The views expressed in this interview are those of the author and interviewee; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section. The Signpost welcomes proposals for such interviews and op-eds at our opinion desk.
Ask librarians what they think about Wikipedia and you might get some interesting answers. Some will throw up their hands about the laziness of the Google generation and their overdependence on Wikipedia. Some will fatalistically describe the excellent collections at their libraries that are being ignored in favour of shallow internet resources. Some see it as the "competition". And some will tell you it's the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Wikipedia and libraries are in the same business. Both institutions want to make as much knowledge available to as many people as possible, free of charge. Despite these shared aims, the two groups have remained largely distant. Of course, there are librarians who are Wikimedians, and there are libraries that have worked with Wikipedia's GLAM projects. There's Wikipedia Loves Libraries. Wikipedians have developed tools and links to help integrate library resources, but these remain few and underused. Libraries contain vast stores of knowledge, and many want to meet Wikipedia halfway, somehow. How can Wikipedia better bridge the gap to that knowledge?
Current Wikipedia–library interfaces
One barrier to integration is Wikipedia's ad hoc categorization system. In its early days, Wikipedia eschewed the standard organisation schemes in use by libraries, such as the Library of Congress' subject headings. Libraries assign various identifiers to their items; Wikipedia just shoots for a unique title, and maybe a disambiguation term in brackets. The categories come later, and are added (or not added) at the whim of editors.
Librarians have been exploring different ways to link up their collections with corresponding Wikipedia articles. Efforts by the University of Washington and the University of Houston focused on adding external links to relevant collections pages. Some have sought out GLAM partnerships with experienced editors to better integrate their resources into Wikipedia.
A new platform
A screenshot of the template display
John Mark Ockerbloom (User:JohnMarkOckerbloom), a digital library architect and planner at the University of Pennsylvania, has devised a different platform, called "Forward to Libraries". This service uses the Wikipedia article title as a subject or keyword search in the user's library of choice, using the library's online public access catalog, or OPAC. One can choose a library from a sub-page, or go directly to a library of choice by allowing browser cookies. Ockerbloom discussed his ideas in a blog post last week. Boing Boing contributor, fiction author and Wikipedian Cory Doctorow was impressed, calling the template "a fabulous proposal for creating research synergies between libraries and Wikipedia". Ockerbloom's new template is at Template:Library resources box. For an example of its use on a live page, see the "Further reading" section of Louisa May Alcott.
The Signpost interviewed Ockerbloom last week via email:
How did the idea of the template come about?
I talk a little about that in my blog post. The seed of the idea came last fall, when I heard yet another conversation lamenting patrons going to Google first instead of the library. Around the same time I was noticing that lots of Google searches on specific topics were pulling up Wikipedia content prominently, both in links to articles and in contextual sidebars. I thought "Gee, wouldn't it be great if you could also see what your own library had on a topic as easily as that?"
I knew that Wikipedia had been working on various library-related projects for a while, so I thought maybe I could figure out how to get them to put something special in Wikipedia articles to take them to a user's local library resources. Eventually I realized that a lot of those "special" parts of a Wikipedia article were constructed from templates, and that templates were something that any Wikipedia user could create.
So I coded up some that hooked up to a library referral service that I originally wrote for The Online Books Page, but generalized so I could use it for Wikipedia referrals as well.
You mention the "Google-Wikipedia-References" tendency in younger researchers in your blog. What worries you about the GWR search trend?
Well, for quick consultations, GWR can often work rather well. I've used that research pattern myself from time to time: I'll have a question about a subject, Google it, see a Wikipedia article about that topic, and then find it citing or linking a source that I recognize as authoritative on my question. I'll follow the link, check it out, and use the facts I find there. While I'm not ultimately relying on Wikipedia for the answer, Wikipedia is a useful resource to help me find and confirm answer from a source I consider reliable.
GWR is more worrisome, though, when people fall into it by default, don't really know what reliable sources exist to answer a question, and can't easily tell whether links and references on a given Wikipedia article are the most helpful and comprehensive, or are skewed towards biased approaches or ill-informed points of view. But if it's easy to pick out some links or references that you can be pretty sure will give you well-rounded, well-informed understanding of a subject—then Wikipedia can be a very useful starting point for more in-depth research.
That's one of the things I had in mind when creating my library link templates. Many libraries are well-regarded for the great information resources they have in their collections, and the help that librarians can give in guiding researchers in these collections. I want to make it as easy as possible for people looking for information in Wikipedia to find resources in the libraries they use and trust the most.
How does a library link up with the FTL service?
I want to make it as easy as possible for people looking for information in Wikipedia to find resources in the libraries they use and trust the most.
If they're not already in my data files—I have 138 registered at this writing—there's a form you can fill out to be included as a destination library for the service. If the library is using a reasonably standard catalog or discovery system with a known format for incoming search links, they usually get added within the next business day or two.
Here's the current list, with a link to the form for suggesting more.
Once a library is in the system, users who want that as their preferred library for Wikipedia links can choose it from the list at the above URL. This will put a cookie in their browser that will make FTL route to that library when they click on "resources in your library" links. I'm also working with a few institutions so that users of their local networks, if they haven't chosen a different library, will get automatically routed to the local institution's library without needing to get a cookie first. (This is still a limited experimental feature, though.)
Do you think the Wikipedia movement is indicative of an eventual total digitization of knowledge?
I don't think we'll ever see a total digitization of all knowledge, much less the completely free availability of such knowledge digitally. But I do think that Wikipedia plays an important role in the democratization of access to knowledge. And I think that libraries do too, in somewhat different ways. So I'd like to ensure that each supports the other in spreading useful knowledge among people.
One of the things I really like about Wikipedia, and the templates I've created, is how they make it possible for collective action to greatly multiply the reach of knowledge contribution. I announced my templates just last week, and people have only started to use them. But when you have various people put them on a few hundred articles, and you've made over 100 libraries reachable via the templates, that already effectively produces tens of thousands of links from Wikipedia to particular libraries on particular subjects. I couldn't have hoped to produce that many Wikipedia links myself in any reasonable time, but the power of the Wikipedia templating system, and the scale and interest of the Wikipedia editor community make that possible in very little time. I'm very grateful for that.
Templates and visual clutter
Templates that create "box" style displays on pages are not universally accepted among editors. Many find them aesthetically unpleasing, and debate their utility. Templates can also increase the load times of pages, disproportionally affecting those on poor connections. If there are too many in an article, the reader has to endure a "template ghetto" at the bottom of the page. As of writing, the Library resources box template hasn't been subjected to wide community scrutiny, although it has already attracted interest at its talk page. It remains to be seen how this idea will evolve, or whether it will gain support among Wikipedians.
There is no one way for a library to integrate its resources with Wikipedia. The community has not, at this point, prioritized these kind of relationships. One thing is certain, though: libraries want to work with Wikipedia. Will we meet them in the middle?
^Elder, Danielle; R. Niccole Westbrook, Michele Reilly (2012). "Wikipedia Lover, Not A Hater: Harnessing Wikipedia To Increase The Discoverability Of Library Resources". Journal Of Web Librarianship6 (1): 32–44.Cite uses deprecated parameters (help)