The Failure of Ford Prefect

Just over a month ago I took part in the first librarycamp to be held in The Mitchell Library in Glasgow. For those who’ve never heard of a librarycamp, let alone been to one, a librarycamp is a type of unconference where attendees pitch ideas in advance, and then develop these ideas at sessions on the day.  Unlike a conference though the attendees on the day can also pitch a session and because there’s no definite list of speakers the participants can sit in on a full session or  wander in and out of different sessions as the mood takes them.  In the end I didn’t see anyone switch sessions once they’d got under way but the whole atmosphere is friendly and informal. The event had been organised, primarily, by the indefatigable Anabel Marsh along with Lynn Corrigan, Myra Paterson and Lesley Thomson, and they did a great job with numerous tweets that testify to the event’s success.

The pitch I’d put forward was

How can any of the Wikimedia projects help groups working in and using libraries? How can Wikimedia help libraries better engage with their communities?
Wikimedia in Scotland are particularly keen to work with groups (research, local history, and/or reading groups) that are currently under-represented, and where the projects can be used as a means to help overcome the digital divide. Wikimedians can provide free training and support to library staff and to user-group members in order to help people make their contribution to some of the world’s most popular websites.

My LibraryCamping kit

I think that a ‘librarycamp’ was a completely new experience to most, if not all of the people who were there on the day, and I certainly had no clear idea what to expect, or what was expected of me. In preparation I’d looked at a variety of unconference websites the most useful being

  • unconference.net (in particular the Methods page); and
  • Hacktivities for Webmaking where I had the idea of adapting the ‘Icebreaker’ and ‘A Strong Wind Blows’ activities.  I’d enjoyed the latter at a JISC RSC Scotland Open Badges Design Day workshop and I thought it’d worked really well for generating ideas in a fun way

The camp organisers had also put in place a number of icebreakers and unconference activities: two of which really stood out. When we arrived we were given, along with our goody bag, a library camp bingo card.  Using the bingo card we had to circulate and introduce ourselves to each other and hopefully meet people who could sign the bingo card in one of its squares. It was a good activity that worked well with prizes at the end for those who completely filled their card.

The second unconference activity that I thought would work well, particularly with experienced Wikimedians, was the one-minute rant.  This was again something that could have been pitched in advance but was also open to the floor on the day. Sheila Williams gave a cracking rant about e-books but the winning rant came from Andrew from the National Library of Scotland on the topic of the dead hand of institutional management. Having heard them all we voted on what we thought was the best. Hmm, maybe it wouldn’t be all that wise to allow Wikipedians an open mic to rant. I fear that the ice breaker might turn into a whole day’s activities 😉

The general theme of unconference activities revolves around getting the participants involved in doing things.  I knew that on the day I wouldn’t have access to a presentation or to any online resources, and so I selected the activities and games that I thought would be best suited.  Armed with these ideas, and an armful of coloured post-it notes, Wikipedia pens and much sought after Wp lapel badges I considered myself well prepared.

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Before the sessions got under way the first thing I had to do was introduce my pitch to the whole ‘camp’.  Days before, I wasn’t having much success coming up with something that I thought would be both interesting and engaging and I’d given up trying to think what to say and decided to instead listen to Stephen Fry’s reading of Douglas Adams’, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  This was one of those odd, maybe serendipitous, decisions when as soon as you stop thinking about something the answer seems to suddenly, and somewhat improbably, appear.

You’ll no doubt remember that Ford Prefect, a previous resident of ‘a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse’, had been living on Earth for fifteen years with the noble aim of updating our planet’s article on The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. However, after all this time Ford Prefect had managed to update the article with only a single word.  “Why was this?” I rhetorically asked the librarycampers in the hope that no-one actually gave a different answer to the one that I planned to provide.  “Ford Prefect’s failure”, I hurriedly continued, “was the result of not engaging with his local community.  If Ford Prefect had adopted a user-centred approach to his research he could have generated a considerably longer, and more detailed article”. It got the laugh, and I was mostly happy.

Our Wikipedia talk was in the in the last batch of the day’s sessions.  The three other talks that I’d attended, two in the morning, one after lunch, had been pretty conversational and not a single game had been played and not a single coloured post-it  had been seen (at least, not by me ), and  I’m afraid that I didn’t have the nerve at the end of the day to start to introduce my activities. None of the people who attended our session had edited the encyclopaedia before, and so I tried my best to accommodate the session to what had gone before.  On reflection I should have adjusted what I thought the activities were going to be and been bolder (to coin a phrase). I can see now how this could have been done; maybe next time.

Telling the open source story  - Part 1

Although I’d known from the beginning that I wouldn’t have recourse to the encyclopaedia, for someone who has only recently started talking publicly about Wikipedia I found that talking to a group of people about a website, without having access to that website, is an incredibly difficult task.  It got even more difficult when we started to talk about what makes an article good or bad, good and bad Wiki-practices, wiki-markup and conflict of interest. If I do this sort of thing again I would really have to think about how I navigate around this particular obstacle.  I didn’t know about Kiwix at the time so that might be an option. Although I had personally initiated our participation in the event, I am immensely grateful to Ally Crockford, the Wikimedian-in-Residence at the National Library of Scotland, for coming through from Edinburgh and who not only provided moral support but actively led the conversation and managed to keep it going when I flagged.  At the end I think people genuinely enjoyed the session, and we got some positive outcomes from it.

It’s all about the data: it’s all about the people

On one level this type of activity is really useful for explaining the philosophy of Wikipedia to people who are interested in that sort of high-end conversation but it’s more importantly an opportunity to make connections and encourage people who hadn’t considered themselves as potential editors. From previous discussions with library peeps about Wikipedia I’d expected some hostility to Wikipedia, or the idea of Wikipedia but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The general attitude was,

  • we get it – you don’t have to convince us
  • we know the students are using it, so we want to help them use it better by helping them become contributers
  • we want to get more involved
  • just tell us how to

Based on my experience here I think there is a lot of potential amongst the librarian community in Glasgow, and the West of Scotland for Wiki-training for the practitioners that will, in turn, lead onto activities for their respective library users.  It was a bit nerve racking, but it was a really worthwhile experience and I would definitely recommend it to other Wikipedia users/volunteers who want to engage with their local communities.

Outcomes

There are a couple of material outcomes that we are still following up on.

  1. The first of these is a possible editathon at The Glasgow School of Art.  I met with some of their librarians a week or so after the librarycamp, and we have a training session planned for early December.
  2. Ally and myself have agreed to do a webinar for CILIPS MmITS in February 2014 or thereabouts.  Details haven’t been finalised so keep an eye on the WMUK events page, or sign up for the Wikimedia in Scotland mailing list
  3. We also made connections with staff from The Mitchell Library who were interested in staff training; and
  4. We discussed with Gordon Hunt from The University of the West of Scotland about the possibility of a Wikinews project with their media studies students.

Some other links

The Wikimedia UK event page has now been archived but can be found here

The Storify for the event is here

The Twitter hashtag for the day was #libcampgla

Claire Donlan’s Books and Libraries blog post Library Camp Glasgow #libcampgla mentions our session

References

License

Creative Commons Licence

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Please note that some of the media used in this blog post may use a different CC license.

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