|“||Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.||”|
|— Yuval Noah Harari|
For most of human history, knowledge has been held by the few, shared with the privileged, and written by the powerful. A book kept in a closed archive. An artifact in a museum’s display case. A piece of research behind a paywall. A history distorted by those in power. A story denied telling. While exclusionary, these knowledge gatekeepers have played a pivotal role in holding, protecting, preserving and passing on the knowledge of their community.
The concept of free knowledge is a “common myth” that breaks with this tradition: it implies that we are all keepers of knowledge. That our knowledge should be held by all, shared with all, and written by all. From this ideal has sprung an ecosystem of individuals, groups, institutions and networks working toward sharing knowledge openly and freely. This Free Knowledge Ecosystem is broad, diverse and unfortunately still advocating to the larger Knowledge Ecosystem for recognition, access and partnership.
|“||There is a broader ecosystem of actors beyond Wikimedia that impact the vision of free knowledge that we are trying to achieve in the world.||”|
|— 2030 Wikimedia Strategic Direction |
Through the Wikimedia Grants programs, our grantees have challenged and changed the attitudes and behaviors of those who have guarded knowledge: museum curators, librarians, government officials, authors, publishers, etc. Some actors represent current or potential partners and some represent potential threats to free knowledge. Despite the structural and intangible challenges, grantees have motivated individuals and institutions at local, regional, national and international levels to believe that there should be no gatekeeper; that it’s our collective duty to hold our own knowledge.
Through hundreds of partnerships, our grantees have convinced these gatekeepers to open that which was once closed. The following case study highlights some key partners of libraries and government institutions in the USA and Serbia respectively.
Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) has been at the crossroads of the free knowledge ecosystem since 1967. OCLC is a cooperative, computerized networked for libraries, a strategic network that provides bibliographic, abstract and full-text information to anyone. OCLC and its member libraries maintain WorldCat, the largest online public access catalog (OPAC) in the world.
Public Libraries and Wikipedia share the common goal of increasing access to knowledge, but due to myriad of reasons, public library staff do not actively use, promote, or edit Wikipedia. For instance, because of the early reputation of Wikipedia and the “anyone can edit” ethos, many librarian do not believe Wikipedia is reliable. In order to overcome this misinformation and create a meaningful and sustained engagement with Wikimedia, OCLC staff and Monika Sengul-Jones created a free, nine week training program for librarians called ‘’Wikipedia and Libraries: Better Together’’ with funding through the Project Grants program.
|“||I got an email from OCLC, advertising the course. I am a Librarian and everything I thought about Wikipedia is that it is awful, unreliable, and no one should use it because it is not authoritative. I was thinking to myself, that I don't know actually know about Wikipedia. I have these perceptions but I actually do not know. And additionally all of my patrons use it. So I decided to take the course because people were using it and I wanted to know why people were using it, and the rules behind Wikipedia. I wanted to understand the platform.||”|
|— Kim Gile, a Community Reference Manager at Kansas City Public Library|
The training program focused on public library staff, providing the knowledge and skills that would enable them to bring Wikipedia into their jobs. As a result, the training program created a space where librarians and public library staff could address their bias against Wikipedia, practice their new skill sets, and learn about the common goals of libraries and Wikipedia.
For Kim Gile, a Community Reference Manager at Kansas City Public Library, she received an email from OCLC offering the free course, and decided to take the course despite her negative perception of Wikipedia, due to the fact that most of her patons used Wikipedia.
The training program demonstrated the alignment of values between libraries and Wikipedia by going through the pillars of Wikipedia, but for Kim it wasn’t until organizing in in her own Wikipedia editathon focusing on Kansas City’s rich Jazz History, that she saw the value and importance of Wikipedia. Through Kim’s efforts, Wikipedia has been teaching digital literacy skill sets to the greater community of Kansas city.
|“||The Wikipedia Edithon was a perfect opportunity to teach digital literacy skills to individuals that didn't even have an email address. The reason individuals participated was in order to share their story, to tell what they are proud about with their city with the world.||”|
|— Kim Gile, a Community Reference Manager at Kansas City Public Library|
Like libraries, heritage institutions (e.g. museums) offer another natural partner for Wikimedia. Bias against Wikipedia remains a challenge, but sometimes Wikimedians also face structural barriers that make partnership next to impossible. Such structural barriers can include governmental control or censorship, or the monetization of heritage collections.
Such was the case in Serbia. Serbia has been working for a long time to promote equal access to knowledge and education in Serbia. But when they first started reaching out to cultural institutions in 2014, they were met with closed doors. From the Serbian government, from cultural institutions, and even from schools.
|“||Before, the state government wasn’t open. The directors of cultural institutions weren’t open. Serbia in general wasn’t open enough for the programs of Wikimedia Serbia.||”|
|— Ivana Madžarević, Community and Project Manager of Wikimedia Serbia|
In Serbia, many cultural institutions do not have enough financing from the government to sustain themselves. In response, they have created a business model that monetizes their content or materials to bring in supplemental income. In such an environment, the closed doors make more sense: the idea of free knowledge isn’t simply an ideological change, its a threat to their continued existence.
It was not until Wikimedia Serbia secured a project with the Ministry of Culture that they were able to work with the cultural heritage sector. The Ministry provided funding for the institutions to digitize their content, including in-house staff and equipment. Such an arrangement alleviated financial concerns, allowing Wikimedia Serbia through the proverbial door.
|“||Regional Museum of Trstenik in collaboration with Wikimedia Serbia has increased the visibility of our valuable archaeological object, making it so accessible worldwide. As the Trstenik Museum has no room for permanent exhibitions, the digitization of museum material for our institution is an important step towards the presentation of stored cultural and historical goods. In that sense, efforts will be made to digitize even more material and exhibits.”||”|
|— Jelena Vukčević, head of the Regional Museum in Trstenik|
This Ministry partnership unlocked partnerships with cultural institutions across Serbia. Through a three day workshop program, 60 employees from 29 cultural institutions from around Serbia learned about Wikipedia, allowing Wikimedia Serbia to correct many myths and misconceptions. Through this program and their efforts over the last five years, the attitude of the sector in Serbia has changed: doors that were once closed are now open, and the free knowledge ecosystem expanded.
One result of this expansion is the digitization of an 8000 year old archaeological object, found in a Neolithic settlement. The object is a clay model of wheat grain, and has been only opened to viewing twice. Through their partnership with there Museum of Trstenik, Wikimedia Serbia has been given the exclusive right to photograph and publish photos of this model under a free license, spreading awareness about this Serbian cultural treasure to places far and wide.
- Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (p. 27). Harper.