photographs.

Doug Reside, digital curator for the performing arts at NYPL, helped put the event together and told AL that the mix of attendees ranged from college students to retirees. Many of them have used Wikipedia, he said, but not all of them had known how to contribute to it. “The increased literacy was valuable. Many of them linked [Wikipedia articles] to the library, bringing greater exposure to the library.” Additionally, Reside said, patrons—especially students—learned about the extent of NYPL’s collection and became better informed about the mechanics of using the closed stacks, such as how to submit call slips: Staff reported the number submitted that day doubled.

“What was really exciting to see was the energy,” he said. “Most people think of the library as a quiet space, but here it was in an active mode of research that you don’t often expect. It can be an individual study center, but it can also be a place where people can create collaboratively.”

At the Tom of Finland Foundation Library in Los Angeles on October 30, the “Queering Wikipedia Editathon” drew community activists, library school students, and members of the foundation to create and update LGBT-related articles. Katie Herzog, director of the Molesworth Institute, helped put the event together and told AL that the meeting inspired dialogue about gay history and generated an increased interest in activism for citizen-created content. “Everyone left feeling like it was the first of many to come,” she said.

June 2011 editathon at the British Library.The Wikipedia Loves Libraries series was modeled after this past summer’s Great American Wiknic (a day in which Wikipedia users met up in various cities nationwide), the WikiProject GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) collaboration effort, and the June 2011 editathon at the British Library, where the public gathered at the library’s English and Drama department and were given access to its resources.

Of course, crowdsourcing research isn’t new to the library community. Earlier this year, NYPL invited the public to help transcribe its restaurant menu collection, one of the largest in the world. And Maine-based LibraryThing—an online site where individuals can share book catalogs—has existed since 2005. The National Archives in D.C. has also partnered with Wikipedia to digitize its documents and promote their use.

Chicago Public Library held its editathon on October 29. The research topic there was “Barack Obama: the Chicago Years” and included information about President Obama’s early life and career, as well as information about his state, U.S. Senate, and presidential campaigns and elections. The Chicago event also sought volunteers to add and edit articles about the city’s architecture and theater. (While contributors are not required to write solely on an approved topic, organizers suggest keeping the focus on a specific theme.)

Tony Vernon, volunteer Chicago director for Wikipedia who organized the event, believes collaborating with libraries is a natural fit for Wikipedians. “Libraries want people to learn and have quality information, and this is a tool to enable people to use that information more efficiently.”

Knipel of Wikipedia’s New York chapter said he would like the Wikipedia Loves Libraries series to become an annual event that reaches out to more library communities, including international ones.

If other editathons take place in the coming years, NYPL’s Reside said he and his colleagues would “definitely” participate. “It exposes our collection to the people who didn’t know we were here,” he said. “It’s a great vision for libraries.”


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