A new wiki: Klexikon, the Free Encyclopedia for Children

In Summer 2014 started a project for a new wiki, supported by Wikimedia Deutschland: Klexikon, the Free Encyclopedia for Children. Since December 1st, we are creating articles.

Klexikon_LogoAfter the journalist Michael Schulte proposed the wiki, and received funding, I became engaged with the project as a wiki consultant. The host for our wiki is ‘ZUM’, a German association of teachers who use wikis and open educational resources in their lessons.

The name “Klexikon” comes from the German words “Kinder” (children) and “Lexikon”, a common German expression for an encyclopedia. “Klex-” has also a funny pun because of the German word “Klecks”, a blot or splodge.

In general, the Klexikon is supposed to become a kind of Wikipedia:

  • It is based on the concept of Free Knowledge.
  • It’s a wiki, an instrument for collaboratively creating user-generated content.
  • It’s an encyclopedia, meaning a structured collection of a certain text sort.

Not (just) imitating Wikipedia

But there are also some important differences to Wikipedia. First of all, it is directed to children to the age of ca. six to twelve years. Writing for children means to make it absolutely comprehensible for this section of the population. A child-oriented writing has also to pay attention to the ‘Lebenswelt’, to the world in which children live. We cannot ignore all the negative things on our planet, but they should be presented in a way really suitable for children.

In some aspects, we want to have the Klexikon very different from Wikipedia – not necessarily because Wikipedia is something bad. But there is simply no need to imitate all of the Wikipedia content and structure. Articles about all members of the German parliament, all subway stations in Vienna or the entire flora and fauna of Switzerland: we have that already in Wikipedia. We also don’t try to recreate the whole Wikipedia category system in the Klexikon. Possibly, in future, Wikidata will help us with certain connections between pages and content.

What about existing childrens’ wikis?

Banner Klexikon
It’s time for a Free Childrens’ Encyclopedia. Help us to explore the world.

There are a number of wikis, outside the Wikimedia movement, that are occupied with a similar challenge. Many of them are ‘instructional wikis’, their primary goal is to teach something: pupils learn how to use a wiki, how to write a text, how to edit the texts of others. This is an important goal by itself. But it is not a suitable way to create quality content. After the class has used the wiki for some days or weeks, the young participants usually are not interested in improving the articles anymore.

Other wikis are content wikis indeed, they seriously work to create an encyclopedia for children. When we browse the articles of these wikis, we see a lot of extremely short articles. Many articles are hardly easier to understand than a usual Wikipedia article.

At the Klexikon, we are afraid that poor quality can make a bad impression on readers. They might not give us a second chance. A Klexikon article does not have to be perfect – but it shouldn’t be ‘unready’. It must be recognisable as a ‘real’ article. Therefore, we start articles in a name space called ‘Entwurf’ (draft). This takes speed from the article creating process and provides a space where you can make errors. When three collaborators deem a draft to be good enough, it is transferred to the article name space. Of course, the article can still be worked on later.

Also, those other wikis usually imitate Wikipedia in many ways. They are hardly easier to edit than Wikipedia, because they use more or less the same complicated wiki code. In the Klexikon, we allow only very few basic wiki code in the source code of the texts. This reduces the amount of what new collaborators have to learn.

Who is allowed to participate?

One of the first charts to explain how the Klexikon works.

Another challenge of Wikipedia and many other wikis is the technical openness for unregistered and new collaborators. Anyone is allowed to edit, even without registration. I call this a technical openness, because socially Wikipedia is actually very closed: the edits of newcomers are very likely to be reverted.

In the Klexikon, you can edit only with an account. You can ask the project leader Michael for an account, which will be your real name. This makes vandalism rather unlikely. We believe that much of the negative work climate on Wikipedia and other wikis relates to the fact that vandalizing and mobbing is made rather easy. We also intend to be not so forbearing with trolls and others who disturb the work climate.

In general, everybody can ask for an account. We find it unlikely that many children will participate (childrens’ books are written by adults, too). Now we gave an account to the first minor, only with the Christian name, and in contact with a parent. We expect that minors will be treated with an appropriate delicacy by other collaborators.

