GLAM-WIKI keynote preview – Michael Edson, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC

The Smithsonian Institution building
The Smithsonian Institution building

Michael Edson is the Director, Web and New Media Strategy, Smithsonian Institution, Office of the CIO. He is also one of the keynote speakers at our GLAM-WIKI conference which takes place this weekend. Here are some of his thoughts on the event.

In the eyes of tradition-bound institutions, Wikipedia has gone from an amusing pop culture sideshow, to a competitor, to a major ally and collaborator in just a few short years. This is thanks to the strength and clarity of Jimmy Wales’ original vision, careful stewardship by Wikipedia’s small staff, but mostly, the credit belongs to the integrity and commitment of thousands upon thousands of “Wikipedians” – individual Wikipedia editors and volunteer organisers. Wikipedians who work on GLAM-related Wikipedia articles are real heroes to me. Through their careful and persistent work they demonstrate the core values of every gallery, library, archive, and museum on the planet: cultural heritage and scientific knowledge belong to all of us, and everyone should be able to partake and benefit.

The Wikipedia community is encouraging and fun, but most people don’t realize how stressful it is to create or edit a Wikipedia article! Wikipedians are pretty brave: people rely on Wikipedia and they trust editors to get things right – and everything an editor does is out in the open, transparent, for all to see. When Wikipedians talk about working with GLAMs, the thing that impresses me the most is their constant, relentless focus on the quality of the articles. Wikipedia isn’t perfect, but it’s striving in that direction. I don’t know of a single museum, archive, or library project that is as dedicated to transparency and quality improvement as the GLAM-WIKI community is. For GLAM-WIKI editors, it’s personal.

Wikipedians are a terrific and intimidating audience. They tend to be well informed, independent thinkers who are hungry for big ideas and practical insights. You can’t get away with much hyperbole with this audience and you’d better have your facts in order. The conference organisers seemed genuinely surprised when I quickly and enthusiastically accepted their invitation. Perhaps they see themselves as a small band of enthusiasts in the shadow of our huge cultural institutions, but I see it the other way around. In just a few years and with a fraction of our budgets, Wikipedia staff and individual volunteer editors have done something no organisation has ever done: created a truly essential global resource for learning and self-improvement. And it just keeps getting better and better. How do they do it? Conference attendees don’t have much to learn from me, and I have everything to learn from them.

At GLAM-WIKI 2013 I’ll be talking about scope, scale, and speed. Scope is about redefining what galleries, libraries, archives, and museums need to accomplish in society; scale is about questioning our preconceptions about how much impact we can have; and speed is about responding to society’s urgent need for results. This moment in human history is full of risk and uncertainty and we need our memory institutions – all of our civic institutions – to be as effective as they possibly can be. The example of Wikipedia and the thriving GLAM-WIKI community reveal a lot about how GLAMs can change to work bigger and faster for the benefit of everyone.

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