Thursday, 14 April 2011

When GLAM met Wiki (Wikipedia and Smaller Museums)

Last week I helped organise a meet-up of museum curators and Wikipedia authors at Derby Museum and Art Gallery in England. This was the first event of its kind to be run anywhere in the UK outside of the London nationals, and so generated a lot of interest. The idea sprang from a 2010 meeting at the British Museum who had just appointed Australian wikipedian, Liam Wyatt, as their "Wikipedian in Residence" for three months. He coined the term GLAM-Wiki to reflect this new relationship.  GLAM stands for Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums.

Rachel Atherton, the new Collections Officer,  introduces
Derby's archaeology collections at our GLAM-Wiki Event
The BM event successfully brought wikipedians and curators together to tour behind the scenes ("a backstage pass", as they call it). They also worked with museum experts to improve a number of articles on items in their collections, such as the Rosetta Stone and The Hoxne Hoard. One of those attending, Roger Bamkin, lived near Derby so later that autumn he approached Derby Museum with a view to doing the same thing at a more local level.

We met and agreed to take forward a plan to demonstrate what we could achieve. We aimed at producing three brand new Wikipedia articles, based on subject knowledge and references that I, as a natural historian, already had freely to hand in the museum. With the forthcoming 10th anniversary of Wikipedia the following January, we were tempted to try and arrange an event to coincide with that date. But there simply was not the time; Derby's museums were undergoing significant changes to its buildings and staffing structure, and a number of posts were to be lost by the end of March. (It turned out that mine was to be one of them!) So instead we scheduled in a GLAM-Wiki Backstage Tour day for 9th April 2011 - a time by which we hoped the literal and metaphorical dust had settled on Derby Museums.

Having been made suddenly and unexpectedly redundant at the end of March (see previous post), Wikimedia invited me back to finish off organising the day itself, and to give a presentation from the museum's perspective of how I saw our collaboration. (See video of my talk below) .

The day included a number of optional backstage tours. Archaeologists, art and social history curators, and myself as a former natural history curator brought out items from the collections or took people on trips behind the scenes - the most popular of which was to the recently mothballed Silk Mill Museum.

QR Codes
Tours of the gallery gave everyone the chance to witness a trial we had run whereby we'd installed QR codes in out Geology and Joseph Wright of Derby galleries. Initially these all linked different rocks, minerals and geologists just to the English Wikipedia website, but some innovative work by Terence Eden and Roger Bamkin over the previous couple of weeks had resulted in the development of "" This amazing creation allowed one QR code to be used whatever the language of your phone. This is how Terence Eden explained the development, and you can read more on his blog.

We managed to get a rather rough video of the process in action at Derby Museum using one phone set to the French language, and another set to English. We also ran a race between two code readers: Google Goggles and Quickmark.

- The King of Rome -
InWest End Derby lived a man.
He said "I can't fly but my pigeons can"
Although we had arranged WiFi access for all participants, we hadn't specifically programmed in a slot to edit wikipedia articles, though we were still hopeful. Most seemed to be busy tweeting about what was going on, using the hashtag #glamderby. Thankfully my offer of a bit of cultural speed-dating with the natural history collections was taken up by Andy Mabbett.  He rose to the challenge to create a brand new page on a favourite bird of mine from the museum collections - The King of Rome racing pigeon, about whom a fantastic song had been recorded. It was impressive to see how fast an experienced wikipedian can work when they get the bit between their teeth. Andy also went away with some photocopies from our history files to do further follow-up work from home.

The Wright Challenge
The day ended with the announcement of The Wright Challenge -  an innovative competition with prizes to see how many articles can be produced in non-English languages by Wikipedians who sign up for the Challenge. Points will be awarded according to the size and number of articles produced or enhanced by the close on 3rd September 2011. A prize of £50 UK (or its equivalent) plus a book on Derby signed by Jimmy Wales will be amongst the prizes on offer. This is the first such challenge of its kind, so all you wikipedians around the world will rise to the occasion.

