Thomas Tunsch, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany
The importance of Wikipedia for the documentation and promotion of museum holdings is gaining acceptance, and the number of references to articles is growing. However, the museum world still pays little attention to the Wikipedia project as a collaborative community with intentions, structures, and special features. Although these observations are based on museums in Germany and focus on the German Wikipedia, they are just as important and applicable to other museums and other editions of Wikipedia. Universities and libraries have already taken advantage of the Wikipedia and have established functional links.
In that the mission of museums is closely related to that of universities and libraries, the value of Wikipedia for museum professionals is worthy of consideration. This paper provides the complete study to serve as reference for the selected topics to be discussed in the professional forum.
Keywords: Wikipedia, documentation, collaborative, community, scholars, interconnections
In order to define the possible advantages of utilization and cooperation, both the museum world and the Wikipedia world can be considered communities dedicated to the expansion of knowledge. This knowledge is targeted at the large and not very specific audience that we commonly call “the general public.” Museums collect objects, provide documentation and produce knowledge about those objects and the representing fields of sciences or other scholarship. Wikipedia collects data and information pieces, provides articles, and at the same time offers insight into the process of how knowledge grows. Along these similarities, the Wikipedia shall be examined in the following areas:
- methods (discussion, conventions, manuals, standards)
- practical experience (interaction, stable knowledge/process)
- content (metadata, SWD, PND, templates, structure, quality management, languages)
- contributors (scholars and other museum staff, visitors, students)
This consideration will provide information to discuss the following questions in the Professional Forum:
- Which parts of the DIKW chain (data, information, knowledge, wisdom) provide the most efficient connections between museums and the Wikipedia?
- Where are the easiest access points for scholars, and how can connections be built?
- Which museum activities can be seen as related to Wikipedia with mutual benefits for both communities, and how can scholars be part of these activities? In this context, consideration will be given to museum documentation, research, public access to information in the museum, publications, and educational material.
- What are possible tools that would enable the use of Wikipedia, and which tools are missing?
The results of reflections and discussions can outline the map of interconnections between these two communities and thus provide orientation for scholars, museum activities, and projects.
Museum and Wikipedia
It’s a museum, what’s to know? You bang in a nail, you hang up a picture. Any idiot could do that.
(Sophia Petrillo [The Golden Girls, 2007; episode 34, 2nd season, episode 9: “Joust [sic] between Friends”])
Isn’t that a quite charming definition of a museum? So we have a view on museums from outside, how about Wikipedia?
“Wikipedia generates noise, not knowledge. Previous encyclopedias were well-researched and contained precise information that could be trusted to be correct. Wikipedia, on the other hand, contains a large amount of errors, omissions and superfluous trivia” (Prillinger, 2004).
According to his Web site, Prillinger (2006) holds master’s and doctoral degrees in philosophy, is a librarian, editor-in-chief of a library Web site (Vienna University Library), a lecturer (Vienna University), and a teacher (Vienna State College of Education). Therefore we might refer to his opinion as the view of a scholar. The discrepancy between positions like this one and the prosperity of Wikipedia obviously needs some explanation, but this is not the purpose of this paper.
Wikipedia is one of the most successful phenomena of the so-called Web 2.0 and has already been a subject in Museums and the Web conferences. For example, Bowen and Angus (2006) suggested the relation between early conceptions of the Web and the realization in Wikipedia: “provide information for others and read information from others” (Bowen & Angus, 2006). They also offered compact instructions on how to write and maintain articles about museums.
In Germany, Voß (2006) found that “Wikis” (Wiki, 2007) are rarely used in museums. Nobody seems to know exactly how many museums have initiated articles about their collections in Wikipedia, or which of the authors in Wikipedia are museum scholars or staff members. We also don’t know if museum scholars benefit from reading in Wikipedia or write articles for it. In fact, we don’t know anything about quantity or quality of usage by museum personnel. This is not surprising because most authors in Wikipedia are anonymous, either represented by an IP address only, or covered with a nickname preventing identification with a specific person in "real life." However, we can detect articles about museums in the German Wikipedia as well as thematic lists, articles about museum objects and museum related subjects.
