Interview with Bob Kosovsky
Contributing to Wikipedia Articles on Music: An Interview with Bob Kosovsky of NYPL's LPA
January 27th, 2014
DH: Tell us a little about your experience with Wikipedia. When did you first get started editing?
BK: I first registered for Wikipedia in July 2006 because I kept hearing about it in the news and though it was another Web 2.0 technique that I should learn. That summer, I was working with a lot of sheet music from musicals. One of the difficulties I encountered was capturing information about the lesser-known musicals especially those from the turn of the 20th century, and having that information handy. Although I found some entries in reference books, I kept thinking that it would be helpful if I created my own reference tool, a collection of bibliographic information. As I began to collect this information, I thought "Why not add it to Wikipedia?" So I began my editing career by working on articles devoted to turn-of-the-century musicals and the people involved with them.
What topics do you edit most as an employee of the New York Public Library at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts?
As a trained musician who is interested in the performing arts, I edit articles primarily dealing with the performing arts, especially on music. One pet project of mine is creating articles on some of our intellectually valuable music manuscripts. For decades we have kept a file of published journal articles on these manuscripts. Those articles have been essential in creating Wikipedia entries.
Beyond that pet project, I don't have a systematic plan and edit whatever strikes my fancy within the sphere of my subject specialty. I try to edit things that I regard as being helpful to others that come to my attention as a result of work, through reference questions, or through dialogues on music-related email lists that I follow. I once had an email reference question where the patron asked who was the "Broadway Rose" mentioned in Betty Comden's and Adolph Green's lyrics to the song "Conga" from Leonard Bernstein's musical "Wonderful Town." That made me create an article on Broadway Rose. Some time ago a European music librarian lamented that Wikipedia did not have a detailed list of composer catalogs (necessary tools in field of music scholarship). So I took it upon myself to add bibliographic information to the article "Catalogues of classical compositions."
Another article to which I contributed is "Retrograde (music)." In music, retrograde is the idea that one can take a melodic idea and have it played in reverse. Though it may sound odd, retrograde was an important compositional technique prior to the year 1600 and then was revived in the 20th century where it became even more important. With the help of others, I can say proudly that the Wikipedia article on retrograde is far more detailed and superior to any comparable article in any music dictionary, music encyclopedia, or in any textbook or history of music (all of which I had to consult to expand the article).
I also created the article on the building where I work, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Although writing Wikipedia articles is certainly not part of my job description, I was aware that authoring that article could be considered a conflict of interest. So I made sure to work on the article only when I was not at work, and included controversial comments that have appeared in the press, so as to ensure balance in the article's point of view. In that regard, I try hard not to use Wikipedia as a publicity tool, but as a source of information about the resource. (I also try to restrict most my editing activities to when I'm not at work.)
Though I began to see how Wikipedia could enhance my work tasks, I've also extended my interest into other topics of which I'm knowledgeable. In the 1960s, my family purchased a townhouse in Greenwich Village near where I attended school (and near METRO's headquarters). We sold the house before moving in, but not before I discovered that it was built on top of a dried-up riverbed, that of Minetta Creek. For over 40 years I've kept up with knowledge of Minetta Creek until I realized that I could share what I knew (and find out more) by writing an article for Wikipedia.
Tell us a about the dynamics of your Wikipedia work at NYPL. Do you collaborate with other staff members to choose topics to edit on Wikipedia?
My coworkers know that I am involved with Wikipedia and we have had three edit-a-thons in our building. But except for one, most of the staff has shown reluctance to join in. It might be because of the economy, where each staff member is currently saddled with doing the jobs that were previously accomplished by 2-4 people. But also I believe that because so many staff members are involved with the performing arts beyond the library, it doesn't leave enough time to easily learn and contribute to Wikipedia. So I operate alone.
What concrete successes have you been able to track that result from your activity on Wikipedia for NYPL?
Our first edit-a-thon received major attention from the New York Times, as well as an article in the American Library Association's American Libraries. As edit-a-thons have become more commonplace it has been harder to sustain the interest among the public without extensive publicity. I realize that any edit-a-thon must be publicized widely, far beyond those you expect to attend. It can be a great way to raise awareness among those who do not regularly consult Wikipedia.
