As part of the series of guest blog posts which describe how the higher education sector is engaging with various aspects of openness Simon Bains, the Head of Research and Learning Support and Deputy Librarian, The John Rylands University Library at University of Manchester, describes how the university library is engaging with Wikipedia.
It isn’t really news to say that the world libraries inhabit has changed almost beyond recognition in less than 20 years. Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight it will be possible to make sense of the rapid technological change and resulting shift in behaviours which combine to challenge the collections, services and perhaps the very existence of libraries. Whilst we continue to live through this information revolution, we seek to make educated guesses at the next trend, respond as we can to the very different expectations of our user communities, and develop strategies to ensure we remain relevant and sustainable in challenging times.
Several trends in particular seem to me to have made a marked contribution to the seismic landscape disruption which has followed the invention of the Web:
- Transition to online from print – published content, particularly journals, being made available online and becoming, fairly quickly, the dominant delivery channel.
- Challenges to traditional models of publishing – the rise of the open access agenda, and a general trend towards widespread support for openness, not just for published material but for underlying data, with a view to fostering sharing, reuse and linking.
- The Social Web – interaction and conversation, sharing, tagging, developing personal networks for both social and business purposes. Publication is no longer primarily about dissemination, but about sharing, reuse and conversation.
- The development of large scale global public and commercial content hubs which have grown to dominate the ways in which information is published, discovered, and shared.
These, of course, aren’t entirely independent developments, and can instead be seen as components of an evolutionary (if not revolutionary) process which has brought us to today’s information landscape. Equally, it is clear that change continues, and recent challenges to traditional scholarly publishing models serve to underline that.
The creation of one of these ‘hubs’ is the focus of this blog post. In just a few years we have seen the very rapid ascendency of Wikipedia as the preferred starting point for the sort of reference enquiry that would once have been directed to a traditionally published encyclopaedia, or a library reference desk. Despite scepticism, it has become a hugely popular resource, with evidence to support the reliability of crowd-sourced factual information, as a result of strict editing policies and zealous, perhaps over-zealous, editors.
In 2007, whilst Digital Library Manager at the National Library of Scotland I was interested to read of a project to use it to make library collections more widely known, and this encouraged me to initiate work at to do likewise. Unfortunately, the timing was not good, as concern about the credentials of editors, and allegations about attempts to influence Wikipedia entries had resulted in very careful vetting, and an aversion to anything which even hinted at advertising, even from the cultural sector. Some forays into relevant Wikipedia entries in fact resulted in my web developer’s account being shut down, almost immediately. Somewhat discouraged, we directed our effort at the more welcoming global networks, such as Flickr and YouTube.
Since then, Wikipedia seems to have adopted a more mature stance, still managing entries very carefully, but recognising that partnership with organisations with information which enriches its entries is to be welcomed rather than resisted (although a recent verbal exchange with a Wikipedia editor makes me think that this is still somewhat dependent on the outlook of individual editors). I was very interested to see the creation of the concept of the ‘Wikipedian in Residence’ at the British Museum, although my move from the National Library back into HE required a focus on other priorities.
Advertisements for the Wikipedia Lounge in the John Rylands University Library
My move to The John Ryland University Library at the University of Manchester coincided with contact from Wikimedia UK, who were now actively seeking partnerships with education institutions, recognising the mutual benefit of working with students, academics and libraries to foster more effective use of Wikipedia as a resource, to encourage content creation and editing by experts, and to link entries to relevant resources. As a Library at a major research intensive institution, with the additional responsibility of steward of an internationally important special collections Library, we were identified as a particularly valuable pilot partner. For our part, influenced very much by the sort of strategic thinking coming from organisations like OCLC, which encouraged libraries to collaborate with large information hubs, we were very enthusiastic about a partnership which would help us connect to a global network level hub, and also address the digital literacy agenda.
We have begun the engagement process, which we hope will develop into a substantial project which includes a ‘Wikipedian in Residence’. To date, we have hosted a ‘Wikipedia Lounge’, which saw academics and students meet Wikipedians to learn more about getting involved and creating content. This event attracted academics, students and librarians, and we have plans to repeat it. We are now in discussions with Wikimedia UK about setting up a 12 month pilot project which would see a Wikipedian in Residence based at the John Rylands Library, working with our curators, students and academics to expose our collections, encourage further research and learning, develop a network of Wikipedians at Manchester (we already have some), and place Wikipedia within our digital literacy strategy as a powerful tool which when used effectively can play an important part in University teaching and research. There are already a number of references to our collections in Wikipedia entries, e.g.in biographical pages such as that of the author Alison Uttley, which serve to demonstrate the very great untapped potential. Perhaps the best entry which focuses on a specific item on our collections is for the Rylands Library Papyrus P52, also known as the St John’s fragment (illustrated) which ranks as the earliest known fragment of the New Testament in any language.
Of course there are concerns about Wikipedia: it may not be reliable; it can be used as an easy substitute for comprehensive research and study; it can be difficult to change erroneous content, etc. But to ignore it or dissuade students from its use reminds me of the approach that was sometimes taken in the face of the rapid rise of Google in the late 1990s. It is a battle we are unlikely to win, and so much more could be achieved by working with, not against, the new information providers, especially when so much of what we are about has synergy: open access, collaboration, no profit motive, etc.
It is early days for us in this engagement at the moment, but I have high hopes. And I’m sure that when we introduce our Wikimedia UK contacts to the wonders of the John Rylands Library, they will find it impossible not to see the obvious potential!
Simon Bains is Head of Research and Learning Support and Deputy Librarian, The John Rylands University Library, University of Manchester. You can see his Library Website staff page or follow him on Twitter: @simonjbains