For the month of July, Auckland Museum has been hosting Dr Mike Dickison, New Zealand’s first “Wikipedian-at-Large.” We are the first stop on his year-long tour of some of Aotearoa’s most important repositories of knowledge and information.

His mission is to create and enhance New Zealand-related Wikipedia entries using the expertise and collection objects he encounters along his way. The Wikimedia Foundation has chosen to fund Mike’s residency programme in recognition of the fact that New Zealand topics are, generally speaking, poorly represented on the encyclopedia.

His role as a ‘Wiki champion’ is to provide support, encouragement, and expertise to people both inside and outside the organisations he’s working with.

What is this project all about?

I’ve been a Wikipedia editor for eight years. When I was Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum I used to write a newspaper column for the Wanganui Chronicle, and would spend half a day labouring over it. I imagine these columns were read for one or maybe two days, mostly by Whanganui locals, before being essentially lost to the world, as back then the stories weren’t published online.

I became interested in Wikipedia in 2009, and so far I’ve created or improved probably hundreds of articles. As part of Radio New Zealand’s “Critter of the Week” show, I’ve created pages on endangered species endemic to New Zealand, such as the Mercury Island tusked weta, and the New Zealand giraffe weevil. These particular creatures might appear to have niche appeal, but because Wikipedia is the fifth-most-visited website in the world, the entries on them receive a significant amount of traffic. For example, the article on the tusked weta alone has had nearly 2,000 hits in the past year. The central role of museums, libraries and other heritage institutions is communication and outreach, and they would be foolish at this point to ignore Wikipedia—it’s where every Google search sends you first.

I’m just one of about 120,000 active editors who work voluntarily on Wikipedia around the clock and from all over the world; this results in a ‘living’ encyclopedia that develops at the rate of approximately two edits per second. However, because its editors are typically white, American men, Wikipedia suffers from a slant in the topics it discusses, and sometimes the angle or perspective taken on certain issues. To counter this perceived bias, the Wikimedia Foundation is funding targeted initiatives to specifically recruit women editors, members of indigenous communities, and people from under-represented countries.

Throughout the year, I’ll be hosted by 14 organisations—ranging from the Department of Conservation to Forest & Bird, to Otago Museum and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage—to help foster and grow the local editor community, and hopefully begin to fill the gaps.

What gaps are there on the New Zealand-related entries—and why do you think they exist?

New Zealand is a highly developed country with an educated population; we should be “punching above our weight” when it comes to creating Wikipedia entries related to things unique to Aotearoa. But if you search for anything on New Zealand on Wikipedia you’ll often get ‘stubs’ [very short articles that have yet to be developed] or badly written entries.

The gaps are numerous; there are relatively few pages on Pacific or New Zealand history, for example, and most of the articles on New Zealand historical figures are about white men. As article subjects, Māori and women are scarce. In this respect we’re basically five to ten years behind the rest of the Western world. This is probably because we’re an isolated country, but I think it’s also because most people don’t realise how easy it is to become a Wikipedia editor. My job is to change that.

What are some other misconceptions people have about Wikipedia?

That you have to be qualified or approved in some way. That there’s some sort of editorial board in charge. That “Wikipedia” (whoever that is!) has to “sign off” on each of the entries, and is responsible if something is incorrect. None of these things are true.

When Wikipedia was set up in 2001, its founders had an editorial board that commissioned qualified academics to write articles. The project failed dismally, so they opened the site up to anyone who was keen to contribute. Everyone thought it was bonkers not to have experts in charge, but in practice this gave the site the ability to grow and improve amazingly quickly. Now there are five million pages on the English-language Wikipedia alone.

I think the encyclopedia’s founders realised that if they held on tightly to editorial control to prevent mistakes or vandalism, they would lose much more than they’d gain. It was an act of bravery (but one that I think paid off) to trust volunteers with ensuring the site is factually accurate, up-to-date, and free of crude or defamatory vandalism.

Why did you choose to work with Auckland Museum first?

Auckland Museum was one of many places I approached to host me over the year, and they replied quickly and enthusiastically. The Museum had already hosted New Zealand’s first Wikimedian in Residence, Susan Tolich, in 2017, and the staff seemed interested in engaging with Wikimedia projects to share the institution’s knowledge and images more widely.

Auckland Museum has released over 280,000 Creative-Commons-licensed images so far. It’s really leading the charge with its open-access policy. Last year a volunteer editor on Wikipedia downloaded nearly 100,000 of those images and programatically uploaded them into Wikimedia Commons, so they’re now much more findable and can be freely re-used by anyone, including in Wikipedia articles.

I was also interested in how Auckland Museum is inviting knowledge-holders from various Pacific communities to look over its vast Pacific collection and share their detailed knowledge of objects in the museum’s care. One of the biggest gaps on Wikipedia is in its coverage of Pacific cultures, and I am very keen to see how some of that knowledge might be able to be shared more widely.

How do you think museums and other heritage institutions can work to foster local editor communities?

In the museum world there’s a fundamental shift happening toward much, much greater engagement with communities. This change was defined wonderfully by Nina Simon in her book The Participatory Museum. Museums are working to create spaces where people can freely comment on exhibitions… where they can curate an exhibition, or even create their own visitor guide.

In my mind, creating a “Wiki-community” should be a fundamental part of any memory institution’s digital strategy. The community of Wikipedia editors in New Zealand is hard to gauge: some people prefer to remain anonymous—there’s no obligation, for example, to identify your home country—and some are probably expatriates.

There is some great work already being done. For example, an editor in Wellington is working her way through New Zealand’s threatened species, giving each one a Wikipedia page. She’s also helping to profile overlooked women scientists and scientific illustrators, and has worked with me to run community editing events—and she does all this work in her spare time.

Until recently, these ‘digital volunteers’ have largely been ignored by institutions. Museums have a good understanding of volunteers who visit in person to assist visitors or catalogue objects, for example, but they’re still trying to get their heads around recruiting and supporting virtual volunteers—those people who could live anywhere in the world and are happy to commit an hour a day (or a week) at home to something they’re passionate about. Already, museums, galleries, and libraries overseas such as the Met and the National Library of Wales are dedicating time and resources to Wikipedia, and it’s great to see New Zealand getting on board.

What have you been up to so far in your time at Auckland Museum?

I’m talking with curators, subject experts, and staff to identify collections already online that can be re-used immediately. One of the gaps in Wikipedia is around Pacific content, so I’ve been talking with the team of people who are at work on the Pacific Collection Access Project. Over the past two years, this team, with the help of Pacific communities, has enriched the museum’s records relating to thousands of Pacific objects, and I’d love to see those stories go even further.

I’m explaining to staff how Wikipedia works and training anyone who is interested in editing. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be running meetups for local editors, and a “Wikiblitz” to take all the amazing photography of moa skeletons that’s been going on in the Origins gallery and get that into Wikimedia Commons and onto Wikipedia entries.

The Museum’s current exhibition “Are We There Yet?”, on the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage, is a perfect occasion to get Kate Sheppard’s Wikipedia entry up to what’s called ‘feature-article quality’ and have it shown on the front page for a day. Talking to everyone at Auckland Museum, it’s clear there are so many projects that can make use of all the wonderful opportunities Wikipedia provides. Although I'm only a few weeks into this new role, I can already see a number of opportunities to start filling the gaps. I'm excited to help share the knowledge, stories and objects cared for by this institution and others.

Caption: Auckland Museum's Digital Manager, Teina Herzer, gets a lesson from our Wikipedian in Residence, Mike Dickison. 

25th July 2018