the past three months

Since the last time I wrote an omnibus update on my life was  just about three months ago, and it also covered three months, I thought it was about time for another. I’ll try to make this a quarterly tradition!

  • I have been a little preoccupied with family issues this winter. Over Christmas and the New Year’s holiday, I went home (some 1500 miles away from where I currently live) to see my dad and my grandmother, both of whom are having various health problems. I spent a fair amount of time at my dad’s house doing some needed work on it, and I’m actually going back there tomorrow for a week to continue trying to get some home repairs organized and catching up on related tasks. This is stressful, but I’m trying to be calm and collected. Everything is basically stable: there’s just a big backlog, and planning to do for the future.
  • Which sort of sums up the Wikimedia Foundation, too. For the Board’s part, we’ve spent the winter in between meetings engaged in on-going discussion about various topics, while various committees have been working on their assignments. For instance, the movement roles committee just had a big meeting in Frankfurt. The elections committee is gearing up for this year’s board seat election process (Wikimedia wants you!), and the Board Governance Committee has been updating our online handbook to reflect current practice.
  • I have done a couple of things this winter as a community member (unrelated to board service) that I’m pleased about: first, I finally (finally!) got the Wikimania handbook restarted. If you have ever worked on planning a Wikimania, please help out! It’s a big effort and something we’ve needed to do for a while. I also just restarted the practice of having IRC community meetings; I hope that this can continue and be productive.
  • There have of course been several exciting things going on in the Wikimedia universe at large. The biggest thing that has happened this winter were the epic Wikipedia 10 celebrations around January 15, which were just wonderful. Here in San Francisco, we had a day long conference and party. I helped organize the conference, so that took a chunk of time in late December and early January. It was pretty great. We had around 90 people, keynotes from Ward Cunningham and Kevin Kelly, and from what I could tell it was a big success. And of course it was even more wonderful because of all of the hundreds of events all around the world, many in places that didn’t have a history of meetups. As a “meet up geek,” I was thrilled! We also got literally hundreds of press stories and lots of support from many quarters — it was definitely a high note for our  community.
  • Lest this be all about about Wikimedia, I do still have a day job! At work, I’ve been traveling a lot. I went to the ALA midwinter conference in San Diego in early January. For ALA/ACRL, I am on a committee that’s producing a “virtual conference” next year, in the off year for ACRL. Our theme is likely going to be “community collaboration” (you see what I did there? heh.) I also learned some stuff, like stuff about the new NSF data management plan mandate, which is weighing heavily on the minds of science librarians everywhere right now and will likely be an effort I’ll focus more on at work in the coming months. I am excited about the growing institutional weight behind open access: the combined efforts of librarians, researchers, and the Obama administration’s policies are finally converging to really produce results.
  • The week after Wikipedia 10 happened in San Francisco, I went to Washington D.C. for the SLA’s “leadership summit.” I am president of our local SLA (Special Libraries Association) chapter this year — the Sierra Nevada chapter — which I am excited about. All the chapters seemed to be having similar issues; we’re all losing members and all have to come up with relevant programs that stay financially solvent. I did meet lots of engaging and awesome librarians from all over the place, like the super-cool Nicole Engard, whose job title is “Director of Open Source Education.” Basically the conference did what all conferences should do for their participants, which is that I feel I learned stuff and came away inspired and happier about my role in the organization. (Also of course, because I can’t help myself, I spent some time thinking about the parallels between Wikimedia chapters and what we do differently/the same from SLA. Things Wikimedia could learn from SLA: they have standardized forms on their internal website that each chapter has to fill out and submit on a timeline, e.g. a form for that year’s officers, a financial reporting form, and so on. Pretty simple… but I don’t think that we’ve standardized these things yet. They also have a formal “chapters council” (and “division council,” which is topical) that has a formal business meeting twice a year (at the equivalent of our chapters meeting and Wikimania). Things SLA could learn from Wikimedia: be more awesome, empower your volunteers, listen to complaints and don’t charge for things that people don’t really use.)
  • The capstone of my week in D.C. was getting to attend the Wikipedia 10 celebration in D.C., which was awesome. It was held at the National Archives and Records Administration — the director of NARA spoke at our conference!!! — and they are super, super, super supportive about partnering up, which is just about the coolest thing since sliced bread. Big props to Aude and the WikiDC crew on making this happen. Side bonus: the D.C. Wikimania bid came out of it, too.
  • And then after that — well, during it, really — I got super sick with the Wikiplague, aka a nasty winter cold that had been going around, and so I limped home and stayed in bed for a few days. I am just now getting over the cough. Ugh. Bonuses of being sick: I watched a bunch of Sherlock Holmes.
