From Wikipedia to our libraries

I’ve heard the lament in more than one library discussion over the years.  “People aren’t coming to our library like they should,” librarians have told me.  “We’ve got a rich collection, and we’ve expended lots of resources on an online presence, but lots of our patrons just go to Google and Wikipedia without checking to see what we have.”  The pattern of quick online information-finding using search engines and Wikipedia is well-known enough that it has its own acronym: GWR, for Google -> Wikipedia -> References.  (David White gives a good description of that pattern in the linked article.)

Some people I’ve talked to think we should break this pattern.  With the right search tool or marketing plan, some say, we can get patrons to start with us first, instead of Google or Wikipedia.  This idea seems to me both futile and beside the point.  Between them, Google and Wikipedia cover a vast array of online information, more than librarians could hope to replicate or index ourselves in that medium.  Also, if we truly have better resources available in our libraries than can be found on the open Web, it’s less important that our researchers start from our libraries’ websites than that they end up finding the knowledge resources our libraries make available to them.

Looked at the right way, Wikipedia can be a big help in making online readers aware of their library’s offerings.  One of the things we spend a lot of time on in libraries is organizing information into distinct, conceptual categories.  That’s what Wikipedia does too: so far,  their English edition has over 4 million concepts identified, described, and often populated with reference links.  And Wikipedia has encouraged people to add links to relevant digital library collections on various topics, through programs like Wikipedia Loves Libraries and Wikipedian in Residence programs.  But while these programs help bring some library resources online, and direct people to those selected resources, there’s still a lot of other relevant library material that users can’t get to via Wikipedia, but can via the libraries that are near them.

So how do we get people from Wikipedia articles to the related offerings of our local libraries?  Essentially we need three things: First, we need ways to embed links in Wikipedia to the libraries that readers use.  (We can’t reasonably add individual links from an article to each library out there, because there are too many of them– there has to be a way that each Wikipedia reader can get to their own favored libraries via the same links.)  Second, we need ways to derive appropriate library concepts and local searches from the subjects of Wikipedia articles, so the links go somewhere useful.  Finally, we need good summaries of the resources a reader’s library makes available on those concepts, so the links end up showing something useful.  With all of these in place, it should be possible for researchers to get from a Wikipedia article on a topic straight to a guide to their local library’s offerings on that topic in a single click.

I’ve developed some tools to enable these one-click Wikipedia -> library transitions.  For the first thing we need, I’ve created a set of Wikipedia templates for adding library links. The documentation for the Library resources box template, for instance, describes how to use it to create a sidebar box with links to resources about (or by) the topic of  a Wikipedia article in a reader’s library, or in another library a reader might want to consult.  (There’s also an option for direct links to my Online Books Page, if there are relevant books online; it may be easier in some cases for readers to access those than to access their local library’s books.)

For the links to work, we need to know about the reader’s preferred library.  Users can register their preferred library (which will set a cookie in their browser recording that choice), or select it for each individual search.  We know how to link to several dozen libraries so far, and can add more libraries on, which includes holdings of thousands of libraries worldwide, is also an option.  Besides the “Library resources box” template, I’ve also provided templates for in-text links to library resources, if those work better in a given article.  Links to these templates can be found at the end of the “Library resources box” documentation.

For the second thing we need, I’ve created a library forwarding service (“Forward to Libraries”, or FTL– catchier name suggestions welcome) that transforms links from Wikipedia into searches for appropriate  headings or keywords in local libraries.  This is the same service I describe in my “From my library to yours” blog post from last month, but it now supports links from Wikipedia as well as to Wikipedia.

Thanks to information included in the Library of Congress’ Authorities and Vocabularies datasets, OCLC’s VIAF data feeds, Wikipedia’s database downloads, and my own metadata compiled at The Online Books Page, FTL already knows how to link directly to over 240,000 distinct authority-controlled headings known to the Library of Congress from their corresponding Wikipedia articles.   (Library of Congress headings are used in most sizable US libraries, and many English-language libraries outside the US also use similar headings.)

