What can we glean from OCLC’s experience with library staff learning Wikipedia?

The reading room at the Boston Public Library

The reading room at the Boston Public Library Tony Webster - CC BY 2.0

In June 2016, a “Knight News Challenge” award for innovation in the library sector went to OCLC, the global nonprofit library cooperative, to strengthen ties between Wikipedia and libraries. Now a year in, the OCLC Wikipedia + Libraries: Better Together project has had a major impact on Wikipedia literacy among librarians in the United States, having introduced hundreds of staff to Wikipedia’s policies and community practices. Here’s more about this innovative approach to Wikipedia outreach and library work, and what you can learn from it for “GLAM”—galleries, libraries, archives, and museums—education projects in your own communities.


At the center of the 18-month project is WebJunction, OCLC’s library learning program, to research and deliver Wikipedia awareness and educational opportunities, including a nine-week online professional development course for US public library staff. To support the project, OCLC brought on a Wikipedian-in-residence: Monika Sengul-Jones, an advocate for Wikipedia literacy in education and a communication and media studies scholar working fulltime with the Seattle-based WebJunction team. She facilitates project research and outreach, including the design and delivery of the course.

With Sengul-Jones’s support, the project has successfully introduced more than six hundred library staff to the inner workings of Wikipedia with webinars and a nine-week live online course that took place during the fall of 2017. In the coming months, the project will continue to support libraries as they put plans of engagement into action, and will be hosting Citations Needed, a free live webinar open to all on January 10, 2018, on the eve of the #1lib1ref campaign.

With the scale and impact of this program in the United States, we asked the Wikimedia Foundation’s Alex Stinson to investigate: what can we glean from OCLC’s approach to library staff learning Wikipedia? His conversation with Sengul-Jones is below.

Photo via Monika Sengul-Jones, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Alex: How does it feel to be done with the Webjunction course? It seems to have gone well: every report out I get from you and the team, and volunteers who help with the course, seems to be quite exciting.

Monika: Thank you, Alex! It has been an honor to join the OCLC Wikipedia + Libraries project team to strengthen ties between Wikipedia and libraries. Indeed, the nine-week course just wrapped up and it feels like we’ve accomplished something big—and that it’s not over—I feel momentum. What’s most notable is the palpable excitement and shift in perception among library staff. At enrollment, more than seventy percent of the attendees reported they’d never edited Wikipedia and did not consider the encyclopedia relevant to their library. Amongst the library staff we’ve engaged in this project, we’ve seen a mind shift. Now staff are saying ‘yeah, I now know why I should care, I’m excited and knowledgeable enough to tell my colleagues and patrons why they should care, too.’ What’s also made the recent course experience really special is supporting library staff from many different locations, with 299 enrollees from 45 states and 7 countries. We focused on outreach to public libraries,.. In the US, 80% of pubic libraries are small and rural.

Alex: I am incredibly excited that the OCLC WebJunction course focused on working with public libraries. As you probably already know, some of the Wikimedia movement’s most successful at-scale projects have been with public libraries (the work in Catalonia, for example), yet when we put the IFLA Public Library Opportunity Paper together, we had a hard time finding examples beyond a small handful of highly visible “case studies”. Did you discover any exciting approaches to “doing Wikipedia in public libraries” when preparing the project? Do you feel like the class generated any new ideas?

Monika: Yes! Public libraries! So full of ideas!

Let me illustrate some of these ideas with a story from our sixth live session. We had a quick in-class activity, participants brainstormed titles for Wikipedia-related events at the library. They came up with a couple dozen creative titles, like:

  • Wikipedia is a Verb and a Noun: Learn How and Why
  • Wiki Your Tree: How to Use Wikipedia for Genealogy
  • Fantastic Facts and Where to Find Them, On and Offline
  • Get Smart: Wikipedia for Research
  • Gnomes vs Elves: Wikipedia Holiday Throwdown

Don’t these sound like fun? The titles capture participants’ interests with Wikipedia, too. Information literacy. Staff awareness of what’s new with Wikipedia. Genealogy. Local history and culture. Wikipedia for research. And to explain the last suggestion, participants took to the title of “gnome” editor, which is what veteran Wikipedians have sometimes called editors who make little improvements.

In terms of examples, the ball is in their court, so to speak. The final assignment was to design a plan of action. Some early adopters have already put plans into action, (which I wrote about here). In brief, librarians at Morton-James Public Library in Nebraska City, Nebraska, have begun to use Wikipedia to engender digital literacy skills and research discovery in outreach workshops they run with students. A few libraries have hosted edit-a-thons and panel discussions, and others had conversation starters with their directors and staff. That is just a glimpse of what’s to come—I think the GLAM-Wiki community is in for a real treat. In the coming months we’ll be supporting and sharing the implementation of these plans.

