v23 #3 ATG Interviews Phoebe Ayers

Reference, Collections and Instruction Librarian Physical Sciences & Engineering Library, UC Davis

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by Katina Strauch  (Editor, Against the Grain)  <kstrauch@comcast.net>

and Tom Gilson  (Associate Editor, Against the Grain)  <gilsont@cofc.edu>

ATG:  In July 2010 you were selected to the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees.  That might be considered quite a coup for a librarian.  How long have you been active in the Wikimedia Community?  How did you get your start?  What would you recommend to other librarians who are interested in making a “splash” in the Wikimedia community?

PA:  I began editing the English-language Wikipedia back in 2003, when the site was not nearly as well-known as it is now — Wikipedia was founded in 2001, and it took a couple years for it to reach a critical mass (now it’s a top-five Website!)  I immediately fell in love with the project and its promise, and was also fascinated by the social dynamics of Wikipedia as an information resource: both why people edit and use Wikipedia, and that the big questions of information authority and how we know what we know are issues that Wikipedia editors grapple with on a daily basis.

Over the years I became more involved with the Wikimedia Foundation, which is the non-profit organization that runs Wikipedia and its sister projects.  We have an annual international conference, “Wikimania,” which I have now helped organize on five continents.  That has enabled me to meet Wikipedians from all over the world, which has been a very rewarding experience.  In 2010 I ran for a seat on the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, and was chosen for a two-year term in a community selection process.  Our Board has ten seats in total; five of them are selected by our editing community.

For librarians, there are many ways to get involved in Wikipedia.  There is a lot of momentum right now behind projects that we are loosely calling “GLAM” work — partnerships with Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums — such as inviting Wikipedians to have a residency or internship in a cultural institution to improve articles related to it.  There have also been many projects where librarians have directly edited and improved Wikipedia articles, or contributed archival materials to the Wikimedia Commons, our online free photo repository.  There is also a big opportunity for librarians to do outreach work.  One of the wonderful things about Wikipedia is it is such an open project — no one ever assigned me the work of helping organize our conference, for instance; I just decided to help out, and it became a passion for me.  Anyone can just dive in, if they have time and inclination.

ATG:  Would you comment on Jimmy Wales and your professional involvement with him?  Were you involved with Wikipedia from the beginning?  Did Jimmy ask you to join the effort?  Did y’all have similar attitudes and wishes for the project?

PA:  Well, as I mentioned above I became involved in Wikipedia a couple of years after it was founded.  I didn’t even know who Jimmy Wales was at that time, and I didn’t have any interactions with him until many years later, when we met in the context of our annual conference.  While Jimmy does meet hundreds of Wikipedians every year, that’s still only a small fraction of the overall number of Wikipedia contributors.  Jimmy’s leadership was established not because he personally met or recruited editors — Jimmy himself didn’t meet a group of Wikipedians in person until 2004, three years after Wikipedia started! — but because of the work he and other early contributors did to establish core principles and the project’s tone.  These guidelines, policies and principles include some of the core tenets of the project, such as free content, neutrality and friendliness to new editors, that attracted me and many other people to the project.  Jimmy and I are currently colleagues on the Board of Trustees, and it has been great to work with him.

ATG:  When Wikipedia began did you have a business plan?  Did you project expenses and operating costs?  Please tell us about the planning process before and after Wikipedia and Wikimedia began.

PA:  Wikipedia was really an experiment starting out — it was originally envisioned as part of another encyclopedia project, Nupedia, that subsequently failed — and after being put online the growth of Wikipedia proceeded to absolutely blow everyone’s expectations away.  I don’t think anyone who was there at the beginning imagined that Wikipedia would become anything like what it is today.  So no, there was no business plan at the beginning.  That’s where the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation came in, a couple of years after Wikipedia was founded — the Foundation’s goal was to provide a safe, stable and non-commercial home for the funding and upkeep of the project, which was clearly beginning to get huge.  The plan for the Foundation was developed by Jimmy Wales and other volunteers who were involved in the project, and costs were covered by donations — as they are today.

