Using Wikipedia to Enhance the Visibility of Digitized Archival Assets
As an increasing number of archival repositories, libraries, and cultural institutions build significant freely accessible digital collections, archivists and digital librarians must continue to develop digital outreach strategies that reflect the nature of searching and discovery in today's information economy. This case study examines the use of Wikipedia by the Ball State University Libraries as an opportunity to raise the visibility of digitized historic sheet music assets made available in the university's Digital Media Repository. By adding links to specific items in this collection to relevant, existing Wikipedia articles, Ball State successfully and efficiently expanded the user base of this collection in the Digital Media Repository by vastly enhancing the discoverability of the collection's assets.
Beginning in 2010, Ball State University Archives and Special Collections embarked on a program that aimed to increase the visibility of digital archival assets in the Ball State University Digital Media Repository (DMR) by adding links to these assets to relevant articles on Wikipedia. The DMR is a digital library developed by Ball State University Libraries that provides "online access to a variety of primary source materials, including photographs, oral history interviews, artwork, video and film footage, cartographic resources, architectural drawings, publications, and 3-dimensional objects." The DMR includes materials digitized from the Ball State University Archives and Special Collections, including materials documenting Muncie and Delaware County history, Ball State history, and architecture in Indiana (from Ball State University's Drawings and Documents Archive), as well as other special collections, learning resources from other library departments, and digital records from community organizations. Wikipedia, a ubiquitously popular resource that is collaboratively developed and edited, provided the opportunity to directly link objects and collections in the DMR to the Further reading, External links, and Citations sections of articles.
This case study will discuss the use of Wikipedia to promote access to and advance visibility of individual digitized archival assets contained in the Hague Sheet Music collection, a digitized collection of 149 pieces of 19th and early-20th century popular sheet music contained in the DMR (the materials were collected by Frank Penwell and were donated to Ball State University Libraries by Elizabeth Hague, his daughter, in 2006) and report the impact of this initiative on the use of materials in this collection. The case study will examine the opportunities for successful and productive outreach conducted at the item level rather than solely the collection level.
As a growing number of archival repositories, libraries, and cultural heritage institutions develop sizeable collections of freely available digitized material similar to Ball State's DMR, there is a need for archivists and digital librarians to re-imagine an approach to, and methods for, increasing the visibility of digital assets. These types of repositories and institutions have used Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other social networking outlets with frequency and success to promote digital materials and services. A study published by Archivaria in 2010 authored by Adam Crymble demonstrated the breadth of the use of social media as an outreach tool for archivists.1 The Society of American Archivists has developed a webpage entitled "The Interactive Archivist", a platform for the publication of case studies and the sharing and compiling of web resources on the subject of Web 2.0 and archival outreach, with pages devoted to the use of blogs and social networking services.2
While these initiatives should represent significant elements of a digital outreach strategy, other efforts must be made to effectively broaden the scope of online users reached by digital outreach programs. How can a digital archival repository or library increase the visibility of a resource on a global scale to users who would potentially be interested in the resource but are unaware of its existence and availability online? How do archivists and digital librarians create paths leading to their digitally-available resources that originate from relevant, high-traffic information-flow paths? Issues related to global accessibility and discoverability addressed by these questions are particularly relevant for digital archivists, since these professionals frequently build collections that, due to the lack of copyright restrictions, may be made freely accessible globally and are not restricted to users at a particular institution. By critically considering and addressing these questions, Ball State Archives and Special Collections developed a program to use Wikipedia as an opportunity to increase global visibility and reach potentially-interested users.
Wikipedia was an obvious choice as a vehicle for increasing the visibility of digitized archival materials because the resource is both editable and tremendously popular. According to reports produced by Alexa Internet Inc., an Internet information provider, Wikipedia.org is the sixth-most visited website globally.3 Beyond just general use, however, Wikipedia is widely used by students during the research process. A study conducted by Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg concluded that "[f]ar more students, than not, used Wikipedia. Wikipedia was used in addition to a small set of other commonly used information resources at the beginning of the research process." The findings of this study demonstrate the potential of Wikipedia to serve as a gateway to archival resources for students beginning the research process.4
The decision to explore the use of Wikipedia to increase the visibility of archival resources was also influenced by published scholarship on this topic. In 2008, Lauren Pressley and Carolyn J. McCallum of Wake Forest University validated the usefulness of Wikipedia for librarians, writing "they look for discovery tools that instantly deliver information about desired topics in a user-friendly environment. Wikipedia entries provide that instant information on numerous topics." Supporting Wikipedia as a visibility-enhancing tool for librarians, they wrote that "If librarians contribute to Wikipedia, it might raise awareness of the library."5
A more direct influence on the use of Wikipedia at Ball State was an article published in 2007 by Ann M. Lally and Carolyn E. Dunford that reports the authors' success in increasing visibility of University of Washington digital collections by adding collection-level links to relevant Wikipedia articles. Their analysis showed that, over a one-year period, Wikipedia directed over 11,000 visitors to their digital collections.6 The Ball State University project and case study serves as an extension of the work of Lally and Dunford that explores the adding of item-level rather than collection-level links to Wikipedia.
