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Photo by Valfex, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Photo by Valfex, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Esino Lario—a small village in the Italian Alps, 900 meters above sea level with just 800 full-time residents—played host to 1,200 members of the global Wikimedia movement last month when Wikimania, the movement’s annual conference, was held there.

With so many people gathering, nearly twenty coordinators of the GLAM-Wiki movement (where “GLAM” stands for galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) hailing from at least eleven countries took advantage to share information on the latest trends and present innovative projects.

The participants were people who are committed to bringing #GLAMwiki to Wikimedia projects. When a GLAM institution opens their doors to us, we don’t hesitate, because content like paintings, archival material, and books are extremely important for Wikimedia projects. Images from GLAM collections, made available via Wikimedia Commons, help illustrate Wikipedia entries, giving readers a tangible visual grasp on what exactly they are learning above; data from museums’ cultural heritage in museums and archives flesh out Wikidata entries; and scans of books can be uploaded to and proofread on Wikisource.

Seeing things in a new light

But after around five years of GLAM activities, it’s time to ask what we could be doing better: how can we collaborate even more successfully? How can we learn together more effectively?

Now is a good time to ask those questions, as the Wikimedia Foundation, the organizer and funder of the Wikimedia projects, recently appointed Alex Stinson as its GLAM-Wiki Strategist. He will be helping and motivating us to find answers to the above questions.

For me personally, Esino Lario drilled into me that we need a change of perspective. And while I enjoy the last crumbs of my remaining Wikimania cookies, I would like to briefly sketch the changes that I believe are required.

In the future, we must orient our activities more closely to the needs of GLAM institutions, as institutions are much more likely to give you something if it also benefits them.

The world has changed a fair amount since the early pioneering days of Wikipedia. Many museum directors, head archivists, chief librarians and curators have recognized that the digital world is a part of the real world—it does not run parallel to it. They know that their current and future patrons are spending more time each year on mobile devices and expect to find online highly personalized content that they can really make use of. The world is happening in the palm of our hands, as whatever cannot be found on the web is at risk of disappearing because of people’s lack of awareness of it: photographing a picture of a museum artifact on Snapchat, making a comment on it and sending it out into the ether of digital friendships; downloading an app that shows us the locations of Hans Baluschek’s paintings as I stroll around Berlin, with images of them; tweeting a One Minute Sculpture by Erwin Wurm; or inserting a photo of a Parisian gallery or pictures from a fashion show into a blog post. This is all perfectly normal everyday behavior.

Should this kind of re-use even be made possible? And if so, how? GLAM institutions are still plagued by doubt and uncertainty. But now a rethink is starting to take place.

For centuries it was museums that were primarily responsible for transmitting knowledge through the exhibition of objects; it was always just a question of who had access to them. First it was just royalty and their guests, then it was the nobility, then the bourgeoisie and paying tourists. Today, the web provides a much bigger display case than all GLAM exhibition spaces put together. Shaping access—which is also the title of the GLAM conference that Wikimedia Germany has actively partnered for years—was initially understood as making treasures accessible by displaying them on the glass of a computer screen, that is. But now a paradigm shift is taking place in GLAM to allow for more interaction. And that’s where our help is needed.

Wikipedia is not a dead end

It will be our job to promote the advantages of re-use even more strongly in GLAM institutions in the future. Wikipedia is now an acknowledged major player, which means that many institutions regard it as one more attractive location for showcasing images of their own collection pieces. Happily, the collaboration between Wikimedia and GLAM is expanding to include more and more areas. That’s why volunteers within the Wikimedia movement are always asking me why we don’t greatly simplify our collaboration with GLAM institutions by allowing media material that may only be used non-commercially—after all, Wikipedia is a not-for-profit project, and we would surely be able to quickly transfer large amounts of digitized cultural assets into Wikimedia Commons. But true open content requires fully free licenses so it can be freely spread and serve as base for new ideas and projects, both today and in the future.

Re-use will be made even more straightforward in the future through a connection with Wikidata and better search on Wikimedia Commons. It will be possible to download content as datasets via a programming interface, making it the raw material for new applications. So rather than being a display case, Wikipedia is a portal through which visitors enter—a transshipment point for knowledge that spreads and proliferates through use as more and more people add their own thoughts. What that means for our collaboration with GLAM institutions is that we need to find out how we can help them place their digitized treasures within everyone’s grasp (literally).

Tagging—the first step toward structured knowledge

In recent years, we have developed initial ideas for making GLAM items more “graspable.” We would now like to introduce a structure to what we offer, at least within Europe. Who does what with regard to legal issues? Wikimedia Germany offers a fun workshop on free licenses. How are technical hurdles dealt with? Wikimedia Sweden is helping GLAM institutions with mass uploads to Wikimedia Commons. How are people working in GLAM actively incorporated into Wikimedia projects? Wikimedia Catalonia has developed a cooperation program for librarians. How are volunteers and people working in GLAM institutions physically brought together? Wikimedia France often organizes photo safaris.

As an initial concrete step, in response to a proposal by Wikimedia Germany, the GLAM coordinators in Esino Lario agreed to categorize reports in the international monthly GLAM newsletter with tags from now on. The categories could be “volunteers,” “open content,” “free licenses,” “Information events,” and more. I believe that if we are able to better share our knowledge and our experiences of working with GLAM institutions, we will be in a better position to encourage people in museums, art collections, archives and libraries to change their perspective.

Exhibiting is a thing of the past; the future is all about re-use.

Barbara Fischer, Wikimedia Germany

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