ATG:  For the uninitiated can you explain the relationship between the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia the online encyclopedia that millions of us use daily?

PA:  The Wikimedia Foundation is the legal non-profit organization that hosts Wikipedia.  We have a small staff based in San Francisco that runs the servers for the site, maintains the software (MediaWiki) that Wikipedia runs on, and does other support work like running the annual fundraiser and providing legal support.  But the Wikimedia Foundation does not have a hand in the content of Wikipedia — that is entirely generated and maintained by our all-volunteer editing community.  There is no editorial board or anything like that.  And though we are based in San Francisco, we have chapters in 33 countries — these are independent organizations in their respective geographies that aim to support the Wikimedia mission.  With projects in 270 languages and chapters on every continent (except Antarctica), we are truly a global organization.

ATG:  Can you comment on the money that it takes to run Wikipedia?  Wikimedia Foundation?  Do you have a budget to work with?  Do you work largely off of contributions and/or grants?

PA:  Funding for Wikimedia comes almost entirely from donations, primarily small donations from individuals who give money during our annual fundraising campaign (you’ll see the banners on Wikipedia in the fall).  In other words, Wikipedia is funded by its readers, and we depend on that support.  We do also get a few grants from educational foundations.  This year, we raised $16 million, with an average donation size of about $35.  That money goes towards all of the programs of the Wikimedia Foundation, including paying for the hosting and technical maintenance of Wikipedia.

ATG:  Please comment on your international operation.  What are the 33 countries that you are working with?  Into which countries do you plan to expand?  Do you have a similar set up in terms of articles, contributors, etc., in other countries that you have in the U.S.?

PA:  Chapters currently exist in the following countries:  Argentina, Austria, Australia, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Estonia, Spain, Finland, France, Hong Kong, Hungary, Indonesia, Israel, India, Italy, Macedonia, Macau, Netherlands, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Russia, Sweden, Taiwan, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States (New York City), South Africa, and Canada.

Of course we’d love to see more chapters — that’s up to the volunteer communities in those countries, however.  Chapters are founded and run by volunteers, and they are independent entities.  Volunteers don’t need any approval from the Foundation to self-organize into interest or meetup groups — in fact there are hundreds of small groups of editors around the world that meet up regularly and do outreach activities — but if such a group decides to become a chapter, which is a legally-recognized nonprofit organization that uses the Wikimedia name, then they would work with us.

The Wikipedia projects, the different language editions, are totally separate from this structure — all Wikipedia editions are hosted by the U.S.-based Wikimedia Foundation.  Most editors are not affiliated with any particular group, no matter what country they live in or language they use.

ATG:  As you know there are still librarians and publishers who criticize Wikipedia for its perceived lack of quality control, vandalism, etc.  Is that a fair criticism?  Have there been changes that make many of these concerns ill founded?  Would our energy be better spent trying to help improve Wikipedia?  Why?  What is the benefit to the library community?

PA:  One of the things that it’s important to intuitively understand about Wikipedia is that it’s uneven.  Some articles are great; some are terrible.  That’s not a secret — but it means that both blanket criticism and blanket praise are somewhat misplaced.  (Of course, one of the hidden aspects of many traditional reference works is that they are also uneven, with articles updated at different times).  Overall, our quality control mechanisms — mainly, the many members of our core editing community that are keeping an eye on changes to articles — have worked extraordinarily well considering the extremely rapid growth of Wikipedia over the years.  But it still is important to bring a critical eye to Wikipedia as a reader, checking the article history if you think an article has been vandalized, checking citation quality, and so on.

