interview with Michael Barera, Ford Presidential Library’s new Wikipedian in Residence


White campaign tab with “WIN” in bold, red letters accompanied by a small red fish.

I had read with interest the articles that came out recently about the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library getting a Wikipedian in Residence. For more info, see this a short article about the library’s exhibits coordinator Bettina Cousineau talking about the library’s participation in the GLAM-Wiki Initiative (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums with Wikipedia), and a little more about the Wikipedian in Residence program.

I think this program is nifty and I was excited this time because the WiR is a Master’s student at the University of Michigan’s iSchool. I dropped him a line and asked if he wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. Here is a small Q&A (done over email) with Michael Barera about his new internship.

JW: The Ann Arbor Journal says you’ve been a Wikipedian since 2001. Is that a typo or have you been an editor there for over ten years? In any case, what first brought you to Wikipedia or the Wikimedia school of websites? What is your favorite thing about working on Wikipedia?

MB: 2001 isn’t exactly the true year that I started on Wikipedia: I found the site first in 2005, and made my first edit in 2006. 2001 is the year of the oldest photograph that I have uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, so in a way my contributions go back to 2001, although I didn’t edit Wikipedia or Commons until 2006. I was actually introduced to Wikipedia by my high school Western Civilization teacher in 2005, which is interesting because most people don’t have such an academic entry into the site: perhaps he was part of the reason why I’ve always taken it seriously.

For the first year or so, before I made my first edit, I used Wikipedia essentially as an extension of my social studies textbook: I’ve always loved how much more inclusive it is than the mainstream social studies curriculum in this country. My favorite thing about working on Wikipedia is sharing everything I’ve created or contributed with everyone in the world. We all chip in a little, and because of the CC-BY-SA and GFDL licenses, everyone gets to share and enjoy in the totality, all without ads or paywalls or subscriptions. I love the fact that it really is “the free encyclopedia”, both in the “gratis” and “libre” senses of the word.

JW: You went to UMich for your undergrad work and now you’re pursuing your Masters at the School of Information. Is this internship a natural outgrowth of what you planned to do at the iSchool or is it more of a side hobby that turned into a big deal? What are your interest areas at the iSchool?

MB: The beautiful thing is that it is both part of my career plan at SI and an outgrowth of a multi-year hobby. That’s why it is so perfect for me, because it allows me to use both my U of M bachelor’s degree (which has a concentration in History) and my knowledge and experience with Wikipedia, all in one package. In terms of my areas of interest at SI, I am specializing in Archives and Records Management (and maybe dual-specializing in Preservation of Information as well), but I’ve really enjoyed everything I’ve taken so far, from human interaction in information retrieval to Python programming to dead media. SI really is a perfect fit for me!

JW: Sort of a silly question but are you literally “in residence” meaning that you get to go work at the library? Or is it more of a virtual residency?

MB: I’m literally “in residence” at the Library four hours per week, but as you know Wikipedia can’t be confined to just one place at a certain time, so there is plenty of spill-over above and beyond these four hours. It is rather interesting to have an internship that literally bleeds into my free time, but I love editing Wikipedia, so I can’t complain!

JW: This project seems like it’s sort of a trial partnership experiment for both Wikipedia and a US cultural institution. What are you hoping will come out of this partnership in addition to the stated goals of making more of the library’s public domain holdings available via Wikipedia?

MB: Well, to be fair, a number of US cultural institutions have already had Wikipedians in Residence: the National Archives and Records Administration, the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, Consumer Reports, and the Smithsonian Institution have all beaten the Ford Presidential Library and Museum to the punch. For me, the biggest goals of my internship (in addition to the obvious desire to improve content on Wikipedia) are to foster and maintain a relationship between the Wikimedia movement and the Ford as well as to encourage content experts, like the people I work with at the Ford, to create Wikipedia accounts and to become Wikipedians themselves. I know it can be daunting at first, but there are lots of long-time users who are happy to give their help and guidance, myself included. We won’t bite the newcomers!

