Meet Lodewijk Gelauff: Wikimedian of the Year 2021 20th Year Honouree winner

(ZMcCune (WMF) CC BY-SA 4.0)

This year’s seven Wikimedian of the Year award winners were announced today at the 2021 virtual Wikimania convening. Read the interview below with Lodewijk Gelauff, recipient of the 20th Year Honouree Award. 

Lodewijk Gelauff is a community organizer and innovator and has been a Wikipedia editor since 2005. He is a prolific contributor, a mentor to many Wikimedians, and a volunteer for several community groups and efforts. Lodewijk is one of the initiators of Wiki Loves Monuments, the annual Wikipedia photo contest around cultural heritage, and has led this project for a decade.

Wiki Loves Monuments, ranked as the world’s largest photography competition, was born from a successful 2010 pilot by Wikimedia Netherlands, which resulted in 12,500 freely licensed images of monuments that can now be used on Wikipedia by anybody for any purpose. 

Since then, Wiki Loves Monuments has helped to collect information on 1.5 million monuments from 76 national competitions, with more than 1.7 million pictures submitted by over 60,000 participants, adding to the sum of all human knowledge gathered on Wikimedia projects. Since the pilot, Lodewijk has served on the Wiki Loves Monuments international committee for over a decade.

“I contribute to Wikimedia because of the excitement to learn something new every day, while creating an opportunity to share it with the rest of the world. What else could you wish for when spending your free time?”

Additionally, Lodewijk was one of the three Wikipedians to accept the 2015 Erasmus Prize from the King of the Netherlands on behalf of the Wikipedia Community. He is a PhD Candidate at Stanford University in Management Science & Engineering.

An initiative started in 2021, the year of Wikipedia’s 20th birthday, the Wikimedian of the Year  20th Year Honouree award celebrates a Wikimedian who has been a part of our movement since the early years and has been a significant force in growing our global communities. 

Lodewijk gets the surprise call from Jimmy Wales

This recognition is one of seven awards made this year to celebrate contributors who have made an exceptional impact on our movement. The awards were announced at this year’s virtual Wikimania celebration by Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales (watch the announcement!). 

“I am thrilled with this opportunity to celebrate Lodewijk, an early contributor within the movement. By creating the first-ever Wiki Loves competition, he not only built the world’s largest photo competition; he also built a creative way to introduce new people to the movement, from heritage enthusiasts to hobbyists. Throughout his leadership in our movement, Lodewijk is continually recognized for his expertise organizing communities, his thoughtful consideration of movement issues, and his role championing local communities and increased participation in free knowledge.”

– Jimmy Wales

We spoke with Lodewijk to learn more about his experiences and perspectives on the Wikimedia movement. Here are some highlights: 

Q: How does recording monuments help sustain and build awareness about a country’s heritage?

“In Dutch we have the expression ‘unknown makes unloved’ (onbekend maakt onbemind), which I think is true for so many historic buildings. If we can’t find a picture of something, it feels like it doesn’t exist. Day in and day out, heritage gets demolished — sometimes intentionally, but often also unintentionally. Photographing them is a small step in the documentation process, but also in making the knowledge about these sites accessible to a broader audience. 

In some countries, there is a struggle to maintain or even recognize a rich cultural history. I’m impressed by the work done by our local colleagues to better document and recognize cultural history. Take for example the exemplary work done by our friends in South Africa, in a struggle to lift copyright-based restrictions on photographing sites in their cultural heritage. These restrictions were making it impossible to legally photograph more recent (and hence diverse) heritage.

Q: What’s your favourite monument that you have seen?
I especially enjoy the expanding coverage of the buildings that may be less exciting by themselves, but are valuable as a set. For individual photos, I’m always charmed by context and a good story. For example, this photo of the Teapot Dome Service Station as a reminder of the Teapot Dome scandal from the 1920s (4th prize 2017 in the US). Maybe the most memorable is this photo of the Trinity Cathedral in St. Petersburg on fire, a stark reminder that we can never take our heritage for granted. But sometimes, it is the unknown heritage that just takes your breath away. I have been a secret admirer of some of the more gloomy ‘forgotten heritage’ pictures that participants have posted, like this church in Stawiszyn, Poland.

