Learn More: Wikis

[This is one in a series of self-paced discovery exercises for library staff venturing into the social web.]

If you gather a committee, write a draft document, and solicit feedback, you might receive scores of revisions in email and on paper. Compiling all those changes back into a single coherent document could be a long and tedious task. On the other hand, you could create a wiki. That would enable everyone to work on the same collaborative document and compile changes on the fly. A wiki is basically a read/write website open to anyone with permissions.

Wiki is a Hawaiian word meaning “quick”. Ward Cunningham, who developed the wiki concept in the mid-1990s, named his WikiWikiWeb program after the “wiki wiki” shuttle bus he encountered at the Honolulu Airport. It seemed the perfect name for a web platform intended to give users quick access to editing tools.

The largest and most famous wiki, of course, is Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia, where thousands of contributors have complied a global encyclopedia with more than 2 million English language articles (and even more than that number in other languages). Most other encyclopedias publish articles written and vetted by experts; Wikipedia entries are created and edited by anyone volunteering the time and effort. Accounts aren’t even required! Readers add information, correct typographical and grammatical errors, and contribute to a worldwide public-review process that is much faster than traditional peer-reviewed documents.

Meaning for libraries

Here are three ideas for libraries to consider.

  • Accuracy. Information in a wiki is mostly accurate, but who knows? How’s that for a ringing endorsement? Wikipedia, the largest of all wikis, has been studied* and found to be reasonably accurate. It might not be peer-reviewed by recognized authorities, but it is read and continually re-edited by thousands of people. There is vandalism, to be sure, but most people don’t make changes unless they are confident of their facts and they are more likely to contribute good information than bad.
    My opinion: A site like Wikipedia is a reasonable place to begin a search. You can pick up a few facts and grasp an understanding of a subject. However, it probably isn’t the best place to end a search. Don’t prohibit its use as a resource, but encourage people to supplement it with other sources.
  • Collaboration. Libraries increasingly use wikis within the profession.
    • Wikis created by the international library community provide ample room for collaboration toward common goals.
    • Library conferences have begun providing wikis. Planners, speakers, and attendees compile information and experiences without the need or delay of editors.
    • Intranet-based wikis may be helpful within an organization. University libraries have been active in this regard. I recently began a manual-writing project on an internal wiki open to supervisors at my public library. Such wikis can foster the participation of many people without the usual drag of long committee meetings.
  • Patrons. Wikis can be created for library patrons. Bookclubs and teen programs might help construct and/or benefit from them. A “Community Places” section seems custom-made for residents who know their area better than anyone. A wiki can give them a venue for sharing their knowledge with others.

Learn more by participating

Nothing demonstrates the concept of a wiki better than just diving in. Here are a few explorations I’d encourage you to try this week.

  • Go to Wikipedia and search a few topics that are near & dear to you. Topics might include a town or a hobby you know well.
  • Read over each article. Look at the organization and note the writing style. This article was probably not written by a single person. Several people likely compiled it over months or years.
  • Click the “History” tab to see past activity on the page.
  • Click the “Edit this page” tab to open the page’s editing functions.
  • Browse the source code to familiarize yourself with the text and format code of this particular wiki. Wikipedia was built on MediaWiki software. Other wiki platforms may use a different mark-up language.
  • If you honestly have something to contribute, edit or add to the page and save it. That’s how wikis evolve: one reader/writer at a time.

  • Bonus: If you or your library are interested in creating your own wiki, there are many software types available. Shop around for the best fit. Some services charge, others are free; some are open to public view, others are private; some host pages for you, others allow software downloads to your server. Here are three examples: MediaWiki, PBWiki , WetPaint.

Collaboration. Participation. It’s all part of the social web.


* most famously by Nature magazine, Dec. 15, 2005.

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2 Responses to Learn More: Wikis

  1. [...] Learn More: Wikis: Steve Campion’s self-paced instructional guide [...]

  2. [...] up on some listservs I’ve been reading.  Those comments, along with Steve Campion’s contemplations on the subject have led me to change my stand.  I don’t believe students (we are talking [...]

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