Though imperfect, the Internet is the most radically democratic space the world has ever known. Knowledge once confined to the university can now be freely accessed by anyone with a connection. And at well over 10 million strong, Wikipedia, one of its most recognizable institutions, has been fundamental in transforming the landscape into a digital democracy.
But who are those 10 million Wikipedians responsible for leveling the playing field?
Really, anyone willing to contribute to Wikipedia’s digital halls of knowledge can become an editor, and from that point on, it becomes a hobby of personal preference.
“It doesn’t make a difference if you like, you know, manga or rock ‘n’ roll or basketball or knitting, there’s a place for all of that,” explained Michael Barera, Information graduate student and Wikipedian-in-Residence.
Each Wikipedian — any user registered to edit and create Wikipedia content — has their own niche where they choose to focus their efforts, but the collectivism of the world’s largest encyclopedia is too infectious to remain a solitary act.
That’s where the Michigan Wikipedians, the nation’s first Wikipedia interest club, seeks to bring the same collaboration to campus.
Two members, Barera and Engineering sophomore Jonathan Miela, created an article for the University’s field hockey team after attending a game.
As with every other article on Wikipedia, Miela and Barera created this page free of charge, donating their time and effort for our benefit.
It’s this combination of technical savviness and personal interests that anchors Wikipedians to this hobby, where they can create and maintain articles that act as inspiration for students seeking a topic for a research project, an informative way to pass time or even open the door for meaningful assignments.
University libraries aren’t always “user friendly,” and, many times, access is geographically or institutionally restricted. But Wikipedia is slowly turning into an open source for anybody interested in learning more.
Barera pointed out how professors understand that assigning an article’s creation instead of a term paper can engage a student. Now, their work won’t be forgotten, but will measurably add to the wealth of knowledge available to anyone with Internet access.
“This is the work of a term project by a grad student here,” Barera said, opening up a Wikipedia article on a chemistry concept. The article was assigned in lieu of a term paper.
“This is all free content,” he said. “Essentially, she wrote a research paper and donated it, more or less.”
That’s the power of an ever-evolving platform like Wikipedia. Academic work has the potential to be viewed by someone other than your teacher.
As the newly appointed Wikipedian-in-Residence, Barera is the first of his kind in the state. Granting him intern credit toward the School of Information master’s degree, Barera’s new post requires him to help create new Wikipedia articles using the primary sources provided by the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in which he works. This partnership, Barera believes, is proof of Wikipedia’s goal to be a respectable encyclopedia.
Yet he does admit the shortcomings of his “hobby.”
“I work in their reading room just like any other scholar, but I’m not really a scholar — I’m a Wikipedian,” Barera explained. “We are collectors; we are not creators.”
Despite his limitations, he believes this newfound connection between the two institutions is indicative of the future goals of the popular online encyclopedia and its push for accurate content.
“I think this is more and more common now; this is where we’re going,” Barera said. “It started out as a hobbyist sort of thing, but it’s always had academic aspirations. It’s always wanted to be a real encyclopedia.”
“I’ve become a bridge between the (Ford Library) and Wikipedia,” he said. “Both of these institutions have very common values: They’re all about education; they’re all about sharing; they’re all about open content.”
But Barera isn’t alone in this new Wikiproject. While he’s the only one physically on-site at the library, he collaborates with six other Wikipedians in the hopes of developing a healthy and productive relationship between the two organizations.
“It’s a lot bigger than just me,” he explained. “It’s gonna be really beneficial for both the Ford Museum and Wikipedia.”
And this role, School of Information Assistant Professor Cliff Lampe said, is essential in the progress toward a seamless Wikipedia.
“Wikipedia proved that people will work and make content available for free for the public good,” Lampe said. “There are some issues with that in terms of availability. Because they have a choice in what they cover, there can be gaps in coverage.”
And that’s where Wikipedians-in-Residence such as Barera can help mend gaps in content where the average Wikipedian wouldn’t think to look, or the subjects that may blur the lines between hobby and literal work.
Lampe also revealed the possibility of re-establishing the currently vacant Wikipedia Ambassador position. Unlike Barera’s internship, this Ambassador would be in direct contact with school faculty. He or she would provide some much-needed expertise in how to incorporate effective article creation into the curriculum.
This active, open dialogue about Wikipedia’s budding academic future among the Michigan Wikipedian Club, professors and students is promising.
Lampe explained there are unrealized benefits to encouraging club members to join with students to create academically enriching articles that provoke conversation.
“There’s a huge potential there — especially in terms of not just the main literacy of learning more about chemical processes or whatever — but about a digital literacy, about what it means to be a contributor online.”