We are constantly experimenting with new things.  For several years there have been automated tools on Wikipedia, sort of like the spam filters on your email, that keep out the majority of blatant vandalism; it is quite rare for this kind of damage to stick for very long in an article these days.  We are currently piloting a “reader ratings” system, so that readers can rate articles and submit comments; this will hopefully get more people involved in the editorial process and give us a new way to flag low-quality articles.  But the best thing we can do to keep quality up is to bring in more high-quality editors to improve and maintain articles.

So yes, I do think it’s worthwhile for librarians to help edit Wikipedia.  We have the skills and tools at our disposal to improve any Wikipedia article.  The benefit to us is that our patrons — our students, clients, and the public at large — are using Wikipedia to find information.  In libraries, we have a mission to deliver the highest-quality, most relevant information to our patrons about whatever they are looking for — and a really good Wikipedia article that is correct, up to date, and well-referenced is a great mechanism for reaching even those patrons that won’t come directly to us, for whatever reason.  Editing Wikipedia has more of an impact than any other single thing we can do as a professional.  Even the least-trafficked article will be seen thousands of times by people all over the world; highly-read articles might be seen millions of times.

ATG:  You mention a “core editing community.”  Is that a formal group?  How does one become a member?  How does it work?  Are people assigned to cover specific subject areas?

PA:  Very few things on Wikipedia involve formal groups! I am simply using this term as shorthand to refer to the people who spend a lot of time and energy working on Wikipedia — the people who affiliate themselves with the project.  In general when it comes to editing content we don’t assign anyone to do anything; tasks get done (or not) because someone decides to step up and do it.

ATG:  You mention in your Wikipedia profile that “referencing is my true love.”  By that you mean adding references to print sources for Wikipedia articles, enhancing their bibliographies.  Correct?  Do you see that as one way librarians can most effectively impact Wikipedia?  Are there other contributions that librarians can make that will enhance the value of Wikipedia articles?

PA:  That’s right.  As librarians we are in this wonderful position of having much more access to good, authoritative sources than the average person, and certainly much more so than underserved populations around the world who might not have access to a library at all.  We are also all well-trained in coming up with references about anything in short order, without necessarily being subject-matter experts.  The majority of Wikipedia articles can use more citations, whether it’s links to authoritative handbooks under “further reading” or footnotes to back up claimed facts.  There’s nothing magical about this process — it just takes people who really like to dig through bibliographic resources to find good citations, which I think describes most librarians!  And there are a lot of interesting tools that you can use for citations on Wikipedia; for instance, the booksources tool that automatically links an ISBN number to a special page where a reader can choose to search Worldcat, a national library catalog, or an online bookseller to find a copy of the book near them.  There’s also a lot of tidying up to do that you can start with, if you are hesitant about editing Wikipedia — for instance, adding ISBN numbers to citations for books, making sure bibliographies in articles about authors are complete, and so on.

As I said, there’s many other ways librarians could get involved too.  Institutionally, freeing up archival materials by digitizing them and releasing them under a free license is one exciting type of work that’s happening.  And support of open access helps Wikipedia as well; since Wikipedia editors aren’t necessarily affiliated with institutions that can afford expensive subscriptions, anything that’s open access is likely to be disproportionately represented in Wikipedia — and therefore have quite a bit of traffic driven to it.

ATG:  Have there been active attempts to recruit librarians or their institutions as volunteers?  Say through ALA, ACRL, PLA or other library associations?

PA:  Well, I and others have given talks encouraging it!  But there haven’t been any formal efforts by library associations to encourage working on Wikipedia that I know of.  Volunteer Wikimedia groups have worked with some libraries, certainly, but we don’t have a formal program to do so.  In some other professional organizations, most recently the Association for Psychological Science, members of that organization who were passionate about helping to improve Wikipedia have called on their colleagues to volunteer; and that’s the kind of effort that’s really most effective (you can see their project here: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/members/aps-wikipedia-initiative).  That kind of initiative would be really great to see in our professional organizations as well.

