From Encyclopedic Collector to ‘Wikipedian-at-Large’

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — In the grand library of the Auckland War Memorial Museum on a Saturday morning in August, a small group of recent and barely nervous Wikipedia editors gathered for a day of coaching that will arm them to sort out New Zealand’s lackluster illustration on the crowdsourced on-line encyclopedia.

Leading the so-called Wikiblitz was New Zealand’s official Wikipedian-at-Large, Mike Dickison, 49, who has in some senses been making ready his whole life for this submit. As a collector of issues and data, he has pursued a string of enthusiasms, starting with bugs, shells and feathers (he put collectively his personal museum as a boy), then big flightless birds (a Ph.D. on these), that ended, appropriately sufficient, with a job because the pure historical past curator at a museum. He as soon as taught a category in knitting as remedy for stressed-out males after a significant earthquake.

For the second, he was concerned in one thing rather less fascinating, guiding the group by the method of including images from the museum’s assortment to pages on Wikipedia. The new editors — curious members of the general public, a lot of whom had created their accounts the night earlier than — had been largely girls, a truth Mr. Dickison was happy to notice; Wikipedia data its editors as 90 p.c male.

“Be bold! Don’t be stymied by worry,” Mr. Dickison informed the group, assuring them that early in his Wikipedia profession, he had by chance “blanked” a couple of whole web page by mistake.

As the nation’s roving Wikipedian-at-Large, he’s spending a yr coaxing New Zealanders to take up volunteer modifying on what’s the world’s fifth-most-visited web site. His wage and journey are funded by a grant from the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia, as a part of its funding in “emerging communities” on the positioning, together with New Zealand.

The South Pacific nation is underrepresented on Wikipedia, and Mr. Dickison described the state of most of the nation’s pages as “dire.”

His abilities are self-taught, however Mr. Dickison’s affinity with Wikipedia’s gathering of group data is the fruits of his lifelong obsession with amassing. Growing up in Christchurch, on the South Island of New Zealand, the son of an apprentice boilermaker father — who later ran a sporting items retailer — and a homemaker mom, Mr. Dickison felt he was “destined” for a museum curator’s job.

What began as a typical childhood infatuation with dinosaurs developed right into a fascination with the moa, a giant flightless bird native to New Zealand, which is now extinct. Mr. Dickison’s father, who had left school at 15, encouraged his son’s enthusiasm for curating. He built the glass display cases where his son could display his treasures in his “museum.”

Even then, Mr. Dickison was irked by the lack of available information about New Zealand’s native fauna.

“I was mad on insects, and in 1983 you had one book on New Zealand insects, which was written in the ’70s, with just a few color plates,” he said, adding that he is now writing his own children’s book on New Zealand’s natural history.

His preoccupation with the moa led Mr. Dickison to complete a Ph.D. on the subject of giant flightless birds at Duke University decades later.

“I had no idea where North Carolina was or any fact about it whatsoever,” Mr. Dickison said. “The only Duke I knew was ‘The Dukes of Hazzard.’”

The appeal of giant flightless birds, to Mr. Dickison at least, seemed simple: “They’re just enormous. They’re really big. I mean, why do kids like dinosaurs? Because they’re huge.”

He dreams of traveling back 1,000 years to see the moa in its natural New Zealand habitat before it was wiped out by Polynesian settlers 500 years ago. He has even investigated the taxonomic origins of the “Sesame Street” character Big Bird (his conclusion: a giant flightless crane).

His edit history, which began in 2009, is not quite as lettered as his museum pedigree: Mr. Dickison made some of his first contributions to pages about Jaffas, a type of New Zealand candy, mandolins and the film “This Is Spinal Tap.”

He realized toward the end of his tenure as a natural history curator, he said, that the work he did on Wikipedia in his free time had “much more impact” than what he did at his day job.

After his application for a Wikimedia Foundation grant for the national Wikipedian-in-residence role was successful, Mr. Dickison said, he left his job, “filled my four-wheel-drive with plastic bins of worldly possessions and launched off around the country on an adventure.”

Mr. Dickison is no stranger to connecting unlikely groups of people. Upon his return to New Zealand from Duke, the sometime ukulele player was frustrated by the lack of sheet music for New Zealand standards. So he wrote a book of local songs for ukulele and traveled the North Island, teaching and performing them.

After a deadly earthquake struck his home city of Christchurch in 2011, killing 185 people and flattening much of the central city, Mr. Dickison ran the knitting-as-therapy class, having taught himself first as a way of dealing with the aftermath of the quakes.

In the 1990s, he had hosted sessions in internet cafes to help newcomers explore the World Wide Web.

“I don’t understand why I do these things,” he said. “I’m supposed to be an introvert.”

“But if I find something I’m passionate about, I need to share it and get other people involved too,” he added.

The fate of Christchurch was a cautionary tale about the need for societies to preserve their information, Mr. Dickison said. When the 2011 earthquake struck, every formative place from his childhood was destroyed, including his family home and former schools.

“Google Street View was still running images of pre-quake Christchurch for a while after the earthquake, and there was a huge worry that they would take those down and replace them with up-to-date views,” he said, adding that images of the city before the disaster had now been archived and preserved.

“I feel like we’ve been a bit cavalier about looking after knowledge in New Zealand,” Mr. Dickison said. “Too often, it just slips away.”

As part of his Wikipedian-at-Large role, he is charged with recruiting others to help preserve that knowledge online, with a particular emphasis on women and minorities, who are underrepresented in New Zealand’s small editing community. He plans more meet-ups and training sessions like the one at Auckland Museum, and will be resident around the country at locations including a government department and a bird sanctuary.

Mr. Dickison also hopes to entice reticent public and private institutions to crack open their vaults of knowledge and expertise, making them more accessible for editors to use while editing Wikipedia.

“I often have experts tell me they read a Wikipedia article that they know something about and it was full of inaccuracies,” he said.

“I always say, ‘Well, did you fix them? And if you didn’t fix them, why are you complaining to me? It’s like walking outside and complaining that it’s raining and not putting up an umbrella. Of course you’re wet!’”

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