Why the Hague Sheet Music Collection?
The Hague Sheet Music Collection presented itself as a natural candidate for item-level linking from relevant Wikipedia articles after a brief survey of Wikipedia revealed a high number of existing Wikipedia articles for individual songs and songwriters that were documented in this digital collection. Additionally, the nature of the collection's content also made it an ideal candidate for this method of digital outreach. While the items in the collection were grouped as such because of a similar source (Elizabeth Hague) and format (sheet music), they documented many different subjects (songs, songwriters, and lyricists). A reasonable analysis of the collection would conclude that Internet users could very likely be interested in one and only one asset in the collection. Therefore, a digital outreach strategy that provided this type of user with access and awareness to the relevant individual assets in this digital collection at the item level, rather than a strategy that markets the collection as a whole unit, was deemed worthwhile.
During an eight week period ranging from the end of July 2011 into September 2011, 57 separate links to Hague Sheet Music Collection digital assets in the DMR were added to relevant Wikipedia articles. Decisions made regarding the addition of links to Wikipedia articles were made on the basis of the existence of relevant articles; if a Wikipedia article existed for a song, songwriter, or lyricist, a link to the DMR asset was added. Links were typically placed in the "External Links" section of the Wikipedia article. Regarding total links added, in the month of July, 11 links were added; 32 links were added in the month of August and 13 were added in September.
Regarding total assets linked, in the month of July, 9 individual assets in the collection were linked to Wikipedia articles; 21 were linked in August, and 10 were linked in September, adding up to a total of 40 linked assets in this eight week period. The discrepancy between these figures (40 and 57) exists because some assets were linked to multiple Wikipedia articles, since Wikipedia articles existed for the song, songwriter, and lyricist (or some combination of two of these three) for some assets linked in this project. Twenty-seven assets were linked once, 9 were linked twice, and 4 were linked three times.
The impact of an asset being linked from Wikipedia on the asset's total number of pageviews was significant. In total, the 40 assets that were linked received 1,824 pageviews one year prior to being linked to Wikipedia, with a pageview being defined as "an instance of a page being loaded by a browser ... repeated views of a single page are also counted." 7 One year after being linked, these same 40 assets were viewed a total of 12,956 times, marking an increase in pageviews of 610.31%. Of these 12,956 pageviews that occurred one year following the addition of the link or links, 9,824 were referred via Wikipedia. The number of pageviews via Wikipedia during the one year period after these assets were linked is 5.39 times greater than the total number of pageviews via any source for these assets for the one year period prior to linking. The figure below demonstrates the impact of the adding of links on the traffic for these 40 assets.
Although the average percentage increase in pageviews for one asset linked from Wikipedia in the Hague Sheet Music collection was 610.31%, a wide range in increases was observed over the set of 40 assets linked. Of the 40 assets linked, 12 exhibited pageview increases of over 5,000% when compared the year prior to and the year following the addition of a link or links. Thirteen linked assets exhibited pageview increases of between 1,000% and 5,000%. One asset linked exhibited an increase between 500% and 1,000%; ten exhibited increases between 100% and 500%; four exhibited increases between 0% and 100%. The figure below depicts this distribution of percentage increases in pageviews.
When analyzing whether assets that were linked multiple times received a greater percentage increase in pageviews than assets that were linked once, the data for this study actually showed that assets that were linked once received a greater percentage increase when comparing the year before and after linking (1,121.84%), than assets that were linked twice (390.31%) or three times (515.16%). However, this data was affected by the fact that two of the nine assets linked twice, and one of the assets linked three times, received over 200 pageviews the year prior to being linked from Wikipedia, while only one of the 27 assets linked once received 200 pageviews from Wikipedia during this period, thus affecting the percentage of change. Further research with a larger and more balanced sample size is necessary to analyze the impact of the number of links added on the number of pageviews received by the asset linked.
