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Wielding Wikipedia

April 5, 2011

PHILADELPHIA -- With its magnetic pull on students who might have otherwise burrowed into the stacks, Wikipedia might seem like a library's natural enemy. But to librarians at the University of Houston the popular online encyclopedia has become a valuable ally, helping to draw more eyes to their digital collections than ever before.

At the annual meeting of the Association of College and Research Libraries here on Friday, the Houston librarians explained how they had recently enlisted a student, Danielle Elder, to evangelize the content of their Digital Library on Wikipedia, the eighth most popular website in the world, to see if it would improve exposure for their artifacts. Wikipedia quickly became the No. 1 driver of web traffic to Houston's online collections, surpassing both Google and the university's home page.

"We noticed results almost immediately," said Michelle Reilly, head of digital services at the Houston libraries. "...We're finding that our stuff is much more discoverable."

Reilly and her colleagues explained that libraries can also galvanize use of their collections of important paintings, photographs, and historical documents by uploading digital copies of those artifacts to Wikipedia's media library. Known as the Wikimedia Commons, the site's media library is the main source of the images embedded in Wikipedia articles. If libraries put their digital artifacts in the Commons, they are more likely to be used by people writing entries and approved by Wikipedia's volunteer editors, who try to be vigilant about keeping copyrighted images off the site, said R. Niccole Westbrook, the digital photograph technician for the University of Houston libraries.

And since anyone can edit a Wikipedia page, libraries can themselves add different images to existing articles, exposing them to anybody who lands on those pages. For example, Elder added to Hakeem Olajuwon's Wikipedia page a photo from its archive taken the day the basketball great signed with the hometown Houston Rockets in 1984. According to site records, that page has been viewed more than 50,000 times in the last 30 days.

Contributions need not be limited to photos of pop culture icons, either. Westbrook showed another image, taken in 1920s or '30s Texas by the photographer Harry Walker, of a woman holding a baby. Elder had cropped the image to focus on the woman's headgear, a phenomenon of early 20th-century haberdashery called the cloche hat. She then added the image to an existing page for the cloche hat -- which, while less popular than Olajuwon, has been viewed more than 5,000 times in the last 30 days.

"One of these niche communities in Wikipedia that's really active in writing and editing is the historical costume group," said Westbrook, noting that library archives might have plenty of visual examples to contribute.

Libraries can also leverage Wikipedia's massive audience by adding links to their online collections to the "external links" section of various pages, Westbrook said. This strategy might not expose library holdings to Wikipedia users upfront, but it can create thru-traffic to the libraries' websites.

Demonstrating quantifiable value in a time of budget scrutiny was a running theme at the conference. The ACRL last fall released a report on "The Value of Academic Libraries," which advised librarians to prepare to be asked to prove theirs; that report was the subject of a major panel a day earlier featuring both the group's president and its executive director. Earlier that morning, James Neal, university librarian at Columbia University, had railed against the idea of libraries being assessed and funded based on quantitative "return on investment," while presenters from the University of Colorado at Boulder and George Mason University had offered tips on how to measure that return in terms of costs and benefits.

Although the phrase "return on investment" was not uttered at the Wikipedia session, the promise of high web traffic figures could certainly give librarians standing to argue from hard data the social utility of their digital collections.

The Houston librarians said they hope that in using Wikipedia to promote their digital holdings, they might also help make the site a more worthwhile resource for students. "While all these traffic numbers are really great … one of our ultimate goals is to provide information for our students," said Reilly.

"We have come to the realization that students seem to start their search at Google, and they end up at Wikipedia," she said. "We'd like them to finally end up with us."

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