I had the great privilege of speaking at DPLA West last weekend, where I was one of a panel of speakers giving perspectives on the possibilities of the DPLA; I spoke as a Wikimedian and as a librarian.
It was only five minutes, so I wrote down my talk in full; the text is below. I was pretty happy with it as a short, punchy speech.
A couple of years ago a Wikipedian named Liam Wyatt had an idea that the Wikimedia projects should do more formal outreach with libraries and museums and archives. Liam ended up being the first Wikipedian-in-Residence, at the British Museum, helping curators and Wikipedians alike share the Museum’s immense treasures with the world via Wikipedia articles. Other cultural institutions thought this was a cool idea, and today there are Wikipedians in Residence throughout the world, in institutions like the Smithsonian and the National Archives. And there have also been tremendous donations of archival collections to Wikimedia Commons, which is our immense free media repository, with images from NARA and many, many other sources finding a new home and a new audience as freely licensed works that Wikimedians and everyone online can use. And I hope that we can link these collections to the DPLA, and vice versa, sharing tools and metadata as common community-curated platforms.
Why does this matter, that cultural resources are now free on the web? Among other reasons, because it enables them to be seen and to be used. Wikipedia is by far the largest and most read reference work ever to exist in human history. And to make it great — to really cover all of human knowledge — we need to be able to access and share the vast riches that are in cultural institutions. Openness and free licensing for Wikimedia is not something we simply pay lip service to; it’s a concrete part of how Wikipedia editors are able to do their work of using and curating information to make something useful.
And in turn, of course, all of the content on Wikimedia projects is free for reuse and remixing as well. An example is the Wikidata project being developed now by Wikimedia Germany. Wikidata aims to be a central storehouse of semantic data that’s tied to Wikimedia projects – so that, for instance, you could update the population of the United States in Wikidata and have it be automatically updated in all the Wikipedia articles in all 270 languages. And imagine the power of linking all this shared data up to databases of references – like, say, the Harvard libraries catalog — and great open data sources, the way that Commons has opened up to the great archives of the world. And so, I hope that the DPLA, too, is a force for open data, to help make this astonishing vision possible.
But of course, all of these efforts are dependent on people editing and compiling. When I look at a Wikipedia article, I don’t just see text. I see the individuals behind it — the quirky, amazing people. We tend to talk about the Wikipedia community as if it were a monolith, but of course it’s made up of thousands of individuals all doing different things — from editing articles to fact-checking references to doing in-person outreach, like Liam, but all working under the same broad umbrella of shared values about free knowledge. And I think that the reason Wikimedia works, sometimes against all odds, is that every level of our organization and our projects is open to community contributions and community leadership. And so more than anything, I hope that the DPLA follows the same model. I hope that it is open to all kinds of contributions, large and small, no matter what your talent or passion or position is.
It’s not easy to build a great information platform. We know it’s not easy. And I see the problems from the library side, as well, in my job as a reference and collections librarian. We are fortunate at the University of California to have the strength of the UC library consortium and the California Digital Library behind us, which means that the faculty and students that I support on a daily basis have access to phenomenal library resources. But there is a cost to this that’s not just financial. From the behind-the-scenes perspective, wrangling those resources, licensing and managing them, and trying to negotiate with publishers can feel like death from a thousand papercuts. And all of that librarian effort, the work of hundreds of people, means that UC researchers and scholars do have access to the books and journals that they need — but they are the lucky ones. Most of the half-billion readers of Wikipedia from around the world can only imagine having such access to information.
We can do better. And we must do better, in order to fulfill our collective mission as research libraries, as public libraries, as a free knowledge movement, and as individuals committed to preserving the cultural record and eliminating information disparity. I want to live in a world where my next-door neighbor and I can both look at the same Wikipedia article, and both get access to the same sources cited in it, even though I am affiliated with a great research university and she is not. And, I want the Wikipedia editors who write that article — the editors in Bangladesh, in Argentina, in rural Wyoming, in New York City — to also have access to those great sources — indeed, as Wikimedia’s vision says, to have access to the sum of all human knowledge. Together, I think we can make that happen. Thank you.