Librarians Who Wikipedia: Bob Kosovsky, New York Public Library

Monika Sengul-Jones, OCLC Wikipedian-in-Residence /

Wikipedia + Libraries: Better Together is an OCLC project that is building bridges between public libraries and Wikipedia; featuring an online training program for US public library staff hosted by WebJunction in the fall of 2017. Librarians Who Wikipedia is a series of interviews with library staff who engage with Wikipedia

Photo of Bob Kosovsky

Bob Kosovsky, a Wikipedian, librarian and
curator at New York Public Library. Credit: Courtesy Bob Kosovsky

Eleven years ago, Bob Kosovsky of New York Public Library started his Wikipedia journey. Today, he considers editing to be a part of his library outreach work. Indeed, thanks to creating more than 40 articles, he has directed web users’ attention to the library. We met up with Bob to hear his Wikipedia story and learn how he has begun to measure the positive impact of his engagement with Wikipedia on his library system.

How did you get involved with Wikipedia?

I began to edit in 2009 in earnest, while I was working at the New York Public Library on a project with turn-of-the-century sheet music. I was coming across all of these musicals with no reference information. It would have helped me greatly to have some reference material to contextualize the music. I started to make my own lists, then it hit me: why not do this in Wikipedia so that it will help other people, too?! So that’s how I got into Wikipedia. I entered in several shows from the 1890s that are unknown to most people other than the strongest musical theater fans. I was taken away with it.

What were you writing about exactly?

Well, one composer, Woolson Morse, kept coming up. There wasn’t any biographical information on him, so I began researching him. I discovered he was a distant relative of Samuel Morse, yes, of Morse code. They were from the same suburb of Boston; but because of his musical theater interest, he came to New York City. I found out he died at age 37—and oh, genealogy is one of my hobbies—and I found out that he was buried in a very famous cemetery, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. So, I asked the cemetery office, and the cemetery caretaker showed me where Morse was buried and I took a photo.

Photo of unmarked grave of Woolson Morse
Unmarked grave of Woolson Morse which Bob Kosovsky contributed to Wikimedia. Credit: Bob Kosovsky, CC BY-SA 3.0

I dug up all this information from all these different places, and I decided to make it into a biographical article. And now that article on Woolson Morse is the most comprehensive reference source for information about him. When I did that article, other editors made some alterations; but no one deleted it, they made it better.

And I thought, “Wow, that is what one can do with Wikipedia.”

What’s it like to edit Wikipedia?

It took me a while to figure out how to respond to and converse with other editors. It took a few reversions and edits before I recognized the collaborative nature of the project. Then I embraced it wholeheartedly. Now when I write articles, I expect others to work on them, to proofread, clarify and improve my writing, and to enhance what I've already written. Collaboration also happens on talk pages, and these can be complex and lengthy discussions. It’s challenged my thinking and helped me to embrace alternative views that I may never have considered. For those of us who are constantly seeking to improve our intellectual acumen, Wikipedia’s discussions are a wonderful way to develop one’s intellectual faculties.

How does Wikipedia harmonize with your library work?

My interest in Wikipedia has really enhanced my work as a librarian. It is a way to harness--a way to capture my work as a librarian and share it with other people rather than have it at my desk alone.

I have now created over 40 articles and edited many others. I just had my 11th anniversary of editing. Much of my Wikipedia work is directly related to my responsibilities at the library. It’s part of outreach. There’s no question about that in my mind.

What’s been the impact of your editing?

To take one example, we have a number of important 17th-century music manuscripts. Having been written about in the past, these manuscripts don’t often receive that much attention. However, the Wikipedia articles I created for these manuscripts do. Not that long ago, a British library contacted us about our collections. They said they found the Wikipedia articles on our manuscripts and planned to write something similar for their holdings. Even though the Wikipedia articles on our manuscripts don’t have a tremendous number of views, it’s not always about the number of people. It’s about reaching the right people who are interested and connecting them to our collections. Wikipedia makes that easy. Wikipedia facilitates the connection between individuals and libraries.

What tools can you use to measure or track back Wikipedia to your collections?

You can track page views on the article and use Google analytics. These are easy tools to use. For the articles I’ve written about library materials, only specialists really will look at those. At the library, we were told that we needed more stats on where our users were looking. The New York Public Library [had] contributed 10,000 stereoscopic images to [Wikimedia] Commons but didn’t know there was a way to follow their use. I showed them the way to see page views for the images they posted. They were thankful. Having something like that which helps determine metrics makes a difference.

What message would you like to share with other public library staff?

It’s one thing to consult Wikipedia, but it’s an entirely different experience to participate in the building of the encyclopedia. Myself, I feel a tremendous sense of pride by knowing that I’m collaborating with others by sharing knowledge with the world. With such a variety of diverting recreational activities in 21st-century life, I find editing Wikipedia to be among the most rewarding. Through Wikipedia I have found out so much more about so many things, not just from reading about them, but through actual engagement of editing articles about them. I strongly encourage getting involved with Wikipedia!

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