GLAM/Case studies/The National Library of Israel Reference Desk

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The National Library of Israel Building in Jerusalem

This case study covers the establishment of a Library Reference Desk in Wikipedia, for Wikipedians in the National Library of Israel, and the way it developed.

Like other research libraries, with a mission focused toward the public, the National Library of Israel has a reference desk service, via physical desk, online chat options, email, and phone. These services are available to the public, free of charge. At the National Library, during the term of the second Wikipedian in Residence, the Reference Department at the Library received special training in order to harness their knowledge to support the Wiki community. Exploring ways in which they could use the library’s established services/workflows to help the community, they decided to establish a reference desk on Wikipedia to extend the options available at their Reference Desk.

Mission and focus


As the Reference desk is a collaboration between the Library and Wikimedia our goals were twofold:

  • From the Library's stand point to reach a new audience and expose the collection further.
  • As and added bonus, the by participating with Wikipedia, the Library can describe itself as a partner in Wikipedia and receive the additional positive press.
  • From Wikimedia's perspective, supplying Wikipedians with accurate reliable information results in more accurate articles.
  • Moreover, the partnership offers a low resource "first foot in the door" project for a library to think more about GLAM-Wiki strategies

These kinds of partnerships play off the strengths of both communities The Library has a vast collection and the librarians can verify many facts, supply references and materials for research. Those serve to improve articles, and settle discussions in the community. During the two residencies of Wikimedia in the Library there were a lot of activities in the library such as edithons and hackathons. Wikipedians came to the Library and used its collections. Establishing a reference desk in Wikipedia ensures that the resources will still be available beyond the residency of the Wikipedian in Residence. This is provides further opportunities for the National Library as an independent and sustainable partner with Wikimedia.




National Library of Israel Service counter

Deror Avi was the second Wikipedian-in-Residence at the National Library. The first Wikipedian-in-Residence successfully focused on the major components of other GLAM collaborations: uploaded pictures, arranged editathons and encouraged volunteers and staff to write articles. Deror wanted to move to the next stage, change the partnership from limited contributions to Wikimedia projects into a self sustaining collaboration. The Reference Department was chosen to lead the way and was given a course on how to edit in Wikipedia. The Reference Department was the natural choice for such an activity. They have vast knowledge in many areas, and they are well versed in referencing. As part of their job they learn new tools in which to reach other people and help them find materials. Learning how to edit Wiki and teach others was just one of the many projects they undertake.

After deciding to focus on the Reference Department, Deror asked the Head of Customer Services in the National Library, Orly Simon, permission to start a reference desk in Wikipedia itself. She agreed, seeing the Wikipedia reference desk as an opportunity to fill gaps in demand for librarians working at the Reference Desk. Additionally, Orly saw the experiment as an opportunity to attract new audiences to the National Library's Reference Desks.

Following the approval of the program, Deror created the page on Wiki and took a picture of Daniel Lipson, one of the reference librarians (photo above).

First users


GLAM active Wikipedians, and an announcement in the village pump spread the rumor around. In the Hebrew Wikipedia there is a directory for all the Wiki Help Desks on line. Our first question was for sources about the average wages in Israel. Many others followed.

The questions tended to fall into different types:

  • One kind was to verify facts. These questions arise while discussing an issue on a particular article or topic on Wikipedia and they need someone to check the references.
  • Another kind of question was a request for materials such as pictures or pages - these kinds of questions are similar to the requests made by Wikipedians of other GLAM-Wiki partnerships.
  • A third kind was a question of a general nature such as: How many books are published a year.

In between Wikipedians of Residence


Supporting many reference desks at once is not an easy job. After Deror left the Wikipedian-in-Residence position, the Wikipedia Reference Desk slowed down. The Reference Librarians didn't check the Wikipedia Reference Desk as often as they had previously.

This changed when the second Wikipedian in Residence, Darya, became more involved in the Wiki project. Being involved with the community and checking the Desk often resulted in renewed activity of the Desk. Many requests required different people on the Library staff to answer the questions, but because most of the staff were aware of the Wikipedia cooperation, they saw an added benefit to the work: they were helping the larger partnership strategy. That being said: tracking the answers to support Wikipedians sometimes required persistence, reminding the librarians to get the materials to Wikipedians. We learned that good cooperation with the Library staff is a must!

Work Flow


For the Reference Desk to work well you need a few levels of assistance. Those levels can be addressed by one person, or many. The first level is a librarian who knows Wikipedia. It could be the Wikipedian-in-Residence but doesn't have to be. Just someone who can answer simple questions regarding the Library and knows how Wikipedia works so as to address copyright restrictions and the likes. The second level is someone who can upload materials from the Library to Wikipedia in response to requests there. The third level is the Reference Librarians in the specific fields. The question the reference desk receives might need some expert on the subject. That expert doesn't necessarily know how to write in Wiki. So the librarian who answers the easy question will get the answers from the experts and publish them when they arrive.

The usual work flow was as follows: The Reference Librarian sees the question, writes that he will check it out. Then either takes care of it himself (if he can) or writes the query to the librarian who can. It's important to continue with the follow up. When he gets the answers, he writes then to the Desk.

Current use

Harold Marcus Wiener. His picture was uploaded as a request in the reference desk

Currently, the Library receives many requests. The requests are mostly to make Wikimedia content more verifiable. Some seek information on a person they are writing about. Some want a picture (like that shown on the right). Some want Newspaper articles.

In order for the partnership to be effective, someone from the Library staff must look at the request and decide where to direct it. Then they need to follow up until it's done. If the Library staff is not motivated or not committed to it, then the process will move a lot slower and things will fall between the cracks. Motivation and tracking is very important as we have gathered from the last two years.