JW. Do you feel a little odd about being in a fishbowl with all of your Wikipedia edits and actions being visible or is this par for the course for you? What do you think is people’s largest misunderstanding about Wikipedia?

MB: Well, all of my Wikipedia edits and actions have always been visible (that’s the nature of the MediaWiki software), and while there is certainly an upsurge in media attention and awareness about the internship or me specifically, I don’t think that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people paging through my edits or watching my talkpage. On Wikipedia, I still feel like a private citizen: I think most of the media attention has been at a very basic level, and I think some of it struggles to grasp the nuances of what I am doing or even the structure of Wikipedia itself, which brings me to your last question. In terms of people’s largest misunderstanding about Wikipedia, I think it is the simple fact that we are an encyclopedia: a tertiary source without original research. We are not a blog or a forum for anyone to post whatever he or she wants to post, but rather a dedicated and thoughtful group of “collectors” trying to assemble the world’s best encyclopedia piece by piece, bit by bit.

I think we sometimes get lumped in with other social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, and while there are a few commonalities (like the fact each is made up of user-generated content), Wikipedia really is a lot more like Britannica than it is like a blog, at least in terms of the content itself and the work that goes on behind the scenes.

[these are follow-up questions from a few days after our initial exchange]

MB: I’ve always loved how much more inclusive it is than the mainstream social studies curriculum in this country.

JW: I’m with you there. Are there any particular examples that stand out to you?

MB: During my elementary, middle, and high school careers, I discovered that my history/social studies education was essentially a history of Western Europe and North America. While the curriculum has improved dramatically in terms of coverage of Native Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans in the last few decades, there is very little Latin American, Eastern European, African, Asian, or Oceanian history taught at the primary or secondary levels in this country (and just about all of it directly impacts the United States, typically in negative ways, such as Vietnam’s one cameo appearance in American history during the Vietnam War). I think the heart of this issue is the old belief that history is “national myth-making” is still alive and well in this country, at least below the post-secondary level.

On the other hand, I absolutely loved how different history is at the college level: as an undergrad at the University of Michigan, it was refreshing to take history courses covering nearly every corner of the world that both attempted to show that country’s perspective and then critique it at the same time. My modern French history (1871-present) and Soviet/Russian history classes were the best examples, and I would highly recommend my professors, Joshua Cole and Ronald Grigor Suny, to anyone: they do it the right way, and I for one wish I had more exposure to that kind of “real history” when I was younger. Long story short, Wikipedia is much more like this post-secondary, “real history” than “national myth-making”, so I always enjoyed how much more objective Wikipedia is (although not perfectly objective, of course).

JW: One of the things that has been challenging for me in Wikipedia outreach is trying to convince people that they don’t need to get someone to do the editing, that they can be bold and dive in. Do you have any particular approach to trying to get people to get comfortable making their own edits?

MB: My advice for getting people to start contributing is simple. The next time our hypothetical potential editor is on Wikipedia, I would encourage him or her to create an account and then just stay logged in while reading articles. Anytime he or she spots a small error, such as a typo or punctuation issue, he or she should just go ahead and change it. Actually, an account isn’t even needed: readers can (on most articles) make such minor corrections without an account, too. Still, this notion of starting small is the real key, in my opinion: just start with the little things and become comfortable with the editing interface (and the notion of editing a wiki itself), and eventually that new editor will feel comfortable making larger and more substantial edits. That’s how it was for me many years ago.

JW: Are there other online reference sources (crowdsourced or not) online that are your “go to” sites when you are trying to do research either for Wikipedia or your other projects?