  • More things about work: did I mention we have a new temporary University Librarian? He’s a faculty member, for a change of pace, and is stepping in part-time while we get around to figuring out how to recruit for a new director. Future still unclear; we know we don’t have any money under the Brown Budget, that’s for sure. …. But not to fear, because there is cool stuff going on anyway. I am particularly psyched about my work with the Davis Open Science group, which is a grassroots effort to discuss and promote open access and open data in science. The group reminds me a lot of the energy of the early Students for Free Culture groups, and working with them has been a nice convergence of my worlds between free culture and open access evangelism and library outreach.
  • Back to Wikimedia: as I said in my last omnibus update, just keeping up with Wikimedia news and goings-on is pretty much a full time job. (As a board member, I’ll note, one feels rather compelled to keep up with everything, at least on a high level; and people expect it of you too (“did you see my blog post? do you know what the x project is doing? can I talk to you about your thoughts on y?” I do a lot of reading, and yet I almost always feel behind). And there’s been some big things this winter, besides Wikipedia 10: first, our fundraiser was a great success, which is a testament to the hard work of the community team. I’d say it was particularly successful in a couple of ways: I’m super-pleased that we tried out editor-generated banners and banners featuring editors, and I’m glad that we tried a “editing contribution” drive, even if it was a small part of the campaign. I would also say that there was a remarkably low amount of complaints and drama around this fundraiser compared to past years, which either means everyone is tired or that we did a better job, and I’m thinking it’s that we did a better job 🙂 There are still areas to improve, obviously: chapter partnerships for fundraising come to mind (something that’s been actively worked on). In all I think our messaging was well-done this year; we want to be honest and open but also convince people to give, all without giving the misleading sense that we’re going off the air tomorrow if they don’t… or that we could last forever if they don’t. It’s tricky.
  • What we are and should be worried about however are levels of editing and participation, and this is going to be a big topic (and has been) for the WMF and for the board in the coming months. What does it mean to have happy, healthy and productive project communities? How can we attract and retain editors? What will it take to reach our pretty ambitious strategic targets? (the final strategic plan will be formally published soon, but the target areas are no surprise: growth in reach, participation, quality.) One big part of this is the gender gap: something that has gotten a lot of press lately, and has resulted in a (very) active mailing list and a lot of renewed energy around this topic. It’s really kind of extraordinary, actually.
  • Personally, I have been thinking a good deal lately about tone and culture, and about how we talk about the projects shapes the projects, and about tone as a part of recruiting (and keeping) new people. Discussions on the topic of recruitment and retention in Wikimedia are generally either geared around infrastructure (it should be easier to edit) or about tone (the projects are hostile, or newbies aren’t welcomed, or some variation on this). I’ve been thinking about meta-tone, however: about the role our projects play in the world and how we convey that. Do we convey what many of us feel, that this is one of the most important projects of our era and one in which nearly anyone can make a difference? Are we persuasive that Wikipedia is, for all its faults and foibles, not just pretty dang awesome if you need a tv show recap but also one of the major intellectual endeavors and experiments of our (or any) time? (I have been thinking about persuasiveness in particular, because the other day I went to a persuasive writing workshop).  In truth the shifts that we will need to make to ensure a stable base of editors long after all of us quit will be around both infrastructure and culture, and it is my hope that we can keep the good points of both while changing the bad. There is something immensely appealing about a grassroots project where you feel that individually you can do something worth doing, and the efforts that we make to assure our future will necessarily be grassroots — it will take all of us to imagine better interactions (technical, social) on the projects and then create them. And we have a whole world of thinking to do about knowledge creation. What does it take to become a good encyclopedist, or a good dictionary-writer? Do we find those skills, or imbue them, or some sort of combination? How do we make mediation by technology not a barrier, but a feature for more than just those who are currently comfortable with it? Will the wiki model work for smaller communities and the really small languages; what makes for a healthy project? We have many, many questions, a handful of anecdotal answers, and in the meantime one of the most exciting projects in the world to steward. It only works in practice…
  • Finally, lest we forget, this month the world changed: Mubarek stepped down, and with that step a whole generation of Egyptians regained their voice and sense of country. I am immensely proud of my Egyptian friends and of all the peaceful protesters. One of the great joys of being involved in an international community is having a personal connection to events like these — we were in Alexandria, we have colleagues there, and we all stand for free information for all — a radical concept, as these last weeks proved, and an immensely important one.
  • So basically, though I feel like this winter was rather fragmented because of the holidays and sickness, stuff still got done and there’s a lot of big ideas swirling around. Coming up in my next quarterly update: a talk in Tel Aviv for a library conference, a talk at SXSW, and the chapters meeting in Berlin. Yikes! I’d better get to presentation-writing.
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