Burkhardt and Wikimedia Commons

watercolor sketch of a green Cichlid

by Greg McCollum

This summer, I had the opportunity to work with Harvard Library as a UX and Discovery intern. This internship program is born out of a partnership between Harvard Library’s UX and Discovery team and the University of Michigan’s School of Information, where I'm a graduate student pursuing a Master’s degree in Library Science.

A key hope and goal of mine in coming into this internship was to develop a project that expands the access and availability of Harvard’s digital collections online. I got to do just that by collaborating with the Ernst Mayr Library. I worked closely with MCZ staff to upload the Jacques Burkhardt Scientific Drawings collection to Wikimedia Commons and grow the collection’s online audience in the process.

The Jacques Burkhardt Scientific Drawings Collection is one of the Ernst Mayr Library’s key digital collections. Jacques Burkhardt was a Swiss illustrator who was the principal artist for prominent biologist Louis Agassiz. Burkhardt was especially active in the middle of the 19th century until his death in 1856. The Burkhardt collection held by the Ernst Mayr Library features hundreds of his watercolors and pencil sketches, including more than 400 illustrations of fish drawn from live specimens during his expedition to Brazil with Louis Agassiz starting in 1865. 

Wikimedia Commons is the main media file repository for Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects. Today, many academic libraries, archives, museums, and are utilizing Wiki projects to expand their outreach. Additionally, uploading to Wikimedia Commons has some specific key benefits for these cultural heritage institutions:

  • Contextualized Collection Items. With collection items uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, it becomes easy to embed a collection’s items into the Wikipedia articles pertaining to that collection’s items or subjects. This enables scholars, curators, and other educators to place their items into context, offer their subject expertise, and enhance open educational resources in the process. 
  • Expanded Audiences. While collection materials can be discovered on their institution’s websites and resources, materials on Wikimedia Commons and Wikipedia have discoverability advantages as a part of one of the world’s largest and most interconnected online informational resources. Search engines often utilize open data projects like Wikipedia to populate their top search results, meaning that uploaded collection materials can more easily reach search engine users interested in the collection’s topic.
  • Increased Cross-Traffic. Wikimedia Commons allows users to associate source links for each item that they upload, and connect users back to the institutions’ collections and additional resources associated with the collection. This approach enhances traffic towards the institution’s web materials and other collections. Wikimedia uploads can in this way serve to complement the institution’s array of offerings. 
  • In sum, Wikimedia Commons uploads allows institutions to tap into larger audiences and expand their influence on some of the most-accessed resources on the web today. With the Jacques Burkhardt collection now on Wikimedia Commons, the Ernst Mayer Library is well-positioned to take advantage of these benefits.

In addition to the high quality of the collection’s materials, I chose to upload the Jacques Burkhardt collection because of its copyright status and the collections’ readiness for article-integration. Wikimedia Commons has a number of stipulations for upload, requiring that uploaded media be either freely licensed or in the public domain in the United States. The Burkhardt materials are public domain and meet these requirements. Additionally, many Wikipedia articles on zoological subjects are in need of good images. With the many species of fish, turtles, crabs, and others depicted in this collection, there’s lots of opportunity to integrate these materials into Wikipedia articles needing support.

In this project, I developed a Python script that accessed the Burkhardt collection information on Harvard Library’s LibraryCloud API, downloaded each collection item to my local computer, and populated the template used for Wikimedia uploads with information on each zoological sketch and painting. I then utilized Pattypan, an open-source Java program, to perform a bulk upload of the whole collection. You can check out the full uploaded collection on Wikimedia Commons now. Check out the project report to learn more about this project.

You can support this project. Join us in adding the Jacques Burkhardt illustrations to Wikipedia articles. We recommend searching for Wikipedia articles using the “Common Name” or “Taxonomic Classification” information provided in each uploaded item’s “Description” field to find articles ready for images.

New to Wikipedia editing? Check out this brief tutorial on adding Jacques Burkhardt items to articles. Contact me at gregmcc@umich.edu if you have any questions.