Wikipedia: Oh, How Times Have Changed

Last week the  Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library became the first presidential library to appoint a Wikipedian-in-residence. For those who haven’t heard of the phenomenon, LIS institutions and museums have been hiring “Wikipedians” over the last few years to do a number of things, including:  editing/updating the Wikipedia pages that pertain to their subject, uploading digital and digitized content to Wikimedia Commons, and fostering connections between their institutions and interested online users.

An article about the Ford Library Wikipedian, Michael Barera, a master’s student in the University of Michigan School of Information, emphasizes that Barera’s duties go beyond the editing of articles: “Barera’s task is to help Wikipedia users tap into the resources of the Ford Library and Museum. ‘It’s about creating a resource that other people can use as they see fit,’ Barera said. ‘There’s a lot of great stuff, a lot of great resources, a lot of great information.'”


Michael Barera, Wikipedian-in-residence, hard at work.
Michael Barera, Wikipedian-in-residence, hard at work at the Ford Presidential Library.

While some may find the idea of a Wikipedian-in-residence ridiculous, I think this represents a huge effort on the part of the Ford Library to stay current, expand the use of its collections, and adopt a more user-centered outreach philosophy.

I also think that the appointment of Wikipedians at various heritage institutions represents a major shift in the way that they view themselves, their users, and online scholarship/education. Ten years ago when I was in high school we were discouraged from using Wikipedia at all; it was not to be trusted or, heaven forbid, cited. Five years ago when I was an undergraduate the tune had changed a bit; Wikipedia was a fine place to get started and acquire some general knowledge, but it should only survey as a springboard towards real, legitimate sources. Last semester in my Instruction Services class, our professor urged us to encourage students/patrons to use Wikipedia for general/base knowledge, to think critically about the accuracy/bias of the entries, and to mine the Reference sections of Wikipedia pages for citable sources about their topics.

I think this progression is encouraging and certainly represents the efforts of many progressive librarians who realize that as a profession we need to seek out collaborative projects, partnerships, and opportunities to ensure our relevance, worth, and sustainability.


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