Wikipedia Takes to CUNY-LaGuardia Community College: A Conversation with Librarian Ann Matsuuchi

Ann Matsuuchi, an instructional technology librarian & assistant professor at LaGuardia Community College/CUNY discusses her involvement with Wikimedia NYC and Wikipedia Activities at CUNY-LaGuardia Community College with Dorothy Howard, METRO's Wikipedian-in-Residence.

DH: Tell us a little about your experience with Wikipedia. When did you first get started editing? Has your education related to your Wikipedia interests?

AM: I first became involved with the local Wikimedia NYC chapter in 2009. I saw a posting for a hands-on, public Wikipedia workshop that they conducting at the Mid-Manhattan Library (NYPL) and wanted to learn more about how Wikipedia and its community worked. In New York, one continually discovers educational connections: David Goodman, one of the hosts, was in fact a library school professor of mine years ago when I was in the MSLIS program at the Palmer School of Library and Information Science (LIU).

I was interested in occasionally filling in gaps in coverage whenever I came across a missing or incomplete entry. I also wanted to learn more about how to talk about Wikipedia in instructional contexts. At the same time I hoped that I might be of some assistance during the workshop, since tech training often involves a lot of needed support for those individuals who require more intensive assistance.

DH: What topics do you most edit on Wikipedia in connection with your institution, CUNY-LaGuardia Community College?

AM: As with many other GLAM institutions, some CUNY Libraries such as the one at John Jay College of Criminal Justice have successfully added links to their archival holdings in relevant Wikipedia entries, resulting in dramatically increased visibility online. For awhile now, I have been thinking about working on this with the local archives, ideally with permission to upload images such as those of onsite public artwork by notable artists connected with the area like Isamu Noguchi and Nitza Tufiño.

The Institutional Archives at LaGuardia Community College Library has been conducting a digitization project, with images and textual documents uploaded to the current online institutional repository. Many of us at CUNY would like to see the development of a fuller instance of this repository, serving as a public, connected archive of scholarly material both historic and current. Wikipedia would be a useful tool in providing access to the wealth of resources held by and produced by our university system.

DH: Tell us about the dynamics of your Wikipedia work at CUNY. Do you collaborate with other staff members to choose topics to edit on Wikipedia?

AM: There is a great deal of interest in positively engaging with Wikipedia amongst library and subject faculty at LaGuardia Community College. The chapter has conducted Wikipedia outreach sessions for librarians and faculty here at LaGuardia and at the annual CUNY IT Conference where some common misconceptions about Wikipedia were hopefully countered (namely that it has no place in academic libraries or college classrooms). The conversation is far from over. Recently, a posting on a CUNY Libraries listserv about the recent Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon at the Eyebeam Art and Technology center resulted in a debate with some unfortunately familiar dismissals of both Wikipedia and gender inequity. The turnout at the Edit-A-Thon was wonderful though, and included a number of CUNY librarians, English and Art professors.

DH: What Wikipedia-related projects or events has CUNY been involved in?

eyebeam.jpgAM: In January 2011, LaGuardia Community College Library hosted a multi-day northeast region Wikipedia Campus Ambassador Training. Fifteen faculty and graduate students from schools like Syracuse University, NYU, and Harvard participated to learn more about using Wikipedia in courses that they taught or supported. The Wikipedia Education Program continues to grow and involves from faculty from a wide range of colleges and classes.

In the past few years, I have assisted a few courses utilizing Wikipedia assignments simultaneously as a librarian and as a Wikipedia “Campus Ambassador” such as a feminist economics class at Drew University and an indigenous rights class at Hunter College. This Spring I am assisting an Interactive Technology and Pedagogy class at the CUNY Graduate Center that is taught by Maura Smale, a faculty librarian at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and Michael Mandiberg, an artist who helped organize the recent Eyebeam Edit-a-thon, and professor of media culture at the College of Staten Island (CUNY). The grad students are particularly interested in broadening the scope of Wikipedia in languages other than English.

DH: What are your goals as a Wikipedia editor at CUNY?