Alex: There is an odd power dynamic that “doing outreach with libraries” creates, especially when librarians are under increased pressure to expand their services without additional resources. This is especially true if you are not a librarian and you are working for an organization that benefits a lot from libraries (like Wikipedia or OCLC). We both have academic researcher backgrounds that make us familiar with library work, but I always feel a bit on the edge of the library profession during outreach because I have never been “in the trenches”.  How did you navigate these tensions? What did you learn about working with libraries when you are not a librarian?

Monika: Yes, thanks for asking. While I am not a librarian, I joined a project team of library professionals at OCLC. Sharon Streams (@thinktower), the director of WebJunction, and Merrilee Proffitt (@MerrileeIAm), senior program officer and a longtime champion of Wikipedia, designed an incredible project that I was lucky to join last March.

The first months of the project were spent listening and learning. For me, that was by listening to my team and public library staff. The OCLC WebJunction team—which has nearly twenty years of experience in delivering online ongoing professional education to library staff—assured me that if you approach public library staff with a thoughtful request for information, staff are generous with their answers and want to help you learn. Sure enough, I found it easy to connect because library staff were eager to have their voices heard! I did two dozen phone interviews, went to my public library to observe daily life, had virtual chats with libraries across the US, joined public library listservs, viewed recordings of panels and webinars, and read books and articles written by library professionals about their work and the history of public libraries.

This kind of listening was fruitful because once we understood existing perceptions of Wikipedia by library staff, we could then consider why the online encyclopedia might matter to their missions and visions. The project design and delivery ultimately emerged from this research, and so there was a long lead time for course design. As I mentioned earlier, we discovered that more than seventy percent of library staff reported they had never edited, but libraries provide many services and use sophisticated technical tools. I also learned that library staff try out things, but with Wikipedia, many had not realized the changes that Wikipedia has gone through over the past decade. So our program emerged as a cultural introduction to Wikipedia for libraries to help them understand why it might matter to them now.

Alex: I really like that approach: really deeply listening and engaging with the community that you want to connect with. It seems like that research really worked out well: You profiled librarians about how they use Wikipedia in a blog series. What stood out?  Can you share a few of their stories?

Monika: That’s right. The Librarians Who Wikipedia interview series on WebJunction began as a way to start connecting the dots between library staff across the US who were already engaged in Wikipedia, and to show others who were eager to learn how the alignment between libraries and Wikipedia works. It’s been a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach, turning research into meaningful awareness. And it’s continuing; we will be publishing more stories in the months to come.

Each story is eye-opening! I’ll share a few: Susan Barnum, a public service librarian at El Paso Public Library in Texas, has edited Wikipedia to answer patron reference questions. Someone asked for references about the history of Chihuahuita, a border neighborhood in El Paso. She saw there was no Wikipedia article, so she shared the references she compiled by editing Wikipedia. Doing this, she reached more than 1,500 (and counting) additional information seekers who viewed the page. Susan’s done much more on Wikipedia—but this one example encapsulates her visionary way of using Wikipedia to serve her community and beyond.

In Pennsylvania, Allison Frick, a youth services librarian, hosted a one-hour basic information literacy program highlighting Wikipedia while providing basic internet literacy instruction. In Florida, Paul Flagg, a newly minted MLIS graduate on staff at Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library in Florida, was concerned with misrepresentation and inequalities online and coordinated Wiki-Equality editing events at his library.

Alex: What’s been the response?

Library staff appreciate hearing from their peers, definitely. We’ve gotten enthusiastic feedback about the articles and then about the ten library staff who made guest presentations during webinars. Our live guest presenters were incredible and I must recognize them, in order of appearance: Bob Kosovsky, János McGhie, Susan Barnum, Kerry Raymond, Jacinta Sutton, Rajene Hardeman, and Sherry Antoine.

Participants also learned from the thoughtfulness and savviness of fifteen Wikimedians who accepted our invitation to join the training program as Wikipedia guides. Allow me to give a special shout out to, for their incredible participation in enabling human-to-human connections, in alphabetical order: Avery Jensen, Alexandre Hocquet, Gamaliel, JacintaJS, Jackie Koerner, Kerry Raymond, Librarygurl, Megalibrarygirl, Megs, Merrilee, PersnicketyPaul, Rachelwex, slowking4, Sodapopinski7, and Vizzylane.  Both the guides and guest presenters engaged in live sessions and course spaces over our nine weeks (and beyond) together. Feedback so far leads me to believe the learning has been multidirectional.

