There are countless ways to catch a fish. It can be pursued, actively, aggressively. It can be stalked, quietly, thoughtfully. It can be trapped, methodically, patiently. It can be stumbled upon, unexpectedly, fortuitously. It can be devoured, hungrily, passionately. It can be shared, graciously, equitably. It can be released, the enjoyment of the hunt and capture acknowledged, but the object itself set free to grow and mature, and to be chased and caught again.
Knowledge is a fish, and last month I made an uncommon catch.
On 12-14 April 2013, the Wikimedia UK and then British Library hosted a three-day conference to facilitate the exchange of new technologies, innovative modes of engagement, and long-standing curatorial rigour between Wikimedians and GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) practitioners.
As a history lecturer who remains completely unaffiliated with any GLAM, and who had made only very rudimentary edits to Wikipedia in the past, I was certainly not the target audience of the event. Yet, with the surprisingly low conference fee (£15/£40), and the promise of new insights into the digital humanities, I journeyed south and hoped for the best.
When I arrived, I was greeted by a gaggle of British Library and Wikimedia staff (and volunteers), handed a not unsubstantial tote-bag full of Wikimedia goodies, and directed towards some much needed tea. As I watched, dozens of men and women from around the world ran up to each other, shaking hands (and occasionally hugging). It was clear that many of the delegates were already well acquainted. After a moment or two, I began to sidle up to on-going conversations. The room was quickly buzzing with chat over the latest GLAM digitisation projects, intellectual property and copyright law, and the newest toys in the Wikimedia tool kit.
When asked whether I was GLAM or Wiki, I shyly admitted that I had registered under slightly false pretences. Having previously heard that the event had sold out, I became oddly nervous that I had somehow denied entry to a more deserving delegate; I need not have been. Both GLAM professionals and Wikimedian volunteers were extremely welcoming to the slightly clueless lecturer wandering in their midst, and did their best to let me know, in the 30 seconds which remained before the keynote lecture, the entire history of the GLAM-Wiki project.
The event began with a magnificent plenary keynote by Michael Edson of the Smithsonian Institute; it remains the only keynote I have ever attended in which the first six minutes were done entirely in verse. In the prose that followed, Edson made a compelling case for the opening of collections through large-scale digitisation projects, bringing them to a potential global audience. He acknowledged the financial constraints of such a vision, the cost of dissemination as well as the loss of revenue from licencing, but reminded us of the potential benefits. Beyond public missions to share knowledge, placing collections online encouraged licensing revenue; when Monty Python uploaded high quality clips of their programmes on YouTube, and ceased requests to remove other instances of their content, “sales of the DVD box set had gone up by 16,000% on Amazon.” The most poignant point, however, was the simplest. “You can judge a lot about an institution by what it chooses to measure, and how it measures it.”
Over the next two days, I wandered in and out of parallel sessions, hastily noting down the vital details of dozens of projects either recently completed or currently being undertaken by museums and galleries around the world. Most notable, perhaps, was the recent reopening of the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands. In her post-lunch plenary, Lizzy Jongma provided an inspiring account of the digitisation efforts of the Rijksmuseum, and their most recent efforts to make their online gallery as accessible and multi-lingual as possible. Here the question of licencing, a crucial source of revenue for cash-strapped institutions, again came to the fore. Jongma poetically deflected concerns with the problem of the ‘Yellow Milkmaid.’
“‘The Milkmaid’, one of Johannes Vermeer’s most famous pieces, depicts a scene of a woman quietly pouring milk into a bowl. During a survey the Rijksmuseum discovered that there were over 10,000 copies of the image on the internet—mostly poor, yellowish reproductions. As a result of all of these low-quality copies on the web, according to the Rijksmuseum, “people simply didn’t believe the postcards in our museum shop were showing the original painting. This was the trigger for us to put high-resolution images of the original work with open metadata on the web ourselves. Opening up our data is our best defence against the ‘yellow Milkmaid’.””
Likewise, Kimberley Kowal of the British Library shared her experiences of crowd-sourcing library collections. As many of you may know, this venerable institution has an expanding collection of historical maps, most of which are wholly unknown to the general public and many of which are too fragile to allow public access. In order to make these collection available, the library decided to digitise a selection of them for online access. The difficulty, Kowal explained, was that no matter how descriptive the meta data for the maps was, they would remain essentially unsearchable to a wide range of users, who were unsure of the ‘correct’ search parameters. Instead, it was decided that the maps would be georeferenced, placing them on top of modern map data, allowing for a visual search of a particular area. The problem? How to georeference thousands of maps with limited staffing resources. The solution? Allow the world to georeference it for you! The most amazing part of the story is not that the public engaged but the level of engagement. The initial batch of 800 maps, expected to take several months, was completed in just three days!
The other side of the coin, the Wikimedians, were just as engaging. Over the course of the second day, Wikimedian volunteers and Wikimedians-in-Residence explored a variety of outreach activities within the UK and around the world. Some volunteers had worked directly with GLAM institutions, coordinating on-site events and outreach programmes to encourage public engagement with their collections. One common experience was the edit-a-thon and backstage pass, where local community members were invited into back rooms of archives, museums and galleries, given a behind-the-scenes tour of the collections, and then encouraged to digitise a selection of the material (for Wikimedia Commons) or create and update Wikipedia articles related to the materials held there. Other Wikimedians improved accessibility to existing collections through the creation of QR codes that directed a user’s smartphone to the Wikipedia article on that exhibit, statue, or artwork in their own (or their phone’s) language. Rather than a plaque with the three most likely visitor languages, museums and galleries can now cater to most of the world’s languages with a single square.
Over the course of the two days, and the ThatCamp that immediately followed, I gained an almost inexpressible breadth of new knowledge regarding open-access resources and community outreach programmes. Most importantly, I have become completely enamoured with the Wikimedian volunteers. In all honesty, I have never met such a wonderfully optimistic, civic-minded, and genuinely kind-hearted group of individuals. If you have any sympathy with the idea of Open Access or the free dissemination of knowledge, I cannot recommended a finer group of people to engage with.