What Wikipedia Learned from Making Arabic Book Grants

Wikipedia recently attempted to distribute books to Arabic-writing encyclopaedists across the region:

The grants are an attempt to expand the content of the Arabic-language wikis and certainly seem like a good idea. As Siko Bouterse writes:

We wanted to make grants that the community would find useful, so we asked them in a consultation, what kinds of small resources do you need? “Books!” was the primary answer we got, so we focused the pilot in that direction.

They decided to focus efforts around two community coordinators:

Their community-coordinator model appeared to offer a scalable way for distributing small resources to many editors, and they were looking for new ways to expand beyond serving the needs of English Wikipedians. Partnering on an Arabic pilot was a natural fit.

The first problem was figuring out how to transfer funds. Indeed, they conclude that “Moving money to individuals globally is even harder than could reasonably be expected.” They wanted to go with pre-paid cards, but “we weren’t able to find a card that WMF [organizers] could purchase in the US for use by coordinators internationally.” In the end, they went with bank wire transfers.

They then launched a template, through which volunteers could make book requests of the local coordinators. Ideally, this was supposed to track which books they wanted, when they received them, and how they used them. It wasn’t a particularly big project:

Over the four months that the program was running, we purchased 14 books out of 19 that were requested. We shipped books to Spain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Tunisia.

Their biggest challenge by far? Shipping. Forget Amazon, and “It has been difficult to get booksellers (even regional ones) to ship books from the country where the book is stocked to many of the countries where Arabic Wikipedians have requested them.”

Further: “We failed to have books shipped to Palestine, Jordan, Morocco, and in one case Egypt.”

And this is just infrastructural issues for shipping of single books. Censorship of imported books — such as the recent Egyptian confiscation of books coming in from Lebanon — is a complicating factor they didn’t face. Shipping was apparently enough trauma for them:

Trouble with shipping a significant portion of requests made us hesitant to broadcast signups more widely. As a result, we fell short of our target of having 40 books successfully purchased, shipped, and used to improve or create new encyclopedia content during this pilot.

They’re also not sure how many people actually got their books. Well, two of them they’re sure of, but beyond that, no. Of course, it’s possible that the books might arrive many months later, and that they were hoping for too much speediness from the public post.

In the end, it seems that they’ve decided to give up: “The Wikipedia Library remains on Arabic Wikipedia, but we’re taking focus off making book requests work.  Editors can still request books for the time being, and if they’re easy to send we’ll still ship them, but the Arabic coordinators are resetting expectations to clarify that not all requests can be met, and we’re not going to waste more volunteer time on complicated workarounds or invest further in solving these issues.”

When Arabic ebooks are more widely available, hopefully these issues will be something we can all laugh about.

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