Carolyn Mayben Flowers: the Lady Prospector of Porcupine

Working my way through some of the Canadian Collection on Commons this morning, I discovered a rather eye-catching picture:

Porcupine's lady prospector (HS85-10-24373)

“Porcupine’s Lady Prospector”, photographed at the Porcupine Gold Rush in the summer of 1911. Two things immediately strike the viewer: one is that the woman in the photograph is dressed decorously by the standards of Edwardian Canada, with a white blouse and a long dark skirt, despite the searing heat of that summer – Porcupine would later be devastated by wildfire – and the second is that she has a revolver slung casually on one hip.

There has to be a story here.

It turns out to be quite quick to put a name to her; the Timmins Daily Press captions a copy of the picture as Carolyn Mayben Flowers, and the Timmins Museum gives us still around in 1915, giving piano lessons. I haven’t been able to trace her after that, or indeed before. There is a “Cathaline Flowers” in Gowganda (aged 26, married, with a six-year-old daughter), but Gowganda is a long way from Timmins, and she doesn’t list herself as American…

Wikipedians in Residence: a recap

To my great surprise, I got named in a BBC story today. The article is about the upcoming Wikipedian in Residence at the National Library of Scotland; it’s really pleasing that as my own work at the British Library is coming to an end, there’ll be someone else taking up the work at an equally interesting organisation.

NLS is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Here is a list of all the current and past Wikimedians in Residence, and below is a list of everyone who is currently looking for a Wikipedian (or Wikimedian) in Residence that I’ve heard about – please let me know if I’ve missed any!

  • The National Library of Scotland (paid)

    Four-month residency working with the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh to help disseminate the Library’s content to Wikipedia, and work with librarians to help encourage understanding and use of the projects.

  • JISC “Wikimedia Ambassador” residency (paid)

    Nine-month program looking to build skills and expertise engaging with Wikimedia projects among JISC-funded research programs, and to help disseminate knowledge from that research. (In many ways, this fits very neatly with some of the work I was doing for AHRC…).

  • ZDF Television (Germany) (paid)

    Short-term program (until mid-October) to liaise between the organisation and Wikipedia contributors on – I love this – a project to fact-check political claims during the months before the 2013 federal election in September.

  • Smithsonian Institution (paid)

    Internship (with stipend), aiming to build on and sustain the existing partnership programs with the Smithsonian.

  • Swiss Federal Archives (paid)

    Three to six month program with a particular focus on digitising WWI-related photographs.

  • METRO (New York) Open Data Fellowship (paid)

    An interesting two-track program; an eight-week fellowship working as a Wikipedian in Residence for a consortium of cultural institutions, and also as an advisor on open data/licensing/etc. US only, students preferred.

  • Olympia Timberland Library (US) (volunteer)

    The library is looking for a “Wiki-Ninja” (now there’s something to put on a job description) to help build and sustain a local-history editing program among the local community.

And, of course, there’s plenty more institutions which are setting up similar volunteer programs without going through a formal recruitment process – it only tends to be needed when money gets involved. If you’re a Wikipedia volunteer thinking of what you could do with a local institution, now is as good a time as any to approach them…

How many hours?

A newly released (and very interesting) paper – Using Edit Sessions to Measure Participation in Wikipedia – looks at estimating the level of participation in Wikipedia using an estimate of time spent contributing, rather than previous studies based on raw edit numbers, etc.

Their headline figure is an estimate that all of Wikipedia, up to an unspecified date in 2012, represents “a total of 102,673,683 total labor-hours”.

As David White noticed, this is many lifetimes of labour:

Some other ways to visualise these numbers:

  • Three years work by a mid-sized university of around 15,000 people (assuming a working day of eight hours and 250 working days in the year)
  • The users of the British Library reading rooms (capacity ~1500) working for thirty-three years.
  • One thousand “productive lives” (days as above, over fifty years, rather than 24/7 cradle to grave)

Or, in a sharp demonstration of the “cognitive surplus” theory:

  • Seven minutes writing time each from the global audience of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony.

All of Wikipedia, in all its languages, could have been written in the time it took the world to make a cup of tea during the speeches.

Wikipedia and the British Library

Crossposted from the British Library Digital Scholarship blog


I’ve been working as the Wikipedian in Residence at the British Library for the past nine months. This is a one-year project funded by the AHRC, which aims to study the ways in which academics and specialists can engage with Wikipedia and similar projects.

It builds on the work previously done by a number of other Wikipedians in Residence at institutions around the world (full list); usually, they’ve worked with galleries or museums to help improve content relating to the collections of those institutions. The benefits for everyone are clear – Wikipedia improves in quality and scope; the institutions engage communities interested in their material, and reach potentially much broader audiences.

