National Archives hires 'Wikipedian in residence'

Partnership formed in an effort to publicize information

  • Dominic McDevitt-Parks, who was recently hired as the Wikipedia-in-residence at the National Archives in College Park, is pictured with Jill James, the social media manager for the National Archives.
Dominic McDevitt-Parks, who was recently hired as the Wikipedia-in-residence… (Joe Soriero, Baltimore…)
July 13, 2011|By Julie Baughman, The Baltimore Sun

Without the National Archives' new "Wikipedian in residence," the only way anyone would be able to see Ansel Adams' collection of 220 photos would be to visit the archives in person.

But now, thanks to a new partnership between the archives and Wikipedia, the entire collection can easily be viewed on Wikimedia Commons, part of an effort to make information housed at the nation's repository more easily accessible.

Dominic McDevitt-Parks bears the title Wikipedian in residence, and it's his job to organize and publicize collections — even ones already online but sometimes all but hidden on the official archives website — from his cubicle at an archives' office near the University of Maryland, College Park.

"My nerdy side is attracted to the idea of spending my free time writing for an encyclopedia," the 24-year-old said. "They've really emphasized open access. In the past, [information] was in the public domain, but it wasn't in the public."

This new project, distinctive among institutions of this kind, involves promoting exhibits, not only through Wikipedia — the website that allows users to edit entries — but through social media such as Facebook, Twitter and a mobile phone app.

Much of the archives information being posted on Wikimedia Commons is available on the government website, but Wikipedia's prominence on search engines such as Google will make it easier for people to find with just a few clicks.

Jill James, the social media manager for the National Archives, said that in the past, information "didn't reach the right people."

The archives' main building is located on the Mall in Washington and houses some of the country's most important documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The College Park branch has many civilian and military records, along with photographs, movies and other recordings.

McDevitt-Parks is one of just a handful of people to hold the title Wikipedian in residence — the first served at the British Museum in London — and he is the first to partner with the National Archives. He's a graduate student at Simmons College in Boston working on his master's degree in history and archives management.

His internship began in May and goes through late August, when McDevitt-Parks will return to school.

A big part of McDevitt-Parks' efforts to increase interest in historical documents comes is in his use of the archives' "Document of the Day" feature. This Web page on the archives' website features a different historical document or photo each day, and with the help of the new Wikipedian in residence, it is quickly gaining popularity.

The intern also created a challenge, asking people to create Wikipedia articles related to the current day's document. "This is a way to generate excitement, using that as an inspiration," he said.

It might seem risky to publicize information contained in the nation's most treasured documents on an Internet domain that anyone can alter. However, those involved in the project are confident that this partnership will promote material that had previously been hard for the public to find, and in a way that will retain credibility.

"The Wikipedia model has shown that eventually things, if they have the public's eye on them, will increase in quality rather than the opposite," McDevitt-Parks said.

Archives officials feel that the ability to reach a mass audience outweighs any risk of the information's being altered or rewritten.

David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, said the site is monitored well by both Wikipedia and archives officials and that false information would not be allowed to be displayed. "We are constantly watching to see what happens to our content," he said.

Ferriero, a fan of Wikipedia, heralds the idea of expanding the archives audience through its use and recognizes the development and popularity that could be achieved through this partnership.

"I've been watching this phenomenon for 10 years now," Ferriero said of Wikipedia. "I was very anxious to get on board with it as a way to formalize our relationship with Wikipedia."

He said he has been building digital collections of archived information for some time, and the partnership with Wikipedia will keep people from having to wait to find them, as they are housed deep within the archives website. Now the information will be out in the open for anyone to see at any time.

"This is all part of my attempt to get content where our people are," Ferriero said. "I see this very much as the wave of the future."

Liam Wyatt, who started in June of last year as the first Wikipedian in residence at the British Museum, agreed that this partnership would help both organizations promote access to important information.

"It's a mutually beneficial cycle. We get better quality information and better references to cite that information, and the archives gets contextualization within a broad corpus of information that has massive visibility," Wyatt said.

xcxjbaughman@baltsun.com

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