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A visit from wikipedian Liam Wyatt

Do a Google search on almost any topic—Georgia O’Keeffe to Predator aircraft—and you’ll find a Wikipedia article near the top of the search results. With more than 16 million articles written by more than 13 million users, Wikipedia has become one of the ten most visited websites in the world. Given its worldwide popularity and influence, it’s important for cultural organizations to understand how the website works and the challenges that can arise when working with its community.

Yesterday, BPOC hosted a talk with Liam Wyatt (@wittylama), a volunteer Wikipedia administrator from Sydney, Australia, who recently served as the first-ever Wikipedian-in-Residence at the British Museum (See a recent New York Times article about this project.) Representatives of seven Balboa Park organizations came together to learn best practices for contributing to Wikipedia, a website that has become known for its unique culture and fluid, community-defined policies.

Liam noted that museums and Wikipedia share a goal of educating the public but recognized that their views on copyright and control can differ. While Wikipedia participation can be scary for more traditional museum professionals, it’s necessary for ensuring the encyclopedia’s content is as thorough and accurate as possible.

“Many people in the academic field think [Wikipedia] is about undermining research and academic study but our reliability depends on footnotes,” he explained. “It is extraordinarily detailed in terms of peer review.”

He added that any attempts to compromise the integrity of Wikipedia are not tolerated by the core Wikipedia community and that vandalism is quickly removed. “Imagine if graffiti on a street were easier to remove than to create. It wouldn’t last very long.”

Similar problems can arise if the community members notice activity on particular pages that causes them to think that a person is simply serving their own interests—such as adding dozens of hyperlinks to a particular museum web site – instead of making valuable contributions to a neutral, reliably sourced article. To be successful, newbies need to adhere to Wikipedia’s conflict of interest policies and begin editing in a way that advances both the mission of the museum and Wikipedia.

“It’s important to think: ‘How can I build the encyclopedia?’ instead of ‘How can I link back to our museum.’”

Liam suggested starting slowly by contributing photos and posting comments on discussion pages. Museums can also mobilize e-volunteers to research objects in their collections and write about them from an objective point of view. He stressed that Wikipedians are hungry for information, photos, and new projects. “Wikipedians are intellectually promiscuous,” he joked. “They’ll take anything that comes along.”

As we move forward with our BPOC Commons project and other online initiatives, we plan to incorporate Liam’s advice to reach the broadest possible audience. Information about the British Museum project is available online