Lessons Learned
I think all twenty five participants at our GLAM-Wiki event appreciated the opportunity to come together in Derby. We shared with them a number of valuable lessons through our admittedly rather rushed foray into QR codes. But the museum staff also learnt a lot about working with wikipedians to improve articles about our museum (and vice versa), and perhaps these will interest most people. I set them out below for those who can't face listening to me speaking!

Lessons learned (1) Using QR codes

  • Write on the back the topic of the printed QR code as soon as it is cut out.
  • A template able to select and print codes with both the Wikipedia name and the topic would be ideal, as would the ability to select size, or having it in a jpeg format.
  • Fix codes at reasonable heights, and not too far away from a case front
  • We laminated our QR codes that were going on open display, and we printed those to go inside cases on gloss photocard, equivalent in texture to existing labels and panels. Comments from Terence Eden's blog post, critiquing our installation, pointed out that matt codes would have caused less glare and be easier to scan (especially had they been larger)
  • QR codes need to be larger if they are further from the viewer.
  • Google Goggles is the most flexible code reader tested out of Quickmark, Neoreader and GG.
  • Get yourself a smartphone and don't do this blind, like we did to start with!
  • Check with a QR code reader as you go along. It's easy to make mistakes.
  • QR codes need to be incorporated into proper museum labelling, not fixed as an add-on.
  • Check the webpage really is worth linking to. (Maybe you can improve it if it's not)
Lessons learned (2) Working with Wikipedia and wikipedians
  • Making minor edits to Wikipedia articles is incredibly easy to do
  • Adding hyperlinks is pretty straightforward, too
  • Understanding how to add references can be tricky at first
  • Ensuring factual statements are traceable is a pain
  • Never state something you know to be true without being able to prove it. This can incur the wrath of other wikipedians.
  • Don't use Wikipedia to advertise your organisation. Just link to it whenever appropriate to do so.
  • Image rights can be complicated. Be willing to supply images at a sensible resolution - this won't damage your income streams.
  • Wikipedians are immensely enthusiastic. 
  • Museums have lots of stuff they can use (give them access to history files and reference books)
  • Wikipedians aren't out to steal our stuff
  • Wikipedians want to help museums improve their offer
  • Wikipedians can do immensely clever stuff
  • They love complexity!
  • The opportunities for collaboration between us are immense
And one final thought . . . 
  • Why has it taken so long for curators to start dating Wikipedians? We were made for each other.

For examples of QR codes being used in other UK Museums, try these links:
Edinburgh - Tales of Things
UCL - QRator

Leave a comment with links to other museums using QR codes and I'll add them here.


  1. Thanks for the great post, and for your help in pulling together a great event! Would love to hear feedback from the museums point of view - what value did they get from it and what might put them off from doing something like this again. Thanks also for your kind words about Wikipedians.

    Definitely agree about Google Goggles being the best reader - that's on an Android phone.

    Few typos:
    "QT code reader" -> "QR code reader"
    "Never state something you know to be true without being able to improve it" -> "prove it"?

    Now, your final question: "Why has it taken so long for curators to start dating Wikipedians?"

    In my opinion, this is an age thing. Wikipedia has only recently grown big enough and good enough quality for these relationships to work. Five years ago the motto was "write what you know" - these days nearly everything most people know is already up there! Hence the specialist knowledge held in places like museums is where the growth is coming from. Likewise, vandalism was a big problem four years ago, but is now pretty much cracked. Mainstream opinion in the media and academia has really turned round in the last couple of years.

    "this [providing images] won't damage your income streams."

    One of the key things we need to work out how to do is allow museums to release their images whilst still keeping their income streams. The model used by the German Federal Archives ( seems a promising way forward.

  2. Thanks for your rapid feedback, Andrew. Typos now corrected and a few extra bits now added, including mention of the one new article created on the day.

  3. A brilliant summary of the experience Nick, well done. Modesty may have prevented you from saying that the QR code thing only got moving because you decided to "just do it" and we just did something. The only bit missing maybe is the Wright Challenge but we need to get that moving. (Ive been resting a bit this week).

    Oh it says Google Googles = Google Goggles

  4. Great post. I wanted to emphasise that my critique was intended to be constructive. There is a rather steep learning curve for all of us.

    From Derby - to the world!

  5. As for why it look so long I run through an outline here: