Wikipedia, Museum Volunteers And The New Normal

By John-James Wilson, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool.

Like most museums across the country, World Museum suspended its volunteer programmes shortly before the first national lockdown in March 2020. This was meant to be a short-term measure but with curators continuing to work hybridly our volunteers haven’t yet returned. Organisations like Volunteer Scotland have advised volunteers to consider if and how they can work remotely.

While some museums had existing remote volunteering activities (see great examples here and here), which saw increased participation, World Museum’s vertebrate zoology collection didn’t. An additional challenge for us has been that remote access to our collections database is limited to staff with a VDI. With the pandemic still with us for some time to come (Chris Whitty has said it will be 5 years) we have started exploring ways to engage both new and long-serving volunteers with the collection online.

During lockdown, Auckland Museum published a Wikimedia strategy citing the provocative 2018 talk by Adam Moriarty which championed the importance of collection information featuring, not solely on museum’s own webpages, but in places like GBIF and Wikipedia. This reinforced our view that we need to improve the collections’ presence in Wikipedia. Wikipedia articles are created by volunteers and can be edited by anyone with a standard web browser, potentially providing a valuable activity for remote volunteering.

Our expectation was that the process of editing a Wikipedia article is relatively easy to learn, but the challenge for volunteers could be finding reliable, citable information about the collection to add to articles. Using the Wiki Education Program & Events Dashboard we designed an edit-a-thon event where participants could find information about specimens in the museum’s bird type catalogue, find citations for original species descriptions in the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and then add this basic content to a Wikipedia article. Participants would also be able to add specimen images from a collection in Wikimedia commons.

Attendance at Auckland Museum’s Wikipedia meet-ups and edit-a-thons has ranged from 5-14 participants, so we were realistic that even 1-2 participants would be a good start. We held our first edit-a-thon – Parrots and Pigeons of World Museum – on the evening of December 1st 2021 with three participants, two staying until the end and successfully editing articles. The reach of Wikipedia is impressive, our 46 images in Wikimedia commons have been used in 19 articles and had more than half a million pageviews in 2021.

Course stats from the edit-a-thon were as follows:

https://outreachdashboard.wmflabs.org/embed/course_stats/National_Museums_Liverpool/Parrots_and_Pigeons_of_World_Museum_Edit-a-thon_(December_2021)/home

We’re keen to build from this and would love to hear about the experiences of other UK natural science collections experimenting with Wikimedia and remote volunteering.