My take on the GLAM-wiki recommendations

Following on from my last post wondering about the lack of public comment to date, here’s my take on the recommendations. Obviously, as well as being really long, this post is selective and partial – many items seem to me to be straightforward and correct, so I have not commented; others are better discussed by experts in that area. Some of my comments might indicate my ignorance on some issues; I’m happy to be corrected. We all have our ignorances – as I think is evident in some of the requests themselves. So it’s good to have the conversation, and to keep the momentum going.

A key point in the recommendations – and my response to them – is that the cultural sector needs to be educated in the ways of Wikimedia. This venture is just beginning!

1.1 Law requests to GLAM

The idea of proactively publishing the copyright status on each collection item’s description page makes perfect sense, but it is unlikely to be simple to implement. It might (or might not!) be straightforward to adjust the collection database to accommodate a new publicly-visible field, but populating that field for every item would take a lot of human resources, and in the case of government archives, often a single item (a paper file) might require various copyright statuses.

Of course people should be free to use public domain work! Do some cultural institutions really have an actual policy that requires users to ask permission to use public domain content? And do others really place ‘copyright-like restrictions’ on public domain content? Is that even legal? I can understand the Wikimedian view that it might be better to have no online access to public domain content if a donor agreement has prohibited third-party use – it is cause for frustration and potential conflict to have it there.

I’m all for using creative commons licensing where the work is wholly owned and controlled by the institution and/or free for educational use. As someone who has been responsible for responding to requests to reuse published material, I can attest that it is often very time-consuming to craft a response to a request that could be handled by an up-front license with a clear attribution statement. But I also know that this would be a significant change for cultural institutions and that without a ministerial directive, it won’t happen across the sector any time soon.

1.2 Law requests to Wikimedia

On the request to publish donor information as part of the attribution statement, isn’t it up to the license-creator to specify how the attribution should be made?

GLAM sector workers’ access to resources about Wikimedia and the free culture movement seems critical to the success of the collaborative venture. (Note, this request seems to belong more in the Education area?) Some elements that could usefully be incorporated into a toolkit, training package or FAQ are:

  • customised training in adding content to Wikimedia and creating and editing Wikipedia pages
  • a list of benefits of creative commons licensing over other forms of copyright control
  • an explanation of how non-commercial licensing is fraught, and the benefits – including business-wise – of allowing unrestricted use
  • strategy and tactics for negotiating with donors to achieve the best outcome for public access
  • demonstration of successful partnership projects eg German Federal Archives

2.1 Technology requests to GLAM

On the request to publish stable and clean URLs for collection items:

  • this is a really important request – anyone who uses collection material needs to be able to cite and link back to the original sources
  • the fact that this is a request by Wikimedians to the GLAM sector suggests to me that the GLAM sector didn’t really need to request that Wikimedians ‘take proactive care of the moral rights of content creators’
  • this is another recommendation that, for some cultural institutions, could be tricky to implement in the short term – which is not to diminish its status as a high priority request. One workaround for collection databases that don’t generate usable URLs (let alone pURLs) is to create a Zotero translator and publicise that as a way to generate links back to the item. And it may be that the solution to this problem emerges from an agreed standard for cultural collections, which in turn enables a more semantic identification of collections and items within them.

The idea of providing the general public with read-write access to a metadata repository is sensible. It would generate great community engagement, and it would enable bulk development of rich metadata, which could dramatically improve findability of the material and also enhance its meaning – I wrote a paper about that. But such a prospect would also be fairly freaky for many cultural workers, who tend to be concerned that it would jeopardise the integrity or authority of the collection. Such concerns are not difficult to overcome, and indeed successful models are now proliferating (think Powerhouse collection, Australian Newspapers project).

2.2 Technology requests to Wikimedia

Rather than (or as well as) creating ‘easy and extensible templates for citing institutional sources and data’, perhaps Wikimedia could help institutions to make their own template?

3.1 Education requests to GLAM

How good is the Wikimedian offer to do volunteer work on commission from cultural institutions? Are cultural workers thinking about this, even in a back-of-mind way? They should be!