MB: The resources I use for referencing Wikipedia articles are broad and diverse, and they range widely from topic to topic, as is to be expected. One commonality, though, is that I use a lot of newspaper and journal articles: in most cases, they are reliable secondary sources that are very good at establishing the core facts that lie at the heart of the Wikipedia article. One hint for maintaining NPOV is to try to recognize the different sources and balance them with each other. For example, on the article on the 2001 Michigan vs. Michigan State football game, I made sure to use both the U of M and MSU athletic departments’ press releases and game notes.

And, in an even better example from my work on the article Queens of Noise (The Runaways’ sophomore album from 1977), I tried to effectively balance multiple perspectives on the content, including the recollections of Jackie Fox and direct quotes about specific songs and events from Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, and Kim Fowley. Most interestingly, that article includes two separate (and contradictory) accounts of why Jett sang lead vocals instead of Currie on one of the songs, one given by Fox and the other by Currie. The key is to make it clear who is saying what where, and so like the “real history” taught in colleges and universities across the nation (and the world), the article has become an effort to show the different perspectives in conversation with each other instead of just giving one point of view (as is the case with “national myth-making”).

JW: Cheers and thanks for doing this for me.

MB: My pleasure! Thanks for the interview, and take care!

library cartoon

Public Library: Like Wikipedia only it takes four hours. [thanks rick]

WorldCat’s meme requests

The funny thing about memes is you can’t force them. I mentioned this particular issue on Twitter a little bit ago but I find WorldCat’s Meme Request [update: link suddenly broken, see comments for text. another update: the post is now back. Huh.] post to be a little sketchy-seeming.

Maybe this is because of my particular perspective of not feeling that I get a lot of value for me or my library from WorldCat. Here’s the thing with this request. If this is a legitimate and okay use of Wikipedia — to add links to WC identities to applicable pages — Wikipedia has an open API, just go build a bot and do it, on the level. If it’s not okay, and my reading of the Wikipedia guidelines seems to indicate that it may not be, trying to end-run this by faking a grassroots movement seems to not be in the best interests of either Wikipedia or WorldCat. I don’t think WorldCat is trying to be shifty or sneaky here, I just don’t think their approach is as helpful as they may think it would be.

Also, let me state for the record, that I think the WorldCat identities project is really smoking hot. However there is still a huge difference between “all libraries” and “OCLC member libraries” and I’ll continue to raise these polite objections to the willful blurring of the line between the two until the point at which WorldCat can direct me to the actual nearest copy of Jane Eyre to my house.

“authorities” and strap-on sex

On my fridge I have a photocopy of a letter that Sandy Berman sent to the Library of Congress this August suggesting that they establish dildoes as a LCSH. I got many fascinating photocopies along with it for supporting evidence. I enjoy being on Sandy’s mailing list. Today, vickiep from del.ico.us sent me a link to “strap-on sex” as a new Library of Congress subject heading. Hooray! Unfortunately, links that go into the Library of Congress Authorities searches aren’t permanent but I was able to replicate the search and find the listing for dildoes in the weekly list for September 26th. Of interest to me particularly is that the authority record for strap-on sex contains Wikipedia, Google and “LC database” as notes in the 670 field. update: Tim at LibraryThing has a post showing the record.

some end of the week short links

It’s been a busy week this week. I had eight people come to computer drop-in time on Tuesday which was a tech frenzy of PayPal and email and inserting graphics and Yahoo mail address books. I’ve had a few of these links hanging around for a while waiting to find time to write proper posts, but I figured I’ll drop them in here. I see a lot of blogging as playing hot potato with a bunch of web content. You find it, you pass it on, the next person passes it on. The more content you shift, the easier it is to quickly ascertain which things you need to save for longer perusal and which need to just get passed on for the next person. I’ve read and absorbed these and thought you might like them.

Me talking about Wikipedia again

One of the things that the 2.0 crowd needs to remember, myself included, is that by writing about all this neat stuff on our blogs we’re still just talking to an elite sliver of already-savvy people. I like to get my 2.0 talking appearing in print as much as possible, that seems to really have an effect on a whole new group of people.

