If you’ve ever visited a museum or library, you’ve likely noticed the number of works in their collections. You may have even asked a librarian a hyper-specific question about a book, only to have an answer within minutes. How do they keep track of vast amounts of information in order to both serve their patrons and understand their own collections? Art museums and libraries are often tasked with cataloging and tracking all of their works, artists, authors, dimensions of each artwork, publication dates, exhibition data, genres, media, or any other data point that can help them document their collections. This work is both a major objective and quite the challenge, since the institution may have several thousand items to track.
To approach this challenge, museums ascribe unique identifiers to artists and artworks, like using a social security number instead of your name. This process is called authority control, which disambiguates people or works of art that share the same name. Museums create their own numbers to use as unique identifiers, and this can work extremely well within the institution. But since each institution creates their own unique identifier, artists and works of art may have dozens corresponding to them. I. Rice Pereira, for example, could have several identifiers that correspond to her name. And she does. Fifty-seven at the time of publication.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a method of authority control that’s independent of individual institutions, helping us discern when we’re talking about the same work or person?
That’s where Wikidata comes in and why Wiki Education is so passionate about bringing museum professionals into the Wikidata community.
In the Wikidata Institute I teach museum professionals and others interested in data about applications of Wikidata in their real work as well as tools to simplify the process of both contributing to and querying Wikidata. One museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), sent their database manager to Wiki Education’s Wikidata training course in 2019, and two more staff participated in 2022. The DIA library holds thousands of boxes of institutional records and historic photographs, and curators, scholars, and the general public use it. When describing an artist or creator for their collections, they have incorporated Wikidata into their process, creating authorities that extend beyond the use of a singular museum.
I recently spoke to James Hanks, the archivist at the DIA Research Library and Archives, who walked me through some of the cataloging magic the DIA uses to make the collection more accessible to everyone. “[C]reating Wikidata authorities is now part of our normal workflow for processing archival collections. Our objective over the past few years has been to build well-cited biographical [Wikidata items] for DIA personages. We found that this facilitated the eventual creation of [Wikidata items] for our processed collections, with the anticipated result that this would promote discoverability of the archives beyond our existing Worldcat and corporate web presence.”
Annually, the DIA hosts over 600,000 guests who are eager to see the museum’s 65,000+ collection. By embedding Wikidata into their archival work and ensuring the DIA’s archives have a robust presence on Wikidata, they can increase exposure of their archives to even more people. Here are some of the ways this is significant:
- As Wikidata becomes more and more vital to the information ecosystem on the internet, more people will find the DIA archives on their research journey. More click-throughs to a museum’s website makes that museum more vital to the art and the community interested in it.
- Wikidata’s structured relationship with Wikipedia can make it easier, one day, to turn this data into citations in Wikipedia articles. This will help make Wikipedia more credible and will again drive readers back to the DIA’s source materials.
- This work can increase the likelihood that a Wikipedia article will be created about a work or a person. The more references that exist about something, the more likely it is that a Wikipedian will be able to write an article about it. This will be especially important for regional art and historically excluded groups of people who are otherwise missing in art publications.
- Corporate collection services like WorldCat can be wonderful resources, but they are not free and open to the public or to institutions that subscribe to them. Wikidata is. This has big implications for using and reusing data in the present and it also ensures that future metadata experts and archivists will have access to not just the DIA’s data, but potentially any museum’s data now and into the future.
Another benefit to this Wikidata work? Working through the COVID-19 pandemic. “An unforeseen, but welcome benefit to integrating Wikidata within our procedures has been the ability to improve intellectual controls remotely,” James said. “For example, when the DIA was on lockdown in 2020, I was still able to conduct meaningful archival description work from home using a combination of Office 365, Wikidata, Archive.org, JSTOR, and my own personal reference library. Although I did not have hands-on access to the primary source materials, I could still enhance and contextualize records pertaining to collections.”
The stability and continuity of Wikidata have many benefits beyond pandemic-induced remote work. James is excited about additional avenues Wikidata is opening to practicum students and interns. He recommends they learn Wikidata to orient themselves to the DIA’s collections and to help fill in the blanks of their collection. Endeavoring to make records more complete is not only beneficial to any collection, but it can also reveal untold and underrepresented stories. “Wikidata has been part of our toolkit for providing access to a more thorough historical record,” James shares, “and we are quite pleased to promote the work of women curators who have worked at the Detroit Institute of Arts over the past 130+ years.” See for yourself here: Adèle Coulin Weibel Textile Department records, 1876-1973.
We are excited by all of the new opportunities Wikidata is bringing to the Detroit Institute of Arts and look forward to helping facilitate as other institutions take on this important work. If you’re interested in learning how to get started with Wikidata, check out our upcoming Wikidata Institute training courses.
A special thanks to James Hanks (firstname.lastname@example.org) for taking the time to share his Wikidata enthusiasm with me and to Christina Gibbs (https://www.christina-gibbs.com/about) who took our Wikidata course years ago and was an early champion of Wikidata at the DIA.
If you’re interested to learn more about Wikidata and how your institution could start to do something similar, follow this link for more information about our courses.