s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: Cat. & Reference: Leveraging Wikipedia

Friday, August 15, 2008

Cat. & Reference: Leveraging Wikipedia

The librarians at the University of Washington Center Digital Initiatives unit had a problem. They had a bunch of really cool digital collections available online, but no good way of getting the word out to the general public. It can be hard enough for a university library to keep their faculty and students informed of the resources available, but John Q. Public simply doesn't sit down to his computer one day and think "I say, old chap, why not go to University of Washington library website and see if they've got any resources on the history of vaudeville!"

The UW librarians were aware of a study that said most internet users looked for information online using a site like Google or Wikipedia. (For very general queries, Wikipedia sites are often one of the top Google hits, anyway.) Internet users liked Wikipedia because it was well-organized and easy to navigate (something that is generally not true about library websites).

However, instead of fruitlessly railing against the evils of Wikipedia (as is often the habit of librarians), the UW librarians decided to see if they could use Wikipedia to make users aware of their own collections. They realized that, although many users start their research with a Wikipedia article, many of them end up following links in that article to other Wikipedia pages or to pages on other sites. If the UW librarians could add relevant links to the "External Links" section of an article, they might be able to introduce their rich collections to a segment of the population who would never otherwise have found them.

The librarians set out to identify digital collections which could potentially be added as links to Wikipedia articles. Then they created a user account specifically for this purpose, and started making edits and adding links.

There are two problems with this approach. One, a relatively minor quibble, is that all Wikipedia editor accounts are technically supposed to belong to individual people, not to corporations or institutions.

The second, larger problem is that Wikipedia editors are supposed to avoid biased edits, especially ones which promote outside websites or services with which they're affiliated. Most such edits are treated as vandalism and reverted within minutes and sometimes the offending editor is banned as a result. So, basically the entire premise of the UW project violated the spirit of the Wikipedia code of conduct.

Interestingly, there hasn't been much of a backlash. Or reaction, even. They got a couple of warnings on their user discussion page, but no one seems to have taken any action. And of the over 200+ edits they made, most have been left on the article. The implication would seem to be that if you're adding really high quality external links to relevant articles, the powers that be don't care if you're technically biased.

Even more interesting, their plan worked! They set up software to track the incoming hits from to their digital collections, and found that referrals from Wikipedia increased from 1% to over 40% of total referrals. Also, the total number of hits didn't decrease in the summer months, as had been the case in the past, but climbed steadily as the Wikipedia articles were mirrored on other sites around the internet.

You can read the original report on the project here.


At August 18, 2008 12:14 AM, Blogger Mr. Fob said...

Hurray for UW Libraries! Vandalism in the name of information!

At August 18, 2008 3:00 PM, Blogger Ginsberg said...

If Wikipedia is evil then I want to be evil too!

At August 18, 2008 3:40 PM, Blogger Katya said...

mr. fob - w00t!

ginsberg - I should probably do a whole post on why I like Wikipedia, even though most librarians don't.

At August 18, 2008 5:59 PM, Blogger ambrosia ananas said...

That is some brilliant marketing.

At August 22, 2008 7:16 AM, Blogger The Dancing Newt said...

I really like this. :)

At August 30, 2008 7:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

See, I think that Wikipedia SHOULD be used this way. This is excellent!

At September 04, 2008 8:27 AM, Blogger Katya said...

jenn - I agree! The cool thing, though, is that if someone with a personal account does this for an organization that they're not affiliated with, it doesn't violate Wikipedia's bylaws at all. So I've been going through and adding links to cool digital collections when I have time.


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