When my 80+ year old neighbor called me today to say that she saw me in the newspaper talking about Wikipedia, I’m pretty sure it was the first time she’d ever said the word out loud. The article is pretty lousy to read online (I’m not sure what happend to the paragraph breaks) but I’m going to go walk down to the corner store and get a copy. Here are some of the pull quotes I’m happy with, in case you don’t want to slog through it.

Another prolific Vermont Wikipedian is Jessamyn West, 38, who works in the library at the Randolph Technical Career Center. She transformed from a Wikipedia user to a contributor two years ago, after visiting the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington. “I went to Wikipedia, and saw that their entry for Brownington didn’t include this massive stone building. I thought, I should find the information and put it on there so other people can find it and learn about it,” she explains. Since then, she says, as she scrolls through a long list of her contributions, she’s made “a couple thousand edits.” [note, it's less than I estimated]

Her mission last winter was to figure out which Vermont towns had official town Web pages, and making all those links available. Today, thanks to her efforts, visitors to Wikipedia entries on Clarendon, Bethel and dozens of other Vermont towns can link directly to the town’s Web site. West points out that because of the way search engines work, many Vermont towns may be difficult to find online. “Wikipedia understands how to structure information so it makes sense to computers as well as humans,” she explains. “By linking the town’s Web site in Wikipedia, that will make them more findable on Google.” With a degree in library science and membership in the American Library Association Council [sic], she has also contributed to entries about libraries. She’s a fan of a parody TV show called Reno 911, and watches that page, too, as well as the entry for a band she likes. Every page West edits she adds to her watch list; 10 to 15 Vermont towns get revised each day, she says. She removes any vandalism she sees. “I see a lot of kids edit Wikipedia, add their names and friends’ names to it,” she said. “It’s why I have a watch list.” The next project she’s considering: going back to the Vermont town entries and adding links to public libraries….

Jessamyn West’s view: “In library circles, sometimes, there are people who complain: ‘I found something wrong on Wikipedia.’ I wonder, ‘Did you change it?’ We are all responsible (on Wikipedia). That’s an unusual way to feel about a Web site. You are responsible if you see a mistake. Everyone should be responsible for making Wikipedia better.”

Wikipedia is wise to your antics

In the most recent Dispatches from a Public Librarian, Scott Douglas asks readers to “invent my life” on Wikipedia. By the time I checked out the Wikipedia article, which was not even linked from his essay, it had already been protected which is Wikilanguage for “we’re stopping you from editing this page until you monkeys quit messing with it.” A quick inspection of the page’s history, ah transparency, shows that the page was created by someone named Roboscott (which matches his email address) about two weeks ago and had a flurry of editing yesterday, the day the essay was published, culminating in it being protected about 24 hours ago.

on wikis

I find that ever since I edited a typo on the celebrity sex tape entry on Wikipedia (slightly nsfw), I’ve become more interested in the site. This is because Wikipedia lets you have a watchlist, a list of all the pages you’ve edited. You can then see when any of these pages have been edited by anyone else, and what they did to them. Most of the pages I’ve edited are either Vermont town pages which aren’t updated too often, or the library and ALA-related pages which are frequently updated, often by vandals or sometimes just well-meaning people who have a very specific axe to grind with the association. The watchlist becomes as addictive as an RSS feed and does lead to a lot of hyperfocus on whatever your pet topics are. I have about 300 pages on my watchlist, but 250-ish of them are Vermont towns. The celebrity sex tape page is updated every few hours most days, it’s fascinating to watch it change. Democracy in action? A bunch of nerds with too much time on their hands?

This is a feature I think many people don’t know about Wikipedia. I think there is a lot people don’t know about Wikipedia, or the way wikis work generally, just like there is a lot they don’t know about MySpace, or Flickr, or del.icio.us. Speaking of del.ico.us:

You probably read about Meredith presenting at the Wikimania conference in Boston. If not, here are her slides, and here’s a link to the audio. I certainly would have been there too if I didn’t have a scheduling conflict. I’ve been reading more about wikis lately.

