What you need to know to kickstart a Wikidata Initiative

Wiki Education is hosting webinars all of October to celebrate Wikidata’s 10th birthday. Below is a summary of our second event. Watch the webinar in full on Youtube. Sign up for our next two events here.

After checking in on the state of Wikidata and cultural heritage last week, this week we wanted to explore how a Wikidata initiative comes into being. What possibilities do catalogers and metadata librarians see in Wikidata? How do they convince their institutions to get excited about it, too? And how can anyone start a Wikidata Initiative of their own? That’s what we aimed to find out in the second event of our Wikidata Birthday Speaker Series. “Wikidata Will” Kent gathered Joe Cera from Berkeley Law Library, Kiley Jolicouer, a Metadata Strategies Librarian at Syracuse University Libraries, and Chris Long, the Director of the Resource Description Services Team at University of Colorado Boulder Libraries.

What problem was your institution trying to solve with Wikidata?

Our panelists each found Wikidata in a different way. Joe’s repository didn’t use a common identifier and wasn’t easily editable. He wanted a system where he could assign a consistent authority across data items and make it easier to identify them in the repository.

Kiley’s team was migrating from a local digital collection system to a new digital asset management system. The new system didn’t have a native authority control capability, so she was looking for other methods of authority control and a way to integrate her team’s information with the cataloging department.

For Chris, his department was already interested in transitioning to open linked data. Plus, as his team’s director, he wanted a project big enough to give 12 people linked data experience, while also producing some real results that would bring value to the institution at large. In all three of these cases, Wikidata provided their solution.

How did you get buy-in at an institutional level?

I found myself wondering, ‘Why isn’t everyone doing this?’ It’s an easy way to make your own information accessible to other people.”

One of the biggest draws of Wikidata is its ability to make massive amounts of data public like never before. Compared to other platforms, the interface is user-friendly and accessible. A self-proclaimed “low-tech poster boy”, Chris shared that he believes contributing to Wikidata is really something anyone can do with a little preparation. “I would love to convince more and more librarians that linked data and Wikidata aren’t that hard,” Joe added. “We just have to jump in and do it. To show people that there’s this real benefit to the profession generally and to institutions, too, to be engaging with it. You don’t have to be comfortable with technology. You just have to be willing to jump in.”

“Because there’s such a low barrier to entry, there have been a lot of opportunities to pull in other people who are not familiar with Wikidata,” Joe continued. “They can clearly see the connections in my project, even if they’re not comfortable interacting with the data. The ability to include other people at any step of the process has been really useful. I found myself wondering, ‘Why isn’t everyone doing this?’ It’s an easy way to make your own information accessible to other people.” Joe’s internal goal–defining common identifiers for his own repository–had external implications. That data was ready to be shared! “When it was time to use resources, we had already set ourselves up to add value to Wikidata.”

Wikidata is not only low-barrier and low-risk, but even the smallest contributions have big pay-offs. “The fact that you’re contributing to both the institutional value and to a global information community is compelling,” Kiley shared. “It’s so much bigger than the specific project you run. You’re creating something that will persist and snowball into something bigger. Once information is created on Wikidata, a little bit more gets added, then a little bit more and more, and then it’s so much bigger than what you started with. The net gain of it is enormous.”

There’s something to be said for engaging with the public and de-siloing collections in this new, far-reaching way. “As a cataloger or metadata librarian, you know people are seeing what you’re producing but you don’t necessarily see them seeing it,” Kiley pointed out. “But with Wikidata and Wikipedia, you can see that participation where people either challenge what you said or add to it. You see the ecosystem from a very different point of view.”

Kiley had used information from Wikidata before, but Wiki Education’s Wikidata training course was what prepared her to contribute to the repository herself and use it in a new way. Preparing data to be added to Wikidata did require upfront work, but Kiley says the possibilities are worth it. “With the way our linked data is structured, moving it over requires us to be more specific about it. But that also gives us the ability to make all that data publicly accessible, allowing users to query it in a way that’s different from just searching in the digital collections.”

