February 01, 2012

How does a Wikipedian-in-Residence survive?

This is the most usual question made by museum professionals when they hear about Wikipedians-in-Residence (WiR). And There isn't only one right answer, nor a standard practice. Every single experience as a Wikipedian-in-Residence is different. A few days ago some Wikipedians discussed this matter in a private mailing list. I think some of the thoughts are sufficiently interesting also for museum professionals and a wider audience, so I tried to summarize.

Profile of a Wikipedian-in-Residence
Some Wikipedians-in-Residence: Lori Phillips,
Àlex Hinojo, Sarah Stierch & Dominic McDevitt

The majority of WiR have been museum and archives emerging professionals. While this isn't a necessity, we all can agree that this fact has benefited greatly both the Wikipedia  movement and  GLAM institutions. It's also easier to find a museum studies or archives student to do their job for little to no pay when they know the professional connections and resume building that comes out of this is remarkable.  It's also key to have someone who is familiar with your subject matter in some regard. Personally, I'm a museums studies person with an interest in the history of museums.

The majority of Wikipedians in Residence are also experienced Wikipedians. They have skills to build Wikipedia templates, organize their project pages, write their case studies, develop content,  run bot tools and so forth. Usually they are also in good standing in the Wiki community, have the ability and skill to speak publicly, organize, and be professional.

Institucional Suport : Stipends, scolarships, grants and other payments
Until now, some of the residencies have had a stipend or other amounts as part-time pay, typical of a student internship. But not all of them. Some of the non-paying Wikipedian in Residence positions are or were part time. Most of the non-paid at all WiR where people who wanted to prove the point that having a wikimedian in-house was a good approach for a GLAM institution. This fact is now widely proved. Some of them didn't even had a grant for train tickets or meals. Doing the work for free is one question, but have to pay all the money you are using doing the work yourself is another question.

Most of the WiR are receiving stipends, scholarships, grants or other payments from their university or from the GLAM institution they are collaborating with. This is a good point. It's a way for recognizing the time commitment involved on part of the intern. Some Wikimedia chapters are considering the possibility to fund some of these intern positions. As said before, every single experience as a Wikipedian-in-Residence is different. As some of the WiR are museum or archive student, sometimes it has been done as an internship with Academic Recognition. It is also a good way. It all comes down to institutional support.

Diferent countries / Different models
Benoît Evellin‎, French WiR

Wikipedian-in-Residence also reflects different models of Museum organizing, as European and American deal with public-private money in a quite significant different way, so it differs a lot depending on the country, as well. Grants and scholarships doesn't mean the same in both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. WiR model is expanding and it will be really interesting to realize how Middle East and Asian institutions are carrying it out.

Wikipedians in Residence are not "better" than the volunteers, they are just held to account. As a Resident, you have to turn up to work at the right time, attend meetings and generally represent both the Wikimedia and the Museum's policies/principles in a professional way. Being paid (and getting an official staff-card etc.) is not because that person's work will magically become better quality, but because they require the person to be accountable for their actions. [of course, volunteers can be accountable too, but not because they're "better" at the job but because they must DO the job]. If you want the most out of your resident, you'll want someone with experience and skills.

IMHO, unpaid-at-all residencies aren't mid-term sustainable. Museums should consider the quantity & quality of work that they're expecting and consider some sort of financial compensation in order to achieve that. The GLAM institution should compensate somehow the WiR, but the quality of his work should follow the rules set by the community.

Neutrality comes from a firm standing on principles of integrity, and if the person editing is following Wikipedia's rules of neutrality, verifiability and no original research that should be enough. Being
paid does not bend those principles, a Wikipedian might equally well bend them as an amateur. The entity does not pay the WiR to act amateurish and bend the principles, they pay the WiR to be
professional and follow the rules of Wikipedia.

Outcomes: So what value does a Wikipedian bring to an institution?
Liam Wyatt, first ever WiR during a Backstage Pass at the British Museum
A WiR primary serves as a liaison between the institution and the Wikipedia community. That is the most valuable aspect of it all. We also lead in outreach events for the institution staff and for local Wikipedians and build a better understanding and collaboration between the two. This is the primary goal of a WiR; not only editing articles. We facilitate the community in editing articles, dispersing the institution's resources (content, images, books....)

Having a Wikipedian in Residence brings a lot of positive press and really builds the institution's image PR departments should play an active role in promoting the fact that they have a WiR : it will turn heads, and show that the institution is interesting in openly and freely sharing their content.

Why don't employees just edit Wikipedia directly?
Backstage Pass at TCMI 
A few reasons. The most practical being that they do not have the time. This will of course vary depending on the institution, but to make a sweeping generalization - the present climate of GLAMs is one which leaves them stretched for resources and staff are spread entirely too thin. This links in with "don't bite the newbies" in that there is a major barrier to entry with Wikipedia, and especially with doing it well. Curators and museum staff tend to be thorough in their work, and they're not going to dive into something without doing it well. They do not have the time to figure out Wikipedia on their own. However, edit-a-thons and other GLAM outreach events have come extremely far in explaining to staff how Wikipedia works. Even when they know it though, they don't necessarily have time for it. Hats off to those who do! (And there certainly are a few who have made great strides in contributing.)

Traditional point of view vs. Wikiradicals
Almost all institutions are undergoing a transformation, placing more emphasis on its social media and web presence, but some of the people doing the more traditional work (curating, processing collections, conservators-restorers)... resent that more and more money is going into pursuits they see as more trivial  — like Twitter or, now, Wikipedia—when the GLAM's core job is unfinished.

There a large portion of Wikipedians who are very ideological about copyright issues. I have also dealt with Wikipedia editors who view all cultural institutions with hostility because of the few bad experiences the community has had.

This is another reason why a WiR is needed. We need to do a lot more outreach work on the projects familiarizing Wikimedians to GLAM and GLAM to Wikimedians, in addition to our real-world outreach to the GLAMs themselves. As Liam Wyatt said...We're doing the same thing, for the same reason, for the same people, in the same medium Let's do it together!

Desired future
Some of us imagine a future in which institutions have internal staff who have the Wikipedia skillset, just like they already have staff with the Flickr or Tumblr skillset to work on those efforts, rather than trying to hire a good Flickr user to run it for them. Of course, we also imagine a future in which Wikipedia is anywhere near as easy for a well-meaning newbie at a cultural institution to join and use as Flickr is. Some of it is about newbie biting, some just about the daunting social and political landscape of Wikipedia, and some of it is technological.

End Note
This text is created sampling and mixing comments and opinions of several people, but I used them to show my own personal point of view. This post is just an opinion, not a policy at all and does not represent the global community, just my point of view.


  1. Great post Alex. Thanks for taking all of our comments and combining them into something of value and use!

  2. Alex this is a fantastic summary of points we all go over again and again. It's extremely helpful for you to bring them all together in this extremely clear way. I can envision this being a basis for a lasting model, or at least bits of advice, for "Wikipedians in Residence 101." Great, great job!

  3. Alex, yes -- a tremendously useful overview, I imagine I will be turning back to this blog post many times to help move various discussions forward. Thank you!

  4. Wiki human Yay! Sharing your knowledge and experiences with GLAMs. Cheers

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  6. Thanks, this is very interesting and informative indeed !