There are significant features connecting Wikipedia with the world of libraries like the following:
- International Standard Book Number (ISBN: Wikipedia:ISBN, 2007; Wikipedia:ISBN-Suche, 2007),
- PubMed Unique Identifier (PMID: Wikipedia:PMID, 2006, Hilfe:Datenbanklinks, 2007),
- “Name Authority File” in the German National Library (PND:Personennamendatei, PND, 2006; Personennamendatei, 2006; Hilfe:PND, 2007; Template:PND, 2006), or the
- Subject Headings Authority File in German libraries (SWD: Subject Headings Authority File, 2006; Schlagwortnormdatei, 2006; Vorlage:SWD, 2006).
These features generate links to on-line sources maintained by libraries, and thus they provide access to content independent from Wikipedia.
Libraries belong in the category of institutions, along with archives and museums, that are responsible for cultural heritage, or metaphorically speaking, they are guardians of the historic memory of mankind. This brings to mind the question of whether there are any signs of qualitative connections between Wikipedia and museums. This topic seems not to have been raised yet. Papers from the Museums and the Web conferences in 2005 and 2006 deal with entries in the on-line encyclopedia about museums or the usage of Wikipedia. Also general remarks about Wikipedia regarding Web 2.0 are evident. Examining the annual conference of the “Fachgruppe Dokumentation im Deutschen Museumsbund” (Workgroup for Museum Documentation in the German Museum Association) in autumn, 2006, reveals no signs of intense discussion about the role of Wikipedia in the German museum community. However, at the same conference, many participants referred to Wikipedia in various contexts, so the subject seems to be interesting for at least some scholars in museums in Germany. But reviewing the discussions mentioned, there is no structured debate about Wikipedia and museums, neither in general, nor about specific subjects such as the possible role of Wikipedia in museums or in the research of scholars, or the approach of scholars to be authors in Wikipedia, or something similar.
Therefore we can assume that museum scholars have no significant relationship to Wikipedia, and thus many of them might share the views of the general public provided by the media. Perspectives of Wikipedia, even in reliable magazines or on-line sources, often point out that anybody can write articles or change and delete content very easily. Even in the more sophisticated observations of Poe (2006), we find typical evidence of the more journalistic approach which is usually not very attractive to scholars. Although he starts with the interesting term “collaborative knowledge,” he later uses the subheading “common knowledge” which is likely to discourage experts and specialists from using Wikipedia, simply because it is their profession to create very special and distinguished knowledge. Also the public controversy between “Nature” and the “Encyclopaedia Britannica” reported by Giles (2006) is not very condusive to encouraging scholars to make a closer study of the Web encyclopedia. While the method of comparing articles from “Encyclopaedia Britannica” and Wikipedia by a peer review group seems to be more scientific at first glance, the character of a news story is obvious. To restrict the investigation to the “accuracy of ... science entries” (Giles, 2006) of 42 articles reduces the importance of conclusions considerably. At least since the famous “discovery” of soccer in ancient Greece (Apopudobalia, 2006, August & November) by Meier (1996) in a dignified encyclopedia of classical scholarship (Pauly-Wissowa, 2007), we know that even traditional reference books by distinguished authors or publishers are not inerrable.
A closer look at the relationship between scholars and reference books or on-line references can be more helpful in understanding their role in the practice of professionals. Most experts in museums are close to original sources such as objects in the collections and their documentation. For research, they try to benefit from publications of other scholars in their specific field as much as possible. Usually they need to consult works of reference only when leaving their own area of expertise, and they use the references to find more original sources or fundamental publications by other scholars. On the other hand, the contribution to a reference work can be part of scholarly activities. Therefore the accuracy of a reference might be important for the scholar who is responsible for the entry, but for the scholar who uses an encyclopedia, the reference has more the meaning of a map: it leads to other important original sources or publications – or not.
