Introduction to Wikipedia for Librarians: 24th July 2019

Last month the Scotland Programme Coordinator for Wikimedia UK, Dr Sara Thomas, came along to the MacKenzie Building in Edinburgh to talk to members of the SLLG about Wikimedia. Most of us had no idea about the breadth and depth of their portfolio – for example did you know that Wikipedia is only one of fifteen different chapters of the Wikimedia Foundation? Sara briefly introduced us to all of them, including WikiBooks, WikiSource and even WikiSpecies, explaining the aims and features of each. She talked broadly about the aim of the foundation – empowering and engaging people around the world to develop educational content which is open and freely available to anyone with an internet connection – and talked enthusiastically about the huge benefits to open source information, specifically about the wonder of shared knowledge and hundreds of thousands of people contributing to help each other learn and record information collaboratively.

The session was based around convincing us that librarians could and should be contributing to Wikipedia to help make it as reliable and accurate as possible. As professional information finders, we are brilliantly placed to add citations and edit articles for accuracy in line with Wikipedia’s standards:

  • It’s an encyclopedia
  • It has a neutral point of view
  • The content is free for anyone to use, edit and distribute
  • Respect and civility are key
  • There are no firm rules

As librarians we’re pretty keen on signposting reliable information, and many of us confessed that we didn’t think Wikipedia was that reliable particularly because of editable nature. Sara quoted some very interesting stats about how quickly erroneous information gets weeded out, and in fact the Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2010, found Wikipedia as accurate as Physician Data Query – a professionally edited database maintained by the National Cancer Institute. She also mentioned the politicization of articles – often opinions get added from left-leaning viewpoints, then they get changed to right-leaning, then eventually they even out right down the middle. Articles rise in popularity in line with current affairs (for example, Boris Johnston is right up there at the moment.) Wrestling is inexplicably always in the top results, and unfortunately Wikipedia found that searches for articles relating to the EU Referendum spiked right after the referendum took place!

Sara highlighted that really, this model of information provision shouldn’t work. The very fact that it is editable by anyone suggests that vandalism will happen, and that inaccuracies will creep in and problems will arise. However community moderation is a powerful tool. Vandalism of pages is obvious and there are editors across the world (normal internet users who care about sharing information) who volunteer their time to correct pages which feature deliberate misinformation. For example, Boris Johnston’s page was edited to include a comment on his personal character but it reverted to the original copy within a minute of changes being made.

So far, so impressive. So how can we, as librarians or lovers of information, help further the open education cause? All you need is a user account and a little bit of tuition which can either be found using guides hosted on Wikipedia itself or by going along to an in-person event. Wikipedia edit-a-thons happen often around the country where groups of volunteers get together and get editing, often focusing on one topic at a time, finding reliable sources and citations, correcting grammar, editing tone and all-round making the internet a better and more informative place to be.

Did you know the University of Edinburgh hosts a full-time, permanent Wikipedian-in-Residence post? Ewan McAndrew was named the UK Wikimedian of the Year in 2017, and the University won the award for UK Partnership of the Year 2018 as the institution which stood out as ‘the most effective Wikimedia and Open Knowledge Advocate’. As part of this work they hold regular edit-a-thons and are involved in many other projects; one of which is the Women in Red group. This initiative started when it was recognised that only about 15% of the English Wikipedia’s biographies were about women. Founded in July 2015, WiR strives to improve the figure, which has reached 17.93% as of 12 August 2019. Obviously there is a lot more work to do, so you can find out more about them on the WikiProject page and also their twitter feed (@WikiWomenInRed).

If that has whet your appetite for a wee wander into the world of Wikipedia you might also want to have a look at #1lib1ref, an event which runs annually to encourage librarians to get into adding references to articles by just making one change and seeing how easy it is! It currently runs twice a year and you can visit 1lib1ref.org for more information, or check out the hashtag #1lib1ref.

The session flew by and we left enthused, better educated and encouraged to get editing, with plans afoot for more SLLG events around Wikipedia. Watch this space for an edit-a-thon near you soon! We’d like to extend our thanks to Sara for coming to talk to us, to Katharine Calder for organising, and to the Faculty of Advocates for allowing us to use the MacKenzie Building for the event.

SarahLouise McDonald

SLLG Committee