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Wikipedia! The Musical! A Review!

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Wikipedia! The Musical! design created by Lauren LampasoneWikipedia! The Musical! design created by Lauren Lampasone

On October 22, “Wikipedia! The Musical!” was staged at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Despite its whimsical name, it was not really a musical but an editathon — a chance to edit Wikipedia with a group of people in an inspiring location. Though its focus was improving articles on musical theater, anyone interested in the performing arts was welcome.

For me, the genesis of this event began during the summer when I saw a talk given by Sue Gardner, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation (the owner of Wikipedia and similar projects). Speaking to the American Library Association, Gardner was dynamic in explaining how libraries could forge a closer relationship to Wikipedia. Not only would both Wikipedia and libraries benefit, but all those who consult Wikipedia would also be beneficiaries (Wikipedia is the fifth most consulted website in the world.) I was so inspired by her talk that I kept the idea in mind.

(I should also mention that I first registered for Wikipedia in 2006, but did little at the time. Three years ago, I began cataloging sheet music from musicals and movies. I kept running into shows from the early 20th century that needed more information. As a way to organize my research and have it readily available, I began making Wikipedia entries for some shows, including their songs and the people involved with them. I became so carried away with Woolson Morse, a composer of musicals from the 1890s (whose article I created), that I visited his unmarked grave in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery in order to supply a picture for his Wikipedia entry.)

During September, every page in Wikipedia was emblazoned with the banner:

WIKIPEDIA LOVES LIBRARIES

This banner led to pages encouraging collaboration between Wikipedia and libraries. A notable example was at the British Library.

I was immediately excited about the possibility of involving The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts with Wikipedia. I soon discovered that my colleague and fellow blogger Doug Reside had the same idea. After a few meetings, we agreed to have it at the end of October (coincident with Open Access Week) and that it would be an editathon devoted to musical theater.

Announcement of Wikipedia! The Musical! on TwitterAnnouncement of Wikipedia! The Musical! on Twitter

With so little time between planning and the actual event, our lack of a massive publicity campaign was balanced with e-mails, social media outlets such as Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, the Wikipedia New York City Meetup planning page, and a nice article in the New York Times. We hoped for a nice crowd... and the crowd came! Volunteer Wikipedia administrators Richard (Wikipedia user id Pharos) and David (user id DGG), who had helped plan the event, came early to help us set up. A number of experienced Wikipedians showed up within 30 minutes of opening, ready to begin. After brief introductions from the Wikipedia administrators and brief overviews of the collections by Doug, myself, and our colleage Annemarie, everyone got started.

Experienced Wikipedians hard at workExperienced Wikipedians hard at work

Experienced Wikipedians requested materials and began working intensely. Beginners and those with less experience sat with seasoned users who patiently explained the procedures involved in editing Wikipedia. I was fascinated to watch one editor work with a beginner for two hours. Then he got up, moved around, and spent nearly three hours with another person, patiently helping them and giving them things to think about as they edited. It was a model of customer service!

There lies one of the characteristics of Wikipedia and its editors: many of those experienced editing it are incredibly helpful and want to share their knowledge and experience with others who want to learn. The reward is that one encourages the growth and dissemination of knowledge.

Throughout the day, curious people wandered in, wanting to see research happen right in front of their eyes, watching as the content was transformed into articles. Some stayed for quite a while: one couple sat and talked with an experienced Wikipedian for at least 90 minutes. At one point, a person walked in and said he didn’t know about the editathon. He revealed that he is an experienced Wikipedia editor and comes every Saturday to do research on his own.

I was thrilled at some of the comments made during the day:

  • “I’ve not been here since 1976!”
  • “I’ve passed this building every day on my way to work, but this was the first time I came in!”
  • “I research here all the time, but I didn’t know you have this stuff!”

I was also fascinated by the differences in research style. In the regular reading rooms of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (as well as NYPL in general), people claim their space, sit quietly, and focus intently on their materials. It’s usually a very solitary activity.

But in the Library's makeshift Wikipedia room, there was continuous conversation throughout the day. Even for those who were focused on editing, there was talk and the exchange of ideas — in part to shape articles, to ponder the possibilities of research, to make friends, re-affirm existing friendships, or to temporarily take a break from the task. I came away recognizing that this is a very different, but entirely legitimate, way people do research: with a great deal of conversation and sharing of research and findings. It was quite wonderful to see almost everyone in the room working together. The official Wikipedia webpage for this event lists some of the contributions made by those who attended.

In Wikipedia’s help files, there is a page entitled Wikipedia is Not which states that it is not a social network such as Twitter or Facebook. It may not be exactly like Twitter or Facebook, but I strongly disagree with the premise. Wikipedia is more than just an encyclopedia. Its strengths are strongly guided by its social network, a thriving community of content contributors and editors. Although I’ve engaged with Wikipedia editors for years, this weekend showed me a different kind of social networking, one that is at the core of Wikipedia.

To a great extent, the same virtues lie at the heart of any library. Our Wikipedia experience is exactly in line with The New York Public Library's mission to "Inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities."

I believe our "Wikipedia! The Musical!" experience accomplished all three.

Bravi to all Wikipedians!Bravi to all Wikipedians!

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