July 28, 2011

'Wikipedian-in-Residence' Helps Share Smithsonian Archives

On Friday, a group of volunteer Wikipedia editors will gather at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art to improve online information about Alexander Archipenko, Gifford Beal, and other artists involved with the 1913 Armory Show.

The event is the first of its kind at the Smithsonian, hosted by the first-ever “Wikipedian-in-residence” at the Washington institution.

That Wikipedian, Sarah Stierch, came to the Smithsonian through Wikimedia Foundation’s Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) project, a group of editors working to improve cultural entries on the open-source encyclopedia site.

“We all have the same goal,” Ms. Stierch said, “to share knowledge and to share it with as many people as possible.”

The archives had been looking for a way to get more involved in Wikipedia for some time, said Sara Snyder, the archives’ Web master. The site was one of the top sources of online traffic for the archives and a big source of information about its collections.

Fortunately, Ms. Stierch, an advocate for the GLAM program and a graduate student in museum studies at George Washington University, was also looking for a museum or archive to work with (and receive internship credits, too).

“We talked a little bit and decided she would be a great person to come on for the summer,” Ms. Snyder said.

One of Ms. Stierch’s biggest jobs at the archives is to let other Wikipedia editors know about the resources available there, allowing them to improve entries themselves. That mission inspired Friday's event. (Update: See video from the event.)

She also helps the Smithsonian staff better understand how to use Wikipedia, hosting brown-bag lunches and working with archivists, whom she highly respects. Some of that work has paid off, with archivists taking their knowledge to Wikipedia to correct errors.

“There have been conversations about articles on Wikipedia that no one had bothered to look at,” said Jennifer Baker Howard, director of external affairs at the archives.

And, of course, Ms. Stierch also gets to take some time writing and improving entries on Wikipedia, including one on Jacques Seligmann & Company, an important French and American art dealer.

Before the article was posted, Ms. Stierch said she had a hard time finding any information about the company online. “He only sold some of the greatest works of art by Pablo Picasso to the Museum of Modern Art,” she said.

Within a day, the article had found support from other Wikipedians.

“Wikipedians made it better with the resources they had at home,” she said. “They added more information about it, and now it’s being translated into other languages like Catalan and Spanish.”

Ms. Stierch finishes her internship at the archives in August but plans to stay on part-time to continue her work there before possibly working with another Smithsonian unit.

“I could leave at the end of August, I could have a last day, but I care so much about the work I’m doing here that I want to make the most of this, and it’s going to take some time,” she said.