Interview with William Blueher

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Wikipedia for Special Collections: A Conversation with Watson Library's William Blueher


November 25th, 2013

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tell us a little about your experience with Wikipedia. When did you first get started editing? How has your formal education related to Wikipedia?

In my final semester as a library school student at Pratt SILS in the spring of 2012, I did a practicum at Thomas J. Watson Library (the main research library at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I am now on staff). The focus of the practicum was looking at how libraries can attract users to their ever-growing collections of digitized material. The project - subtitled “If We Build It, Will They Come?” - had both a practical element (digitizing and promoting actual material from the library) and a more theoretical component, in which I reviewed the relevant literature to see what other institutions either were doing or hoped to do in order to increase usage of their digital collections.

In my literature review, I stumbled across an article titled “Harnessing social networks to connect with audiences” by Dreanna L. Belden (2008), in which the author discussed how her library had added links in Wikipedia to relevant items in its digital collections, and how this helped to increase traffic to the collections.

So, when I was hired on as a full-time staff member at Watson Library not long after I graduated, I proposed that we start doing the same thing. We have been adding links to Wikipedia articles since August 2012 - more than 1,500 so far - and the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

What topics do you edit on Wikipedia?

We edit articles related to items in our Digital Collections. Since we are an art museum library, most of the material we have is of an art historical nature. As a result, most of the Wikipedia articles we add links to relate to art in some way. A history of the articles we’ve edited can be found at my Wikipedia userpage.

Tell us a about the dynamics of your Wikipedia work at the Watson Library. How does it relate to the work you do as a librarian?

We see Wikipedia as a natural extension of one of our primary missions, which is to make our collections known and available to readers and researchers who can use them. By adding links in Wikipedia, we are helping ensure our material is discovered by a wide audience (Wikipedia is one of the 5 biggest websites in the world, after all), which is exactly what most libraries – and digital collections in general – strive to do.

What concrete successes have you been able to track that result from your activity on Wikipedia for Watson Library?

We have been monitoring the success of this initiative by using Google Analytics. Over the last 30 days, we have had 14,898 visits to the Digital Collections. Over the same period a year ago, we only had 4,928 visits. This is an increase of over 200%, with nearly 10,000 more visits in a single 30-day period this year than last.

Of the 14,898 visits over the last 30 days, 57% were referred by Wikipedia (8,570), whereas a year ago, only 31% came from Wikipedia (1,552). As we’ve put more into Wikipedia, it has referred more back out to us.

As these figures indicate, Wikipedia has helped us generate a dramatic increase in traffic to the Digital Collections.

What are your goals as a Wikipedia editor at Watson Library?

At Watson Library, we have spent the last few years digitizing tens of thousands of items and making them freely available to anyone who visits our website, either on location or remotely. We are proud of our constantly growing Digital Collections, and we want as many people as possible to use them.

What types of projects do you foresee being helpful for Wikipedia and the Watson Library?

I am excited to see how GLAM-Wiki NYC evolves over time, and hope to get more involved in that community. I think that libraries, as well as cultural institutions in general, can gain a lot by harnessing the immense appeal and reach of Wikipedia.

What is your advice to researchers, students, and teachers that are wary of using Wikipedia as a reliable source?

I know when it started in the early 2000’s people had all sorts of reservations, but I think over time it has more than proven its usefulness as an information resource and people seem to have gotten used to it. Is it flawless and infallible? Absolutely not. But no encyclopedia ever has been. It is a work-in-progress, but one with seemingly boundless potential. I mean already, in less than a decade and a half, there are over 4 million articles in English alone! Now, I would never say (and I don’t think anyone does) that Wikipedia is the only source one needs to consult when doing research, but because of its immense breadth of scope it is an absolutely indispensable resource to consult when beginning to research literally millions of different topics.

About William William Blueher recently graduated with an MLIS from Pratt SILS. He also holds an MA in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania. He currently works in the technical services department at Thomas J. Watson Library, the central research library at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.