The way it was
There was a time when the idea of the Wikimedia community and a culture sector organisation undertaking a collaboration project would have been looked at with extreme skepticism – from both directions. It was rare for Wikimedians to be taken seriously by professional organisations and it was rarer still for such an organisation to try to work on Wikipedia without being “bitten”.
Times have changed
Now in late 2010, things have changed and we have a different problem.
Now, the issue is how to scale-up our capacity to professionally manage the sheer number of collaboration projects being offered to us, yet still in a way that is consistent with the grassroots nature of Wikimedia projects.
There are still cultural organisations making rearguard actions to ensure exclusivity over “their” cultural heritage. However, it seems to me that we have reached a tipping point in the mood of the cultural sector for curators to become guides rather than guards, for museums to be forums rather than temples. Equally with government data – there appears to be a worldwide trend to providing structured and legally reusable public datasets at the moment (e.g. The UK, Australia, New York city…) Put simply – we are now getting offers from cultural organisations faster than we can meet with them to discuss it.
For example, two days ago I was the guest of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative in San Diego. BPOC has the task of coordinating innovative digital projects for the 20 cultural institutions in Balboa Park (the main cultural precinct of the city which includes the famous San Diego zoo, art gallery, air & space musuem etc. etc.) They were very keen to hear about what collaboration with Wikimedia projects might look like and how they could get involved, given the variety of content and expertise they have. Then yesterday I was the guest of the Minnesota Historical Society in Minneapolis who want to know how to link their forthcoming professional digital history project with Wikipedia in a way that is compatible and mutually beneficial (see previous post about how the Dictionary of Sydney did this). To that end they’ve already arranged a meetup this weekend with Wikiproject Minnesota and hopefully Wikimedians in San Diego will soon receive a similar invitation!
[Hotel room view over San Diego]
[Hotel room view over Minneapolis/St. Paul the next morning. Sunny one day, snowing the next!]
Whilst I was honoured to be able to visit these places, it is not a scalable model. This is not the Wikimedia Foundation’s fault as cultural outreach does not fall within their purview. Equally this is not a software problem (although there are many technical things that could be improved). It is not even necessarily a Chapters problem as there is no obligation for a local Chapter to exist before GLAM partnerships can happen (although it does help). I believe this is a processes, documentation, training and people-on-the-ground problem.
We simply have no consistent, easily findable, and easy to understand processes for handling potential partnerships when they are presented to us. If you want to make a mass multimedia donation you just have to know someone who knows user:multichill. If you want to develop some metrics you have to know someone who knows user:magnus manske. Furthermore, we also do not have processes of finding, training and supporting people who are willing to be the local contact for GLAM partners – whether that be using the “in residence” model (e.g the British Museum), the “ambassador” model (e.g. the Public Policy project), the “project manager” model (e.g. Wikimedia Deuschland), the “committee model” (e.g. the Languages Committee) or something else. I have learned just today about an interesting “project cycle” system that Wikimedia Indonesia is developing – CIPTA – that might also be an applicable model.
Until we have these things in place I believe that fantastic opportunities for free-culture will go begging. More importantly, the opportunities might not come again. For instance, a major New York institution told me that they would be happy to have Wikipedians on-site collaborating with their curators but not until there are systems in place for if/when something goes wrong. Cultural organisations have the reasonable expectation that Wikimedia should invest in relationship management with them. “Leave a message on my talkpage” doesn’t cut it when you’re negotiating a copyright policy change with a GLAM.
[A screenshot of the first results of a current project between Wikimedia Argentina and their national broadcaster - historic news footage released under CC-by-SA.]
I’m not sure yet.
The aforementioned “processes, documentation, training and people-on-the-ground” issues aren’t as easy to crowdsource like Wikipedia articles because they can’t easily be broken down to bite-sized pieces where everyone can contribute.
For a while I’ve been advocating that the Chapters should be hiring an “outreach manager” each to work on building relationships with local cultural institutions. However hiring “coordinators” can also be very efficient way to kill grassroots activity in any field of endeavour – from the union movement to free-culture. Chapter outreach managers could very easily hinder rather than help the community by becoming a bureaucratic bottlenecks rather than enablers. Furthermore, most countries don’t even have chapters (yet).
So, what is the solution? How does the Wikimedia movement increase its capacity to professionally handle partnerships with cultural organisations in a way that in a way that builds upon our great advantage – the worldwide volunteer community.