To use these instruments of orientation in the world of knowledge, we need to know their functionality and structure. Like maps with different projections, scales, or symbols, there are many different reference works. Our professional training, methodological skills, knowledge about the specific field, and experience from practice of study enable us to evaluate the value of the single reference publication or the usefulness of each reference.
We also have evidence for a more sophisticated view on Wikipedia. Most scholars would certainly agree that counting mistakes is not a very subtle instrument for measuring quality. On the other hand, the general remark of Voß (2005) seems to be true for printed reference literature as well: “The overall quality of Wikipedia mainly depends on your definition of (information) quality and the time scale you are interested in.” More specifically Harcup and Nesbitt (2006) call the on-line encyclopedia “a surprisingly authoritative reference source,” holding interactivity responsible for this success to a great extent. At least Wikipedia itself is very clear about the function of references:
Wikipedia articles should be used for background information, as a reference for correct terminology and search terms, and as a starting point for further research. As with any community-built reference, there is a possibility for error in Wikipedia’s content – please check your facts against multiple sources and read our disclaimers for more information (Wikipedia:Cite 2006).
Therefore it seems to be reasonable that, in general, it is acceptable for scholars in museums to use Wikipedia. But many skills, tools, and experiences that we use to assess conventional reference books appear to fail with Wikipedia. Yet maybe the structures and processes behind the curtain are not as strange as they look from outside or through the eyes of mass media.
Wikipedia can be used as in the beginning of this paper, where the citation of the entry “Golden Girls” offers additional reference for those who want background information or don’t know that sitcom. You can follow the link to the “Golden Girls,” but that won't demonstrate the full potential of Wikipedia. We might compare this with people who run into a museum building to seek shelter from the rain without considering visiting the exhibition.
However, for the purpose of this discussion we should see the organization of museums as a collaborative community. There is just one more basic premise necessary to make this definition appropriate for a museum in real life: the essential role of providing education for the general public. To regard education as a fundamental task for museums should not exclude entertaining elements in exhibitions or promotional efforts to generate money, for example, but it is important to make the primary responsibility of museums clear. With respect to that function in society, we can describe the collaborative community called “Museum” by its principal activities:
- collecting objects,
- providing documentation,
- creating knowledge about those objects and the representing fields of expertise, as well as
- presenting objects and information to the public.
For the purposes of this paper, this definition doesn’t cover the complete function of a museum, but rather, the part of it to a large extent controlled by curators and museum scholars.
Besides the collection of objects itself, the intellectual history of a given museum determines the character of the organization and other essential qualities of the institution. Therefore it is fundamental to include in this community previous scholars with their contributions to the intellectual resources.
With the aid of this abstract model of a knowledge-creating collaborative community, we can explore the role of museums in the so-called information age, its connections with universities, libraries, and public education; and it might help to understand the position of scholars in the very dynamic processes concerning information: creation, transmission, verification, and conservation. Once we feel quite comfortable with this picture, we might have another look at Wikipedia, and may be surprised while reading Wikipedia:About” (2007) to detect many similarities. The community of Wikipedians collects data and information pieces in order to generate articles, assemble categories, and build portals like the community of scholars in a museum which generates monographs, assembles exhibitions, and publishes catalogues. Despite the undoubted differences to be found, such as the more fluctuating structures, faster changing content, or diverse connections to other parts of society, the significant similarities justify a closer examination of Wikipedia.
