US gathering sees speeches from Andrew Lih, AfroCrowd, and the Archivist of the United States
I’ve been a pseudonymous Wikipedia editor for over a decade, but at the recent WikiConference USA at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington DC, I made my first public appearance as a Wikipedian. Once a hobby I kept entirely separate from my professional life, like tinkering with a train set in the garage, it has now become an integral part of my professional career and research. Like other librarians, archivists, and information professionals and the institutions they work for, I’ve realized that Wikipedia and its associated projects are key resources for disseminating and preserving information, knowledge, and cultural heritages.
The conference opened with remarks from Pamela Wright, NARA’s chief innovation officer, who outlined how NARA has been collaborating with Wikipedia in that effort—an endeavor that dates back to Wikipedia’s decennial celebration in 2011. The work has included hosting more than a dozen Wikipedia-related events and uploading more than a hundred thousand files to Commons, including most of the images and files on Wikipedia. In 2011, NARA hired the first Wikipedian in residence in the US federal government, Dominic Byrd-McDevitt. Wikipedians in residence are experienced Wikipedia editors embedded in museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions to help them engage with the encyclopedia.
The keynote speech was delivered by Andrew Lih. Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, has become a sort of spokesperson for the encyclopedia, explaining it and its importance to the outside world. Professor Lih plays something of the same unofficial role for academia and the Wikipedia community itself. His rousing speech, “What Wikipedia must do”, was a call to action for editors in eight important areas:
- Improving usability in a time of rapidly growing mobile traffic. Currently visits from mobile devices are 33% of Wikipedia traffic and are estimated to grow to about 50% by 2025.
- Improving social interaction on the encyclopedia itself, possibly by following models from social media.
- Addressing the gender gap and increasing diversity, areas in which Wikipedia struggles because it is dominated by technically adept white males from the global north. One telling comment from Twitter Lih cited, about the resulting problems, said that editing the encyclopedia is like “sending women into a cultural buzzsaw”.
- Engaging experts more. Experts have traditionally been estranged from the encyclopedia for various reasons, and Lih discussed promising new ways to potentially bring their expertise to bear on Wikipedia, some of which I hope to explore in my own research.
- Reimagining ways in which Wikimedians contribute original content, which is what Lih called “what we do best”. He noted that the number of Wikimedians on various projects could generate more original content in one month than the National Geographic Society does in an entire year.
- Improving access to multimedia content on Wikipedia and related projects.
- Forging more productive partnerships with other organizations and institutions.
- Improving relationships between different groups of stakeholders, such as the Wikimedia community and the Foundation, and between veteran and new editors.
Some participants later remarked that Lih’s presentation offered insufficient ways to tackle these problems, but as he had already said in the speech: “that’s really up to you as a community to figure this out.”
After lunch, Dr. John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), discussed how the US federal government's "science partners" want to engage with Wikipedia, especially after noticing how many of the incoming hits to the CDC's website come from Wikipedia. He noted that Wikipedia is "a major channel for transparency and dissemination of government information and science".
David Ferriero, archivist of the United States, followed with a discussion of the importance of working with Wikipedia, noting that his involvement with online encyclopedias dates back to the abortive Interpedia project back in the early 90s. Ferriero appears to have a talent for delivering readily quotable statements, and this was no exception. He said: "What better way of engaging the American people than engaging the Wikipedia community to get the word out."
A panel presentation followed—including Wright, Byrd-McDevitt, Andrew Wilson, and Darren Cole—discussing NARA's collaborations with Wikipedia, open access, and information dissemination, and its other related work. Exciting projects such as the Innovation Hub and the new API for NARA's catalog take the DIY ethos and open-access commitment of Wikipedia and apply them to traditional archival tasks. Citizen scanning of archival documents and people's ability to add tags and transcriptions to items in the online catalog—these will be ways NARA, like Wikipedia, will be able to use crowdsourcing to provide more access to and a richer context for its holdings.
The next morning I emerged from the Metro stop on Pennsylvania Avenue to the sounds of a brass and drum band playing "Poison" by Bel Biv DeVoe. It was the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, and the sidewalks and streets were filled with vibrant celebration and activity. Inside NARA, the day's keynote was delivered by Alice Backer of AfroCrowd; this is a new organization devoted to improving the representation and participation of Africans and African-Americans in Wikipedia and other open-access projects. It was important that their vital work was on center stage at this conference, and not scheduled during the concurrent sessions as an optional "diversity" session that most conference participants might skip.
Highlighting the example of the documentary Garifuna in Peril, and topics related to the Garifuna—a Central American language and ethnic group of African and indigenous origin—Backer noted the problems encountered by editors mentored by AfroCrowd when attempting to write about topics unfamiliar to the white male-dominated editor base of Wikipedia. This problem is hardly limited to AfroCrowd: it happens with many different groups of new editors and topic areas. Many in the audience offered examples of their own experiences with these difficulties, as I did myself. The audience liked my suggestion that instead of running programs like AfroCrowd events as just one-way educational experiences where new editors are educated about Wikipedia, we need to make those experiences two-way, where established Wikipedia editors are also informed about the significance of topics that groups like AfroCrowd are trying to document. How exactly to do this remains a challenge.
Another significant challenge to Wikipedia was discussed during the final day's keynote. Danielle Citron, law professor at the University of Maryland, spoke on "Hate crimes in cyberspace", the subject of her book last year from Harvard University Press. Online harassment is an issue that Wikipedia has been increasingly unable to manage. Following Citron's presentation, many audience members shared their opinions and experiences with harassment on Wikipedia and looked to her for potential solutions. From the audience, librarian Megan Wacha posted on Twitter "I do love that we're all so engaged with this issue that we are way over time and no one cares". That's certainly true, but taking that passion and employing it to solve this issue will require hard choices by the community and perhaps some reassessment of our key values and approaches to Wikipedia.
Between all of these addresses were the concurrent sessions where Wikipedians, including me, presented workshops, presentations, and panels. It isn't fair to highlight particular panels or presentations just because I was able to experience them, when there were so many Wikipedians talking about their work on topics ranging from education to metadata to pomological watercolors to dance. Online, unfortunately, the atmosphere can become heated, negative, and sometimes even toxic, but at this conference I met scores of Wikipedians who were engaged, energized, and passionate about Wikipedia.