Web-wide citations?

I recently started a new wiki project, which I’ll discuss in more detail later. Like the Brackbill Wiki, this one is based on the same software that powers Wikipedia, MediaWiki. It’s a powerful site building tool if you want something that’s collaboratively edited.

However, don’t assume that all the power of Wikipedia is in any other MediaWiki site. Case in point: citations. I love the citation templates on Wikipedia, together with the reference templates, because they make it drop dead simple to do professional citations, which if you’re trying to construct a reference work are kind of important.

But the citation templates that power Wikipedia aren’t in the default MediaWiki package; they’re templates that live specifically in Wikipedia’s content. And while Wikipedia’s liberal license policies allows reuse-by-copying, that means you have to keep up with bugfixes yourself. It would be one thing if it were just one template, but by my count I had to copy no fewer than 66 templates to get web and book citations, and their associated documentation pages, working. That’s nuts.

What would be nice, of course, would be to have a nice, robust markup strategy that would do proper footnote citations on any site, not just a wiki. The anchor tag is kind of the degenerate version of it–very powerful but also lacking in some of the stuff you want for a formal citation, such as the date the item was last accessed.

Virginia Glee Club history: Harrison Randolph

harrisonrandolphExploring some of Google’s new search options a week ago bore surprising fruit, as I discovered enough about the first named conductor of the Virginia Glee Club, Harrison Randolph, to write a Wikipedia article about him. There has long been little publicly available information about Randolph, aside from a mention in Philip Bruce’s 1921 five volume history of the University of Virginia and his presence in the archival 1893 Glee Club photo that also features the author of the “Good Old Song.” The liner notes to the Club’s 1972 recording A Shadow’s on the Sundial place him as the organist at the University Chapel, but otherwise he seemed doomed to fade into obscurity.

However, when I did a news timeline search for “virginia glee club”, I turned up some hits in the 1890s that I hadn’t seen before. In particular, one 1894 report in the Atlanta Constitution gave me quite a bit more information about Randolph and the boys of the Glee Club than I had seen previously. In this case, the description of Randolph as an “instructor of mathematics” made me go back and look deeper into his biography, and I turned up a fuller biography of him in a 1920-era volume that says that he left Virginia in 1895 to go to the University of Arkansas, and then in 1897 to the presidency of the College of Charleston, where he spent nearly the next 50 years.

It appears, despite his accomplishments, that the directorship of the Glee Club was not then without its perils; the Constitution gives a glowing description of his intellect, then drily notes, “To him has been allotted the awful task of directing the Glee Club.” Even allowing for the “amazing,” “awe-inspiring” sense of the word, one still feels the pressure of the world on Randolph’s young shoulders, particularly looking back at his 1893 photograph. Born the same year as the Glee Club itself, he looks at the age of 22 smaller and more exhausted than those around him in the publicity photo. Is it any wonder that only two short years later he fled to the relatively safer world of academia?

For those with patience, I’ve added the text of the original 1894 concert review article; it provides a rare glimpse at the mechanics of how the Glee, Banjo, and Mandolin clubs worked together and gives thumbnail biographies of each member.

Remembering Gilly Sullivan

UVA Today: Gilly Sullivan, Former U.Va. Alumni Association Director, Has Died.

If the worth of a man is measured in the impact that he left on the lives of others, Gilly Sullivan was the most important man I’ve ever known. He was dedicated to helping students at the University of Virginia and to ensuring that Mr. Jefferson’s principles of student self-governance were consistently upheld, and he was able to produce miracles in a way that no one else associated with the institution seemed able.

I had three separate interactions with Gilly. In one, he was the bearer of the news that I had won an alumni-sponsored scholarship that I didn’t know existed and had never applied for. In the second, he helped save the magazine that I had cofounded just an issue before when our business manager decided not to sell any ads and not to tell me about it.

In the third, which began before I got to the University and continued the whole time I was there, he was the guardian angel that helped ensure the survival of the Virginia Glee Club as an independent organization when the UVA music department wanted to subsume it into a mixed chorus. He did it by ensuring that the music department couldn’t claim any control over the Glee Club’s alumni-funded endowment, thus ensuring we’d have some way to survive without department support. He was similarly instrumental in helping the revival of the UVA Women’s Chorus.

I wrote a Wikipedia entry for Gilly a few months ago but never shared it with the broader world until this week; I wanted to dig deeper to find more information about the man. For all his influence, he left a remarkably small impact on the news world–a few articles around the time he retired and that was it. He deserved more praise than he got, but I think he knew how much of a difference he made to students like me.

