Librarians Who Wikipedia: Merrilee Proffitt, OCLC and Wikilibrarian

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

Wikipedia + Libraries: Better Together is an OCLC project that is building bridges between public libraries and Wikipedia. In the fall of 2017, WebJunction ran a nine-week online training program for US public library staff. Librarians Who Wikipedia is our series of interviews with library staff who engage with Wikipedia.

Photo of Merrilee Proffitt

Merrilee Proffitt presents about the intersections of libraries
and Wikipedia at a Bay Area WikiSalon in 2016. Credit:
"Librarians at Bay Area Wiksalon" by Pax Ahimsa Gethen is
licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Merrilee Proffitt, Senior Program Officer in OCLC Research and a member of the Wikipedia + Libraries: Better Together project team, is a longtime champion of Wikipedia for librarians. She is the editor of a newly published book Leveraging Wikipedia: Connecting Communities of Knowledge and volunteers as an editor and in Wikimedia governance. She was recently elected to the steering committee of the Wikimedia and Libraries User Group,* a new organizational affiliate to the Wikimedia movement. We caught up with Proffitt to talk about her Wikipedia journey and share what she’s doing with the library community.

On your Wikipedia user page, you write, “I have been editing Wikipedia since 2005, but am no expert!” Tell us about your journey.

I am always learning. When I started back in 2005, I think I did everything wrong. I didn’t understand the basic rules. But people were really nice! They helped me understand what the community was about. And because of that, I successfully made a contribution. And I remained curious about the possibilities between Wikipedia and libraries. I was intrigued and have never given that up! I see Wikipedia as a place where libraries belong.

Have you seen Wikipedia change in the years since?

Wikipedia has changed a lot since 2005. In terms of openness, the pendulum has shifted the other way—I’m not sure the edits I made when I first started would have stuck today. So, I support efforts to make Wikipedia a more welcoming place for everyone, but I’m most interested in how library staff can feel supported. That’s why my “home base” is initiatives like the Wikipedia + Libraries: Better Together project and the new user group. The aim is to help librarians find their place in the Wikimedia community and to focus on the needs of libraries.

The new Wikimedia and Libraries User Group, could you help orient library staff new to Wikipedia and explain what a user group is?

That’s such a great question. The main way that the global Wikimedia community can organize itself is through chapters—for example, there is a German Wikimedia, a Polish Wikimedia. In the United States, there’s no national chapter, but there are a few regional chapters and many user groups. Like chapters, user groups are collective expressions of the movement. They’re not necessarily geographically focused; they’re groups of people connected by a theme or project.

What led to the founding of the Wikimedia and Libraries User Group.

While I can’t speak for everyone, it did seem that the time was right! There are many librarians involved in Wikimedia and we saw a need to deepen connections and elevate library voices.

Photo of 8 library staff members.

Merrilee Proffitt, pictured in the front row second from left at the 2017 WikiConference North America
has been a librarian involved in Wikipedia since 2005. Proffitt is on the steering committee of the new
Wikimedia and Libraries User Group. Credit: "Wcna" by Slowking, is licensed under CC BY-NC.

Library staff are oriented towards providing access to the information, which means they’re in a great position to contribute. Forming an organization of Wikipedians and Wikimedians who are in the library field helps us cultivate what’s special about libraries globally. This focus just makes a lot of sense. Librarianship is closely allied with the ethos and mission of Wikimedia: to expand access to information and knowledge for all, freely. It seems to me we’re on a happy collision course with Wikipedia.

What an exciting time! And you were elected to the steering committee, congrats! What do you see as the activities of the group?

The group is very new. Those of us on the steering committee will be spending the next few months defining our activities.

As a user group, we’re a representative organization. This means that those of us who are oriented toward libraries get to voice our perspectives on operations and governance.

In terms of what we do to support libraries and Wikipedia, I can see us further scaling #1lib1ref, a global campaign to invite librarians to add citations to Wikipedia, for instance. We can help support existing campaigns, and launch some of our own. I’m inspired by Art+Feminism—a global initiative to expand Wikipedia’s coverage of underrepresented topics and include more diverse editors. I’d be excited to see a campaign that’s as easy to implement for organizers, so we can reinvigorate Wikipedia Loves Libraries, a lapsed event series that brought together Wikipedians, librarians, and library resources. Another idea is something based around images—similar to Wiki Loves Monuments, but instead a global photography competition to collect public domain photographs of libraries around the world. That would be really exciting to contribute to Wikimedia Commons.

What’s Wikipedia brought you in the past 13 years?

Wikipedia has brought me so much joy! This has really come in the form of people. I have met inspiring, motivating, curious people through the Wikimedia movement. People involved believe that they can change the world. So they try! And we’ve seen the world change as a result. All the people I’ve met bring positivity and experimentation. It’s really wonderful. The “no firm rules” —the fifth pillar of Wikipedia—is inspiring. I’m at a point in my career that I’m ready to embrace new ideas and new ways of doing things—being a part of this community continues to bring me so much joy.

What message would you want to give to other library staff curious about Wikipedia?

You can’t break Wikipedia. I’ve seen people blank pages, that is, inadvertently delete all the content accidently. And it can be fixed. You can’t break it and you can do a lot to make it better. If you took the edits made during the #1lib1ref campaign as a sign that librarians are involved in Wikipedia, that’s really inspiring. I think contributors, like Jean King of West Hempstead Public Library, who make small, steady contributions serve as great examples. Library staff can make contributions on their own or share their knowledge with others. Or they can do both. Whether it is a series of small edits or a large-scale event, librarians can make important contributions.

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If you’ve been editing Wikipedia and are interested in connecting with other librarians globally, join the new Wikimedia and Libraries User Group by adding your username to the membership page.

*Wikimedia and Libraries User Group was provisionally named Wikipedia Library User Group, which is still on the website. At the first steering committee meeting, the newly elected leadership team changed the name, as of April 2018, they are in the process of updating the webpage.

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