Personally, I think it’s a good idea for on-staff experts to set up an account on Wikimedia so they can be consulted on specific topic areas. If I was an on-staff expert on a particular topic, I would do so. But I wonder how well-received this idea will be – would ‘Expert advisor to Wikimedia’ look good on your CV? Unless you are a high-level academic, in which case it would make you groovy, I suspect not.

3.2 Education requests to Wikimedia

To me, the idea that Wikimedians should highlight the importance of real-world interaction with cultural heritage is weird. Of course a digital copy of something will always lack something that the original, physical item has. But why should it be Wikimedians’ role to remind people of that? Should gallery hosts inform people of the advantages of an online digital copy? (Eg, access from anywhere, any time, sometimes in greater detail and with better light than you can see the real thing; access to items that are otherwise in storage and/or inaccessible in the real world.) This seems a prescriptive, condescending recommendation. Surely each cultural interface can speak for itself. The only way in which this requests makes good sense to me is if it is tied to the request to Wikimedia to improve consistency and comprehensive use of metadata (including physical location of the item). Provenance and context are absolutely critical to understanding cultural heritage. Note that Liam made a similar point in his Wikimania presentation in August.

‘Affirm the compatibility of interpretive debate within encyclopedic neutrality’ – cultural workers who feel this request is a necessary inclusion should read the Wikipedia policy on neutral point of view. My feeling is that the request is already well-met, and seems to work in practice. For example, the long and well-referenced page on evolution includes a paragraph about creationism, which in turn links to a page on creationism that includes sections on Christian and scientific critiques.

Don’t the requests to enable ‘expert contributions’ and external peer review clash with the spirit and process of Wikipedia?

Another request that seems unnecessary is to improve the visibility of the quality assessments of content. Here is a sample page that cites no sources:

Part of a Wikipedia page that cites no sources

To my mind, the orange bar and position at the beginning of the body content makes the message very prominent and clear.

4.1 Business requests to GLAM

These requests all seem reasonable and important and in the case of the request to make images of damaged items available for Wikimedians to digitally restore, generous.

4.2 Business requests to Wikimedia

These requests also seem reasonable, although many of the requests for information about business models could simply constitute items for the training package.

The final request, to generate positive media attention around collaboration projects, would seem to apply equally – or more – to the GLAM sector, which has more resources and a higher, more authoritative media profile than the wiki community.

All quiet on the GLAM-wiki front

Two months on from the groundbreaking GLAM-wiki conference, where cultural workers and wikipedians met to consider mutual benefits of a partnership (I blogged about it here), I have been gathering some thoughts on the recommendations – and will post them soon. Strangely, very few people have publicly commented, notable exceptions being GerardM (a Dutch wikipedian), Liam himself, and (briefly) Mia Ridge, a London-based digital cultural worker. What’s with the silence?

Is there a good reason why no Australian cultural workers have commented publicly, or are you, like me, puzzled by the eerie quiet?

In my view, even cultural workers very pressed for time should be thinking about it, because that page of recommendations is an important work-in-progress. Why? Because everyone who works in a cultural institution is responsible in some way for enabling members of the public to access and engage with cultural heritage. I can’t think of a cultural institution whose mission is not to extend and enhance access to and engagement with cultural heritage. And from my perspective, the GLAM-wiki conference buzzed for the very reason that a partnership between the cultural and wiki sectors holds such promise.

If wikipedians and cultural workers could collaborate effectively, both sectors (and let’s face it, the public) would benefit immensely, as Liam suggested in the abstract for his presentation to Wikipedians about the GLAM-wiki conference:

[Wiki] projects have fantastic coverage – both breadth and depth – in popular culture but the same cannot be said for ‘high’ culture. [...] if we hope to produce ‘the sum of all human knowledge’ then we need to address this gap. Where this information resides is in the world’s museums, libraries, archives and galleries and we must begin to work with these institutions – for our mutual benefit.