Alex: One of the overwhelmingly common experiences I have when doing outreach with librarians is the absolute delight and surprise that comes from library communities when they realize the values and practices Wikimedians have adopted for shepherding knowledge are very similar to theirs. I’m wondering: What kinds of topics resonated the most with the groups you worked with?

Monika: Yes! This exactly. Library staff have been delighted to discover there’s a community behind Wikipedia, and to actually get to know some of them as presenters and guides. That human-to-human connection is key, and helped to bring alive the ideal that Wikimedia is made out of a community committed to expanding free access to knowledge, they could then connect how the community aligns with libraries.

Hearing about the editorial processes and policies was interesting for library staff. Many appreciated the spirit of the five pillars.

“The five pillars…. are awesome [and] remind me a lot of what I love about working in the public library,” wrote a librarian from a small library. “Free information, no opinions, suggestions when offered and lots of people who love to help people find information.”

Wikipedians may be too close to realize how many unusual and exciting aspects of this otherwise ubiquitous online platform there are, which sometimes makes it hard to see the humans who make it work. For me it’s been exciting to facilitate library staff’s ah-ha moments about the community and the vision of Wikimedia in a structured learning environment.

Alex: What was the most bizarre/interesting/funny thing that happened during the development/deployment of the course?

Monika: You know, librarians are supportive and sharp. They have “superior evaluation skills,” as one Wikipedian who participated in the course as a guide observed. And as I mentioned, the favored pillar is four: “Treat others with civility and respect.” More of this! Participants asked right away, how do you tag other editors and let them know they’ve done something great. They really took to “thanking,” sharing wiki-love and appreciate barnstars. The experience with them has been so affirming.

Alex: What areas of our community did you see as “surprises” which we need to communicate better as Wikimedians?

Monika: It shouldn’t come as a surprise, in fact, that library staff are smart and they’re accustomed to learning new informational systems. So what might surprise other Wikimedians is that it’s not for lack of skills that library staff haven’t participated in the Wikipedia project. Rather, somewhere along the line they just never got engaged as Wikipedia has grown. So we’re giving them the cultural know-how, the reason, and confidence to trust Wikipedia and believe they can and should participate—be BOLD—by demonstrating what’s in it for them and their communities, and building human-to-human connections. This approach is a win-win for Wikimedia and public libraries.

One of our assignments was to observe the Teahouse. Let me share two comments:

“In following the fourth pillar of Wikipedia, more than one Teahouse Wikipedian conversed with the obviously frustrated new editor in a calm and rational manner. This was impressive and encouraging to me as a new editor.”

“I am most impressed by the time that [Teahouse] editors put into their thoughtful responses, many making sure that the question is properly answered and the solution or information offered is understood. I am starting to believe that Wikipedians are all really reference librarians at heart.”

This is huge! When librarians see themselves in Wikipedians, they have trust in the community, confidence that they can decide for themselves what to do next, and know where to go for help.

That said, in terms of user experience, a few have gotten turned around navigating wiki-markup on Talk and community pages. Let’s implement VE on all Wikimedia pages—not just articles—and make it easier to communicate and share wiki-love.

Alex: What visualization or illustration best represents the work that you have been doing with the course?

Monika: I love the WebJunction live online webinar experience. Picture this: hundreds of people at hundreds of libraries across the US online at the same time. This is scaled adult learning at its best—it’s a classroom, a town hall, and a radio show! Our live sessions (which were recorded and will be shared with course materials on WebJunction under CC BY-SA 4.0 in spring 2018), consist of beautiful slides, pdf learner guides to contextualize the content, animated instructors and guest presenters, a closed captioner transforming voices into text, and an active chat channel for conversation during the presentations—text is flying. It’s exciting. Then, we use annotation tools periodically during the session to enhance interactivity. Annotation is the ability to use, on screen and all together, checkmarks, pointers, and highlighters on slides.

Image by Monika Sengul-Jones, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Check out this screenshot taken after participants were assigned to make their first edits—make a copy edit and add a citation. Consider this the equivalent of a group photo, it’s neat.

Alex: It seems like the class provided a really powerful and engaging environment for learning about the Wikimedia community. Conversely, what can Wikipedia learn from public libraries?

Monika: Thanks for asking this question. First I want to recognize that the Wikimedia community, and Wikipedia, has already been learning from libraries because librarians are a part of the Wikimedia community! This project is building on the connections and lessons learned from the GLAM-Wiki community, Art + Feminism, AfroCROWD, Wikimedia New York City, Wikimedia D.C., the Wikipedia Library, and the new Wikipedia Library User Group. I’m also building on my own experiences and lessons learned working with the Wiki Education Foundation and feminist academics.

