Embracing Wikipedia?

As September approaches, teachers and professors across the country are no doubt dusting off their speeches about why Wikipedia is not an appropriate citation for a research paper.

The online encyclopedia is often criticized for inaccuracy, bias, blindspots, and more. Yet it continues to dominate the web as a quick and accessible source of information about an incredible array of topics.

So I’ve been following with interest the press coverage about this summer’s handful of Wikipedians in Residence, where museums have partnered with volunteers to help inject more good content into the online encyclopedia. Here in the Mid-Atlantic region, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C., and the National Archives in Washington, D.C. are all hosting official Wikipedians in Residence.

This 1933 Ansel Adams photo, "Court of the Patriarchs, Zion National Park," is part of a collection of Adams images commissioned by the Department of the Interior in the early 20th-century. The National Archives' Wikipedian in Residence helped to coordinate uploading of the high-resolution images to Wikimedia Commons.

Other institutions are tackling similarly intriguing outreach efforts, with the full cooperation and encouragement of Wikipedia’s parent organization, the Wikimedia Foundation. You can read more about their GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) partnerships here, and find ideas for sample projects for your own institution to initiate here.

These efforts will certainly make Wikipedia “better,” at least in terms of providing good content and encouraging professional museum staff to jump into the Wikipedia-writing and -editing fray. But it won’t solve Wikipedia’s problems overnight. Earlier this year, for instance, a New York Times article stirred up a lot of discussion about the gender balance of the encyclopedia’s contributors. Sue Gardner, the director of Wikimedia Foundation, has blogged eloquently about the media coverage as well as some of the reasons women give for the gender gap.

Nevertheless, those of us who work at cultural and historical institutions should continue to take advantage of opportunities to join the conversation. And who knows, maybe someday we’ll even be citing our own Wikipedia articles.


  1. Linda Shopes

    The late Roy Rosenzweig, founding director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, wrote about Wikipedia, arguing, if I remember correctly, that it’s not all that inaccurate on historical topics, about as accurate as a print encyclopedia. That doesn’t make it an acceptable source for research, but that’s a separate issue.

    Here’s the citation: Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History be Open Sourced? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Journal of Amerian History 93:1 (June 2006): 117-146.

  2. Sarah Stierch

    As someone who works in the GLAM industry, and as the Wikipedian in Residence at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, working with GLAMs is one way that the gender gap can attempt to be closed in Wikipedia and its related sister projects. If more programs began within cultural institutions, and more women learned about the opportunities to participate – we’d have more women contributing! Anyone who works with the GLAM world (or goes to school for museum studies and related fields) knows it’s a female dominated field. Let’s bring that knowledge and power to Wikipedia!

    Thanks for the blog!

  3. Lori Phillips

    Thank you Dana for this great summary on the present state of museum-Wikipedia partnerships. I believe this summer, and in fact this past year, have been a real turning point. As you said, there is still much to be done and overcome, but the first step is prompting educators, museum professionals, and others in the cultural sector to be more open minded in their criticisms of Wikipedia and consider it in a new light. Posts like this help to make that come about.

    You’re very right about the Gender Gap being one major concern. I address many of these same issues, and the museum world’s role in it, in this recap post about Wikimania (the Wikimedia annual conference.) http://midea.nmc.org/2011/08/wikimania-recap/

    I hope you’ll continue to join in the conversation. Thanks!

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