Dialogue (Dialogue, 2007) and discussion or debate (Debate, 2007) in different contexts and on many levels are essential in the professional life of scholars. However, access to these communications for others is quite limited. Outsiders hardly get an impression how the exchange of ideas happens. Even conferences provide an insight into those creative processes often for the participants only. Rather than offering different views on single subjects, published proceedings of a conference tend to reflect the intentions of speakers or results of debate dedicated to a number of principal topics. Publications representing controversial positions are often more suitable for obtaining an overview of the variety of ideas, but can also cloud the nuances of a creative discussion. Monographs provide the final outcome of a cognitive process, and only by means of footnotes, references, and citations can we derive some information about the process of how the scholar’s knowledge grew. Even though the discussion or exchange of information is one of the most creative activities indeed, these types of publications are like filters. While extracting the juicy part of the fruit, we lose a lot of the texture.
In Wikipedia there is a discussion page for each article which enables readers to follow the controversial or cooperative discussion. Using this, combined with the complete history of the article (Wikipedia:Help:Page history, 2006), they can track each step of an article’s evolution and observe the participants closely. Furthermore, it is possible to collect more information about registered users by keeping track of their contributions or using other features of the user page (Wikipedia:User page, 2007). One of the downsides of these features is obvious: even for experienced users, and with helping tools (Toolserver Table of Contents, 2007) like Wikipedia Page History Statistics” (2005) or “Contribution Tree” (2007), it takes a lot of effort in the beginning. But like attending a periodic conference, or while establishing themselves in the community of scholars, the Wikipedians get to know the area linked with their own activities depending on the intensity of their work.
Writing in Wikipedia especially requires noticing conventions, manuals, and standards eventually. But in contrast to the regular scholar who acquires this methodological knowledge and its tools at university, the Wikipedian is encouraged to start editing even without it (Wikipedia:Introduction, 2007 Wikipedia:Five pillars, 2007). This might be one of the open secrets of Wikipedia’s success: the low threshold between a reader and a contributing author. Even the more experienced user is not obliged to know every convention in detail as long as there is no obvious intention to neglect accepted rules (pretty sure to provoke resistance by other users or administrators). On the other hand, the evolution of guidelines and other conventions in Wikipedia can be studied as a process of acceptance and therefore be a good example for implementing standards in museums.
The flexibility of both user roles and conventions allows users not only to create articles, contribute to existing articles or discussions, or participate in deletion (Wikipedia:Articles for deletion, 2007), but to take an active part in creating, changing, or discussing the methodic instruments as well. Because these instruments are part of the Wikimedia software, too, the design and development of methods and tools used in Wikipedia can be observed and studied with the same devices as the articles. Thus, such an important part of knowledge transfer from users to articles, categories or discussion pages is open to be observed, studied, and changed likewise.
Although access to the corresponding methodology in museum-related scholarship is not restricted in general, we should consider at least two facts: implicit practice and habituation. The methods of research in museums are simply used rather than discussed. Especially the museum-related publications like catalogues do not provide the methodological background very often. There may be references to other sources providing relevant information about the techniques of research, but in general, the results are in the forefront.
Most academics focus on the methodology of their field during their course of studies at university. While using these instruments for curatorial or related work at the museum, the individual scholar tends to trust their reliability rather than question them all the time. This enables us to concentrate on the multiple tasks of the daily life in a museum, but diminishes our potential of monitoring the effectiveness of our studies in the long run. However, intense communication with colleagues is very effective at keeping us on track. It is worth mentioning at this point the close affinity between the terms collaborative, colleagues, communication and community.
The community of past and present museum scholars inherits the awareness of vast experience in accumulating expert knowledge from various resources. Although we realize the dynamic character of that process especially in the so-called information age, the impression of this knowledge is more a kind of stable treasure than an enormous but fluctuating cloud. Watching the growth and changes of an article in Wikipedia can teach us a lot about the difference between the levels of abstraction or precision while defining terms. It is common practice to imagine knowledge as being in a book, and there is evidence to suggest that many people treat Wikipedia as a collection of knowledge. This doesn’t harmonize with another observation, though.
