February 13, 2016

Kevin Gorman: Berkeley’s Wikipedian-in-Residence

GormanWhether librarians and faculty like it or not, Wikipedia remains at the heart of the research process for many undergraduate students. Rather than trying to stem the tide, the University of California (UC) Berkeley is trying to make students there into more responsible and effective users of the online encyclopedia. To that end, the university’s American Cultures program has hired alumni Kevin Gorman (pictured) as the first Wikipedian-in-Residence at a U.S. university.

Library Journal: What does an average day look like for a Wikipedian-in-Residence?
Kevin Gorman: The work I’m doing right now is in two parts. First, I’m in classrooms, helping students research and write term papers. The other aspect of my work is a longer-term mission to collaborate with the archives, libraries, and museums of UC Berkeley to get their content released under a free license so it can be used in the Wikimedia Commons, the Wikipedia Foundation’s image, video, and audio repository.

Talk a little more about your work with Berkeley’s libraries.
We have a really extensive system of libraries and archives, with content that’s currently only accessible to people who can use our stacks. We’re hoping to make resources from those collections available to anyone with an Internet connection.

What sort of content are we talking about?
There are photographs of the free speech movement in the Berkeley archives that exist maybe nowhere else in the world, as well as records related to the early history of the Berkeley student co-op. It’s likely there are a lot of surprises in the collections as well. I probably won’t know what I want to release until I stumble across it and find it. Then, they’ll go from being housed in a dusty vault at Berkeley to being hosted on Wikimedia Commons and other sites from there.

How do you work with students?
I was hired by the head of the American Cultures program [Victoria Robinson], who I’d been working with before graduating. The two classes I’m involved with are one dealing with environmental justice and another looking at the American prison systems. Both are part of the American Cultures Engaged Scholars program. The whole class works on a topic, and students work in teams on aspects of that topic. They work with a librarian to learn how Wikipedia is constructed and how to do research in the library, and then they put together articles that other people can use. Right now, they’re working on an article about climate resiliency.

How does this process help them as students?
Term papers are written by students, graded by professors, and then thrown into trash cans. These Wikipedia-based assignments can provide a lot more benefit to the world at large than a paper.

Why is it important to make more students into better Wikipedians?
Wikipedia has an interesting demographic problem. More than 550 million people view Wikipedia every month, but just 30,000 edit the English version of the site more than five times a month. Of the people who edit, most are white folks with tech backgrounds. They write about what they’re interested in and have introduced a systemic bias into Wikipedia. If something isn’t on Wikipedia, it’s approaching a form of erasure, so we want to combat that by bringing in more editors.

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Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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  1. Lori McCall says:

    This is such a great idea. I have been encouraging my 9-12 students to carefully evaluate sources they use from Wikipedia and beyond, AND we’ve discussed how they can publish their formal research on Wikipedia as published contributions. If we wanted to get a more formal program started here, how might we go about it?