What happens when you give a Wikipedia editor a research library?

The Wikipedia Library Team (owl included) reflects on its new Visiting Scholars Program -- and the new content and collaborations it makes possible. Logo by Heather Walls, CC-BY-SA-3.0

The Wikipedia Library‘s core mission is to provide Wikipedians with the best possible access to research, to help them write better Wikipedia content. When we started this project, we quickly realized that universities, with their extensive collections and journal subscriptions, offered one of the best opportunities for Wikipedians to access scholarly materials.

This led to the creation of our Wikipedia Visiting Scholar program: a university gives a top Wikipedia editor free and full access to the university library’s entire online content—and the Wikipedia editor, who is unpaid and not on campus, then creates and improves Wikipedia articles in a subject area of interest to the institution.

Several universities have stepped up to pilot Wikipedians Visiting Scholars: George Mason University, Montana State University, University of California at Riverside, and Rutgers University. This experiment was a great success, with each institution producing at least a dozen well-researched articles, many of which have undergone community review as Featured or Good articles. In this report, we would like to share some of the great content and outcomes created by this Wikipedia Visiting Scholars program and our partner institutions.

Improving quality on Wikipedia

The main goal of the Visiting Scholars program is to equip Wikipedia editors with the highest quality resources, so that they can write the most comprehensive Wikipedia articles alongside the help of expert researchers. Montana State University Visiting Scholar Mike Cline, who focused his writing on the environment and Montana’s natural history, described the impact university library access had on his work:

“First, access to these resources helps me write better content, in many cases content that would otherwise not be included in Wikipedia. The journal resources via JSTOR and other sources are invaluable in fleshing out content in articles. Second, having access to these resources allows me to step into various content debates and issues and help other editors resolve them with better sources and more accurate content. An example of that was on William F. Raynolds, my access to more scholarly works helped resolve sourcing issues within that article during the Featured Article Review process.”

Montana State resources have become part of Mike’s Wikipedia routine, “for every article I work on”.

Babe Ruth in his New York Yankees uniform, in 1920. Visiting Scholar Wehwalt expanded the article with the help of George Mason University Library Resources. Photo by United States Library of Congress. Public Domain

Wehwalt, Wikipedia Visiting Scholar at George Mason University, used his access to develop an impressive 10 Featured Articles in the area of American history. He writes:

“I’m somewhat envious of the massive academic databases college students have at their disposal these days, given how useful having access to that material is. Since I started at the beginning of April, I’ve used GMU materials to get six articles to Featured Article status where I did most of the writing: Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, William H. Seward, Babe Ruth, Judah P. Benjamin, John Hay, and Hay’s only novel, w:The Bread-Winners. In addition, there have been collaborations with Designate, John Tyler and Franklin Pierce and others, where works from GMU again came in handy.”

Two other articles that Wehwalt improved, Horace Greeley and Benjamin Tillman, have become featured articles since he first shared his experiences with us! These articles aren’t always ones other editors will write about: “Due to his racist views, Tillman is difficult to write about, and not a fun read. But our readers aren’t coming just to find information on nice people.”

At Rutgers University, we had two visiting scholars, and they saw their work as an opportunity to collaborate with the academic community to help fill diversity gaps on Wikipedia. As Staticshakedown noted, when we asked her about her joint appointment with WeijiBaikeBianji:

“We were both chosen because our goals and interests for the project aligned with the goals of the librarians and graduate students. For this initiative we narrowed the theme into four topics to work on in Wikipedia: Women in Jazz, Newark Jazz history, Asian immigrant experience in New Jersey, and Cultural competence in health care. So far, the collaboration has expanded over twenty-five articles and categories, and created eighteen new articles.”

Library access strengthened the ability for all of our contributors to do what they do best: create content on Wikipedia, content that will become the most-viewed research starting point for hundreds of thousands of readers.

Striking up a conversation

Part of our goal with the Visiting Scholars program is to familiarize Universities Libraries with the practices of Wikipedia and to provide an accessible member of Wikipedia’s community on those campuses. Visiting Scholars Chris Troutman and Wehwalt found themselves in conversations with library staff at UC Riverside and George Mason, helping the library or professors become more familiar with Wikipedia’s research and writing practices. Mike Cline learned at Montana State University that there are plenty of opportunities to interact with faculty letting them begin to understand Wikipedia’s important role in communicating their knowledge:

“I have also had the opportunity to consult with MSU library staff and faculty when they have desired to create or contribute to Wikipedia articles. In most cases, such faculty and staff have little or no practical knowledge of how Wikipedia really works. I have enjoyed bringing my experience on such issues and notability, reliable sourcing and original research to their attention and helping them devise the best approach in making their contributions to Wikipedia. In several cases, I’ve helped them by reviewing their work and making appropriate adjustments to drafts in user spaces and in articles themselves. In all cases, the staff and faculty are appreciative of the availability of such consultative services.”

Working closely with the library staff at Montana State helped Mike Cline create an article about the Library’s unique holding a trout and salmon archive in addition to a wide range of people and topics written about with a top notch regional collection and the guidance of the experts who curate it. “My only wish, personally, is that they would take even greater advantage of my [consulting] services,” Cline said.

The stairs leading up to Rutgers University Art Library, one of the libraries that our Visiting Scholars had access to. Photo by Tom Sulcer, CC0.

Visiting Scholars at Rutgers University also seized further opportunities to participate in the campus environment. Staticshakedown shared:

“This was both Rutgers University’s first collaboration with Wikipedians, as well as our first collaboration of this type with an organization. The initiative from Rutgers’s side was directed by head librarian Grace Agnew, who has been accessible, friendly, and resourceful throughout the whole exchange. As part of this initiative, twelve members from the Rutgers University team have learned more about how to add content to Wikipedia. Aside from teaching librarians and students about Wikipedia, I have also been the student. Graduate students Yingting and Yu-Hung jointly held a video conference with me on how to access the library resources of Rutgers remotely and how to use Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) to investigate healthcare-related subjects.”


Solving a critical problem

For all of our Visiting Scholars, this has been a great opportunity to fill in major gaps found throughout the encyclopedia and to ensure that the best scholarly materials—not just information that happen to be available on the open web—are leveraged to create public knowledge. This is an important mission, as Wehwalt points out:

“There was a time when Wikipedia was still working to get articles in place on a lot of significant subjects. Well, it has them now, and the number of articles continue to grow. But there’s also a need to improve what we have. Many scholarly articles are hidden behind paywalls for most Wikipedia editors without an academic connection. Visiting Scholar positions are helping us create better content using those sources. Everyone consults Wikipedia, and the need to improve the quality of what we give them through a larger network of experts and scholarly access.”

Wikipedia Visiting Scholars offers an opportunity for the best keepers of knowledge—libraries—and the best sharer of knowledge—Wikipedia—to collaborate in disseminating knowledge to the public. We are proud to be able to facilitate these opportunities and deeply impressed by the contributions of this year’s prolific Visiting Scholars.

Join us

Would your research library like to host a Wikipedia Visiting Scholar? Let us know here.

To learn more about the program, visit the Wikipedia Visiting Scholars information page.

Alex Stinson, Project Manager, The Wikipedia Library
Jake Orlowitz, Project Lead, The Wikipedia Library

The Wikipedia Library is a nonprofit project funded by the Wikimedia Foundation.


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