In other words, the wiki community is hoping to get hold of significant knowledge that is currently hidden from popular view because it resides only in cultural institutions. And for cultural institutions, their collection material could gain the popularity of Wikipedia.

So how come – and despite the wiki community’s enthusiasm – the cultural community seems so lukewarm? As cultural workers we might see the obstacles; but we can still seek the goal.

Is it that staff of cultural institutions don’t see the potential? Could it be that we have popularity ‘issues’? Or as a collective, are we simply (still) anti-Wikipedia? I’m curious to learn what others think.

Cultural lessons from the crowd in the cloud

In the last couple of weeks I’ve encountered some great insight into and evidence of the potential effect of large public networks on the work of making cultural assets accessible. It has come from two separate sources – Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, but also the first ever public conversation between Wikimedia and the GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, archives and museums).

I haven’t finished the book yet, so my focus here is on what the GLAM sector might take away from the conference (although no doubt the book is infiltrating my thinking.) The following points are not neatly sewn-up instructional lessons, and of course, people will disagree, but I believe the following are important considerations for those of us working to make cultural assets accessible online.

1. A completely different process of authorisation

I heard a lot of talk about how Wikipedia lacks authority and I heard a lot of what seemed like fear that its perceived dodginess would infect cultural institutions and jeopardise their authority. Well, for me, an almost opposite view is far more compelling.

Cultural institutions hold in their collections assets that have authority because they are original sources. No question; nothing will jeopardise that. And academic research accrues authority through the process of peer review, or by being written by someone who has accrued authority in the course of their professional career.

Wikipedia has an entirely different relationship with authority. Its articles are by definition, necessarily and absolutely not original research. And yes, Wikipedia editing is amateur. But the amazing thing is that Wikipedia articles can achieve a form of authority by virtue of the fact that the community of editors (which includes anyone who wants to be in it) finds a neutral, consensus position, and the article settles into relatively stable content. That stability is a genuine, honourable form of authority. It is not invested through credentials but emerges – and continues to emerge – out of open dialogue. And because Wikipedia gives voice to the community rather than to an individual or institution, in my view, Wikipedian authority is of great value.

I’m not suggesting that Wikipedia is the only source we need. On the contrary, it is vital to check the original sources, to seek out other sources (including primary sources!), to read critically and to adopt your own position. But Wikipedia is an excellent starting point. How many of us would deny that we regularly use it?! And the fact that Wikipedia content must be verifiable – cite and refer readers to reliable sources – positions it very well as a potential partner for cultural institutions.

2. A horde of willing and able enthusiasts

The arresting image below resides in the German Federal Archive but now – along with almost 100,000 others – it also resides in the Wikimedia Commons.

A photograph from the German National Archives via Wikimedia, June 1942 – Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 183-N0619-506

Jewish women with yellow star, Paris, June 1942 – from the German Federal Archive via Wikimedia – Deutsches Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F000136-0009

It’s there because Mathias Schindler negotiated a deal with the Bundesarchiv, by which the archive would release 100,000 images into the public domain, and in return, Wikipedians would help by describing the photographs and matching person data (authority files – the A-word again!) in three places – German Wikipedia, National Archive and National Library.

As an employee of a federal archive, I am acutely conscious of the scale of the work involved in description and digitisation – core tasks usually prerequisite to making cultural assets accessible. Anything with the potential to distribute this load must be worth exploring. That way, more culture can be shared more widely which is, of course, the point.

The experience of the National Library of Australia in soliciting bulk text enhancement – via its wonderful Australian Newspapers project – provides further evidence that the public can be relied upon to do a mammoth amount of good work in enhancing OCR’d microfilm.

3. More accessible doesn’t seem to mean less profitable

And importantly, evidence is amassing at the Powerhouse Museum that increasing the accessible reach of your photographs, through the Flickr Commons, has a massive impact on how many people see and tag your images, but very little effect on image sales.


In short, unlike Angelina, I came away from GLAM-wiki feeling fairly enthusiastic – like Gerard – about the possibilities for partnership.