The interaction of authors in Wikipedia can be seen as continual controversy, and consequently as the survival of the opinion of the most aggressive authors. Obviously this contradiction would not constitute trust at all. But the viewpoint will change significantly if we consider knowledge as “generally personal, subjective, and inherently local,” and therefore shaped by the “existing perceptions and experiences” of the knower (Hey, 2004). Personality development certainly includes interdependent patterns of status and relationships in society; therefore we might expect connections between personal knowledge and its representations in communities. Hence it is very convincing to consider the evolution of Wiki-texts as negotiation of knowledge by means of social processes (Schlieker, 2005). Furthermore, the perception of Wikipedia as part of a complex network of interacting people from different backgrounds with personal views as representations of individual knowledge seems to correspond well with one of the fundamental Wikipedia principles: the neutral point of view. The first sentence shall be cited here because of its importance for the content policy of Wikipedia:
All Wikipedia articles must be written from a neutral point of view (NPOV), representing fairly and without bias all significant views that have been published by a reliable source (Wikipedia:Neutral point of view, 2007).
More thoughts about subjectivity and many-part conversations are published by Coldicutt and Streten (2005).
Even people who only read Wikipedia should not be considered merely passive recipients of the content. Before the information actually becomes the knowledge of the reader, there are several “filters” to be passed, e.g.
- understanding the meaning,
- analysis and interpretation,
- trusting the source, including the separation of untrustworthy information pieces,
- comparison with recalled information from other sources,
and more. Of course especially for scholars, these filters definitely have multiple references to the community of scholars as well.
Modeling the concept of knowledge as a complex process controlled by the knower, we come much closer to the role of scholar who is a keeper and creator of knowledge. To give up the imagination of “the truth” for a much more flexible concept of interdependent action of subjects or knowers might be not only a more sophisticated model to understand scholarship, but also a helpful background for acting in Wikipedia. At least as one benefit, scholars in Wikipedia could be able to gain better comprehension of the processes which originate knowledge.
But is that really something new for the experienced scholar? We just have to remember a couple of well-known phenomena in the community of scholars, like disputes about a new theory, or different acceptance or valuation of the same source by different schools of thought. Some widely accepted theories of today once started as the very private opinion of just one scholar. But this would be too abstract to apply to Wikipedia without incorporating some observations about content as well.
While the pure expression of a personal opinion can be questioned anytime, some new information or the linking and cross-linking with other information usually adds stability by incorporating content provided by others. For example, bibliographical information can be verified by others and with resources outside Wikipedia as well as with links to other articles and external links. Also, the compilation of metadata in articles such as those that summarize biographical information (Wikipedia:Persondata, 2007), or the linking with external sources such as mentioned before (ISBN, PMID, PND, SWD), not only has the potential of enhancing the quality of information but also can be used as criterion for verification.
The main structure of Wikipedia as a collection of articles supports individual reflection about the single entries, although this is moderated through the linking between articles already. In addition to the conventions and manuals about writing articles, there are features provided by the software or developed by the community to enhance the representation of valuable content itself as well as to enable improvements from simple corrections to inventing or enforcing standards. For example, templates (Wikipedia:Template namespace, 2007) can be used for labeling articles, for navigational elements, or for maintaining the same content or style in different articles. This now powerful instrument was not there in the beginning of the project and is therefore also a good example of the development of equipment by the community. The categories are another important organizing feature, as well as one of Wikipedia’s own metadata (Wikipedia:Categorization, 2007). As a matter of fact, we have to be aware of similar dynamics as in the article namespace. Although the main categories can be stable for quite a while, a user just has to look at some discussion belonging to category pages to get an impression of the processes (Wikipedia:Categories for discussion, 2007). The German Wikipedia has a special project (Wikipedia:WikiProject, 2006) dedicated to the maintenance of the category system (Wikipedia:WikiProjekt Kategorien, 2007).
