DPLA to Expand Collaboration with Wikimedia Following Sloan Foundation Grant

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) this month received a $750,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to fund a multi-year effort to connect the digital collections of libraries, museums, universities, and other American cultural heritage institutions with Wikipedia.

DPLA and Wikipedia logosThe Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) this month received a $750,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to fund a multi-year effort to connect the digital collections of libraries, museums, universities, and other American cultural heritage institutions with Wikipedia.

“This grant will offer an opportunity to make millions of cultural treasures from hundreds of American libraries, archives, and museums freely available online, including Renaissance manuscripts from Philadelphia’s Science History Institute; historic photos of the Pacific Northwest from Seattle Public Library; and portraits of 18th-century actors from the University of Illinois,” DPLA explained in an announcement.

DPLA has been working with the Wikimedia Foundation—the nonprofit that operates Wikipedia—for the past three years. In December 2019, DPLA received a separate Sloan Foundation grant of $215,000 “to facilitate the incorporation of DPLA’s cultural artifacts into Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects.” That grant enabled DPLA to facilitate the uploading of more than 3 million photographs, documents, and other media files to Wikimedia Commons. Those resources have now been viewed more than 150 million times on Wikipedia.

Describing DPLA and Wikipedia as the “two pillars of the Sloan Foundation’s program to democratize knowledge for the benefit of all,” Doron Weber, Sloan Foundation VP and program director, said in the announcement that “with our previous grant, DPLA was able to contribute the largest bulk upload ever made to Wikimedia Commons by a single organization. With this renewed grant, we anticipate a four-fold increase in the number of uploaded files and contributing institutions that will make more of the world’s rich cultural and scientific heritage available to a billion people around the globe.”

During DPLA’s virtual “Open Board + Community Meeting: Leveraging the Power of Wikipedia” on January 9, DPLA Director of Technology Michael Della Bitta noted that Wikipedia receives over a billion visits per month. “It’s a top ten website in terms of traffic,” he said. “Up there with Google, Facebook, and Amazon, all of which are trillion-dollar companies…. They serve the largest audience for reference materials, and I think, as a field, it’s important for us to go engage users where they’re seeking knowledge, rather than assuming they’ll be guided to us."

He noted, “We’ve been exploring the impact we can have by bringing cultural heritage items…from our network to this platform…. When these items are added to Wikipedia articles, they end up receiving orders of magnitude more views [than they would typically receive on an institution’s website] while helping users learn about the topics they’re interested in.”

DPLA Director of Community Engagement Shaneé Yvette Willis added that “our large goal is to bridge the gap between libraries, museums, and Wikipedia…. As we’re developing our plan for the Sloan grant, we’re focusing on two major areas of work—community engagement and content. Examples of that include providing more capacity for GLAM [gallery, library, archives, and museum] organizations to increase access via Wikimedia, and expand the use of…materials to develop and grow audiences for library materials and make them more discoverable—particularly collections and materials about under-researched, under-described, and under-represented communities.”

With the groundwork laid by the previous grant, the project is already well underway, noted DPLA Data Fellow Dominic Byrd-McDevitt. “The original Sloan grant envisioned DPLA as uploading a pilot collection…with the goal of better understanding how an aggregator like DPLA could accomplish a mass ingest of digital assets to Wikimedia Commons,” he said. “In a lot of ways, we did that pilot, and we also went ahead and set up the whole production pipeline in the first year. The biggest demonstration of that is that [by] the end of the first year, we had already uploaded a million files.”

Within just a few years, those results have "really made this work and the engagement with Wikimedia a core tenet of what we do here at DPLA,” said John Bracken, executive director of DPLA.

Leigh Jeremias, digital collections coordinator for the Colorado State Library (CSL), has worked with DPLA via the Plains to Peaks Collective (PPC), a partnership between CSL and the Wyoming State Library that features digital collections from libraries, museums, archives, and repositories from institutions throughout the two states. She said that PPC had “really jumped at the opportunity to share items with Wikimedia because of its wide reach, its large and active user base, and as a way to reach people we otherwise couldn’t. We see this as an opportunity to be proactive…and to bring items to where users already are—not just relying on users coming to us or our partners directly to engage with our historic collections.”

Jeremias emphasized that PPC partners can choose whether or not they participate in the Wikimedia project, and noted that “we still have some contributing partners that are hesitant to share full media files…. And DPLA will only pull the appropriate items from [participating] partners. For our partners, that means that they feel comfortable and confident in what they’re sharing with us.” PPC currently has six partners out of approximately 67 working with them on the Wikimedia project, sharing over 55,000 files.

Ben Vershbow, director of community programs for the Wikimedia Foundation—who was working as manager of the New York Public Library’s (NYPL) Labs project when DPLA was launched in 2013 with NYPL as a founding hub—described the collaboration between Wikimedia and DPLA as “DPLA 2.0,” noting that the early promise of DPLA was “a paradigm of ‘we will build this aggregation [of digitized content from hundreds of libraries and cultural heritage content hubs], and everyone will come to it.’ I think that proved to be both true and untrue in certain ways. The aggregation was a massive piece of work, and still continues to be a challenge—aggregating…metadata from so many different places. But I think what is starting to happen is DPLA is thinking more intensively about how can they offer new kinds of value through that aggregation? DPLA not just as a destination, but as a connector to the larger [World Wide] Web ecosystem. I feel like the Wikipedia work that has already been proved out—at some considerable scale, as Dominic [Byrd-McDevitt] described—is showing that really powerful value-add that DPLA can provide to its network.”

DPLA’s Wikimedia Working Group, chaired by Byrd-McDevitt, includes: Meredith Doviak, community manager for the National Archives and Records Administration; Eben English, digital repository services manager for the Boston Public Library and Digital Commonwealth; Christine Fernsebner Eslao, metadata technologies program manager for Harvard Library; Jamie Flood, senior Wikipedian and outreach specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Library; Giovanna Fontenelle, program officer, culture and heritage, community programs for the Wikimedia Foundation; Rachel Meibos Helps, Wikipedian-in-Residence for the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University (Mountain West Digital Library); Evan Robb, digital repository librarian for Washington State Library (Northwest Digital Heritage); Angela Stanley, assistant state librarian for innovation and collaboration for Georgia Public Library Service (Digital Library of Georgia); and Greta Suiter, manuscripts archivist for Ohio University Libraries (Ohio Digital Network).

DPLA will be presenting a Learning Lab on this project, “An Open Access Future: Leveraging Wikimedia for Increased Visibility,” at the ALA LibLearnX conference in New Orleans from 3–4:15 p.m. in rooms 288–290 of the Morial Convention Center on Saturday, January 28.

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Matt Enis



Matt Enis (matthewenis.com) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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