ChB:PhD

Diary of a mature research student

ONCE UPON A TIME, LONG, LONG AGO (1856)

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…a now-forgotten publisher (Houlston and Sons), who traded in the heart of London’s publishing community (Paternoster Row), published the first edition of a book called Enquire Within Upon Everything: a ‘how-to book for domestic life’. You can sample the challenges and delights of Victorian everyday life by checking out the 1894 edition on the Project Gutenberg. No time here to catalogue the content – I’ll leave it as something you can do on a long winter’s evening. While browsing note that despite the claim of the title to be the vade mecum for living, the publisher has covered the risk of action against the claim by producing no less than 20 companion volumes. They range in scope from medical and surgical knowledge, through gardening, geology, science, political geography to Christian denominations and, my favourite, the Family Save All or Secondary Cooking.

Hard as it may be to believe, Enquire Within Upon Everything (EWUE) continued to serve an eager public until 1976, and edition 126, before its demise. By then the complexities of life and the burgeoning sources of knowledge and advice from an expanding publishing market, and the mass media of TV and radio meant EWUE had no chance of keeping abreast of the changing world or expect that anyone would believe everything could be found all in one place. As a raw library assistant I can recall, vaguely now, seeing copies of the last few editions and thinking what a cool idea it was to put everything needed in one place. And subsequently on the conference circuit I heard colleagues recycle the title as the ideal sign to put over the front door of the library. While no more achievable for the library than it ever was for EWUE, the concept of a ‘first port of call’ for anyone in need of knowledge to support or enrich life, seemed to be a compelling brand identity for libraries of all types. Not perhaps unlike the kind of debate that public librarians in England are having now, seeking a simple, but powerful, unique service proposition that all might sign up to.

Time passes and things change. This trip down memory lane is not just idle dotage and the links so far may give a clue of what I am on about. The topic arises from attendance last week at seminar organized jointly by Culture24 and the Strategic Content Alliance. The seminar had the catchy title – Everything You Wanted to Know About Wikipedia and were Afraid to Ask – and was led by Liam Wyatt, an Aussie historian who is the vice president of Wikimedia Australia and currently (volunteer) Wikipedian in residence at the British Museum. Liam blogged about his role and aspirations for the five week residency before he arrived at the BM and it provides a good sense of what he and the BM hoped to achieve.

Understandably, the seminar brought in an audience made up mainly of museum specialists, but Liam rightly did more than focus on wiki-museological activity at the BM. I guess he has enough briefings under his belt to know that while the audience will use Wikipedia and have views of it, the majority will have only a limited grip on what goes on under the bonnet, whether in terms of diversity of activity, systems of control or the legal challenges of managing copyright on a global basis. (Not surprisingly, Liam’s section on copyright management evinced the biggest audience debate around the risks and benefits of mounting images in Wikipedia that might have wider commercial value to the institution).

While Liam’s Keynote slides do not alone do justice to his theme, they are available on Slideshare and worth working through to get a sense of the wide landscape of the Wikipedia community and the work that he is currently facilitating at the BM. Much of the focus is on bridge building between BM staff and Wikipedians to increase BM presence and also improve the quality of content. Already there has been a ‘backstage event’ for UK Wikipedians where:

  • curators “pitched” objects that are their personal favourites to start articles, following assessment of “notability“;
  • existing articles of specific artefacts in the museum collection were reviewed for improvement using images and text, and so on.

The GLAM/BM Wikipedia page documents the activities as the residency progresses, highlighting the BM’s commitment to exploring new channels to engage audiences with its collections. The BBC/BM A History of the World in 100 Objects series is another compelling example.

This was an interesting and practical event that brought into focus for me a number of questions concerning future roles and relationships for and between knowledge institutions such as museums, whether large or small and their relationships with audiences. First, not so much a question as a reflection on the fact that, despite the dystopian views of writers such as Andrew Keen (The Cult of the Amateur), the Wikipedia model of community engagement does something never done before. First of all it gets closer to the ‘enquire within upon everything’ mission, not just in its scope, but also in accessibility (24/7) and the rapid knowledge development that is possible. Second, it is a biggie in users and contributors, alongside the content base. In discussions over the past couple of years I have yet to find anyone who never uses Wikipedia, even those who are concerned about trust and reliability still have to admit they use it. Convenience and comprehensiveness overcoming any reservations. Enquire within upon everything.

