How Wikipedians-in-Residence Are Opening Up Cultural Institutions

Members of the digital encyclopedia's cult of knowledge are finding their way into some of America's most celebrated institutions


Wikipedia's comprehensive entries have become the default source of collective knowledge on the Web as our attention spans and patience for deep archival research shrink in the digital age. Yet concerns over the encyclopedia's accuracy and consistency remain.

That's where Dominic McDevitt-Parks comes in. The Simmons College graduate student recently joined the National Archives and Records Administration as a summer "Wikipedian-in-residence." McDevitt-Parks is tasked with integrating NARA's vast stockpile of primary documents and records -- the bread and butter of history -- with the sprawling ecosystem of collective knowledge and collaborative editorship that has defined Wikipedia.

Cultural institutions, especially those with a glut of historical documents, have an interest in utilizing Wikipedia to call attention to their untouched stores. "The National Archives maintains national records and preserve cultural heritage, but they don't do a great job of presenting this information to the public in a searchable, digestible format," says McDevitt-Parks. "This is exactly what Wikipedia does: presenting history and cultural in a way that people use every day. For the Archives specifically, the mission is not just preserving documents, but promoting their use. Through some sort of collaboration, we can make these records available for regular use by the public at large."

McDevitt-Park, who's earning a Master's degree in history and archive management, is one of several new Wikipedians-in-residence working within cultural institutions around the world in collaboration with the digital encyclopedia. The initiative, first conceived by Wikimedia Cultural Partnerships fellow Liam Wyatt in 2010, was focused in the disconnect between "significant" collections in public museums and the "notable" entries on Wikipedia.

By partnering with Wikipedia, the National Archives is creating unprecedented access to high-resolution prints and scans of primary documents that were originally limited to special-order copies or confined to reproductions available in a pricey catalog.

"Part of the idea behind the collaboration is to create projects around donation," says McDevitt-Parks. "With Wikipedia, we want to put up collections of high-res images and get them in articles, where thousands upon thousands of people will see them."

Among his first major projects: tackling an archive of several hundred photographs by Ansel Adams, commissioned by the National Parks Service. "There are 200 to 220 Ansel Adams photographs in the National Archives records, because Adams was commissioned in the 1940s to take photos of national parks, but they were never really fully available to the public," says McDevitt-Parks. "They were available if you wanted to go to College Park [Maryland, home of the National Archives] and dig through old files."

McDevitt-Parks, rather than serving purely as an archivist, is organizationally situated in the National Archive's communications and social media team. The institution wants to make as much of its content available to the widest audience, with the hopes that the sudden availability of primary sources will lead to a tidal wave of interest by regular readers. Ideally, the newly opened archives will mean a sudden diffusion of primary documents into Wikipedia's knowledge ecosystem, driven by Wikipedia's devoted pool of editors and relying on the encyclopedia's preexisting system of peer review.

McDevitt-Parks is in the process of developing an editing challenge around the Archives' "Today's Documents" feature, which spotlights prints or texts that were previously blocked off from regular readership, to encourage hardcore Wikipedians to pounce on newly available resources. The benefits for such a project are readily apparent: Until last week, a thorough history of desegregation in the U.S. Marines didn't exist in Wikipedia's knowledge ecosystem. The topic wasn't totally ignored, but simply split among related entries; a devoted, focused article never existed solely in its own right.

"Someone already took a primary document -- a portrait of the first African-American marine after desegregation -- and wrote a lengthy article about desegregation in the military," says McDevitt-Parks. "That article, within a day or two of its creation, was showcased on Wikipedia's main page in the 'Did You Know?' section, which features little blurbs from newly created, good content. The article was showcased on the main page next to the Archives' image. The document got something like 10 million hits in a single day. That's important for the National Archives. It's a way of making things more discoverable."

McDevitt-Parks is just one member of a new class of Wikipedians making their way into cultural institutions. He has colleagues at the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, the Indianapolis Children's Museum and the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, among other places. McDevitt-Parks and his colleagues may bridge the gap between the untapped resources of the National Archives and the churning community of Wikipedians who, like themselves, take pleasure in distilling historical archives into an easily accessible form.

"I'm drawn to Wikipedia because I enjoy doing research and writing about things and writing for Wikipedia is one of the best mechanisms for self-study that I can imagine," says McDevitt-Parks. "The kinds of people and persons that who are editors on Wikipedia are obsessive ... and I know people like myself who have procrastinated on assignments while writing on Wikipedia. That means doing intense research and writing at a high level in order to not write a paper. Part of the attraction is getting to choose what you want to do. It's something that's enjoyable, and you're creating something that other people can benefit from. It's kinda the ultimate experiment in public knowledge."

Image: wallyg/Flickr.