There are two generally-accepted beliefs about Wikipedia. The first is one of exposure: that it's always there in the first page of search results on anything that the online encyclopedia features. The second is one of trust: that there is a shared belief that it is the "font of all knowledge" - that, to most, it is a place where truth and knowledge exist, and that false information is teased out by its community.
The combination of these two points clearly make Wikipedia a viable and useful tool for the recording and documentation of factual information, something that many public institutions do very well. It was, therefore, perhaps only a matter of time that public organisations such as museums and libraries stepped up their interest in wikis and in Wikipedia as a way to open up their often huge body of knowledge and research to a wider audience. Wikipedia has dubbed this body GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) and there is now a GLAM Steering Committee at Wikimedia UK, supported by board member Ashley van Haeften, known as Fae. The importance of Wikipedia to cultural organisations cannot, according to Fae, be underestimated: "The cultural institutions I have talked to over the past year are highly aware that if they are serious about public outreach and access, then Wikipedia cannot be ignored. The value it offers such institutions sometimes comes as a surprise."
For these organisations, Fae sees some basic advantages. Perhaps one of the most powerful from the organisation's perspective is that articles of public interest will be maintained at no cost to the organisation itself, and that its main website remains the key source due to links back from the Wiki article. Given that both the institution's website and the Wikipedia entry are likely to appear on the first page of search results, this will be a help rather than a hindrance, on the presupposition that the institutional Wikipedia page will be kept up-to-date and is a reasonable reflection of it and its activities. Fae sees these benefits to be of particular relevance to curators, suggesting that Wikipedia can also act as a source of reference and background information for exhibitions and collections – something that may exist as a concise version of the institution's own web content, and therefore complimentary rather than in competition.
Although there are opportunities for institutions in using Wikipedia, it is Wikipedia which can act as something of a battering ram for opening up latent information and knowledge to the public. Fae's work with the Derby Museum is a case in point; articles were published about the museum's artefacts to Wikipedia, in over 100 languages. This exercise was perhaps unique to Wikipedia and maybe only a handful of other websites: an entirely voluntary, collective effort to build outreach and access that by any other approach would have been too time-consuming and expensive, if not practically impossible.
The Derby Museum's curator also allowed the voluntary group to add QR codes to an exhibition, enabling links to related Wikipedia pages. While this is a well-understood application of QR technology, the subtlety makes it rather unique: because of the number of languages that the group was working with, the visitor's phone would display a Wikipedia page from the QR code, in the language that the phone was set to. This body of diverse and rich content has, in Fae's view, given exposure to the museum to an audience that may never be able to physically visit the museum, while enriching the experience for those that do.
It's Fae's opinion that Wikipedia needs to be adopted by more institutions at a depth demonstrated by Derby Museum, and that others should follow Derby's example. "I recently went to the Tate Modern exhibition of works by Miró. As it has free wifi, I was able to check the mobile version of the Wikipedia article, while looking at the paintings. The small printed guide gave the basics, but to read about the life of the artist and the controversy over the most expensive Miró ever sold and realise I was standing in front of the same painting, bought for $17 million, gave the exhibition more immediacy and interest."
Following Derby's example has been the British Library, which ran a public "Edit-a-thon" to ensure that the institution's information and resources were both thorough and current. A key finding was that there was nothing on the British Library's philatelic collection. Fae and one of the BL's curators worked through a strategy which led to a full article on the collection – subsequently rated as a "Good article" by the community.
It was the British Museum that went further, by hosting a "Wikimedian in Residence" to build institutional commitment; within months, the museum had a core group of volunteers, running events and workshops on working with Wikipedia within an institutional context. The result is that the Museum now has a series of "featured" articles (the highest quality possible on Wikipedia), with one in particular, the Hoxne Hoard, attracting 57,000 visitors in one day due to its featuring on the Wikipedia homepage. It was the success of this collective and sustained endeavour that led Fae to join the board of Wikimedia UK, where his responsibility is to support institutions like these, with further events planned for the Museum, later in the year. The Wikilounge, part of Web Weekend @ the V&A, offers something a little more relaxing than the these highly visible and active approaches: a group of Wikipedia volunteers will talk through why the platform is important to the museum, any how the public can participate in building more, and more powerful content. A notable experiment on the day will be to create an article in many different languages with remote translators on Skype and IRC; a basis for a larger multi-lingual event, again planned for later in the year.
While all of this is likely to be inviting to many, Fae makes abundantly clear that the production of new content is not something that organisations should rely on Wikipedia's community to sort out; there has to be an exchange of goodwill. "I do not believe that organisations can sit back and expect that 'the crowd' will sort themselves out and write lovely articles about their collections or research without any support or prompting. At the same time achieving this can be as simple as providing space, wifi and perhaps a free lunch or a behind-the-scenes tour. This is an easy way of establishing a small enthusiastic e-volunteer network that can work with curators in order to ensure a fair representation of an organisation, its history and collections, with a set of articles that are likely to appeal to the general public." A suggested strategy is to nominate permanent staff to create and manage an institution's Wikipedia presence, perhaps as an extension of existing online duties. As long as the article is written in an independent, factual fashion and has undergone independent review in the community, it is the quickest way to build out from what may be a current situation of one or two pages. As is pretty obvious in terms of digital resourcing, more people are required for bigger and more sustained approaches, with the well-known example of Cancer Research UK being one where a bigger bang was not just desirable, but necessary – in order to improve general knowledge of cancer, and where to find help. The charity ran internal workshops to empower their own volunteer network to develop and edit articles, ensuring that this "trusted network" did not just have a knowledge of how to manage cancer information on Wikipedia, but that the charity made it very clear that its volunteers had a level of knowledge that suggested a greater degree of trust on the part of the reader. Without these internal workshops, critical information may have been enshrouded in inaccuracies or self-publicity.
Publicity, in the eyes of Wikipedia, is a product of gained knowledge and expertise. "If you want next month's events to be publicised, then Wikipedia is not much help. However, if you help to create a good-quality series of articles about notable topics, then volunteers can help out with website links for source material, latest updates, or references to an archive catalogue, which may attract researchers and local enthusiasts to future events." The biggest issue, Fae argues, is a loss of institutional control: even when the article is about an organisation, they have no greater or lesser control over the content than anyone else. Successful co-development is based on engagement and a sense of freedom, although sometimes people get in the way, so to speak. "We believe that Wikipedia should remain free, neutral, open: a civil space, and not be bound up in complex rules. The later two are more of an aspiration. Wikipedia has lots and lots of policies and guidelines which sometimes - often? - get used instead of common sense." Perhaps the second most notorious situation that occurs is when an organisation, public or commercial, simply don't know how to approach Wikipedia, and aims to control its presence, unable to understand the platform's separation of content and control: "... they have a go and run into immediate warnings about conflict of interest, or just have the article they tried to create quickly deleted and then complain or ask for help."
It's clear that Wikipedia is moving out of its well-established position of being an online encyclopedia, to being something that is much more about personal engagement: "real" people helping others out to co-create and co-develop new content for the benefit of others, which in turn creates a virtuous circle. How other institutions approach Wikipedia, in virtual and physical space, may end up becoming increasingly critical to their visibility, marketing strategies, and ultimately, how many people walk through the front door.
Ashley van Haeften (Fae) is a Director of Wikimedia UK.
Web Weekend @ the V&A runs from Friday 15 July – Sunday 17 July 2011 at the V&A in South Kensington, London. For further information, visit the Web Weekend website.