Despite this scale and popularity, it is worth reflecting on some of the underlying implications both of how Wikipedia is used and the active community engagement on which it depends. Let me address the first of these issues by asking how you think of Wikipedia, is it destination or point of departure? What do I mean by this? I suppose most of all, the extent to which the user sees Wikipedia as the access into further seams of knowledge. Of course, as the means of quickly finding specific information – a river in Surrey, a US state capital, the length of the bat used in whiffle ball – Wikipedia is usually unbeatable. Yet, while finding a factual answer to a specific question (Wikipedia as destination) is an important component in everyday learning, clipping a chunk out of a specific entry to use as the answer to a homework question might well undermine the learning value of the homework – critical analysis, creative thinking, research skills, knowledge apprehension. Then surely Wikipedia ought to be seen as point of departure rather than destination. I’m not suggesting for a moment that such ‘cut and paste’ behaviour is ubiquitous or indeed the norm. Rather that if Wikipedia is to become a long-term component of public policy – a route to market for museums, a resource to support learning and education – it will be essential there is understanding that different needs call for different behaviours. Within the hype that is the emerging digital culture, knowledge resources should never become a substitute for thinking.

The second underlying implication worth reflecting on is the sustainability and robustness of the engagement model on which Wikipedia depends. Two questions: first, does it really work? And, second, will it endure? Liam had some thoughts on the evolution that has fostered the self-healing that is the norm amongst Wikipedians. Where there are disagreements they are managed through a process of debate and pages are rarely ‘protected’ by the uber-editors. The example Liam offered us was the Gdansk/Danzig debate concerning the correct naming of the city during the various stages of its history. This ended with the  Gdansk/Danzig vote as a mechanism to produce an acceptable formula for the city’s description. Active communitarianism (Crowdsourcing or community engagement if you prefer) is what makes Wikipedia work, both in terms of its scale – compare the slow development of Citizendium (127 editorially approved articles from 90 contributors) – and the drive for people to become engaged. Across the landscape of engagement we see again and again that people from all backgrounds want to give their time and energy to collective endeavour and have things worth saying – the active amateur at home as valuable as the academic in the ivory tower. Without this commitment Wikipedia could not exist and even if the number of active Wikipedians drops dramatically, it has a long way to fall from 300,000 to match Citizendium’s 90! Will the model endure for the long-game? Only time will tell. Yet the very fact that serious organisations such as the British Museum are moving into the territory suggest there may be a new phase of development emerging.

That brings me to my last point of reflection. During his presentation Liam quoted musician Greg Gillis:

“If people were passing out paints on the street for free every day, I’m sure there’d be a lot more painters”

And then modified (Wikified) the quote to fit the day:

“If people were passing out knowledge on the street for free every day, I’m sure there’d be a lot more learning”

It’s a catchy phrase, but what does it mean? The original I guess suggests that if you make something easy and interesting, then people will join in, which I do think has some merit in regard to community engagement. Transferring that concept to knowledge and learning I think needs some caution. First of all more painters does not mean more masterpieces just as more knowledge (in the generic sense of what is in Wikipedia) does not guarantee more creative learning per se. Although I suppose if we believe the infinite monkey theorem, quantity of activity may do something.

I think the key point is that more knowledge in the right form and presented to encourage journeys of discovery offers a contribution to the public good that knowledge institutions such as museums, libraries and archives seek to deliver. In that context, what the British Museum is doing currently is likely to have relevance to most of you and could perhaps offer a playing field on which greater collaboration around collections and themes might be possible: new points of departure to learning. Now, there’s a thought.

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Written by chrisbatt

June 15, 2010 at 3:17 pm

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