New Dorms replacement project underway at Virginia

It’s great to find out about happenings at my alma mater through Wikipedia. In this case, an edit on the University of Virginia article tipped me to some new developments on Grounds: a new style of dorm that will end up replacing the “New Dorms” that were my home in my first year at UVA.

I like that the new dorm is named “Kellogg House” after my late professor, Robert Kellogg. It’s the first time that one of my professors has had a building named after him.

The dorm looks pretty fancy, but of course the important question is unanswered: what sort of view do the Kellogg kids get into the windows of Balz? And how long will it be before all the dorms are converted over? And how long until the kids start hiding contraband behind the panels in the dropped ceilings shown in the photos? I am deeply envious of the view, but not of the hike that the kids in Kellogg must have had on move-in day…

Adding Wikipedia articles to Google Maps

Google started baking some mashups into the main Google Maps interface earlier this week. As a Wikipedia editor, the one that intrigued me was the ability to hover over a feature on a map and click through to a related Wikipedia article. The question I had was, how do I change my article so that it appears on the map?

Fortunately, it appears to be a pretty simple process, with only one complicated bit, the first one:

  1. Find the place. That is, the place that the article is about. Google Maps is of course your friend here. Once you’ve found the location, double-click to center it in your browser.
  2. Get the coordinates.  This actually isn’t as hard as you might think, thanks (again) to Google Maps. The article Obtaining geographic coordinates provides some helpful suggestions, with a special section on Google Maps. I particularly like the bookmarklet provided, because it makes the workflow so simple–find the place as above, then use the bookmarklet to get the coordinates already in a template. Whatever your method, you’ll want to use the appropriate precision.
  3. Add the appropriate template to the article. There are a few different templates that add geographic coordinates to an article, and some Infobox templates (including Template: Infobox University) include a coordinate parameter. But if you use the bookmarklet I mentioned above, you get the coordinates handed to you in a coord template, which is the one you want to use for compatibility with Google. The only change I’d make is to add the display=title parameter, which floats the coordinates up to the top of the page.
  4. Set the template options. The two I recommend are display=title and type= the appropriate value; for a building, use landmark. This is important because it sets the zoom to the appropriate value.
  5. Preview, making sure to click through and check the map link, then publish.

As an example, I added coordinates to the article about the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Now the next question will be: how long does it take those coordinates to percolate over to Google Maps? I suppose we’ll find out.

Wiki barnraising

I’ve been a Wikipedia editor in earnest for almost a year now. In my focus area (articles about the University of Virginia) that’s mostly been a quiet, solitary pursuit–writing new articles, revising existing articles, reverting vandalism, but rarely interacting with other editors. I saw a hint of the social side of Wikipedia over the last two weeks that gave me a feeling for how the site’s creativity and collaboration works, at a very rapid pace.

It started for me with a notice on the Raven Society page, suggesting that the article be merged with one on collegiate secret societies in North America. I replied that the Ravens were hardly secret, and given their role in preserving Poe’s memory I thought they merited their own article, and that closed the matter. But I checked out the other article, curious to see how they handled the secret society problem.

(I also edit the list of secret societies at the University of Virginia, which is a pretty thankless job. Despite its “anyone can edit, anyone can improve” philosophy, Wikipedia has pretty strict guidelines for its editors, such as a strong preference for notable, cited content. This leads to an apparent oxymoron, gleefully cited by many contributors, who ask, “How can there be references for secret societies? Aren’t they secret?”, generally while adding “The Nougat Society” to the list. I ended up proposing and enforcing a rule that only societies that could be referenced to a publication could be on the page; “after all,” I wrote, “if the society makes so little difference to the University that even the Cavalier Daily won’t write about it, it isn’t notable enough to be in Wikipedia.”)

I found much the same issue on the collegiate secret societies page, and that the editors there had evolved a similar brightline to guide editing. But another editor had a more ambitious plan; rather than a simple list, he structured an article with sections for each of the schools with large numbers of societies, a general introduction, and a restrictive list of societies that had their own articles. With a number of sections already created, he threw open the floodgates and hung out an Under Construction sign.

I pitched in and wrote the UVA section. Others added too. In three days the basic article was complete in draft form, having gone through some fifty or so revisions by about 10 editors, and at least one good fight.

It’s a lot of fun to watch the process, and makes me think that a similar approach could work for other content, provided there are enough interested editors.