Wikipedia + Libraries

Empower communities to learn from and share reliable information

Wikipedia event during Art and Feminism program
Photo by Michael Mandiberg - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

"We all turn to Wikipedia for a quick answer. When you learn how to contribute, it’s awesome to add to the wealth of knowledge online. Editing empowers you."

Tiffany Bailey
Manager of the Fine Arts Division, Dallas Public Library

Public library staff know that many people in their communities look for information online before going to the library. However, public library staff may not realize that they can directly improve online information sources with their knowledge and the authoritative sources they manage. The Wikipedia + Libraries: Better Together project, run by OCLC’s WebJunction, seeks to help library staff get the skills they need to contribute better references and a deeper understanding to articles on Wikipedia, where information seekers begin their searches.

Although some people still bemoan the quality of Wikipedia as a reference source, Susan Barnum, the Public Services Librarian at El Paso Public Library, decided to take up the challenge. “I realized that I could do something about the quality of Wikipedia, so I did: I started to contribute more,” she said. Susan has focused her efforts on articles about Chicana artists since learning that only 15% of the biographies on Wikipedia were about women. “I’ve written articles about women whom you can’t Google,” she said. “There’s nothing on them on the web, but they have many offline references.” Her articles have helped raise awareness of these women, many of whom have roots in her own community. And this work aligns neatly with her mission as a public librarian. “It’s important to me to contribute to a collective body of knowledge that’s accessible to all.”

Other public libraries have already started hosting workshops to teach others in their community how to evaluate and edit Wikipedia articles. Staff at Dallas Public Library, for example, recently partnered with other local organizations to host an Art+Feminism Wikipedia editing event. “We [as library staff] are committed to providing quality services, empowering members of our community, and enhancing the information available on the internet,” explained Tiffany Bailey, Manager of the Fine Arts Division. “Doing outreach with Wikipedia brought all of that together for us.” The event encouraged participants to start small with computer and internet basic skills. “We wanted to create an atmosphere where people could feel confident,” she said. “The fact that [participants] were so engaged was a sign that there is a need for this kind of programming.”

"Your patrons are all online searching for information. As repositories of our local histories, public libraries are particularly well positioned to contribute their unique collections."

Susan Barnum, Public Services Librarian, El Paso Public Library

Similarly, San Francisco Public Library recently hosted The Queerest Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon, which attracted a wide range of ages and skill sets, from older subject-matter experts to younger computer super-users. As Photo Curator Christina Moretta explained, “It’s critical to do programs that connect the public to reliable sources of information that are free.” Teen Services Librarian Andrea Davis said that the Edit-a-Thon’s value lies in “connecting one public source to another public source—bringing them together.” For this event, Christina and Andrea brought in cartloads of library resources for participants to reference as they learned to add citations and improve Wikipedia articles. For the next event, Christina hopes to upload public domain digital photos from the library’s special collections to Wikimedia Commons in advance and invite participants to embed them in relevant articles. “What’s fun with Wikipedia is brainstorming what you can do with it,” Christina said.

“There needs to be a place for Wikipedia in the library,” said Paul Flagg, a former staff member at Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library who now works as a Media Specialist in a public school. “Wikipedia can definitely be understood as a 21st-century cultural heritage institution,” he explained. “However, to be representative of the rich cultural heritages of the world, there’s more to be done to expand Wikipedia.” Even before hosting similar editing events at his library, Paul understood the value Wikipedia offers both to the library and to information seekers. “Librarians can edit and guide people who are struggling with research to go to Wikipedia for that baseline information,” he said. “As librarians, it is our job to connect library users with the information that they seek.”

A key initiative of the Wikipedia + Libraries project is a nine-week online training program to teach public library staff how to improve Wikipedia, use it in their libraries as a resource, raise libraries’ visibility, and empower their colleagues and community to contribute knowledge. Tiffany said that her own library’s editing event “supported the library’s mission to be a bridge between resources and our community, and to empower our community to ask questions and learn to do something new.” By connecting public libraries and Wikipedia, staff can connect people to reliable knowledge within their own communities.

Map showing locations of El Paso Public Library, Dallas Public Library, San Francisco Public Library, and Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library

Project at a glance

  • Funded through a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation after winning the 2016 News Challenge with the answer to "How might libraries serve 21st-century information needs?"
  • Run by WebJunction staff, an OCLC Research program officer, and an OCLC Wikipedian-in-Residence, who is supported in part by a grant from the Wikimedia Foundation
  • Goal is to strengthen ties between public libraries and Wikipedia to connect people to reliable information and empower community members to build knowledge
Officers of Women's League, Newport, R.I.
"Officers of Women's League, Newport, R.I." Susan Barnum uploaded this public domain image for the Women’s Club Movement Wikipedia article. Credit: Public domain, Library of Congress Catalog.

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