One of the things I didn’t know about wikis was the original purpose behind them. Wikis are tools for creating reference works. Originally, it was the only way you could coax programmers to write documentation, a task they hated. Ward Cunningham wrote a tool to solve that problem, and the wiki was born.

This is excellent if you’re explaining what the KeyboardInput and ScreenOutput functions of your computer program does, and if you are writing encyclopedic entries for [[World War II]] or the [[Russian National Library]]. But for many smaller workgroups, wiki pages tend to get meaningless and confusing titles like [[TODO]] or [[Things to consider]] or [[Ideas from the meeting last week]]. Nobody knows what goes into which page and the only difference between the old intranet mess and the new wiki mess is that nobody has any excuse any longer for not updating and reorganizing the information. That doesn’t mean the information gets updated or reorganized. It certainly doesn’t get so by itself. It’s only the excuse that has been removed. Nowadays people admit spending three hours a day just reading their e-mail (ten years ago this seemed like wasted time, and people would be ashamed to admit it, now the shame has gone away),
but how much time can they spend just reorganizing information on their workgroup’s wiki?

wikipedia: economies of community scale, cherish individuals first

Wikipedia is all over the place lately, from the New Yorker to The Atlantic to the Colbert Report [youtube]. Interesting side note regarding scalability of Wikipedia. Major media mention of articles on Wikipedia — particularly in areas known to be frequented by tech-savvy individuals — can result in whole swaths of mentioned articles getting protected status, something that can only be conferred by an administrator. You can trace the history of the Elephant article to see that it was getting a few edits a day until just about the time that the Colbert Report aired and then it began getting several edits per hour. In fact most of the articles mentioned by Colbert are now semi-protected.

This is a dramatic difference between print and collaborative online reference-type works. The transparency of Wikipedia is both a mark in its favor in a Library 2.0ish transparency way as well as a detriment in that it keeps track of every bit of bad behavior as well as every helpful edit. An open question is whether tracking the bad with the good results in less petty vandalism (your jerkishness on display for everyone to see) or more (Wikipedia history = hall of fame for vandals). We deal with this over on MetaFilter a lot, trying to figure out what to do with people who abuse the site and what to do with their contributions.

As a side reading project, I strongly recomment taking the time to dig through Jaron Lanier’s essay DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism and article about Wikipedia and other collaborative sites from the perspective of someone who both realy understands technology and also someone who examines it with a critical eye. I read the whole thing, I suggest you read the whole thing.

The hive mind should be thought of as a tool. Empowering the collective does not empower individuals — just the reverse is true. There can be useful feedback loops set up between individuals and the hive mind, but the hive mind is too chaotic to be fed back into itself.

These are just a few ideas about how to train a potentially dangerous collective and not let it get out of the yard. When there’s a problem, you want it to bark but not bite you.

The illusion that what we already have is close to good enough, or that it is alive and will fix itself, is the most dangerous illusion of all. By avoiding that nonsense, it ought to be possible to find a humanistic and practical way to maximize value of the collective on the Web without turning ourselves into idiots. The best guiding principle is to always cherish individuals first.

Wikipedia vs. Britannica from a librarian perspective.

Good article in this month’s Searcher Magazine comparing and contrasting Wikipedia and Britannica with an eye towards castigating neither.

Let’s act like careful, reasonable people. Wikipedia is a great starting point. It’s a lesson in research methodology, a fun way to share expertise, and a groundbreaking new way of working. Its consensus model represents a shift in management styles and away from hierarchical organization. You might say that Wikipedia is Zen-like. Its ever-changing nature means that when you read it, you are completely in the moment. And its collective brain is like a conscious universe in which we are all one.

Britannica is a different animal. Flawed, yes. Behind the times with regard to non-Western and minority leadership, sure. Indispensable? You betcha.

[link-o-day]