For other articles, FTL by default will try a general keyword search based on the Wikipedia article’s title, which will often turn up useful results at the destination library.  Alternatively, my templates allow Wikipedia editors to determine a specific Library of Congress heading to use in library links, if appropriate.  I’m hoping to incorporate suggested headings into FTL’s own knowledge base as I detect them showing up in Wikipedia articles.  I also plan to publish FTL’s data sets under open access terms, so that others can use and improve on them as well.

The third part of this solution– displaying relevant resources at the destination library— can be implemented differently at each library.  For most of the libraries in FTL’s current knowledge base, links go to searches in the library’s regular online catalog.  But with some libraries, I’ve linked to another discovery system, if it seems to be the main search promoted at that library, and it seems to produce useful results.  The Online Books Page’s subject map displays also have features that I think will be useful to Wikipedia subject researchers arriving at my site, such as also showing related subjects and books filed under those subjects.  I hope in future posts to talk more about other useful guideposts and contextual information we could be providing to readers arriving from Wikipedia.

But if you’ve read this far, you probably want to see how this all works in practice.  So I’ve added some example library resources boxes in a few Wikipedia articles that seemed particularly relevant this month, including those for Women’s history, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Flannery O’Connor.  Look down in the “External links” or “Further reading” sections of those articles for the boxes, and view the page source of the articles to see how those boxes are constructed.

As with most things related to Wikipedia, this service is experimental, and subject to change (and, hopefully,  improvement) over time.  I’d love to hear thoughts and suggestions from users and maintainers of Wikipedia and libraries.  And if you find creating these sort of links from Wikipedia useful, and need help getting started, I’d be happy to help you bring them to your favorite Wikipedia topics and local libraries, as time permits.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
This entry was posted in citizen librarians, discovery, libraries, online books, subjects. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to From Wikipedia to our libraries

  1. Hi John,
    This is a great idea! And by linking to a generic re-direct service like this I would hope it would be more acceptable to the Wikipedia community than adding direct links to a GLAM (those are very often deleted esp. if added by the GLAM itself).

    If you’d like you could include also links to Europeana (who I work for)? Perhaps in resources in other libraries? In any case we link only to digitized content. For Women’s history (and other subjects) I’d recommend making phrase search out of it by adding citations, like so:“women’s+history”

    Since we have multi-lingual content a search in any other language versions of the same article should work, e.g.:“Histoire+des+femmes”

    and for persons/authors/creators to do a who-search like so: thomas+jefferson thus limiting results to only records where he’s either in dc:creator or dc:contributor

    (Though as a rule we’re not at our strongest when searching for U.S authors)

    More advance mashups could be done via our API but linking could be a first good step.


    • Breandán says:

      Let us know if we at can help!

    • Thanks! I’ve used Europeana fairly often to look for European-digitized content. I’ve gladly added it to the “global library services” options in the list of libraries to choose from.

      My mapping to your search terms isn’t perfect at this point, but it will hopefully be enough to be useful. We can talk offline about what sorts of filters might be best to put on search terms fed to your system. (I have a few filters I can use now, but there seem to be compatibility issues with some of them when used with Europeana; but hopefully what I have will be at least somewhat useful.)

  2. mattmaldre says:

    This reminds me a bit like the Chrome Add-on, “Library Extension” that adds a box onto, so when you are browsing a particular book, this box will tell you if it’s available in your local library system.

  3. mace says:

    Wikipedia has the Special:BookSources -feature (f.ex., which ISBN numbers link to.

    Also, regarding GWR, so you guys remember the now extinct search engine called WikiSeek? The idea was that it indexed all of Wikipedia, and all the pages Wikipedia linked to… thus, using Wikipedia as a humanmade proxy index. Very novel idea!

  4. stacymckenna says:

    I’d be particularly interested in seeing GLAM special collections linked more easily. For instance, I’ve been volunteering at LAPL for the past year and just last week learned we have an entire collection on bullfighting. The only mention of it on our web page is a single line on the Rare Books collection page, but we’ve had people come from as far as Spain to see it (apparently word gets around within enthusiast circles). The cataloging of the collection makes it difficult to find via our main catalog, but if articles relevant to particular niche collections (like our Thomas Bros. Guide collection, for instance – recently expanded to be more comprehensive than the publisher’s own collection, or our menus, or citrus box labels…) could include links to these kinds of holdings, many GLAMs would benefit from increased use of their specialty holdings.

