Last week, a bit of controversy erupted surrounding Wikipedia, after claims surfaced of contributors with paid consultancies editing with a conflict of interest after having been paid to use their Wikipedia savvy to promote their clients. While it is not my intention to get into the particulars of that case here—feel free to read more on your own—or to begin a discussion about the reliability of Wikipedia, one important result of the controversy is that there has been a fair amount of discussion on Wikipedia and in the media about external organizations partnering with Wikipedia (as we are) and the concept of Wikipedians in Residence (of which I am one).
I think this is a good opportunity to discuss how the National Archives approaches the sticky issue of conflict of interest when it comes to our own partnership with Wikipedia. First, as a bit of background, we have been building a relationship with Wikipedia for more than a year now. We believe that the community of volunteers on Wikipedia share many of our values and that the project is an exciting vehicle for making NARA content more accessible. Work with Wikipedia is in line with the National Archives’ initiative to increase its web and social media presence to reach users where they currently are. In October 2011 alone, the total page views of all Wikipedia articles with images of National Archives documents was over 70 million (roughly 6 times the annual traffic to archives.gov). We do also value the work of Wikipedia’s editors, who are helping to improve the information in articles, transcribe our documents, and otherwise contribute to our work, but I am emphasizing the value of Wikipedia’s visibility in order to be as frank as possible. Much like marketers and public relations firms, NARA (like other cultural institutions) cares about working with Wikipedia primarily because of the amount of traffic its pages get. As David Ferriero recently put it, “The Archives is involved with Wikipedia because that’s where the people are.”
It is important for us to act in ways that will bring more exposure to our work, and that makes Wikipedia an important tool for us. Obviously, this approach can be problematic when it comes to advertisers trying to influence the content of articles, and, it is true, even universities and museums have been known to try to make more favorable articles for themselves. Wikipedians are rightly wary of spammers and reputation peddlers, who would subvert not only the content of the encyclopedia, but also undermine public trust in Wikipedia—which is the most ubiquitous information source in the world.
The difference is this: we rely on Wikipedia to help us in our archival work, not to promote NARA itself. NARA’s work on Wikipedia is not a project of our public affairs department, but of the Open Government division. In the information age, that archival work includes innovating new methods for democratizing access to public records. If that means contributing a historically significant image from our collections of Joan Baez at the March on Washington to her Wikipedia article, that serves both our mission of preserving and making accessible our nation’s records as well as Wikipedia’s mission of freely sharing the sum of all knowledge. That also means that staff (primarily myself) may edit Wikipedia articles in the course of their work for NARA. Hopefully the difference between contributing to the Joan Baez article and editing an article on one of the presidential libraries is plain; the latter is a conflict of interest, while the former is actually a topic where we are involved as subject matter experts. That is not to say that it wouldn’t be possible for a cultural institution to use Wikipedia for self-promotion; however, we consciously choose to foster a Wikipedia–NARA relationship that is mutually beneficial, rather than self-interested.
Cultural institutions and Wikipedia may be natural allies when it comes to increasing access to information, but the principles of ethical Wikipedia participation are not necessarily obvious. Several months ago, we developed internal guidelines for staff participating on Wikipedia, which lay out high-level principles, like this one: “NARA seeks to always engage with Wikipedia as a full, participating member of the online community rather than owning any corner of it.” There are also more practical instructions: “National Archives staff members participate in Wikipedia on an equal footing with all other editors using individual, rather than departmental, accounts.” Each individual editor is instructed to disclose their affiliation with NARA on their Wikipedia account pages before editing, as well. And they are warned to avoid making substantive changes to Wikipedia articles about the organization. If we have complaints about how we are portrayed, we will contact the Wikipedia community through article discussion pages or another forum and trust in the editorial process to resolve the issue. NARA’s official policy document on Rules of Behavior for Using Web 2.0 and Social Media Web Sites also applies to staff interactions on Wikipedia.
I am acutely aware that the success of our Wikipedia project, and of the broader effort to integrate Wikipedia with cultural institutions, hinges on maintaining the goodwill of the community of Wikipedia editors. I think it is a good idea for all institutions working with Wikipedia to develop guidelines for staff, and publish them. It’s important for staff to have guidance when they begin a new venture like Wikipedia, but it’s also important to assure Wikipedia that we intend to participate in their project in good faith and on their terms. Accordingly, I have posted the full text of our guidelines on Wikipedia, and I welcome feedback on them here or on Wikipedia. This is not an official policy as of yet, though we are in the process of developing a Wikipedia policy to go along with our other social media policies and these guidelines are the current draft.