Challenging the status quo

16. Mai 2023
Valerie Wollinger

Interview with Joe and Michael, 22.03.2023

by Valerie Wollinger, Community Communication Manager for Wikibase, Wikimedia Deutschland

Last month I introduced you to David Lindemann, who mainly works with lexical and bibliographical data. Soon after that, I had my next conversation with Michael and Joe from the Berkeley Law Library. We talked about how they came across Wikibase, how they made use of it, and what they aspire to learn from it. 

We started with introductions. Michael and Joe are working in an affiliate library in a professional school within the University of California at Berkeley. 

Michael is more on the engineering side of things, whereas Joe fosters new ideas with his enthusiasm for and interest in advanced technologies. 

Both have been working at the library for over a decade.

Michael’s interest in government documents and his library degree paved the way for him to join the law library about twenty years ago.  Eventually, he became the system manager for ILS, the integrated library software that runs their operation and includes their catalog, among others. From there, he found an interest in web technologies and scripting, which led him to writing workflow tools for web applications.  

Joe, on the other hand, started as a reference librarian managing the repository. As his duties grew, he “slipped towards more technology-based exercises.” Although he’s not formally trained in technology, he saw the repository as a way to work with more parts of the library. “I have a great curiosity, and I have great support through Michael.”

Joe has been actively involved in the LD4 conference planning committee for the past several years. This is how they got introduced to Wikidata and Wikibase. 

Joe: ’’Wikibase has always been [out there], but you know, the setup was complicated and a big hurdle for just the two of us working on these things. But then Cloud got announced, and we knew this would remove the first hurdle. I used to not understand the setup. We just started and jumped in. I sent a message to Mike and said:’Let’s go!’”’

How was that for you, Michael?

Michael:’’When Joe contacted me about the Cloud instance, we had the support to play around in our work time, which was a lot of fun. Joe is probably like me, that there’s this flush of excitement of just getting something up and running and proving that something can work.’’

“(…) there’s this flush of excitement of just getting something up and running and proving that something can work.”

Joe:” ‘I think one of the nice ideas of Wikibase and Wikidata is that people make new tools and processes… a lot of these types of projects become really static at some point because the platform works, and once it works, people don’t do much with it anymore. But I feel like with Wikibase and Wikidata tools, there is always this, “Oh, I can take this process that I had and change it to this other method and do something different,” and this is something for me that kept the ball rolling, so to say. ‘’

‘’One of the nice ideas of Wikibase and Wikidata is that people make new tools and processes, and so I feel like a lot of these types of projects, once you set it all up, they become really static.”

I wanted to understand their day-to-day Wikibase use, as well as whether and how they onboarded other staff to the software.

Michael told me that they’re currently “using [Wikibase] to explore the data modelling aspects that are not just in the Wikidata universe, but more broadly in RDF and similar formats.’’ He said: “It fits so neatly with our other goals around linked data. That’s why moving that data set into Wikibase and exploring the data modelling concept is my use for it. We’ve only got a handful of people right now that are using it, but when we broaden our training among staff, we may find other interested people that might be using it, either for this particular application or for other applications and instances.’’

Joe added, “We’re developing this Wikibase with the idea that the people who are comfortable with Wikidata will have very little problem contributing to it. ’… My dream for this is that I can encourage other librarians that don’t have the bandwidth right now, [to] contribute to what we’re building, or at least display [it], and that they could reuse the methods that we’ve done. They could make their own version and take advantage of the ability to connect other applications.’’

’’my dream for this is that I can encourage other librarians, that don’t have the bandwidth right now, [to] contribute to what we’re building or at least display [it] and that they could reuse the methods that we’ve done.

I wanted to know what challenges they’ve encountered while using Wikibase.

Michael told me that they had a hard time getting oriented in finding the documentation, specifically for API usage. He told me, “It wasn’t documented in a way that felt natural to me, but you know, like other technologies, you just have to get used to the particulars of how Wikidata does documentation.”

Joe added that he had troubles enhancing the visual presentation and decided, for now, to just use the simplest version. He said, “Sometimes you just have to accept that things that look really good look really good because people have been refining them over time, and there’s a lot of nuance towards the presentation of the views – not the record views but the entity views and special pages. I’ll dive into this one day, but now I just take care that things are readable.’’

I wanted to know how they reach out for help and whether they are involved in the Wikibase community. 

Michael said he has attended some community video calls and makes use of the mailing list, which he finds “very useful and clear”. Joe added that he mostly works with the mailing list and the LD4 Wikibase and Wikidata Affiliate Groups. 

When I asked them about where they would like to see Wikibase heading in the future, they said they’d appreciate documentation that’s tailored to the very first steps. 

Joe: “I had no idea what to do […]. There are jumps from ‘here’s the installation, here’s how you load your data,’ but there’s nothing that explains why loading your data is the next step after the installation, as opposed to ‘Don’t I need properties? Don’t I need to have this data modelling access?’ You know, part of it is because, if you just dive in and do it, and you assume that it may break, and it may not, you get somewhere pretty fast, but for people who just come there with their blank Wikibase, it’s really disorienting.”

I told them that we’re about to create additional documentation that is more graspable for an audience that might have a really big learning curve. Sometimes we have people joining that have used other Wikiprojects before, and then they feel more intuitive about it. 

But yes, we hear you, and we’re happy you took this step of diving into this world!

Thank you, Michael and Joe, for sharing your experiences with us.

Check out their Wikibase instance!

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