Wikimedia event seeks to open up Australian culture

The old world will meet with the new in an event this week that seeks to get cultural institutions working more closely with wiki projects

More than 170 executives from Australia's significant cultural institutions will be meeting with advocates of new media and wiki projects in a world-first event this week in Canberra to discuss ways that they can more effectively work together.

Wikimedia Australia, part of the global Wikimedia movement responsible for Wikipedia, is hosting the event, dubbed 'GLAM-WIKI: Finding the Common Ground.' Representatives from more than 170 museums, libraries, galleries, research institutions and other cultural organisations across Australia and New Zealand have registered to attend the event, which will feature keynote presentations by ACT Senator Kate Lundy and Wikimedia Foundation Chief Program Officer, Jennifer Riggs.

In addition to being the first event of its kind, it will also be the first event to be hosted by the recently formed Wikimedia Australia organisation, which currently has 50-100 members. Vice-President Liam Wyatt hopes that this number will increase over the course of the event as attendees sign up.

“Members of Wikimedia Australia will play a role in making the cultural content we have in and about Australia more available to the rest of the world,” he said.

Wyatt says that the Wikimedia projects, which include Wikipedia, together make up the fourth most visited web-property in the world offering huge distribution appeal for cultural institutions whose primary function is the sharing of knowledge.

“We have also found that collaboration is also good for these institutions in a commercial sense because they are encouraged by their founders to get additional sources of funding and get as many people as possible through their doors. The more people that know about these institutions, the more they will go there. Also, the more widely distributed their content is, the more relevant it becomes.”

Wyatt says the German National Archives provides a good example of the benefits Wiki projects can offer to these organisations. It donated 100,000 images to Wikipedia, which have been tagged and used within articles in 20 different languages (so far).

“The click-through rate back to the German National Archives website from Wikipedia was hugely increased and subsequently their revenues have greatly increased. [As a result of] this increased revenue the organsiation has now hired a full-time staff member purely devoted to improving the metadata in the Archive's material on the basis of suggestions from the Wikimedia Foundation.”

Wyatt admits that many traditional cultural institutions are still suspicious of Wiki projects, but the conference aims to address some of those suspicions.

“Wikipedia and wiki projects do have mistakes. We know that, and we actually celebrate that. We don't pretend that wiki sites are error free or perfect because they are constantly evolving processes, but that is a scary thought for institutions that want to present things in the best and most accurate way all the time. Of course we want to do that as well, but we understand that it is an evolving process. There's an old phrase: 'people who like either sausages or the law should not see either being made.' It is a messy process, but the outcome is really good.”

“For the cultural institutions that traditionally have been able to curate and control knowledge and present it carefully, the act of letting go so that other people can integrate and manipulate and re-present this material is a scary process but one that they are interested in coming to talk to us about as evidenced by the registrations to the event. We would like to think that Wikipedia and wiki projects can increasingly become new strings to their bow in being able to reach out to new audiences and also to existing audiences in new ways.”

Wyatt hopes that one of the outcomes from the event might be to see the Wikimedia commons project have a much better and more flexible metadata system which would allow organisations to be automatically informed about how and where their content is being used and how much traffic it is getting.

“For example we add geocodes to a lot of the content we source. I think we should find a mechanism to try to automatically notify the organisation when we add this type of information to their material.”

The exchange is not a one-way street. The Wikimedia community stands to gain from a closer collaboration with these organisations because the success of wiki projects ultimately depends on the availability of good primary and secondary sources (including multimedia and expert knowledge) that can be shared freely, according Wyatt.

“We would like to see a greater differentiation between what is owned and what is copyright and what is not. There is a general assumption that an institution owns all of the material it distributes. Certainly it is their job to preserve the physical objects themselves. They are the cultural custodians but not the owners of it,” he said.

“For example, many institutions currently say that you need to get their permission to re-use an image or text that might be 200 years old when it is legally no longer under copyright and in the pubic domain.”

If these added restrictions and permissions are removed, information and material can be more widely circulated and used in a greater variety of ways, according to Wyatt.

“Just look at the National Library of Australia. If you search for an author in their system it will bring up all the books they have by that author but it will also display the first paragraph of a biography on that author from Wikipedia,” he said.

“It is not their job to write biographies of every single author. It is our job. They started doing this last year without asking our permission because they can and we think that is great. We don't need to be payed or even asked permission, so long as it is attributed back to us.”

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