  5. Don Simpson says:

    I would certainly like to register more than one preferred library. Where I live, there’s a county library branch a few blocks away, a city library branch some blocks further on (but still walkable), and a local university (with a large set of libraries) a short bus ride beyond that.

    • Thanks for your suggestion! I too live in a city with multiple libraries nearby. Right now, the Wikipedia templates let you pick a primary library, which the “your library” links will then go to when you select them. For other libraries, you’ll need to select the “other libraries” link. A page will then come up listing all the libraries available, and you can select the one you want to check.

      That list of libraries is going to be getting quite a bit bigger before long– word about this project has gotten around online, and I’ve got a number of additional libraries requested, that I’ll be adding as time permits. I’m hoping, once things calm down a bit, to upgrade the “choose a library” page so that it’s easier to find the libraries you want quickly. One idea I’ve considered, for instance, is letting people pick a set of favorites that would appear right at the start of the library choices offered.

      Is this something that you’d find useful? Let me know what you think. I’m quite interested in hearing ideas about what could make it easier to choose from a growing set of libraries.

      • Don Simpson says:

        Well, I think it would be good if someone could pick a list of favorites. It might also be good to have a list of all libraries previously selected by/for the particular user, in most-recent to least-recent order, with an option for other sorts, such as alphabetic. And if the master list of libraries had location data (GPS co-ordinates might be nice), an evocable list of those within a certain distance could be useful.

  6. notconfusing says:

    Hello, Thanks for the fantastic reuse of the Wikipedia -> VIAF links that Andrew Gray and myself implemented last year in our Authority Control Integration Project through VIAFbot.
    To understand more about VIAFbot, the debriefing is available here:

    • Thank *you* for creating those links! FTL wouldn’t be able to automatically find suitable headings for most of the Wikipedia articles that are in its current knowledge base were it not for the data that the VIAFbot has compiled, and recorded in lots of WIkipedia articles about people and other authors.

      Folks who are putting Library resources templates on pages the VIAFbot has touched can look for the “Authority control” line late in the article to find the VIAF identifier, and put it into the template as specified in its documentation. (The links will often work without the viaf argument explicitly included, but adding it will make the links more reliable in case the article, or the LC subject heading, changes its name in the future.)

  7. Helen says:

    What about It will tell you which libraries have it in expanding radii. I have looked up some books that the nearest copy was down the street and others only available across the country. Many other places, especially in academia, already link to it.

    • Yes, is often a good choice, especially when you have multiple libraries in a nearby area
      that you want to consult, like Don Simpson does. While there’s no way that I know of in WorldCat to constrain subject and author searches to libraries in a particular geographic region (correct me if I’m wrong), once you find a particular book you’re interested in, will tell you what libraries near you have it, including how far away they are from your apparent location.

  8. Claire says:

    John, this is awesome!! Last year I attended a webinar about Wikipedia and libraries and then began a project in which I was adding links to my library’s online oral histories and other digital holdings. To be able to highlight them in a box like you’ve designed, though, is even better. Bravo! I will definitely be revisiting my project and giving your code a try very soon!

  9. So this is a completely different implementation, and doesn’t scale to general Wikipedia users, but my colleague and I built a browser-based tool that pulls the title of a wikipedia article and searches our academic library collection for the topic.

    Here’s the link to the project description:;
    link to the customizable code files:;
    and a link to the published article (unfortunately behind a paywall) about the bookmarklet, including our research on why we need to care about wikipedia as a research tool:

  10. Scott Leslie says:

    Hi John, a chance link in my twitter feed brought me here. I am not a librarian but have been working on this idea, of ways of turning wikipedia from “the competition” into the front door for additional resources, be they library holdings or other valuable materials like open educational resources, for some time now, as have others. You may have seen these slides from a few years back that use a bookmarklet-based approach.

