Why engage with Wikipedia?

Moa bone over 1000 years old conveniently labelled with 1938 typography

I’m currently a Wikipedian in Residence at Auckland Museum, and have spent the last few weeks explaining to people why museums and other heritage organisations in New Zealand need to take Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons seriously.

Mission

Part of every museum’s mission is to maximise audience access to its information and share its collections with its community. (There’s nothing in most museum mission statements about driving traffic to the website!) So a museum should be looking at the most effective, efficient means to do that, whether it’s on their own website or someone else’s.

Impact

Wikipedia is the fifth-most-visited website in the world. Popular articles will get thousands or tens of thousands of unique readers a day. Wikipedia exists in nearly 300 languages and is a major information source for anyone visiting NZ, even tourists from Iceland. Its content is used by Google and Siri and AI projects; edits appear in Google search results in a few minutes.

It dwarfs every museum’s web presence. (Plus it’s far easier to find information on Wikipedia than most museum websites.)
So there’s a powerful incentive for a museum to engage. But for the carrot there’s a stick: if an institution ignores Wikipedia, other institutions won’t, and their information and collections will become the iconic images representing New Zealand worldwide.

Efficiency

Improving Wikipedia is very cheap; it’s far more cost-effective than a museum writing its own content from scratch, in terms of impact per hour of staff time, and much of the heavy lifting will be done by volunteers, for free. The hosting costs are zero and mistakes can be corrected instantly. The content is regularly improved, corrected, and updated, and has a far greater life expectancy than a museum’s own web content, some of which is deleted after just a few years (or the institution has a website makeover and breaks all its URLs, which is much the same thing). Wikipedia has been around for 17 years, and its content is durable, backed up, and is shared and duplicated widely.

Prattkeeping in the Moa Gallery

Wikipedia content is freely available under an open license to be repurposed and used in a museum’s Collections Online database, as links from its website, and in-gallery digital content – no need to reinvent the wheel.

So there’s a good case for diverting some of the writing and web content effort already going on into Wikipedia, either directly or by supporting a group of community volunteer editors. The institution can recruit people to happily share its stories and images, who – I’ll mention it again – will do all this work for free.

Audiences

Wikipedia’s articles top Google rankings, and their text is shown as a preview on Google searches. So Wikipedia is where museum audiences are getting their information: to ignore Wikipedia is to ignore them.
A museum’s audience is global, and this is a great way to engage with them: volunteers from all over the world are keen to help if you meet them halfway, by making authoritative information openly available able to be referenced.

Citing its publications and research in Wikipedia allows the museum to connect with specialists and researchers, and by working with Wikimedia projects a museum moves from being a one-way authority feeding out knowledge to engaging with multiple audiences and building new relationships.

Brand of trustworthy authority

Content in Wikipedia is trusted; a museum having its images and research prominently displayed there likewise makes it a trusted source of knowledge. Museums are used to having that respect and authority automatically, so realising that things have changed can take some getting used to.

Wikipedia is global. By engaging with it a New Zealand museum can overcome geography and position itself as an organisation of international importance, part of a global network of open knowledge institutions.

Website and collections online visibility

Blosyropus spinosus, Auckland Museum AMNZ49737, CC-BY 4.0


A museum should get its images into Wikipedia. If captions are written correctly, images can link to the museum’s Wikipedia page, which includes a website link; and anyone clicking though to the image in Commons can go directly to the Collections Online record. Although this isn’t the goal, it will increase website traffic, which will keep the people who care about that sort of thing happy.

Wikipedia images will be shared and reused, because they have to be released under an open license, usually Creative Commons with the Attribution proviso (CC BY). The “BY” means the museum will be credited every time the image is used. Encouraging widespread free use of the museum’s images and content, most effectively via Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons, increases the museum’s visibility and creates enthusiastic brand ambassadors. It’s true: there are editors like Ambrosia10 who tirelessly promote Auckland Museum because of its generosity in using a CC BY license.

Openness as a strategy

The objections to CC BY licenses tend to come from institutions who’ve historically charged for people to reproduce their images.

First, it’s important to note that this is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Using Wikimedia Commons allows museums plenty of control: they can release lower resolution images for sharing, clearly state what people can and can’t do with them, and give the exact wording, including a link, to use when crediting the institution.

Collecting box to raise money for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Auckland Museum 1965.78.863, CC BY 4.0

Also, locking away collections costs. Charging for access to content often doesn’t make much money when the administration costs are subtracted. An institution that wants to restrict the reuse of its images has to be prepared to hound copyright violators, or its terms and conditions are a joke. Threatening letters from its lawyers is both expensive and not a particularly good look for a publicly-funded institution.

The hidden, and often forgotten, cost of closed content is turning away the community who just want to use the collections. The collections they own and pay the museum to look after. Museums have a bad record of copyfraud: taking publicly-owned out-of-copyright resources, slapping a copyright symbol on them, and selling the result back to the community as a postcard or book.

Open CC0 or CC BY collection access is the way institutions are going worldwide: the Reichsmuseum, the Met overseas, Auckland Museum and Landcare in New Zealand.

Conclusion

Some institutions see a Wikipedian as a someone to help the marketing department fix the institution’s Wiki page. But that’s not really taking Wikipedia seriously. Wikipedia, not its website, is the face of a museum. But it’s also the way people can find its collections, and benefit from its expertise. In New Zealand, museums are well behind in taking advantage of this, and over the next year I hope I can help some of them catch up.

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