For Chris, on the other hand, his Wikidata Initiative was a natural progression from existing linked data projects at his institution. “I was able to get that buy-in from the other catalogers, who saw it was an extension of something they had been doing for a long time.” After taking Wiki Education’s intro to Wikidata course, Chris then had the tools to bring others along with this new system. “I could show them that hey, this linked data thing is not so scary. And we’re beginning to see how we can use this in our production environment. Wikidata enables you to code in relationships that other platforms don’t allow you to do. The querying feature is so powerful that you can find relationships that you might not be able to otherwise.”

The challenge, he said, wasn’t convincing his team that Wikidata is valuable. Instead, it was getting them (and himself!) to think outside of their typical workflow. “I had to say, ‘There are so many more things that we can put in a Wikidata item than a NACO record.’ But NACO records have very stringent rules, while Wikidata is a little bit of the ‘Wild West’ for metadata. Giving ourselves the freedom to do these things is a mindshift. I found myself encouraging my folks saying, we don’t have to do the same things we did in NACO records. Let’s embrace all the possibilities we can.”

Wikidata presents an opportunity to think outside the box and beyond the closed systems many of us are accustomed to working within. “It’s clear that everyone on Wikidata has a different way of approaching the same thing,” Joe pointed out. “It depends on where you’re coming from.” And through the systems of consensus-building that Wikidata is known for, we arrive somewhere great together.

I want to start a Wikidata Initiative. What do I do?

“When doing any kind of project, but especially a project that’s dealing with data, it has to be iterative,” Kiley pointed out. “You’re going to find stuff that you did that you absolutely hate, that didn’t work, or isn’t quite working well enough. You have to be willing to backtrack. Whether it’s working in Wikidata itself or a local instance of Wikibase, that willingness to understand that even if you’re already familiar with what you’re doing, there’s still a learning curve with everything. There’s going to be adaptive decisions along the way.”

Chris had some advice of his own. “When you’re starting out, you have to decide at the beginning, what’s the scope of the project? How many resources do you have? Don’t try to take on too much for your initial project. Keep it small. The thing I like about Wikidata is that you don’t have to do everything. Other people can add information to your items. Wikidata items beget other Wikidata items. You don’t have to take on the whole world with your project, just try to learn and realize you’re not going to get it right the first time. You can go back and fix it as you learn more things. It’s a learning journey.”

And there are resources to help you learn. Above all else, you’re not alone. For Kiley, the best resource is other people. “The whole community–constellations of people working in different areas on different things–is really invaluable, regardless of what you’re trying to do. They’re so friendly and so helpful and willing to weigh in on ideas, whether it’s offering something you haven’t even considered or just helping you solve a problem that you can’t figure out on your own.”  Joe chimed in too: “I expected someone to say, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing!’” But they didn’t. Instead, Joe benefited from the wisdom of other Wikidatans while working in a public space, free of a silo.

“You can contribute to Wikidata without being responsible for the frankly massive undertaking of having the information be as complete as possible,” said Kiley. “I think people misunderstand that as a weakness of Wikidata, that it’s not ‘complete,’ but I think that’s what makes it such a wonderful opportunity.”

“I’m actually creating, I’m not just experimenting,” Chris added. “And I can share that. It’s hard to demonstrate what value your cataloging team is adding. You know you’re doing it, but it’s hard to make it visible and understandable to others on campus. Wikidata is one way to show that you’re adding value to the campus community. To me, that’s what’s exciting.”

In five years, Chris sees Wikidata being even more incorporated into the production environment, especially with the Library of Congress incorporating it. Kiley hopes to see more discussion of both Wikidata and Wikipedia in the context of information literacy and data literacy. Really, the possibilities are endless. Sure, the “choose your own adventure” nature of Wikidata can be a bit overwhelming (thanks Joe for the apt phrase). But there’s also beauty in that freedom. As a Wikidatan, you’re a data wrangler in the Wild West of metadata. And that’s pretty cool.

Check out Kiley’s project here; Joe’s project here; and Chris’ projects here, here, and here.

Interested in choosing your own adventure, but don’t know where to start? Wiki Education has a vision for the future, too: that all librarians, archivists, museum professionals, and other linked data enthusiasts can participate in Wikidata with as few barriers to entry as possible. If you’re the kind of learner who seeks community and guidance on your journey, , the Wikidata Institute has three upcoming training courses starting in November, January, and March. Consider also signing up for our next 2 webinar events celebrating Wikidata’s birthday all of October.


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