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Five things a Wikipedian in residence can do

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By Pete Forsyth

Hey you—yeah you, the Wikipedian! Do you want to help a museum, a library, a university, or other organization explore ways to engage with Wikipedia? Great—you should offer your expertise as a Wikipedian in residence!

The Wikipedian in residence concept was proposed by Geoff Burling in 2006. Liam Wyatt was the first to make it happen when, in 2010, he persuaded the British Museum to bring him on, to help their curators get to know Wikipedia and its volunteer community, and explore opportunities. Individual outreach to organizations remains a great way to earn a Residency, but these days, you will also find job postings all over the world from organizations that are already on board with the idea.

If you find yourself in such a role, you will have opportunities to help your host organization share knowledge in new and exciting ways; and to help Wikipedia readers and editors around the world benefit directly from the expertise and institutional knowledge your host possesses.

Your role is that of a connector and a facilitator; you should aim to empower those around you (both the staff of your host organization, and Wikipedia volunteers who share the organization's interests). (If you find your host is approaching it as a paid editing program, you should proceed with caution; you might want to point them at this Signpost article: Foundation-supported Wikipedian in residence faces scrutiny.)

So what can you do to get off to a good start? Here are a few ideas. (Past and present Wikipedians in Residence, please add your own ideas and lessons in the comments!)

A great Wikipedian in residence convenes discussion, both online and in person.

1. Chat it up on Wikipedia!

Wikipedia's talk pages can be drama machines—or they can be ghostly silent. But ideally, they can be incredible forums for processing complex information, and determining the best way to clearly and neutrally guide a reader's learning process.

What makes discussions on Wikipedia work well? Facilitation! Just getting the conversation going, and reiterating important questions, can go a long way. Commit to working openly, in whatever way best fits your project, from the start. Use article talk pages, relevant WikiProjects, and other forums to help Wikipedians understand what you're doing, and how to support your work. Be sure to create a "project page" on Wikipedia covering the goals and activities of your residency, like the one from the Children's Museum of Indianapolis residency.

2. Talk to your boss about copyright. Early and often.

Whether you love or hate discussing the ins and outs of copyright and licensing, these topics are hugely important to your host organization, and to their ability to contribute meaningfully to the Wikimedia vision. You shouldn't bore all your colleagues with all the details. But you should seek out decision-makers, and make sure they have a good grasp of how free licenses work, and how various kinds of works enter the public domain. Doing so will help them guide their organization toward "playing well" with Wikipedia and the free culture movement for many years to come.

3. It's your party. Make some introductions!

Your Residency will be over before you know it! You should build lasting and sustainable ties to Wikipedia, that last long after your stay is gone. One of the best things you can do is to help your organization—its curators, librarians, or staff—meet other Wikipedians, and learn how to interact in their strange environment. In-person events like an edit-a-thon or a Backstage Pass will probably be well received by your host. You should get your colleagues online to interact with Wikipedians, too; do something like the GLAMout, or at least guide your colleagues through a WikiProject's talk pages, or encourage them to subscribe to a relevant email list. Ideally, you should use all of these tools, and actively reach out to Wikipedians (both locally and internationally) to join you.

4. Whoa there! Don't do it all yourself!

If you're an active Wikipedian, you've probably learned to be bold, and just add material to Wikipedia according to your understanding of what is appropriate. You might do lots of stuff without needing to discuss it, because you have developed an good sense for the consensus around you.

As a Wikipedian in residence, sometimes, you will want to resist that impulse. If you're adding a basic fact to an article, maybe that creates an opportunity to show a colleague how to format a reference. Or, maybe you've spent the last three months persuading your boss to release a collection of photos under a free license. Congratulations! But before you stay up all night uploading them yourself, consider the benefits of showing a few colleagues how to properly use the Wikimedia Commons upload wizard.

5. Be extra clear about your role

If you're doing the kind of stuff discussed above, this part will come naturally: you will be clearly expressing who you work for, and how you're approaching your work, as you add material to Wikipedia. But regardless, you should give the conflict of interest guideline some thought. Make sure that readers and editors who care about your topic, and would want to know about your involvement, have a reasonable chance of learning about it.

Your user page should clearly explain your Residency, and how you are approaching it. If you're working actively on specific articles, see #1 above: leave plenty of notes on relevant talk pages. And seek private feedback from Wikipedians you trust—an independent perspective can help a lot. You also might look at the Statement of Ethics I published for my consulting business, Wiki Strategies.

