Conversations: Dominic McDevitt-Parks, National Archives connects with Wikipedia
By Lisa Rein,
The National Archives on Wednesday announced the hiring of its first “Wikipedian in Residence,” following a fledgling trend at cultural institutions that want to bring access to their collections to a wider audience on the Internet.
Dominic McDevitt-Parks, 24, is a graduate student in history and archives management at Simmons College in Boston and a prolific Wikipedia contributor, with seven years of contributions, mostly about Latin American history.
He describes himself as a “history buff, a word nerd, a news junkie and an occasional pedant.”
His job this summer is to “foster collaboration between the Wikipedia community and the National Archives for their mutual benefit,” as Archivist of the United States David Ferriero put it, making the permanent records of the Archives available to the public through Wikipedia to reach a broader audience than ever before.
The Post chatted with McDevitt-Parks about his new job.
Q. Do a lot of institutions like the Archives have people like you on staff?
A. It is kind of novel. There are half a dozen Wikis in residence at cultural institutions. The first one was at the British Museum; he invented the whole concept. Since then, you’ve got them at Museu Picasso in Barcelona, the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis and, in the D.C. area, the Archives of American Art. Most of them have been volunteer positions. The National Archives actually put out a real job posting and I applied.
Q. How did you get started volunteering for Wikipedia?
A. That was more than six years ago. I started over the summer one year [in high school]. It wasn’t much of a big deal back then. I’m the kind of geek that wants to spend my time doing that kind of thing. I grew up in San Francisco, then moved to Phoenix for high school. Everybody contributes what they want to. I studied history as an undergraduate. I was interested in Latin America, in particular Chilean history and politicians.
People ask, how does it work if someone can just change [an entry]. It works in practice and not in theory. It’s a meritocracy. I like the term do-ocracy.
Q. What is your mission at the Archives?
A. I started last Monday. The bigger picture is it’s a collaboration between the Archives and Wikipedia. Both institutions are like-minded and have different approaches. The Archives is trying to enter the 21st century. If their documents can’t be accessed, there’s not really a point in preserving them. If you put something on the National Archives Web site, you might get 1,000 page views. Yesterday the main Wiki page got 12 million hits. The way I look at it, I’m trying to act as a catalyst to help improve the content on Wiki and help improve discoverability for the content. The idea is to bring the holdings outside our four walls and into the digital space.
Q.What did you do in your first week?
A. The first big thing we did was we brought some of Ansel Adams’s photographs to the public, which was a big deal. He took a series of photos for the National Park Service — he was commissioned. They’re in the public domain. But for the last 70 years they’ve been in an archive. They weren’t visible to the public except for people spending money to buy prints. So the Archives had the photos cataloged digitally. They were online but they were small-resolution photos. So we took these 200 photos and put them up on Wikipedia with the highest-resolution photos. Now millions of people can see them. You don’t even know you’re looking at a National Archives photo.
Also, did you know a photo of the first African American recruit for the U.S. Marine Corps is in the National Archives? We uploaded it. It’s brand new. I posted a challenge over the last couple of days on Wiki and someone created the entire article about him. It was totally spontaneous. It happened because the Archives had this great image.
Q. How will you choose which images and other documents to feature on Wikipedia?
A. The Archives has a daily feature on their Web site; each day the staff collects a document and they have a little blurb about the image. That’s what we want to do, to create challenges on Wikipedia with these. It’s a huge opportunity. Most of the photos the Archives tends to use are scaled down for the Web. But through the principles of public access we want to get the highest quality photos out there. I also have some things I personally think would be a good idea, but it also is about what the community wants. The Archives a while back determined the 100 milestone documents in history — that might be a place to start, too.
Q. Do you have other projects you hope to work on?
A. Another project is related to Wikisource. This is a sister project to Wikipedia. It deals with primary source material. They transcribe pages and scans of documents. That’s what I’m figuring out right now, which documents to tackle.
Q. So how would you describe the job so far?
A. It’s been a pretty intense first week and a half!