Special Report from WikiConference USA at NARA

As David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States David Ferriero, announced earlier on his blog, the National Archives was the 2015 host of WikiConference USA, the annual national conference for the Wikipedia editor community and enthusiasts. For NARA, the conference represented an opportunity to further our engagement with the Wikipedia community, which serves our mission of public access, and we found the event to be a resounding success—full of enlightening presentations and invigorating conversations with citizens dedicated, like us, to innovation and open knowledge.

WikiConference USA at the National Archives
WikiConference USA at the National Archives. (CC-BY-SA, by Gerald Shields)

The conference was held from October 9–11, and the following account comes from Robert Fernandez, a Wikipedian and Assistant Professor, Reference/Instructional Librarian at Saint Leo University’s Cannon Memorial Library. If you are interested in catching up on the conference’s proceedings, you can check out the hashtag at #WikiConUSA and watch the archived stream on NARA’s YouTube channel.

Robert Fernandez (left) speaks at WikiConference USA
Robert Fernandez (left) speaks at WikiConference USA. (CC-BY-SA, by Gerald Shields)

I’ve been a pseudonymous Wikipedia editor for over a decade, but at this weekend’s WikiConference USA at the National Archives 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 the National Archives and 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, a collaboration that dates back to Wikipedia’s decennial celebration in 2011.  That collaboration has included hosting over a dozen Wikipedia-related events and uploading over a hundred thousand files to Wikimedia Commons, the online repository for freely usable media files, 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 archives, 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—usability in a time of growing mobile traffic, improving social interaction on the encyclopedia itself, gender and diversity, expert engagement, reimagining ways in which Wikimedians contribute original content, improving access to multimedia content on Wikipedia and related projects, partnerships with other organizations and institutions, and improving relationships between different groups of stakeholders.

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” wanted to engage with Wikipedia, especially after noticing how many of the incoming hits to the CDC’s website came from Wikipedia. He noted that Wikipedia was “a major channel for transparency and dissemination of government information and science”.  The National Archives is hosting a NIOSH-led workshop on Wikipedia for federal research agencies next month.

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, saying that “What better way of engaging the American people than engaging the Wikipedia community to get the word out.

A panel presentation from the National Archives followed – including Wright, Byrd-McDevitt, Andrew Wilson, and Darren Cole – discussing the work NARA was doing with and related to Wikipedia, open access, and information dissemination.  Exciting projects like 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 the ability of people to add tags and transcriptions to items in the online catalog will be ways in which NARA, like Wikipedia, can 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, that day’s keynote was delivered by Alice Backer of AfroCrowd. AfroCrowd is a new organization devoted 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 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 that the white male-dominated editor base of Wikipedia are unfamiliar with. This problem is hardly limited to AfroCrowd and happens with many different  groups of new editors and topic areas. Many in the audience, including myself, were able to examples of their own experiences with these difficulties. The audience liked my suggestion that instead of having programs like AfroCrowd events only one-way educational experiences, where new editors are educated about Wikipedia, we needed to make the education a two-way process, 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 is dealing with, and failing to deal with, more and more in recent years.  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 some hard choices by the community and perhaps some reassessment of our key values and approaches to Wikipedia.

In between all these speeches were the concurrent sessions where Wikipedians, including myself, presented workshops, presentations, and panels.   It isn’t fair to highlight particular panels or presentations just because I was able to participate in or attend them when there were so many Wikipedians talking about their work on topics ranging from education to metadata to pomological watercolors to dance.  While online, the atmosphere can sometimes, unfortunately, become heated or negative, at this conference I met scores of Wikipedians who were engaged, energized, and passionate about Wikipedia.

3 thoughts on “Special Report from WikiConference USA at NARA

  1. Fascinating insight into what goes on in the background of Wikipedia. I hadn’t realised there was such a community of people involved. I often use Wikipedia for research purposes and I must admit that I take it for granted – the information is simply there; I do not question where it comes from. It is useful to highlight the work that goes on behind the scenes.

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