In the Wikipedia community, there are extra approaches for quality management (Wikipedia:Editorial oversight and control, 2007) which cannot be described in detail here. Some of the processes seem to be very technical and do not have corresponding practices in the communities of museum scholars, while others may look more familiar after adjustment to the different surrounding conditions.
The shared media repository (http://commons.wikimedia.org) and so-called sister projects can only be mentioned here as other parts of the Wikimedia Foundation (http://meta.wikimedia.org) with the potential to enrich the content in Wikipedia.
Last but not least, we should have a look at the benefits of the Wikipedias in other languages. Considering the correlations between information, knowledge, concepts, and thinking with language, the usefulness of these projects is self-evident. Scholars know the differences of traditions in their fields of expertise caused by language barriers as well as the connections built between specialists speaking the same language. In Wikipedia both effects can be observed when comparing articles belonging to the same term. Especially the more abstract entries like the ones about knowledge (Knowledge, 2007; Wissen, 2007) demonstrate strikingly that the intellectual concepts are not totally congruent. A simpler but effective advantage is the use of Wikipedia in another language if the article in the preferred one does not exist, or is not sufficient, or the user just needs to find more references. Also, authors can start an entry with a basic translation instead of starting their own research. As for the community, this seems to have the effect that a fast-growing Wikipedia in one language is an incentive for others to expand as well.
Durbin (2005), Gaia, Boiano and Pasquali (2005), Chun and Jenkins (2005), as well as Harcup and Nesbitt (2006) have elaborated on the benefits of interactivity in general, and its value for the relationships between museums and their audience as well.
Interactivity also allows levels of engagement and participation to be scaled according to the needs and wants of different types of users and, unlike almost any other medium, a low-effort interaction on the part of the user can add a lot of value for others (Harcup and Nesbitt 2006).
This may also be the case for scholars and other museum staff as contributors in Wikipedia. As part of the Wikipedia community, they profit from the input and efforts of people outside the museum. At the same time, they get in touch with potential visitors of their museum or people such as students who are interested in the same subjects or fields of expertise while engaged in relevant articles. The growing public interest in Wikipedia alone might not be enough of an incentive to motivate museum scholars to work with it. However, this attitude may change once they recognize the increased efficiency in knowledge growth when these two sometimes disparate groups of people are brought together by means of well-defined subject headings of single entries in Wikipedia.
In this context we should remember the conclusions of LaBar (2006) referring to participatory culture and public trust in museums. The task for museums to distribute information about cultural heritage is hardly to be questioned. But the close alliance between free distribution and public participation in Wikipedia can create new challenges. Hoffmann and Herczeg (2005) emphasize some aspects of motivation and reputation for contributors in participatory Wiki Webs. That may remind us of the similar function of publication lists in the scholar’s community.
Museums, Scholars and Wikipedia
The previous observations and thoughts concerning Wikipedia may open a vast field of possible conclusions or ideas. This corresponds to the flexibility of the Wiki concept as well as the open character of the Wikipedia project and the evolution of the community. To be useful for those museum organizations or individual scholars who intend to participate in the on-line encyclopedia project, some major topics arising from the mentioned issues are selected for further consideration but are not intended to limit discussion in the professional forum. Moreover, the comments on the issues by the author are proposals to be discussed, changed, or amended by any interested colleague.
Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom
Which parts of the DIKW chain (DIKW, 2007) provide the most efficient connections between museums and the Wikipedia?
Following Bellinger, Castro, and Mills (2004), who see the understanding of patterns as the transition between the levels of information and knowledge, we might agree that knowledge hardly can be assigned to a single article in Wikipedia, but either to a more complex entity containing information from articles, associative links, and other references, or to the members of the community involved, or both. Because the article is the basic structural element of Wikipedia, the data and information levels would then be the first choice for connections regarding specific entries. Notice that categories in Wikipedia with obvious analogies to specific fields of museum scholars or subject groups of museum objects fit in here as well. This is consistent with the mentioned model of knowledge as personal and subjective. In other words, individual scholars trying to bring into an article their knowledge about the subject and wanting to maintain it this way will probably fail, either because of the necessary effort to become widely accepted, or because of opposition from other contributors.