A few item-level examples can further demonstrate the vast impact of using Wikipedia as a means of raising visibility for a digitized archival item. On July 28, 2011, a link to the digitized version of the sheet music for "It's a Long, Long Way To Tipperary", a popular song from the 1910s,8 from the digital Hague Sheet Music Collection was placed in the External links section of an already-existing Wikipedia article for the song. In the year prior to that date, the digital item had received 4 pageviews. In the year following that date, the digital item received 640 pageviews, an increase of 15,900%. Of these 640 pageviews, 582 were referred via Wikipedia.
Other linked assets saw smaller but notable increases in use as a result of Wikipedia linking. On August 10, 2011, a link to digitized sheet music for the song "Margie", a 1920 song written by Con Conrad and J. Russell Robinson9, was linked under the External links section for the Wikipedia article on Con Conrad. During the year prior to this date, the asset received 1 pageview. In the following year, it received 44 pageviews, an increase of 4,300%, with 31 of those pageviews being referred via Wikipedia.
Some assets that already received a significant number of pageviews also received additional traffic as a result of linking from Wikipedia. On August 26, 2011, links to digitized sheet music for "There's a Long, Long Trail"10 were added to Wikipedia articles for the song itself and for the song's composer, Alonzo Elliott. During the year prior to linking, the digitized item received 290 pageviews; 356 pageviews were recorded the following year, an increase of 22.76%. Of those 356 pageviews, 102 were referred via Wikipedia.
An analysis of the pageviews for the Hague Sheet Music Collection as a whole (149 assets in total) also reveals that the addition of 57 Wikipedia links to 40 assets in the collection had a significant impact on the total collection's pageviews. The chart below details the number of collection pageviews for the Hague Sheet Music collection, the number of these pageviews for which Wikipedia served as a referral source, and the percentage of total collection pageviews referred via Wikipedia. A collection pageview is defined as a pageview on an object or set of objects in the collection as well as on the collection's homepage.
As the data shows, the number of collection pageviews roughly tripled in the period following the addition of the Wikipedia links, with Wikipedia consistently providing between 50% and 75% of the traffic for the total collection pageviews despite the fact that only 40 of the 149 assets were linked from Wikipedia.
The results of this study show that the addition of links from relevant Wikipedia articles to individual digitized assets in the Hague Sheet Music Collection in the Ball State University Digital Media Repository was an overwhelming success. Despite the fact that only 57 links to 40 assets were added to Wikipedia articles, pageviews for the collection of 149 assets roughly tripled as a result of this effort. The adding of links at the item level provided a plethora of highly-visible entry points to this collection's assets, raising awareness of the existence of these resources to interested Internet users who were previously unaware of these materials, as is suggested by the collection's use statistics. The success of this initiative is also remarkable in its efficiency, generating a large number of new digital patrons while requiring relatively little time to plan and execute.
Archivists organize records by collections. Therefore, archivists and digital librarians may be susceptible to the tendency to think solely at the collection level when promoting resources. However, the results of this study show that an outreach strategy that limits visibility-raising efforts solely to the collection level is limited in its ability to reach numerous potential digital patrons. The use pattern of digital patrons observed in this study shows that users of the digitized Hague Sheet Music assets are often not just simply interested in digitized sheet music, but rather are often interested in specific songs and songwriters. Their discovery of assets in the Hague Sheet Music collection via Wikipedia articles about specific songs, songwriters, and lyricists supports this characterization. When attempting to connect with potential digital patrons whose web searches are conducted at this level of specificity, archivists can achieve greater success in generating collection use by using Wikipedia to connect users with digital archival materials at the item level.
1 Crymble, Adam. "An Analysis of Twitter and Facebook Use by the Archival Community." Archivaria. 70 (Fall 2010): 125.
2 The Interactive Archivist: Case Studies in Utilizing Web 2.0 to Improve the Archival Experience. Society of American Archivists.
4 Head, Alison J. and Michael B. Eisenberg. "How today's college students use Wikipedia for course-related research." First Monday 15(3) (1 Mar 2010).
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