AM: As a librarian interested in Wikipedia, my goals include finding ways of updating the conversation about Wikipedia, online communities, knowledge production, and how these relate to education and libraries. There is so much going on online that is mysterious and some reactions have been limited to fear and outright rejection. The idea of the library as a safe haven, a protected space containing exclusively traditional information resources can no longer be maintained. We all need to be more involved in the development of these newer sources, and actively participate in making them better, more accessible and more diverse (or even, create new ones).

DH: What types of projects do you foresee being helpful for Wikipedia and other educational institutions?

AM: Wikipedia’s main strength is its reach and centrality. GLAM organizations have and should continue to make use of this - for all kinds of content. I will talk about the Wikipedia Education Program and how it provides another avenue for those interested in library instruction: Wikipedia as object of study in and of itself, and Wikipedia as a learning tool and platform. Wikipedia as an entity and how its creation, accuracy, and development compares and diverges with other encyclopedia projects is growing research area that should be of interest to library researchers. For those interested in this aspect, I recommend Joseph Reagle’s Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia (MIT Press, 2010) as a starting point. (There is an open access version available.)

This spring I am also particularly excited about working with an English professor at LaGuardia Community College, Ximena Gallardo C., in conducting semester-long projects centered on the course text, Kindred, written by the influential science fiction writer Octavia Butler. This is the first time, and hopefully not the last, that a course from our college is participating in the Education Program. My independent research and writing about science fiction and gender also makes this effort especially meaningful to me, and illustrates how this kind of project can enable new and productive relationships between subject faculty, their classes, and librarians with matching research interests. Serving as a campus ambassador will allow me to not only provide additional Wikipedia-related support (which is certainly needed - I wouldn’t recommend trying it without calling upon the available support tools and individuals) but provide targeted bibliographic instruction throughout the semester. One might call this acting as a kind of “embedded librarian.” I think that academic librarians should further investigate how we can take advantage of projects like this in expanding how we partner and support different courses in a range of disciplines. Librarians at City College and the College of Staten Island have also tried this approach, in credit courses they teach or otherwise support.

DH: What is your advice to researchers, students, and teachers that are wary of using Wikipedia as a reliable source?

AM: I will add a reminder to think of all those times that you have encountered errors in name spellings, dates or informational content (outright errors or omitted important details) in those esteemed reference sitting on the shelves. Of course, at the same time, those dusty reference books also contain important information still missing from Wikipedia. I brought a print encyclopedia of American women artists to the Art + Feminism edit-a-thon. There is no one right path, and there is a lot of work that needs to be done.

Critics should also consider the extent that established library organizations like OCLC and the Library of Congress are interacting with Wikipedia, formally and informally. I was looking for information about RDA and came across a PowerPoint on Name Authority Records produced by the Library of Congress and a few examples of records show that Wikipedia entries are used as a source in the 373 field. This seems to be presented without any shame or controversy.

This is not to say that there aren’t many valid complaints and criticisms to make of Wikipedia. I just wish that these would be more sophisticated than simply saying that Wikipedia is no good because it is written by anonymous, unpaid, “amateur” contributors. I would argue that one of the problems is that aren’t enough of their voluntary editors, and their diversity in terms of gender, race and sexual identities is lacking, hence the motivation for starting topical edit-a-thons.

An interesting recent debate within Wikipedia that might be of interest to librarians is the proposal that all medical entries be labeled with a prominent disclaimer that Wikipedia should not be relied upon for medical advice. This might sound funny at first, but it seems fair to consider how needed this warning becomes as time grants Wikipedia increasing respectability. Granted, there are many other medical websites that come up high in Google results that are far worse than Wikipedia, but I would argue that anything that might help people pause and consider the quality and context of what they are reading is a good thing. The debate has been closed as there was no clear consensus, but it will likely reappear in the future. Librarians would certainly have a lot to add to these discussions that touch upon the challenges of information literacy.

Ann Matsuuchi is an instructional technology librarian & assistant professor at LaGuardia Community College/CUNY. She studied philosophy and religion at Hunter College, women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, and received an MSLIS from Palmer/Long Island University. Research interests include: feminism, queer theory, science fiction, comic books and the work of Samuel R. Delany. Contact:


Photo credits: Detail of Ceramic relief by Nitza Tufiño is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; photograph of Wikipedia training provided by Ann Matsuuchi.