We’ve tried something a bit different this time around. While we’ve worked on some content projects, we’ve focused on working with researchers and librarians to help build skills and give people the confidence to engage directly with these communities. Over the past months, I’ve talked to well over three hundred people, demonstrating tools and encouraging them to think about making a first step. There are three approaches we’ve been looking at here:

  • Contextualising research. Part of the perennial problem of academic projects is that they are often very specialised; it can be very difficult to explain the details of the work to a layperson. Wikipedia allows researchers to help improve the “background” material needed to put their work in context, indirectly the supporting public impact of their work. Working with the International Dunhuang Project, the BL hosted a series of workshops over a week; here, curators, Wikipedia contributors, and students worked to write articles about Central Asian archaeology and exploration – see our report.
  • Capturing research. Wikipedia – a publicly-visible, constantly shifting draft awaiting further collaboration – is great for absorbing pieces of secondary research work that may never be formally published elsewhere. As a cataloguer, I used to spend time trying to chase down small details – who did this particular bookplate belong to? was this author the same as another under a pseudonym? what was the original title of this book, and was it first written in Russian or French? Many projects, especially those concentrating on historical networks or correspondence, produce many incidental biographies or summaries of events; Wikipedia can be a very efficient way to get this work out to a wider audience, rather than keeping it in a local silo. Next month, I’ll be working with the Darwin Correspondence Project in Cambridge to look at using some of their biographical summaries as the nucleus of Wikipedia articles.
  • Digital content. Wikimedia is one of the largest open-content communities around, and is always keen to use new high-quality material. If your project is producing data or images (or anything else) under a free license, there may well be someone wanting to use it in an interesting and transformative way – and to expose it to new audiences. At the Library, we’ve been working to get high-quality imagery from our Royal Manuscripts collection (recently digitised) to supplement related articles – such as the beautiful image illustrating the history of the fleur-de-lys in seven languages, below:
  • Clovis recevant la fleur de lys - XVe siècle

If you’re interested in what else we’ve done, you can see an outline presentation I gave to AHRC here.

I’m at the Library until the end of April – if you think you or a group you’re working with would be interested to hear more, please get in touch!

Marking authorship in texts

While writing something about Wikipedia, and talking about the idea of tracable attribution of text, I’ve been thinking of ways in which works with multiple discrete authors have displayed the different contributions of those authors.

At one extreme, there’s a fully “collaborative” work – no-one makes a distinction between the two authors, and while they’re named on the title page the writing is implicitly attributed to both. At the other extreme, we have individual chapters or articles – A writes chapter 1, B writes chapter 2, etc., and they may never have known of the other contributors.

In the middle, there’s cases where the work is broadly collaborative but with individual elements – the main text is jointly written, but particular contributors sign their own footnotes, sidebar sections, forewords, appendices, etc.

The one that interests me, though, is something I saw in I.S. Shklovsky’s Intelligent Life in the Universe when I read it as a student – I seem to have lost my copy in the intervening ten years, so this is from memory.

The book was originally published in the USSR in the early 1960s, and translated and expanded in English with the aid of Carl Sagan later in the decade. The original text was updated by Sagan, who also added several new chapters; the two then shared drafts, editing “each other’s” sections. Given the political climate, however, they were keen to avoid claiming to be in agreement on some sensitive topics, and so they experimented with explicitly marking the appearance of a single voice in the text itself.

In the end, the result ran something like:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisici elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. ▲Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur.▼ △Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.▽

Unmarked text was jointly written; black triangles marked remarks by one author, and white triangles by another. (At at least one point, delightfully, they started arguing.)

So, the question: was this something common in the period that I’ve just never noticed elsewhere? Is there a name for it? What other novel ways of marking authorship have been used?

The encyclopedia anyone can [be told to] edit

A moment of amusement, from the (thankfully) long-distant past:

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, which contains more than 100,000 entries and fills fifty-one volumes, includes some distortions so flamboyant as to be beyond belief. These are an old story. But such distortions have importance […]

Almost everyone has heard about what happened to Beria in the Encyclopedia. After his liquidation, subscribers were notified, with full instructions, that they should snip out the article about him and insert in its place substitute articles which were duly enclosed, about the Bering Strait and an obscure eighteenth-century statesman named Berholtz. These were the best available substitutes beginning with ‘Ber’. During Stalin’s day when the party line changed on some matter so important that the Encyclopedia itself had to be changed, subscribers were obliged to turn in the volume affected to the party secretary; it was pulped and a new whole volume, cut and patched, was then sent out to the subscriber. Nowadays the reader is allowed to keep the book, and trusted to make the proper emendation himself. Progress!