What is the progress of the Klexikon?

another klexikon bannerDuring November we more or less build up the wiki as such, with the help of the ZUM people such as Karl Kirst. Since December 1st, 2014, we have collaborators and articles, by now even more than a handful. We produce ca. ten articles a week, and hope that this will increase with more collaborators. Many, but not all of them, have a Wikipedia background.

Our phase of experimenting will end in March 2014. By then, we will be able to present to Wikimedia Deutschland a concept of a childrens’ encyclopedia, based on our experiences with the Klexikon.

And after that? Of course, we hope that the Klexikon will have a flourishing community working on a ever growing pile of drafts and articles. The community will decide how to go on. Our host is aware that this might include a migration to the Wikimedia movement.

But until then, the Klexikon means to us, above all: learning, learning, learning. What content is really suitable for children, how to we attract constantly new collaborators, e.g. teachers or parents without Wikipedia background? We will go on with approaching school classes and receive more feedback from actuall pupils, and want to improve ourselves as writers in real life meetings.

Do you speak German and want to join? That’s great! Please contact Michael via kontakt@klexikon.de

Wikipedia 48: revolutionary articles

Wikipedia 48
On October 9th, 2014, I uploaded 48 articles to German Wikipedia, about the Revolution of 1848/1849 in Germany. I explain my motives on my user page and on a historians’ blog, and here also in English.

In 1848, revolutionary events occurred in many parts of Western and Central Europe, most notably in France, Germany, Italy and then Imperial Austria. Of course, Wikipedia has a lot of articles about these events. The quality shows a huge variety; sometimes even central articles (such as Frankfurter Nationalversammlung, the German national assembly) were hardly improved over the past six or eight years. They reached a certain quality early, some are even marked as “exzellent”, and a real makeover seemed to be too much work.

After I left the board of Wikimedia Nederland, in March this year, I wanted to write more articles again. While working on the article about the provisional constitutional order of 1848, I made up my mind about what needs to be done and how I wanted to contribute.

Ships of the German Imperial Fleet (1848-1852). Though I am not much of a navalist, I felt obliged to consider also this most visible result of the Revolution.

Why not writing or rewriting 48 articles about the Revolution? After very long articles such as Erste Kammer der Generalstaten I had learned from feedback that at least some readers found them way too long to consume. It is much better to distribute the knowledge via several articles with more general and more specific ones. This enables the reader to choose how much he wants to read, how substantial the information has to be.

In a speech for this year’s Historikertag in Göttingen, the major German historians’ convention, I put this into a larger perspective: what makes knowledge readable, what is the specialty of a reference work such as Wikipedia, in contrast to a general overview monograph? A reference work should consist of rather small units that can be consulted quickly. Encyclopedists have, for centuries, complained about readers who read ‘too little’ and are happy with a ‘ready reference’, while the encyclopedists wanted to provide a ‘depth in knowledge’ (hence the names for the two large parts of the 1970s Encyclopaedia Britannica; hence the hostility of some Wikipedians when ‘readability’ is discussed).

In my “Wikipedia 48” project, for example, I decided to write “from the bottom to the top”. After having written rather specific articles such as ‘Basic Rights of the German People’, ‘Imperial Election Law’, or ‘Imperial Citizenship’, ‘Imperial Head of State discussion’, it was quite easy to write the overviewing article ‘Frankfurt Imperial Constitution’. All those specific topics could be dealt with in a couple of short paragraphs, in a summarizing manner. Who wants to read more about the Basic Rights or the Citizenship, can click on the related link. We already had this distinction between overviewing and specific articles in Wikipedia, of course, but I made this a conscious decision a priori, not a technique of shortening a long article afterwards.