I have not systematically tracked the articles I have created as they are of specialized interest. Yet, when I see their page statistics I know that they receive probably more attention through Wikipedia than through their bibliographic records in our catalog.
What are your goals as a Wikipedia editor at NYPL Library of the Performing Arts?
Again, I don't see Wikipedia as a vehicle for publicity (such use is specifically forbidden by the site's rules). Rather, I see Wikipedia as a chance to integrate specialized information into the wider universe of knowledge and to provide connections between topics. I truly believe that every one of our music manuscripts plays a larger role in general history than just being a collection of music. By assimilating and presenting all the published information I can find through Wikipedia articles, I can show the world the significance of these works and their relevance within a larger context.
What types of projects do you foresee being helpful for Wikipedia and other cultural heritage organizations?
First there is the Wikipedia side. When many talk about "Wikipedia," we are often using that as a shorthand for the Wikimedia Foundation and its projects. There are a number of fabulous projects to which library staff could contribute. After the encyclopedia, probably the most notable is the Commons, the repository of (mostly) free imagery that anyone can use and study. This is a great counterweight to for-profit image archives, as organizations will look for free images before they pay a for-profit. Just recently, a picture I took of my institution appeared in the Huffington Post. I have also contributed to WikiQuote, a repository of notable quotations.)
Then there is the library side. Since this interview is intended for METRO members, I think the combination of Wikipedia and METRO can provide a unique opportunity for librarians of different institutions to foster interlibrary collaboration by focusing on articles of mutual interest and improving our coverage in Wikipedia. One example is a project I began during the summer: Wikipedia's coverage of Special Collections. The meager article on Special Collections in Wikipedia is embarrassing to those of us who work with such materials, and I was hoping to garner support for improvement. Perhaps readers of this interview will be prompted to contribute to this and other articles in their sphere of interest. With so many dire predictions about the future of libraries that one hears, it is in the best interest of METRO members to show libraries' and librarians' value by improving those Wikipedia articles relevant to us.
Then there is a side that goes beyond Wikipedia and libraries. Anyone involved with music (and other fields) is probably aware of how the extension of copyright had limited what a researcher can do with copyrighted music. Although the Copyright Term Extension Act was passed over 15 years ago, I'm always concerned that media corporations will lobby the U.S. Congress to extend the length of copyright to over a century. Therefore I think it's necessary for everyone to become involved with copyright and take a more active role. To that end, I believe that contributions to the public domain are of crucial importance. Although published work from 1923 has to wait until 2019 to enter the public domain, unpublished works by persons who died more than 70 years ago are now public domain in the United States. I believe that we should consider it a mission to strengthen the public domain by uploading this free work to Wikipedia so that it may enhance not just Wikipedia or our institutions, but culture and knowledge in general.
What is your advice to researchers, students, and teachers that are wary of using Wikipedia as a reliable source?
Wikipedia's reliability varies among articles, just as reliability varies in any encyclopedia or dictionary. My recommendation is to sit down with Wikipedia for at least an hour and compare articles to each other, examining how they were created by looking at their coverage of reference sources cited. Learn how to judge articles by their bibliographies, histories, and talk pages.Controversial articles can be a good way to learn how the article was written and why certain choices were made (most politicians' biographical articles are controversial, meaning that Wikipedia editors have to reconcile multiple and conflicting points of view).
Be aware that Wikipedia is a social community. Before you start editing pages, register yourself and get to know the community by looking at talk pages, joining a WikiProject of interest and introducing yourself, and looking at your talk page for feedback. Once they get to know you, people will be helpful in showing you how things work.
People who work in libraries -- whether they are staff or visiting researchers and patrons -- have a great opportunity to contribute what they find to Wikipedia. I highly encourage everyone to start now!
About Bob Bob Kosovsky is the Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts for the Music Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. He is also an adjunct at Mannes College The New School for Music where he teaches courses in music theory. He received his MLS from the School of Library Service at Columbia University and his Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.