Interior of the closed Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Stawiszyn (Marian Naworski CC BY-SA 4.0)

Q: Can you share a favorite memory from your time contributing to Wikimedia?

“It’s hard to pick a single memory. Let me give you two. For almost any Wikipedian, it is probably their first edit that is a great memory. I just finalized a thesis in high school and did a lot of research on galvanization. It felt so great to be able to share the result of that work with other people, rather than let it collect dust in some drawer. 

My second memory is when we were organizing the first edition of Wiki Loves Monuments in 2010 in the Netherlands, and all the positive responses it received around the world. We quickly realized that we had a concept that could scale. It was already the next year that we managed to break the Guinness World Record for Largest Photography Competition, with organizers and participants from 18 countries. We would easily break this record again in 2012, and still hold it.”

“Nothing is as encouraging as when you see someone’s face light up when they realize that yes, they are really invited to participate, to contribute.”

Q: How have you seen the movement evolve since you first got involved?

“I started editing in 2005, and that was probably also the last year that I would hear “wiki-what?” when I told people how I liked to spend my spare time. We look back at these days as the early days, with only 100,000 articles in Dutch. But if you really think about that, this was already an amazing accomplishment. The driving motivation has remained the same: we like to share knowledge, and figure out how things fit together. 

Two things have changed dramatically within our community: we rely more and more on explicitly referenced sources, making it harder for new contributors to participate, but at the same time making it maybe easier to keep improving the quality. The second thing is that we better recognize our own faults. We understand better what kind of content is consistently under-represented, and how our community is in many ways not diverse enough to really describe the sum of all human knowledge. We’re making attempts to chip away at the content gaps that we observe, but have so much work left to do.”

Q:  What role do these campaigns play in attracting more newcomers to the Wikimedia movement?

“The majority of participants in our national competitions never contributed to any of our projects before. For some, this is their first encounter with the free knowledge movement, and maybe the first time they realize that if they contribute something, it can actually change Wikipedia, that website that they use so frequently. 

Nothing is as encouraging as when you see someone’s face light up when they realize that yes, they are really invited to participate, to contribute. But at the same time, we also see that Wiki Loves Monuments can be a catalyst for local communities to organize themselves, and take it up as one of their first structured activities. These new contributors, or their local heritage partners can even help out in organizing the competition. This is all possible because we try to keep the concept as simple and structured as we can: it is very clear what to photograph, and why we care about it. There is no question about its relevance, and how you can help. Find a heritage site, photograph it and upload it. It’s that simple. If you get excited, you can help document it further.”

“We understand better what kind of content is consistently under-represented… We’re making attempts to chip away at the content gaps that we observe, but have so much work left to do .”

Q: What motivates you to contribute to Wikimedia projects?

“The excitement to learn something new every day, while creating an opportunity to share it with the rest of the world. And on top of that, I get to collaborate with a ton of people that share this same excitement. What else could you wish for when spending your free time?”


Congratulations, Lodewijk!

About the 2021 Wikimedian of the Year Awards

The Wikimedian of the Year is an annual award that honours contributors to Wikimedia projects, including Wikipedia editors, to highlight major achievements within the Wikimedia movement in the previous year. The tradition dates back to 2011 and has evolved since then in dynamic ways to welcome and celebrate Wikimedians from different backgrounds and experiences. This year’s celebration is bigger and more inclusive than ever before, recognizing seven exceptional contributors to the Wikimedia movement in six categories, including Newcomer of the Year, 20th Year Honouree, Rich Media and Tech contributors, and Honourable Mentions, as well as the Wikimedian of the Year. 

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.