Have you been looking for more ways to contribute your knowledge and information science skills to the world? You should come edit Wikipedia with me. I’m an active Wikipedian. In the last few months I’ve made around a thousand edits, big and small, to the world’s most popular encyclopedia. But sometimes it feels like I’m the only living librarian in Wiki-world. And that’s too bad, because editing Wikipedia is awesome. It can be great fun, and it’s professionally rewarding.
As an employee of a gallery, library, archive or museum, or as a subject matter expert in academia, your contribution is especially valuable to the Wikipedia community. It’s great to be needed. Creating or editing a Wikipedia article can provide you with a renewed and refreshed perspective on your job. And since hundreds of millions of people rely on Wikipedia as their primary reference work, making it better is a calling, even if you only have time to make one or two changes. Here are seven other great reasons librarians should edit Wikipedia:
- It’s where reference lives on the Internet. Reference isn’t dead! But most people, and especially students, begin (and often finish) their research on Wikipedia. Many teachers are worried about Wikipedia’s lack of credibility. You might have trouble taking Wikipedia seriously yourself. But it’s the Internet’s reference book. Often if searchers can’t find the answer there, they don’t call the library–they simply give up. Instead of despairing about the popularity of Wikipedia, consider this: what if you could build a stronger connection between Wikipedia and libraries’ credible resources? This is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. As a librarian, you can bring a neutral point of view and strong, credible references to an article. This is triply true if you have training as a reference librarian. People are coming to Wikipedia because they want to know something. You have the opportunity to literally put the right reference work in their hands, the moment they look for it. You can help make Wikipedia a good starting place for research.
- It needs to be organized. Lack of organization and coherence is a problem for many Wikipedia articles. If you’re a cataloger like me, it can drive you up the wall. If you have good information organization or information architecture skills, you can help restructure articles so that they’re more readable. As a librarian, you can probably see when information needs to be pulled together or split up. It’s really quick and easy to change article headings and hierarchies (and for me, kind of fun). Even if you only have a minute or two, you can put the article in an appropriate category so it’s easier to find.
- iSchool students need guidance. Creating and editing Wikipedia articles is a common assignment for library and information science grad students. I think that’s great–no joke. But in order for their assignment to be useful–to them and to Wikipedia–they need to collaborate with experienced librarians and academics. A lot of them are still learning about the subjects they’re writing about. Even if you’ve never taught an MLIS class, you can mentor the next generation of librarians in a way that boosts everyone’s skills. And that’s really important because…
- You can use Wikipedia help improve global information literacy. A lot of articles on libraries, information science, the media and scholarly communication have been neglected or used primarily as iSchool projects. They’re not very helpful to ordinary people who are trying to find out about these topics. This is a huge issue, and it’s why I decided to get more involved with Wikipedia. The lack of quality articles on these topics makes the profession look disorganized and out of touch. A lot of people’s first (only?) encounter with a topic like metadata or discoverability is a Wikipedia article. So the next time you find an article about libraries or info sci that doesn’t meet your standards, don’t just roll your eyes. Roll up your sleeves. Show people how helpful and useful librarians can be. Please. I’m lonely.
- It boosts your writing skills. If you’re not a publishing academic, you may not be called upon to do much long-form writing in relation to your job. Writing Wikipedia articles is a great way to build and maintain your professional writing and composition skills. Wikipedia’s style teaches you to summarize, back everything up with credible references, and write with general audiences in mind. Your writing also instantly becomes useful. Every month, thousands of people read articles that I have contributed to–at least as a collaborator, and sometimes as a primary author. That’s more readers than a lot of published authors get. You may be worried that someone will delete or change your hard work. That sometimes happens. But if you make a substantive contribution, It will probably be accessible for a long, long time. And it will always be part of an article’s edit history.
- It can teach you coding basics. Coding is a big deal for librarians. It doesn’t come naturally to me, and I definitely empathize with people who find Wikicode, Wikipedia’s formatting language, a bit difficult. Wikipedia is trying to deal with this problem by simplifying the editing process. But I think learning Wikicode is a great entry into coding for librarians. I like it because it’s a simple code that helps organize and deliver information. It’s very logical and gets instant results. For me, Wikicode was easier to learn than HTML and CSS, and since you can also use a little HTML in articles, it leads naturally to more challenging coding and web design tasks.
- There’s a job for everyone. Wikipedia is like a huge city with all kinds of jobs that that are big and small. For example, there are thousands of Wikipedia articles that need copy editing. Fixing an error just takes a second, and it’s very unlikely to be controversial. It’s a great job for grammar geeks. If your gift is in training and HR, then you’ll be a great guru for new editors. Are you a legal eagle or good negotiator? Wikipedia’s way of building consensus and resolving disputes is absolutely fascinating. And one of the best things is, you can be involved as much or as little as you want. You can just contribute a few minutes of copy editing once a month, or you can become deeply engaged with the Wikipedia community. You can work mostly alone if that’s your style, or you can collaborate with others on a large, controversial topic. And you don’t have to confine yourself to library and information science topics. Your librarian skills could boost the quality of any article. If you love astronomy, for example, or Sherlock Holmes, or tea, then there is probably an article you can help improve. And if there isn’t, you can create one!
Are you ready to give it a try? The last thing to remember about Wikipedia is that there is nothing wrong with editing articles, and you don’t have to have any special qualifications. When I try to get librarians and academics more involved in Wikipedia, I feel like they’re really hesitant to make substantive changes. That makes sense given the library/academic community’s reverence for books and resources. But Wikipedia is made to be rewritten. Don’t hesitate. If you step on someone’s toes, or if you need more time to figure out Wikipedia’s culture and style, the community will let you know. But they’ll also let you know if you’re doing it right. There’s something satisfying about seeing an article’s usage shoot up because you improved it.
I am always available to talk with librarians and academics who want advice on editing Wikipedia. I can also offer suggestions for articles that need work. As usual, you can email me through my contact page or hit me up on Twitter.