Another person ‘expelled’ from the Encyclopedia was a Chinese Communist leader, Kao Kang. To replace him, a substitute page went out dealing with a city in Tibet. […] In their haste to make the revision, the editors overlooked the fact that the same Tibetan city also appeared elsewhere in the Encyclopaedia, spelled differently.

— John Gunther, Inside Russia Today (Penguin, 1964).

Article ratings and expectations

I am working late and procrastinating, so a quick note on the recent Wikipedia article feedback pilot:

It appears as though registered users are “tougher” in their grading of the articles than are anon users. This is especially notable in the area of “well sourced” (3.7 mean for anon vs. 2.8 mean for registered) and “complete” (3.5 vs. 2.7). It’s interesting to note that the means for “neutral” are almost identical.

Anecdotally, this fits well with a lot of what I’ve noticed with external feedback in the past; when someone writes in, it’s usually with a report of “X is wrong” rather than “the article on Y is atrocious”. When X is fixed, even when the article itself still seems to be a mess, people seem quite happy with it, even if it contains cleanup tags or ugly layout or the like.

Presumably, this suggests casual readers have low expectations of Wikipedia’s average quality; they accept bad (or terse) articles as par for the course but are pleasantly surprised by decent ones. Editors, meanwhile, are more closely familiar with the better ones, and apply somewhat more aspirational standards – a “tolerable” article is a deficient one.

On the matter of sourcing, I’d take a wild guess that if we went down to the article-specific level, we’d see a lot of this driven by the difference in articles with or without footnotes. Readers wanting a general overview may well be happy with general references or further-reading type external links; editors are more focused on the text, and more likely to prioritise specific footnoting of individual points.

The discrepancy in perceptions of completeness may come into play here, too – if you expect a terse cruddy article, then 5k of competently-written text seems relatively comprehensive. If you expect a detailed article with layout and images, then the 5k of text seems a bit of a damp squib.

A difference in expectations is probably partly driven by involvement – if you’re an editor, you’re more likely to expect good things and see room for improvement everywhere – but also partly by experience and estimation of quality. Which prompts the thought: do readers and editors read “different Wikipedias”? Do involved editors spend more time, on average, looking at or working with higher-quality text than casual readers do? An interesting question, but I’m not immediately sure how to quantify it. Ratio between raw pageviews and edits to an article, or pageviews versus talk pageviews?

Notes on pending changes

Back in June, I wrote about the then-almost-implemented pending changes system on Wikipedia. What’s it like two months on?

On the whole, I’m more than happy with its effects, and the feared imminent catastrophes haven’t materialised yet. Lag time to approve edits is pretty low; I haven’t dug up the turnaround times, but the page listing unchecked edits regularly changes completely in the few minutes between my first loading it and my remembering the tab is there and refreshing it. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to see the page empty entirely, and I’ve only rarely seen it listing more than half-a-dozen pages (out of a pool of ~2000). The lack of “pending pending changes” at any given moment also meant that spotting them via the watchlist, or casual browsing, was unlikely; to be aware of them, you usually needed to go to the central page. “Review conflicts” are quite common – perhaps a result of the noticeable slowness of the system on larger pages – but, then, so are rollback conflicts. This could definitely improve from speeding the page loading times up, I suspect; less time with the page pending is less time to have someone else come in.

The biggest problem I’ve found so far is, if anything, one of overenthusiasm. Whereas before we’d have a degree of “masterly inactivity” practiced on a lot of edits – someone would look at it, decide they don’t know enough to determine if it’s good or bad, and leave it be – the new system seems to have the effect of making people feel they ought to say one way or the other. Net result: more suboptimal approvals or rejections (ie, reverts), by people unfamiliar with what they’re dealing with, than we had before.

Why? Well, we have the central page, blinking at us, telling us there were four pages needing checked – four, just four! – and that there was a timer somewhere to note how long they took, and so on and so forth. There’s an impulse there, even if an unconscious one, to just do something so as to drive down the backlog.

Interestingly, this may be a problem that disappears as the system settles down, and becomes familiar and less excitingly novel. While there’s a small backlog – especially for a flagship new system – people will always feel the urge to just wipe the board clean, to keep it resolved, to have the satisfaction of having sorted it out. Once that backlog grows to a constant buffer of maybe twenty or fifty edits, the impulse to knock them all off while you make a cup of tea is sharply reduced, and so the likelihood of them being done for the sake of it is lowered; it becomes more likely that the edits will be picked up by someone who is intentionally watching the page, which is a good first approximation to “someone who knows what’s good”.