Remember that your host organization and future Wikipedians in Residence will follow your lead. Set a high standard that will provide a great example for future reference. And when you talk with colleagues about Wikipedia, be sure to cover this topic; help them create good user pages, leave good edit summaries, and use talk pages appropriately.

You have an opportunity to bridge gaps, using multiple forms of communication. Have fun with it!

In conclusion...

You have an opportunity to bridge gaps, using multiple forms of communication. Have fun with it!

Whether your Residency is three weeks or three years, your last day will arrive before you know it! As it approaches, you may start to realize that you are the most informed person on the planet about the intersection between your host organization and Wikipedia. Well done!

You should make sure your knowledge lives beyond your residency. Did you learn something useful from the kind of activities discussed above? Great!

Consider capturing those lessons in a "how to engage with Wikipedia" document for your host organization. Your colleagues will want to refer to it when their memories start to fade: Wait, how do I make a wikilink? What are the different licensing choices, again? Don't kill yourself though, or reinvent the wheel. Documentation is no guarantee of learning, and you don't want to write a 500 page tome that gathers dust on your boss's bookshelf. A few short, easy-to-follow guidelines will serve your host well.

And maybe most importantly, tell your fellow Wikipedians how it went, and what opportunities are still in play with your host! Write a blog post (or three!) Send an email to the cultural partners email list (closed subscription, but by the time you've completed a residency, you'll surely be on it.) Give a talk at a conference like Wiki Conference USA. Tell us what worked, and what didn't—we're all eager to learn from your experience!

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, where he has advised organizations small and large in Wikipedia engagement, including design and recruitment for Wikipedian in residence programs. A slightly expanded version of this op-ed ran on his blog on 14 April 2014.
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Thanks for this interesting - and very well written - article. The most successful Wikipedians in Residence I've seen are those who put a strong emphasis on #1, but all the others you raise are clearly important. Nick-D (talk) 10:58, 23 April 2014 (UTC)[reply]

  • I am not aware of any advice better than this for explaining what makes Wikipedian in Residence experiences go right. Blue Rasberry (talk) 14:05, 23 April 2014 (UTC)[reply]
  • Thank you for this article. Pritzker [1] has had Wikipedian in residence for almost a year now. We've just expanded the program to bring 4 in for the summer 2014. Really liked "chat it up", because one of our biggest issues has been letting Wikipedians know that they can use our content for articles. Also, many of our Wikipedian in residence are new to Wikipedia. So building those social connections are very important.TeriEmbrey (talk) 15:27, 24 April 2014 (UTC)[reply]
  • These days I think GLAM COI matters go further than just the Wikipedian themselves making prominent disclosures, they should also act to educate their organization on COI matters as well, the same as they do with copyright. Gigs (talk) 18:44, 24 April 2014 (UTC)[reply]
  • Thank you all for the comments. If you enjoyed this article I hope you will look at the more complete version on my blog! @Gigs:, I very much appreciate your point. I was trying to get at this in point #5, but perhaps I didn't state it very explicitly. You might be interested in a couple other recent blog posts I have written that get into this point in more depth. See [2] and [3] -Pete (talk) 19:06, 24 April 2014 (UTC)[reply]
  • Wonderful! At Wikimedia UK we have been looking at how to make the program better, analysing some of the residences that were delivered so far. We are now working on a report that will aim to flag up recommendations for making the program even more effective. One of the things that came up so far is that often when the resident starts it can be unclear to him what the components of the role are. So having a list like this can be helpful to break things down and get understanding of the scope of the job earlier. Daria Cybulska (WMUK) (talk) 12:11, 1 May 2014 (UTC)[reply]
  • @Daria Cybulska (WMUK):, I am so pleased to know this is helpful in those kind of efforts! Please keep me informed if you put it to use. At the same time, this really shouldn't be regarded as an authoritative resource -- it really is, more or less, "five things off the top of my (pretty well informed) head"! Before being incorporated into a formal program, it would be important to have some other experts review it, and put some thought into what five things (or ten, or whatever) are most important to list. This was more intended as a conversation-starter, than as an authoritative list. -Pete (talk) 03:58, 5 May 2014 (UTC)[reply]


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