    For my own part, while I appreciate that wikipedia as a whole seems interested in this idea and that services like worldcat provide the closest to a single search end-point we have, I have been investigating ways to do this that don’t require their participation and that can work for any individual institution (well, any institution whose catalogue can provide search results back in reusable format.) I like worldcat, but as a dues-based system, there are many many institutions (especially where I live in Canada) who are not covered by it.

    While I have had success getting javascript/greasemonkey/wikipedia-user-scripts style solutions working, I think the problem with these is that they require a sophistication in the end user that many do not have. Thus I am moving towards proxy-based solutions that individual campuses can implement. The idea being that any request for a wikipedia page is caught by the proxy, a search sent to the library catalogue based on the keyword (which currently I just use the page name, perhaps not ideal, but an 80/20 style solution) and the resulting wikipedia page augmented on the fly with links to specific holdings. I hadn’t seen the “Library Resources Box” template before, so this is helpful. I am trying to build this for a single library now, but the hope is to build it as an open source piece that any library can implement, and to develop a number of connectors for the different catalog systems. While it’s way more work than going through worldcat, the nice thing is that it becomes extensible to other non-library catalogues too.

    Anyways, just wanted to connect through this comment. It’s a good idea and hopefully more folks will cotton on to it. Cheers, Scott

  11. minopret says:

    Is there anything recent to say about LibX and “OpenURL Referrer”? I liked that they could add links to WorldCat from Wikipedia citation items. But I didn’t make frequent use of those plugins. And I feel certain that the public is not very aware of them.

  12. As far as I know, the LibX project is alive and well. I believe they have stopped supporting IE, but now support both Firefox and Chrome. It looks like they are also doing some work specifically with Summon integration.

  13. quriosity says:

    Reblogged this on A Thinking Person, a.k.a. Cogit8R and commented:
    John Mark Ockerbloom has outlined an exciting concept and system for dynamically incorporating a user’s local library resources into Wikipedia articles.

  14. protestant lurker says:

    [This comment kicked off a dispute about attribution, identity, and other matters that quickly diverged from the topic of this post and into disputes concerning another blog. To stop a derail of the Wikipedia-library discussion, I have deleted it and all followups. Comments have been archived for any principals who need to refer to them, but I would request that no further postings on the dispute be made here. – JMO]

  15. Casey says:


    I work as a librarian, and I have a question about this project. The way that Google Scholar works is that it can tell you if articles it has found are available full-text at your library (at least, I know this works for college/university libraries) provided that you’re online on-site. My understanding is that this recognizes the user’s library based on the IP address. The library itself must set this up with Google to begin with, but there is then less work on the user’s part to get to the resources. Do you think that the Wikipedia library resources box would be able to work this way? I think the currently functionality is very good, and one of the ideas that I keep reading about in studies on online usability is the fewer clicks, the better. There are only a handful of libraries participating at the moment, and I wonder if, once that list grows, having to scroll through the list to find the preferred library might be a deterrent to some users (though I did see that you have plans to reformat that page to make that part easier).

    • John Mark Ockerbloom says:

      “There are only a handful of libraries participating at the moment, and I wonder if, once that list grows, having to scroll through the list to find the preferred library might be a deterrent to some users”

      You’re quite right. I am starting to include data on known IP ranges of some institutions, so that users on those institutions’ local networks can go straight there without having to register a preference first. This is currently an experimental feature, and participating institutions have to be willing to let me publish the IP ranges in question as part of the open data I provide for this project. (In fact, most institutional IP ranges can already be found through public sources, though some institutions seem to be a bit skittish about this.) Local users can still register a different preference if they want to use another library as their default. If you’re interested in possibly setting this up for your institution, email me.

      Everyone else, or people who are following links from outside their local institutions, will need to register their preference for the links to reach their libraries in 1 click. But at least once they register, they don’t have to do it again, unless their registration cookie expires or they want to use a different library.

      More details on IP forwarding services and other FTL issues in a followup post (coming shortly).

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