12 April 2022
Behind the scenes at the British Library: Lucy Hinnie, Wikimedian-in-Residence
This month we meet Boston Spa-based Lucy Hinnie.
What’s the role?
Lucy is the Library’s current Wikimedian-in-Residence, working with curators and collections to share information in meaningful and exciting ways across Wikimedia platforms.
‘People often ask me what Wikimedia is: is it just a different name for Wikipedia? In short, not really. The Wikimedia Foundation is a nonprofit organisation that 'provides the essential infrastructure for free knowledge'. This is done through a variety of websites and projects – Wikipedia is the just the best known.’
You have probably used Wikipedia, the encyclopaedia that anyone can edit, today without even realising it: the information it stores also powers all sorts of devices like Alexa, Siri and Google searches.
‘It is very important that it is accurate and well-maintained, and that is where Wikimedians come in,’ explains Lucy. ‘We help to train people to edit Wikipedia, and improve its contents, as well as addressing gaps in knowledge, like gender inequity.’
But as Lucy says, it’s not just about Wikipedia.
‘Wikimedia Commons is a place where you can upload open access images and files, and use them in a variety of different ways. Often library collections might want to put some or all of their digital files on Commons, to increase accessibility. We also work with Wikidata, which works in a very similar way to Wikipedia, but with data.
‘It can be hard to get your head around at first, but essentially Wikidata lets you add information about people, places and things in a very basic format. This information can then be read by computers and humans, and we can ask questions about this data ('querying') to find out more about patterns and connections. This is of great interest to the Library, where we work with vast collections of items, with limitless connections to people and places throughout history. Wikidata lets us visualise these connections in a clearer way. All of these projects are free to use and open to all.’
Lucy’s IRL base is the Library’s site in Boston Spa, Yorkshire, where she can be found juggling several different projects at any given time – from engagement and outreach activities, such as Wikithons (events where people collaborate in real time to create wiki content), to building databases with Wikibase to create searchable records. She works closely with Wikimedia UK and other partners, like Leeds Central Library and comic art festival Thought Bubble, to run physical and online events.
She’s often approached by British Library staff who want to know how they can engage with Wikimedia to help open up the British Library’s collection to more people.
'One of my colleagues at the Library, Sam Tillett, once described my way of working as ‘doing exciting things with small sets of content’ and I love that way of looking at it. I have worked with some of our bigger collections, such as the India Office Records, taking a small section of their content (around five reports from a much larger set), uploading them to Wikimedia Commons and directing interest and traffic back to the Library.’
How did you get the job?
‘The short answer: Completely by accident!’ says Lucy.
‘The longer answer: I have a traditional humanities background. I studied English and Scottish Literature as an undergraduate and completed a PhD in medieval Scottish literature at the University of Edinburgh. Around 2016, I started to get interested in the potential of digital humanities. I was studying abroad, in Canada, working on a digital editing project, when the pandemic hit. This made me even more interested in remote [not in one centralised location] collaboration.
‘I attended a series of talks about Wikipedia, and the way that these presentations framed its work as knowledge activism really captivated me. I started incorporating Wikipedia into my teaching, and then I applied for the British Library job in late 2020, all the way from my desk in Canada, thinking it was probably a long shot. Thankfully I was wrong!’
What’s your favourite object in our collection?
‘My predecessor, Andrew Gray, worked on the digitisation of the Picturing Canada Canadian Copyright Collection, and as a result many images of Canada in the 1800s are now available on Wikimedia Commons. There is so much within that collection that deserves comment and further examination, particularly in relation to the way that people and their bodies are portrayed.’
You can read more about the collection in this article in the Public Domain Review by Andrew and Phil Hatfield, and more about the issues surrounding the photographing of Indigenous people by Alison Meier at the Wellcome Collection.
‘Amidst all the images of large scale colonisation, when I first saw this collection, I was struck by the presence of the Globe Kittens. Somehow, in the late 19th century, people still found time to take photos of their cats, and these fluffy kittens are undeniably very photogenic.’
What do you love about the Library?
Lucy enjoys the wide array of people that she gets to meet through the job, and the vast array of interests and passions that are represented by Library staff.
‘I am consistently impressed by the dedication the Library has to representing a wide range of knowledge and collections. I love being on site in both Boston Spa and St Pancras: in Boston Spa, we are based in a peaceful, rural location with endless collection storage and the internal workings of library operations, while at St Pancras I get to hop off the train at King’s Cross and be right in the heart of the city and the public-facing elements of the Library in the iconic building. I’ve also been very pleasantly surprised by how willing my colleagues are to implement Wiki methodologies and look towards engagement, equity and access: the potential for new and exciting work is really inspiring.’
Any book recommendations?
For further reading on Wikipedia, Lucy recommends a collection of essays, ‘Wikipedia at 20: Stories of an Incomplete Revolution,’and ‘Data Feminism’ by Catherine D'Ignazio and Lauren F Klein, an examination of the ways in which data and digital scholarship need to work to combat embedded bias.
Outside of the digital realm, ‘I very much enjoyed Kindred by Octavia E Butler, and my favourite book of all time is Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, which is, in many ways, a love letter to York, where I now live. The narrator, Ruby Lennox, is fantastically unreliable, wickedly funny, and a hero of mine. Finally, I’m also enjoying The Wild Remedy by Emma Mitchell, which is a beautiful book about nature and mental health, and kept me going through the long winter.’