Assuming we have a fixed number of articles – protecting pages for the sake of protecting them is a bit odd – then the number of edits coming in will be constant; growing the buffer implies growing turnaround times, which is not the best thing. On the other hand, it’s probably inevitable – as the novelty wears off, and we stop thinking of it as an Important New Thing That Must Be Perfect, people are going to patrol the central page a bit less. It could well be that this inevitable decrease in responsiveness will actually have the unexpected benefit of improving the quality of reviewing.

Pending changes

So, in under an hour, flagged revisions will go live on the English Wikipedia. Wait – flagged protection. No, that’s it, pending changes. It seems to change its name once a week at the moment – my small victory was getting rid of the word “revisions” in its current form. (We take our lasting moments when we can)

What is it? Surprisingly little, all told, for all the ink that has been spilled. I feel the need to write something simply because of all the misinformation I’ve seen floating around over the last week or so…

It’s a tool which will see a small number of pages – at the moment, hard-limited to a cap of 2,000, and in practice not more than a few dozen for the first few days – placed under a new form of editing protection. They’ll be either pages which were already protected or already liable for protection under the general rules for that – high levels of vandalism, repeated fights over content, or just ludicrously tempting targets.

(A quick recap – pages subject to protection are either “full protected” – only users with administrator privileges, about 1,500 people, can edit them – or “semi protected” – most logged-in users can edit them, but new users or passing contributors can’t.)

The new system works by allowing anyone to edit, but adding a simple form of pre-screening – at any given moment, the version of the article displayed to readers will not always be the same as the most recent version of the article. Any qualified user will be able to look at the edits and flag the most recent as “acceptable” – “not terrible” might be a more pragmatic standard, I suppose – making it the version displayed by default, until a few more edits down the line a new one is approved, etc. The aim is that there will be a few thousand of such qualified “reviewers”, certainly enough to scale to the likely task.

It’s important to remember that all edits are sequential and not parallel; it’s not a matter of allowing several versions of an article to develop and then picking one, but rather an edit not approved will still be incorporated into subsequent edits, unless it’s independently edited back out.

The net result will primarily be to

  • a) make these pages more open to editing, not less; whilst
  • b) reducing the amount of vandalism and malicious content visible to readers

a) comes from allowing anyone to edit, rather than turning them away by locking the page; b) comes from adding the post-edit sanity-check screening.

The counterarguments are that it will:

  • a) act as a form of censorship;
  • b) increase the workload for “reviewing” editors;
  • c) reduce the involvement of casual users

I honestly don’t think any of these are likely to be the case unless the implementation is fouled up. Let’s look at the simplest one first: c). The system will allow people to contribute – in a limited way – where previously they could not contribute at all. It’s possible that the existence of limited or conditional contributions will prove to be something of a deterrent over “normal” contributions, but will it really be a deterrent over a complete pre-emptive rejection? We have some evidence from the rollout of a much broader version of this on the German wikipedia that implementing it did decrease the proportion of edits by IPs – people other than logged-in users – but it’s clearly part of an overall long-term trend:

b) implies that by having these edits, people will have to spend time looking at them and deciding whether to validate or reject. But we have that already – every edit that is made, in theory, gets glanced over by someone who decides whether or not to remove it. The problem is that whilst removal is obvious, there is no way to say “I have looked at this edit and choose to validate it”; every valid-but-potentially-dubious edit will thus be looked at by a number of people who – effectively – have no way of signalling to each other that the work’s been done. Allowing it to be marked as “acceptable” thus should tend to reduce the overall effort – the first person needs to make slightly more effort than they would otherwise have done, but ten others are saved assessing it.

a) is the most complicated. To a degree, this is a pretty visceral thing; I’ve debated this two or three times over the past few days and never seen anyone alter their position (either way) on it. But fundamentally, it’s a variant on c) – more people get to edit, there is more chance of more voices being heard. Yes, people can be “screened” by not having their edits prominently shown to passing readers – but if their edits were viewed as undesirable for whatever reason, under the old system they would have been reverted pretty quickly anyway. A page that is put under protection should not be there in order to ensure that one perspective is presented and another legitimate perspective is locked out; if that is the case, the fundamental problem lies with the decision to protect, not the mechanism used to protect. I’m firmly of the opinion that “conventional” protection is a mechanism with fundamentally more potential for censorship and suppression than this approach.

On the whole, I’m pretty positive about it. It’s not a panacea; it won’t solve everything, and it probably won’t have an overwhelmingly drastic effect on the areas it’s dealing with. But it will make some things better, it probably won’t have noticeable knock-on effects, and… well, we never pretended the old way was perfect. Why be afraid to experiment?

(For those of you wanting to read more: the help page; the official announcement; and a 2009 article on the long history of the proposal.)