“It has a purpose beyond encyclopedic—think about it more fluidly,” event organizer Vicky Knox told the about ten people who were staring into their laptops on the third floor of the main branch of the Oakland Public Library. “Like, we can have a page for ‘Great places to spend an afternoon.’ We use it for meeting notes, events listings, or primary narratives.”
Held at the Oakland History Room on Sunday, this was the first History Edit-a-thon, which is about to become a regular weekly event. The meeting was organized by Oaklandwiki.org as a way to generate more content for the fledgling site—a collaborative project that seeks to collect all things Oakland into one easily navigable website that any user can edit. The wiki is still a little light on content, but the framework is in place for it to become a clearinghouse of neighborhood information and cultural events calendars. Some of the more robust entries currently include a listing of Oakland farmers’ markets and restaurants and an extensive neighborhood index with maps and descriptions of each area.
The Oakland Wiki project launched last November, springing from Code for Oakland, an event last September that brought together community members, programmers, and open government advocates. Some of the original participants went on to found Open Oakland, an organization that now helps support Oakland Wiki and is described on its website as a collection of “coders, designers, data geeks, journalists, and city staff” working together to promote open government through technology and community outreach. OpenOakland has already hosted an “unconference” they dubbed CityCamp, which brought city officials and residents together to talk about local issues, and put together an Open Government Pledge that asked Oakland politicians to affirm their commitment to government transparency.
According to Knox, the Sunday afternoon event was designed to expand the wiki’s historical content by reaching out to a thriving local history community that includes Wikipedians (regular users and editors of the mega-reference site) and other organizations already doing historic research. The event started with an informal meet and greet at Brown Couch Café on 14th Street before the about attendees walked over the History Room. There, librarian Martha Bergmann introduced them to the vast historical resources available to them, including newspaper clippings dating back to the 1950s sorted by topic, an extensive map room, books on Oakland neighborhoods, and a wide range of ephemera spanning Oakland’s history—playbills from theatre productions, campaign materials, personal photo collections.
Attendees were briefed on wiki editing, and then encouraged to research anything that interested them in order to create new entries from Oakland’s long history on the wiki. “This is one grand experiment,” Knox said. The attendees took turns listing their potential research projects—Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, Old Oakland, Swan’s Market, the Longfellow neighborhood among them.
Gene Anderson, who has already contributed a vast, community-generated map detailing every current and historic Oakland neighborhood to the wiki, mentioned Francis “Borax” Smith, creator of Oakland’s Key System, as a potential subject for a new page. Anderson runs a blog he describes as being about “all sorts of Oakland-related things, from restaurants to photos to urban farming to the occasional rant post about politics.”
“I think this is great,” Anderson said. “I’ve been interested in Oakland history for a long time, and there are a lot of things that have local relevance that wouldn’t pass the bar for a regular Wikipedia entry.”
Wikipedia entries are subject to a thorough and ongoing peer review system, and the entry “What Wikipedia is not,” has a list of the types of entries that are not accepted on the site, including directories, manuals or guidebooks, dictionary entries, news, promotion, or soapbox pages espousing personal beliefs or opinions. So far, Oakland Wiki’s only stated guidelines are that the wiki is free and anyone can edit it.
“Wikipedia is clunky and more bureaucratic,” Knox said. “There are restrictions on what you can add. If I wanted to post about a poetry reading or something like that, I couldn’t.”
A localized, community effort seemed to appeal to many of those in attendance. Ryan Kaldari—decked out in “full Wikipedia swag,” which included a black hooded Wikipedia sweatshirt and a Wikimedia messenger bag—is a software developer who recently moved to Oakland from Nashville, Tennessee after he took a job with San Francisco-based Wikimedia, the foundation that runs Wikipedia. A longtime Wikipedia editor who was a part of its meet-up groups in Nashville, Kaldari claims to know nothing about his new hometown, but attended the Edit-a-thon, because, as he put it, “It’s about time I learned something.”
Kaldari says there is a false assumption that because Wikimedia is based in the Bay Area, local outreach projects aren’t as necessary. But he feels that localized projects like Oakland Wiki are useful in building communities. “It’s great to get together and meet people in your own community,” he said.
Marina Kukso helped organizer the Edit-a-thon because she thinks a historical perspective is important for Oakland residents. “If people knew about the interesting and complicated history of Oakland, they would get super interested in it, like I did,” Kukso said.
Anthony Di Franco lives in Berkeley and doesn’t know a lot about Oakland, so he can’t really tell other people about Oakland just yet. But he was in attendance because he likes “the idea of a local wiki and how it can be used to share effective work on important things.” While he thinks Wikipedia can sometimes sound like a tourism board, a site like Oakland Wiki is “about building community around a resource that has the potential to give voice to locals in that community,” he said.
By the time the event wrapped up, several new pages had been added to the ever-growing wiki, including pages about Swan’s Market in Old Oakland, Oakland’s music history, the Center for Contemporary Music, this summer’s upcoming Temescal Street Fair, and an extensive history of the Elmhurst neighborhood.
But, said Knox, “There is a lot of room for improvement. There is a lot of room to improve the presentation of information, a lot of room to improve the platform,” a process that will be ongoing as more and more people contribute to the site.
Oakland Wiki local history Edit-a-thons will recur every Sunday from 1-5 pm at the Oakland History Room on the third floor of the main branch of the Oakland Public Library. Check out http://oaklandwiki.org/History_Editathon for more information.
*The following correction was made: Oakland Wiki launched at Code for Oakland, before Open Oakland was formed. Open Oakland supports Oakland Wiki and lists it among other projects the group works on. Also, Elmhurst page added.