Five things a Wikipedian in Residence can do

Are you a Wikipedian? Do you want to help a museum, a library, a university, or other organization explore ways to engage with Wikipedia? Great – you should offer your expertise as a Wikipedian in Residence!

If you find yourself in such a role, you will have opportunities to help your host organization contribute to the sharing of knowledge in new and exciting ways; and to help Wikipedia readers and editors around the world benefit directly from the expertise and institutional knowledge your host possesses. Ideally, your role is that of a connector and a facilitator; you should aim to empower those around you (both the staff of your host organization, and Wikipedia volunteers who share the organization’s interests).

So what can you do to get off to a good start? Below are a few ideas, drawn from past Wikipedian in Residence programs. (It may also be helpful to review the assessment of a program that many felt was not planned effectively: Assessment of Belfer Center Wikipedian in Residence program)

1. Chat it up on Wikipedia!

A great Wikipedian in Residence convenes discussion among Wikipedians and the host organization's people, both online and in person. ©Lettera 27, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0.

A great Wikipedian in Residence will convene discussion among Wikipedians and the host organization’s people, both online and in person. ©Lettera 27, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Wikipedia’s talk pages can be drama machines – or they can be ghostly silent. But when all is going well, they can be incredible forums for processing complex information, and determining the best way to clearly and neutrally guide a reader’s learning process.

What makes discussions on Wikipedia work well? It can help to have an expert or two around, but even more vital is relaxed, friendly, and informal facilitation. One or more people who have a clear commitment to improving the article and developing consensus can make a tremendous difference, just by keeping the conversation going and drawing attention back to the important questions. What better role for a Wikipedian in Residence?

You should begin your Residency with a commitment to working openly, in whatever way best fits your project. Explain your substantial edits and additions on the article’s talk page; or better yet, at a relevant WikiProject. If somebody’s work catches your interest, let them know on their user talk page. Get to know the volunteers who are already passionate about your topic, and help them work together more effectively.

To establish context for anybody who might be interested in your work, be sure to create a “project page” on Wikipedia covering the goals and activities of your residency. See this example: Project page from the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis residency

2. Talk to your boss about copyright. Early and often.

Intimidated? It's OK - frank talks about important topics are never easy.

Can’t find the right words? Frank talks on important topics are never easy.

When I say “let’s talk copyright,” I bet you have one of two reactions: OK, where do you want me to start? Let’s set aside a few hours! Or you might say: Wait, I thought Wikipedia was supposed to be fun!

Enjoyable or not, copyright and licensing are hugely important to your host organization, and to their ability to contribute meaningfully to the Wikimedia vision. You probably don’t want to bore all your colleagues with all the details. But you should seek out decision-makers, and make sure they have a good grasp of how free licenses work, and how various kinds of works enter the public domain.

The way information flows through the world is changing really fast. When an organization invites a Wikipedian in Residence to join them, it is usually a seeking – among other things – to update their practices to better adapt to Internet culture, and to help them move into the future with confidence. And one of the central considerations, when updating information practices, is copyright. Help your host organization develop practices that both let it meet its goals, and also let it earn the respect of those Wikipedians who care about responsible management of copyright.

3. It’s your party. Make some introductions!

Photo by George Patton, public domain.

Photo by George Patton, public domain.

Some Wikipedian in Residence programs are a few weeks; a few last for years. But they always end! An organization usually hopes a Wikipedian in Residence will build lasting and sustainable ties to Wikipedia – and there may be similar expectations from the Wikipedia side, as well. So one of the best things you can do is to help your organization – its curators, librarians, or staff – meet other Wikipedians, and learn how to interact in their strange environment.

You can do this through physical events, online, or better yet, both! In-person events like a Wikipedia workshop, an edit-a-thon, or a backstage pass will usually be more familiar to your organization, and can also help you build visibity around your work. Online engagement might mean using something like Skype or Google Hangouts, or it might mean guiding your host organization in navigating a WikiProject’s talk pages or an email list. Ideally, you should use all of these tools, and actively reach out to Wikipedians (both locally and internationally) to join you.

4. Whoa there! Don’t do it all yourself!

Photo CC BY Dan & Susie Romer.

Dan & Susie Romer, CC BY

If you’ve been an active contributor to Wikipedia, you’ve probably had this experience: you leave a note on a talk page, hoping somebody will weigh in on an idea; and six months later, there’s no response. So you might have developed a habit of boldly adding material to Wikipedia, relying on your understanding of what is appropriate, without worrying too much about how any one addition is received.

If so, as a Wikipedian in Residence, you should reflect on that approach. If you’re adding a basic fact to an article, maybe that creates an opportunity to show a colleague how to format a reference. Or, maybe you’ve spent the last three months trying to persuade your host to release a collection of photos under a free license – and have finally found success. Congratulations! But before you stay up all night uploading them yourself, consider the benefits of showing a few colleagues how to properly use the Wikimedia Commons upload wizard.

5. Be extra clear about your role

By Aileen Denton

By Aileen Denton

If you’re doing the kind of stuff discussed above, this part will come naturally: you will be clearly expressing who you work for, and how you’re approaching your work, as you add material to Wikipedia. But regardless, you should give some thought to it. Make sure that readers and editors who care about your topic, and would want to know about your involvement, have a reasonable chance of learning about it.

At minimum, your user page should clearly explain your Residency, and how you are approaching it. If you’re working actively on specific articles, you should also leave notes on their talk pages, and/or the talk pages of relevant WikiProjects. If you’re unsure, ask another Wikipedian for their take – an independent perspective can help a lot. (And hopefully, the Wiki Strategies Statement of Ethics can serve as a useful guide.)

As you think about this, remember that others will be following your lead. Don’t just meet the bare minimum – set a high standard that will give your host a great example to follow in the future. And when you do one-on-one consultations, workshops, presentations, be sure to cover this topic, and help your colleagues create user pages and the like.

In conclusion…

You have an opportunity to bridge gaps, using multiple forms of communication. Have fun with it! Photo by Hildabast, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0.

You have an opportunity to bridge gaps, using multiple forms of communication. Have fun with it! ©Hildabast, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Whether your residency is three weeks or three years, your last day will arrive before you know it! As it approaches, you will probably start to realize that you are the most informed person on the planet about the intersection between your host organization and Wikipedia. And that’s no small feat.

You should make sure your knowledge lives beyond your residency – for the benefit of both for your host and other Wikipedians. Did you learn anything useful from the kind of activities discussed above? Great!

Consider capturing those lessons in a “how to engage with Wikipedia” document for your host organization. Your colleagues will want to refer to it when their memories start to fade: Wait, how do I make a wikilink? What are the different licensing choices, again?

And also, tell Wikipedians how it went, and what opportunities are still in play with your host! Write a blog post (or three!) Send an email to the cultural partners email list. Give a talk at a conference like Wiki Conference USA. Tell us what worked, and what didn’t – we’re all eager to learn from your experience!

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here:
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