I implemented the 48 articles (and some more, for context) on October 9th, the 25th anniversary of the Monday demonstrations in communist East Germany in 1989. I uploaded them together at the same time, because they contained many links to each other and I did not want ‘trigger happy colleagues’ to delink temporary red links. This worked fine with almost all articles with the exception of especially one case (the Revolution article itself): another Wikipedian has prevented ‘his’ article, though unreferenced, to be overwritten. A more positive reaction were the many edits from friendly Wikipedians who corrected wiki markup and typos in the articles’ source code.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1852: Window scene at the entrance of the Imperial Regent [in Frankfort, July 1848]
Reading and writing about the revolution era became a fascinating learning experience for myself. I thought of myself knowing German history of the 19th and 20th century rather well, but actually I did not remember much more than the National Assembly and the Imperial Constitution. Somewhere in the back of my head there was a shadow of an ‘Imperial Regent’ (Reichsverweser), but it never occured to me asking myself what Empire he might have been a part of.

I realized that we have a tremendous scholarly literature in German about the revolution era, but the overview works and text books provide only a very condensed version of what happened. Partially we still see a tendency to trivialize, even ridicule the Revolution and the revolutionaries, quite in line with the conservative propaganda of the 1850s. But the Revolution was not just ‘some political unrest’, the National Assembly was not a ‘talking shop of impractical professors’, the Constitution was not merely ‘a proposal that did not find enough support’, the National Assembly did not end because its members ‘lost interest’. Instead, the Revolution found a broad resonance in German society, it was crushed by force, and its legal (!) institutions were abolished unlawfully. The Constitution is still highly praised by modern law experts and sometimes even referred to by our German Constitutional Court.

There remains a lot to learn and to do about 19th century Germany.

See the list of the 48 articles on this Wikipedia user page.

Dutch ‘Internet journalist’ vs. ‘Internet specialist’

Today, the public Dutch televison dedicated some minutes to ‘The approaching downfall of Wikipedia’. The alarmist view was mirrored by the ‘Internet specialist’ they had interviewed, and enriched with more nuances by an ‘Internet journalist’. I’d actually like to know on what these titles are based on, especially with regard to the ‘specialist’ who said that Wikipedia has to stop unless every reader contributes three dollars.

But, well, what to expect from people who cry ‘The end is near!’…

WikiCon 2013 in Karlsruhe: rushing from session to session

My brave colleagues at the opening evening: Jan Schwefel and Gereon Kalkuhl (Photo: User:SchiDD, CC-BY-SA)

From 22 to 24 November 2013, the German-speaking Wikimedians were invited to South Germany’s minor metropole Karlsruhe. Under the denominator “WikiCon” people (finally) met offline, exchanged ideas, and left with a lot of tasks for the nearby future. Sue Gardner called Wikimania a place for practitioners, well, that’s exactly what WikiCon is all about. Seeing it, who could ever complain about a lack of cooperation between the Germanophone Wikimedia organizations?

A little more than 200 participants came together at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, with a surprisingly weak wi-fi. My contributions were an “Entzücklopädischer Abend”, a kind of late night show; a lecture about wiki theory (called “Popular myths about Wikipedia”, to attract some listeners); an introduction to the wiki:team session; and I have been asked to lead a discussion about the so-called “Botpedia”, the mass creation of Wikipedia articles with bots (automatic programmes).

Most memorable: the presentation of two KIT collaborators about academic writing for the technical student. Students of the sciences and mathematics don’t like writing or even reading, he KIT writing trainers said, and probably they have chosen those subjects so that they never have to write again. Then, when the final thesis approaches, they see themselves in big trouble. I learned about different writing styles in different disciplines and will try to keep that in mind when I meet a different taste in Wikipedia.

A team of volunteers has taken over the responsibility just a few months before, and we are all very grateful. We do ask to consider putting more time into the timetable of the next WikiCon to get from session to another.

Germans explaining wikis and Wikipedia: the wiki:team blog

In summer 2013, a group of Referenten (advisors, speakers) started the wiki:team. The origins are the Referenten network of Wikimedia Deutschland, established in 2010. The German association of the Wikimedia movement decided in early 2013 not to go on with the original concept but to support in a suitable way an independent group of Referenten.

If you represent an educational institution, say, a school or university or study association, you can hire a speaker or lecturer or trainer who explains about wikis, Wikipedia or media literacy.

And since December, the wiki:team has also a blog. We want to tell about our work and give some advice about our subjects.