On a more abstract level, there is also a good chance for a community of scholars to represent their area of expertise and related collections with coordinated activities, for example by maintaining a portal in Wikipedia (Wikipedia:Portal, 2007).
Where are the easiest access points for scholars, and how can connections be built?
Due to the mentioned role of articles in the intentions and structure of the project, this level is certainly the one to start with. Writing and editing articles can also serve as a practical introduction into Wikipedia and can serve as a starting point for those who plan to develop concepts of more sophisticated connections. One might think that knowledge of the software is sufficient for that, but keep in mind that there is a reason why “Wikis” are called social software (Social software, 2007). Comprehending the character and customs of the community processes may be essential for understanding the whole project and may prevent unnecessary efforts or even disappointments.
The names of noteworthy objects in museums are, of course, prime candidates for entries in Wikipedia. But the structure and organization of museum documentation is often related to specific subjects of related fields or functional groups. For many of these terms, entries in Wikipedia exist already and can be enhanced with references to different types of museum documentation. If the documentation of a museum is presented on-line and the design takes connections to Wikipedia into account, adding respective links in Wikipedia can be standardized and even simplified with templates or other tools. Because of the popularity of Wikipedia (Voß, 2006), connecting these access points with Wikipedia can be an agent to reach a wider audience.
Additionally, we should have a look at the connections between search engines and Wikipedia. Taking into account the observations of Pratty (2006) about the “search-dominated world” of the Web, the prominent place of Wikipedia entries in Google’s search results has some obvious effects. For example, we find in discussions about articles and elsewhere that people are aware of the importance of place in the list. The large number of entries also might enable the use of Wikipedia as a “find engine” or “help-to-find engine”.
For those who are interested in the popularization of museum content and public access to museum documentation, the discussion of individual articles may not be productive enough at large, although talks about subject related entries can provide comprehensive material for further study. Anyhow, areas such as the following might be more appropriate for the scholar concerned with the general public:
- collaborations (Wikipedia:Collaborations, 2007),
- portals (Wikipedia:Portal, 2007),
- projects (Wikipedia:WikiProject, 2006), or
- “Redaktionen” in the German Wikipedia (Wikipedia:Redaktionen, 2007).
Some special thoughts should be included here about possible connections between Wikipedia and two promising types of projects in the museum community:
- CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model (CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model, 2006),
- vocabularies and thesauri.
The need to adopt the CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model in the “universe of discourse” in museum documentation or to use it for information management regarding the Semantic Web has been presented by Stein et al. (2005) and Lowndes (2006). But they noticed the limited implementation of the CIDOC CRM at the same time. Of course Wikipedia is not an ontology (Ontology: computer science, 2007) for lack of formal structure. But the on-line encyclopedia seems to share some elements of the function of ontology. Some reflections in the study of Lowndes (2006) may lead to the assumption to regard Wikipedia as kind of “irregular” or – more provoking – “chaotic” ontology. Articles can be seen as describing terms or concepts while links and other references specify relationships between them. Therefore the study of Wikipedia by museum scholars could generate ideas for the expanded understanding and use of the highly abstract ontology for cultural heritage information.
Coburn and Baca (2004) suggested that “museums have begun to take seriously the audience of users who may want access to their collections even if those users will never physically visit their museums”. Wikipedia could be a perfect object for studies to cope with the task of enabling users with many and varied “profiles, needs and information-seeking behaviors [... to] be successful in finding what they are looking for” (Coburn & Baca, 2004). The same authors also expect the aggregation of all relevant information about the objects in a collection to be handled by the collections management systems. This raises the question of how to incorporate relevant information from outside the museum efficiently. Research about Wikipedia dealing with such various information sources could present some useful results to answer this question.