ATG:  The Wikimedia Foundation also supports so-called “Sister Projects” in addition to Wikipedia.  What are some of the most exciting of these “Sister Projects?”  Are there roles for librarians (or possibly publishers) in any of these projects?

PA:  We have eight sister projects: Wiktionary (a free dictionary); Wikimedia Commons (a free photo repository); Wikibooks (free textbooks); Wikisource (source texts, such as historical materials); Wikiversity (for development of learning and curricular materials); Wikinews (citizen journalism); Wikiquote (a free quotations dictionary); and Wikispecies (taxonomic species information). MediaWiki, the open-source wiki software that all of the other projects run on, is the ninth project that we run.

Many of these projects are quite a bit smaller and have a lot of unexplored potential.  All of them are interesting for librarians, though the first five I list might be most directly relevant for librarians and publishers.  For example, Commons is where photos end up, including several large donations from national libraries that we have received.  Wikisource has the text of public-domain documents like the Constitution, and the French-language Wikisource just entered a partnership with the French National Library to receive a large donation of digitized public domain texts of this type.  In turn, the library receives the efforts of the Wikisource volunteer community, who will correct the OCR’d scans and produce plain-text versions of the documents.  This is a very exciting type of partnership that we hope to see more of.

ATG:  As it has grown the Wikimedia Foundation has added more paid “professional” staff.  Is there a danger that the volunteer ethos that has contributed so much to Wikipedia’s success will be lost?  How is this growth of professional staff affecting the Foundation and its work?

PA:  This has been an area of debate for many years in our community; however, as I noted all editorial work, such as writing Wikipedia articles, is done by volunteers, not by staff.  In areas where both staff and volunteers do similar tasks — for instance, we have many volunteers that do outreach and press support, and we also have a small team of people at the Foundation who answer press inquiries — we have a culture of working together quite closely, with shared issue tracking systems, mailing lists, and so on.  A large amount of “Foundation” work is actually done by volunteer community members, and there is an expectation of transparency and public sharing of information that would be quite radical for many organizations — but we just think of it as the Wikimedia way.

The Foundation has grown from a shoe-string organization with no paid staff at the beginning, to now having around 70 employees, but we still feel that we’re barely scraping the surface of what could be done.  For a long time, our staff has just scaled to meet the increased technical needs of the projects as they have grown; we are just now beginning to explore doing more outreach work at the Foundation.  Our vision is “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge” — that’s pretty ambitious.  And we are well aware that Wikimedia only exists because of the work done by the multi-faceted, international volunteer community — the community is the heart and soul of our movement.

ATG:  Can we expect an update of your book “How Wikipedia Works” any time soon?

PA:  I would love to at some point, but I don’t have any plans (or any time) to update it right now — however,  the book is released under the GFDL, which is a free license, so other people are certainly welcome to update it!  In addition to my book, there are other newer educational materials available at http://bookshelf.wikimedia.org.

ATG:  If you had a crystal ball, where would you see Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation in five years?  What would you see your role as then?

PA:  We just completed a strategic planning project that mapped out the direction for the next five years of the Wikimedia Foundation and movement, through 2015; this was a massive community effort, with a thousand community members contributing to building the plan.  So coming out of that, our goal for the next five years is to radically increase our editing community, particular in areas that are currently underrepresented — for instance, we want to get more female editors, and more editors that are from parts of the world where large portions of the population are newly online, such as India and Brazil.

More editors will lead, we hope, to increasing articles in languages where there are millions of native speakers, but comparatively very little material online (and where the Wikipedia version is still small), such as Hindi and Arabic.  More articles means more readers means more editors — it’s a virtuous circle.  And finally, we want to increase article quality across all languages.

In five years, I hope that everyone will not only use Wikipedia, but will think of it as a living project that they participate in, have a stake in, and can make better.  With the growth of Wikipedia over the last ten years, I have been privileged to have been a part of one of the most extraordinary social movements and reference projects to ever exist, and I would love to share that with everyone.

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