When Stacy Allison-Cassin began teaching students at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information how to understand the tools, techniques and practices of documenting cultural archives, she quickly identified Wikidata as an ideal platform.
While not as well-known as Wikipedia, Wikidata is a knowledge database – as opposed to an online encyclopedia – that can be edited by anyone. It’s also more flexible and less complex than other formal library platforms, according to Allison-Cassin, assistant professor, education and a Wikidata user herself.
Cora Coady, a student of Allison-Cassin, said she preferred to work on Wikidata rather than Wikipedia, where articles can be deleted or rejected. For example, Coady says she failed to convince a Wikipedia moderator to accept that Jacey Firth-Hagen, an promoter of Inuktitut language revitalization featured in the Canadian Encyclopedia, had his own entry on Wikipedia.
“With Wikidata, you usually aren’t reported for this sort of thing,” Coady explains. “Once you’ve finished doing it, it’s published. “
Wikidata works by creating what is known as structured data with data elements that are given machine-readable semantic meaning. This semantically structured data allows for more powerful processing and querying of the machine, which ultimately contributes to Internet search and visibility.
Wikidata also allows you to link items to other data stores. For example, a researcher item in Wikidata can be linked to the same researcher item in the virtual international authority file with an “same as” connection. Because Wikidata is very large and freely available, it is playing an increasingly powerful role within the linked data cloud.
While “going from zero to Wikidata” can be a bit of a challenge, Allison-Cassin says that at least three of her Information Literacy students’ Wikidata projects were so impressive at the end of her course – titled “Represent , document and access the Cultural Record ”(INF1321H) – which she invited them to present at the LD4 related data conference last summer.
At the conference, Coady spoke about the documentation of the IM4 Lab, an Indigenous Matriarch Lab in British Columbia that supports Indigenous artists and media professionals who use augmented and virtual reality; Julia gilmore described how she had documented Toronto’s public swimming culture; and Adam cavanaugh explained how and why he reduced his project from documenting biodiversity in Toronto’s High Park to focusing on the park’s Black Oak Savannah as a specific ecosystem.
Coady says his research on the IM4 lab revealed that most of the existing documentation was generated by the matriarchs themselves.
“I found it baffling,” she said, noting that the women had made TV shows and movies as well as we had written books. “Often people don’t see indigenous media as for everyone – not just for indigenous people. They are losers if they do not see that it is of value to everyone.
As part of his project, Coady, a member of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, created Wikidata items for three of the four matriarchs – Doreen Manuel, T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss, and Tracey Kim Bonneau – and a improved the documentation for the fourth, Loretta Todd. She also discovered and documented the recently launched “Immersive Knowledge Transfer” podcast by the lab.
Shaped by the needs and interests of its user community, Wikidata offers thousands of articles for books, movies, and people, along with in-depth user discussion on how to document them.
However, Gilmore says she found a lot less information on the buildings and even less on the swimming pools. Such a lack of documentation can make the process of creating an article and deciding which properties it should have a more complex process than for a more well-defined area like books.
Another complication is what are known as “data dependencies”. For example, says Gilmore, if she meant that a pool was named after a person, that person would also have to exist as an item in Wikidata. If they weren’t already in Wikidata, she would have to create this item as well. Since she wanted to relate two of her favorite swimming writings – Swimming studies, a thesis of Leanne shapton and The pool library, a test of Naomi Skwarna – for the pools she intended to catalog, Gilmore decided to follow the model of a Wiki member who had used the “narrative location” property to create a map of places in Copenhagen appearing in different books.
“I really liked this suggestion because it helped bring the experience of swimming in these pools to the surface and situate the pools in a larger cultural setting,” she explained in her presentation to the conference.
Cavanaugh, who wanted to represent the lands of High Park through biodiversity themes, was hesitant to classify the lands according to municipal standards, categories and coordinates. He ultimately decided that the best way to continue his project would be to visually document Black Oak Savannah in High Park through photos he took and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons.
In doing this, he found himself encountering and addressing many questions raised in the course readings, including how Canadian colonization may affect the cultural record and why there are tensions between the ethics of open access and the traditional knowledge systems.
For example, Cavanaugh was puzzled as to why he kept coming across two spellings of the word “savannah” – one with an “H” and one without. Research into the etymology of the word revealed that it came from the Spanish word “sabana“ and that its use dates back to the 16th century, when Spanish colonizers took the indigenous Taino’s word ‘zabana’, meaning treeless plain, and applied it to a transitional grassland ecosystem found in other colonial contexts such as Africa.
Cavanaugh wondered if, by using the dominant classification schemes for his Wikidata entries, he “could be seen as capitulating to the process of cultural linguistic absorption.”
All three students agree that the act of cataloging using Wikidata has proven to be a subjective experience. At the same time, they also saw great potential to re-imagine the way cultural documents are described and documented.
As an Indigenous student, Coady says she and others often feel responsible for discussing important ongoing issues such as residential schools and the disproportionate number of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Such work is “difficult and exhausting, and the result is an overwhelming journalistic and academic landscape of trauma,” she told the conference. “Perhaps we should also feel the same need to create documentation that recognizes people’s achievements and successes.
“Indigenous peoples deserve visibility and our children deserve to know that there are and have been great Indigenous role models. “
Allison-Cassin, member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, agrees that Wikidata is a useful tool for documenting Indigenous issues and wants to use the platform to promote equity.
“Working on Wikimedia projects is a way for me to make my community visible and draw attention to areas where inequity is present,” says Allison-Cassin, who chairs the International Federation’s Indigenous Issues Section. library associations and institutions. “I am now involved in many international groups with a more militant bent. “