Looking ahead, I think continuing to support these connections between libraries and Wikimedians will help them become sustainable, built on a foundation of trust and affinity. And it’s happening! A sign to me of strengthened ties is the fact that Dr. Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress and Katherine Maher, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation were both keynote speakers at OCLC’s Americas Regional Council meeting on Oct. 30-31. Their keynotes were complementary. However, in terms of Wikimedians learning from libraries, what stood out to me was really how young Wikimedia is compared to public libraries, which Katherine Maher described. And I say young even though Wikipedia is one of the early internet projects that has endured, and matured, in the messy rise of a digital networked and commercial economy. Dr. Hayden gave us a longer view of the history of libraries, which date back hundreds of years. “We are the original search engines,” she said. She also motioned to the significance of the position she holds, Librarian of Congress, as an African American woman: “I am a descendent of people who were forbidden to read,” she said.

What a tribute Dr. Hayden’s presentation was to the long history of work that libraries have done—and continue to do—to ensure equitable access to information for all in the face of deep systemic injustices to too many lives. I think it’s important for Wikimedians to recognize that the successful, broad institutionalization of public libraries that we have today in the United States—where there are more public libraries than Starbucks or McDonald’s restaurants—is the outcome of sweat, advocacy, and professionalization accomplished by library staff and devoted champions of literacy for democracy. And libraries have had to redress deeply rooted, complicated historic and geographical legacies of violence, oppression and inequity—including inaccessible and segregated libraries—to achieve this.

Redress isn’t finished. Public libraries today are reinventing their professional practices to ensure access for all. Libraries provide many services—social work, for instance—because a substantial portion of the people that public libraries serve in the United States face chronic life insecurities. Public libraries partner with community agencies to address, for example, the nationwide opioid crisis. Libraries train staff on the use of naloxone to reverse overdoses. Libraries are also kitchens, feeding hungry children. I’ve heard of librarians running literacy programs in public housing, at barber shops and farmers markets—radical reinventions of the work of an information professional.

I am in awe of the ingenuity of public libraries. As we, Wikimedians, look to a future where the best of the Wikimedia movement can root more deeply and meaningfully in our networked civic life, let’s listen and learn from public libraries. I’d also invite Wikimedians to consider public libraries as co-collaborators and role models as we look forward to the exciting challenge of realizing the 2030 strategic direction for a future of knowledge as service and knowledge equity.

AS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

MSJ: View or participate live in a WebJunction webinar! You can experience the excitement of library life with WebJunction. That might sound cheesy, but it’s true. WebJunction is able to bring a large cross-section of library staff from across the country together to learn side-by-side. This is diversity that can be missing at larger professional conferences, which can be expensive or difficult to attend. Webinars are free, accessible, and open to all (browse the webinar calendar here). Wikimedians may find themselves delighted by the ways that libraries thoughtfully address topics that matter to our community, such as civility. WebJunction’s most popular course is “Dealing with Difficult Patrons” (to view this and other free webinars, you will need to create a free WebJunction account first).

Wikimedians interested in learning more from libraries are warmly invited to attend our next Wikipedia webinar, Citations Needed: Build Your Wikipedia Skills While Building the World’s Encyclopedia. This free webinar will build on our existing momentum and support library staff interested in adding citations to Wikipedia; the event will be on January 10, 2018 at 3pm EST,  with Emily Jack from UNC Chapel Hill Libraries joining me as a guest presenter to kick off participation in the Wikipedia Library’s #1lib1ref campaign from Jan. 15 – Feb. 3, 2018.

I also wanted to mention that we share project updates—such as reminders about this webinar—in the Wikipedia + Libraries monthly newsletter, and post in the GLAM-Wiki newsletter too.

A final comment: What has become clear to me in the course of joining this project is that humans have no shortage of information about and of our worlds. But equitable access to information, it’s an enduring problem. As Kathleen de la Peña McCook writes on page 66 in her textbook on public librarianship, equity is both “simple in concept and complex in implementation.” But by working together, Wikimedians and libraries are stronger and better equipped to address the complexities of access, and motivated by a shared value that “knowledge belongs to all of us.”

Thanks again Alex for the interview, the support of GLAM-Wiki, and the opportunity to share more details about this project’s approach to outreach and activities.

For more information on this topic, please see:

Interview by Alex Stinson, Strategist, Community Engagement
Wikimedia Foundation


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