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Everybody’s Libraries

March 4, 2013

From Wikipedia to our libraries

Filed under: citizen librarians,discovery,libraries,online books,subjects — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 4:44 pm

I’ve heard the lament in more than one library discussion over the
years.  “People aren’t coming to our library like they should,”
librarians have told me.  “We’ve got a rich collection, and we’ve
expended lots of resources on an online presence, but lots of our
patrons just go to Google and Wikipedia without checking to see what we
have.”  The pattern of quick online information-finding using search
engines and Wikipedia is well-known enough that it has its own acronym:
GWR, for Google -> Wikipedia -> References.  (David White gives a good description of that pattern in the linked article.)

Some people I’ve talked to think we should break this pattern.  With
the right search tool or marketing plan, some say, we can get patrons to
start with us first, instead of Google or Wikipedia.  This idea seems
to me both futile and beside the point.  Between them, Google and
Wikipedia cover a vast array of online information, more than librarians
could hope to replicate or index ourselves in that medium.  Also, if we
truly have better resources available in our libraries than can be
found on the open Web, it’s less important that our researchers start from our libraries’ websites than that they end up finding the knowledge resources our libraries make available to them.

Looked at the right way, Wikipedia can be a big help in making online
readers aware of their library’s offerings.  One of the things we spend
a lot of time on in libraries is organizing information into distinct, conceptual categories.  That’s what Wikipedia does too: so far,  their English edition has over 4 million concepts
identified, described, and often populated with reference links.  And
Wikipedia has encouraged people to add links to relevant digital library
collections on various topics, through programs like Wikipedia Loves Libraries and Wikipedian in Residence
programs.  But while these programs help bring some library resources
online, and direct people to those selected resources, there’s still a
lot of other relevant library material that users can’t get to via
Wikipedia, but can via the libraries that are near them.

So how do we get people from Wikipedia articles to the related
offerings of our local libraries?  Essentially we need three things:
First, we need ways to embed links in Wikipedia to the libraries that
readers use.  (We can’t reasonably add individual links from an article
to each library out there, because there are too many of them– there has
to be a way that each Wikipedia reader can get to their own favored
libraries via the same links.)  Second, we need ways to derive
appropriate library concepts and local searches from the subjects of
Wikipedia articles, so the links go somewhere useful.  Finally, we need
good summaries of the resources a reader’s library makes available on
those concepts, so the links end up showing something useful.  With all
of these in place, it should be possible for researchers to get from a
Wikipedia article on a topic straight to a guide to their local
library’s offerings on that topic in a single click.

I’ve developed some tools to enable these one-click Wikipedia ->
library transitions.  For the first thing we need, I’ve created a set of
Wikipedia templates for adding library links. The documentation for the Library resources box
template, for instance, describes how to use it to create a sidebar box
with links to resources about (or by) the topic of  a Wikipedia article
in a reader’s library, or in another library a reader might want to
consult.  (There’s also an option for direct links to my Online Books Page,
if there are relevant books online; it may be easier in some cases for
readers to access those than to access their local library’s books.)

For the links to work, we need to know about the reader’s preferred library.  Users can register their preferred library
(which will set a cookie in their browser recording that choice), or
select it for each individual search.  We know how to link to several
dozen libraries so far, and can add more libraries on requestWorldcat.org,
which includes holdings of thousands of libraries worldwide, is also an
option.  Besides the “Library resources box” template, I’ve also
provided templates for in-text links to library resources, if those work
better in a given article.  Links to these templates can be found at
the end of the “Library resources box” documentation.

For the second thing we need, I’ve created a library forwarding service
(“Forward to Libraries”, or FTL– catchier name suggestions welcome)
that transforms links from Wikipedia into searches for appropriate 
headings or keywords in local libraries.  This is the same service I
describe in my “From my library to yours” blog post from last month, but it now supports links from Wikipedia as well as to Wikipedia.

Thanks to information included in the Library of Congress’ Authorities and Vocabularies datasets, OCLC’s VIAF data feeds, Wikipedia’s database downloads,
and my own metadata compiled at The Online Books Page, FTL already
knows how to link directly to over 240,000 distinct authority-controlled
headings known to the Library of Congress from their corresponding
Wikipedia articles.   (Library of Congress headings are used in most
sizable US libraries, and many English-language libraries outside the US
also use similar headings.)

For other articles, FTL by default will try a general keyword search
based on the Wikipedia article’s title, which will often turn up useful
results at the destination library.  Alternatively, my templates allow
Wikipedia editors to determine a specific Library of Congress heading to
use in library links, if appropriate.  I’m hoping to incorporate
suggested headings into FTL’s own knowledge base as I detect them
showing up in Wikipedia articles.  I also plan to publish FTL’s data
sets under open access terms, so that others can use and improve on them
as well.

The third part of this solution– displaying relevant resources at the destination library
can be implemented differently at each library.  For most of the
libraries in FTL’s current knowledge base, links go to searches in the
library’s regular online catalog.  But with some libraries, I’ve linked
to another discovery system, if it seems to be the main search promoted
at that library, and it seems to produce useful results.  The Online
Books Page’s subject map displays
also have features that I think will be useful to Wikipedia subject
researchers arriving at my site, such as also showing related subjects
and books filed under those subjects.  I hope in future posts to talk
more about other useful guideposts and contextual information we could
be providing to readers arriving from Wikipedia.

But if you’ve read this far, you probably want to see how this all
works in practice.  So I’ve added some example library resources boxes
in a few Wikipedia articles that seemed particularly relevant this month, including those for Women’s history, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Flannery O’Connor
Look down in the “External links” or “Further reading” sections of
those articles for the boxes, and view the page source of the articles
to see how those boxes are constructed.

As with most things related to Wikipedia, this service is
experimental, and subject to change (and, hopefully,  improvement) over
time.  I’d love to hear thoughts and suggestions from users and
maintainers of Wikipedia and libraries.  And if you find creating these
sort of links from Wikipedia useful, and need help getting started, I’d
be happy to help you bring them to your favorite Wikipedia topics and
local libraries, as time permits.