Coburn (2006) highlights the significance of structured vocabularies for the accessibility of museum documentation in these areas:
She also deals with the importance of “creating access points for the non-scholarly audience” (Coburn, 2006). For many museum objects, Wikipedia has content useful for descriptive (e.g. descriptive terms, material and technique), identifying (e.g. names of persons), or interpretative (e.g. technical terms) information. Wikipedia’s own structures on different levels will often provide even more connotation than vocabularies with flatter hierarchies or structures of lesser dimensions. Last but not least, the simple linking with a term in Wikipedia requires much less effort than maintaining their own vocabulary or referring to expert thesauri. Wikipedia as conjunction between other resources or reference itself has been described strikingly:
A reference to 'English language' in Wikipedia, for example, will bring into the world of the original resource all the references from the Wikipedia article. This may include information that the creator of the original resource does not even know (Nevile, Kateli and Pulis 2006).
From the viewpoint of efficiency and technology, Wikipedia has instruments worth being studied and used by scholars:
- database links (Linking to databases, 2004; Hilfe:Datenbanklinks, 2007),
- templates (Wikipedia:Template namespace, 2007) and variables (Help:Variable, 2006; Hilfe:Variablen, 2007),
- tools (Wikipedia:Tools, 2007; Wikipedia:Hilfsmittel, 2007), and
- special projects (e.g. Category:Mass content adding, 2006; Category:Wikipedia resources for researchers, 2006).
Possible results could be not only abstract knowledge about methods and tools, but also interfaces between museum vocabularies like the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names, 2007) and Wikipedia (Wikipedia:WikiProject Geographical coordinates, 2007).
In general we should consider museum activities generating information for different purposes, for example:
- museum documentation,
- public access to information in the museum,
- educational material.
Bowen and Angus (2006) have already listed a number of practical utilizations of Wikipedia in museums. Although scholars participate in some of those tasks, there are other activities with more academic character, such as:
- ontologies and reference techniques,
- methods to verify information in museum documentation, or
- critical use of sources.
We should see these as interdependent exchange, because the knowledge of museum scholars in their fields of expertise and about museum practice is valuable for Wikipedia, too. Furthermore, the practice of dealing with multiple fields, subjects, and experiences may enrich the customary communication with colleagues and usage of conventional references which are based on their own area of expertise and professional experience. Likewise the common growth from idea to publication fed by the single use of resources and references could be enlarged to become a networking process within the Wikipedia community where the multiple use of resources can reduce the efforts of the individual.
Benefits are not limited to the more strategic objectives. In this paper many references to Wikipedia provide access to more information. While writing this paper the author (User:ThT, 2006) added the entry for the “CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model” (2006) and some links to Wikipedia. This has made bits of possibly useful information accessible to others through a variety of ways.
Tools for Museums
What are possible tools that would enable the use of Wikipedia, and which tools are missing?
The implements developed in the Wikipedia community are accessible easily in the project itself. But we could also imagine tools in applications for museum documentation like “The Museum System (TMS)” taking advantage of Wikipedia for various purposes.
Projects like Wikipedia still seem to be distant from the world of museum scholars in different ways. But the past, ongoing, and projected activities of museums in the Web should take that successful idea of free references into account. It is to be hoped that these observations and conclusions can provide a base for more thoughts and practical steps.
The author is grateful for the opportunity to accomplish this study enabled by Albrecht-Christoph Schenck, Head of Department of Information and Communication Technologies (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), and would like to thank Erin Coburn, Manager, Collections Information (J. Paul Getty Museum), for the inspiring conversation which turned out to be an important incentive for this paper. He dedicates a very special mahalo (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/mahalo) to Brian Swager, D.M., who not only offered suggestions for the English text but became acquainted with the subject itself from a different point of view and contributed important notions and thoughts.
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