Web 2.0: Wikis: Knowledge Is Only A Click Away

Note: This post was created for a graduate level class at the University of Alberta: EDES 501 Web 2.0 for Libraries.

Come on, admit it - you've used Wikipedia as a resource for your school assignments, even though your professors told you not to. Feeling guilty yet? Keep reading...

What are 'wikis'?
Wikipedia defines a wiki as "a website that uses wiki software, allowing the easy creation and editing of any number of interlinked Web pages, using a simplified markup language or a WYSIWYG text editor, within the browser." Wikis have become popular tools for a wide variety of users, mostly due to their collaborative nature. The strength of a wiki is determined by the quantity and quality of user participation and involvement (Boeninger 2007).

Wikis have numerous positive attributes. They can be accessed anywhere, as they reside on the world wide web as opposed to certain computers. As they are easily organized in categories, they provide a completely searchable knowledge base. Most importantly, they allow for group collaboration that transcends geographic location. Anyone can easily add or edit content, and everyone can access the history of the changes made as well as the historical versions of the pages. Boeninger (2007) notes there is no need for advanced html coding skills. Photos can be added, and an extensive system of cross linking is usually employed. The appeal of wikis resides in the fact they have simple interfaces, and allow for immediate changes which thus makes the information present very current.

The world's most popular free online reference tool, Wikipedia was created in 2001. It currently contains almost 3 million articles in English, and is available in 266 other languages, including Wikipedia in Simple English. The Wikipedia Statistics page indicates the English site gets over 7 million hits per hour! It is easily searchable and is more often than not a front page search hit in Google.

To create a wiki, programs or software is required. There are numerous products available, some are free and some are not. Of course Wikipedia also has a page devoted to a list of wiki software. Software may be self-hosted, which gives the user group greater control and customization capabilities, but also requires some technical knowledge to set up and maintain. Self-hosted wikis also require user input to fix problems and require server storage. The other type of wikis available are known as wiki farms. These are online services that offer users less control, but are easier to maintain and do not require hosting.

Satterfield (2006) describes three types of wikis:
  1. public wikis - all content and editing privileges are open to all (eg Wikipedia)
  2. private wikis - all content and editing privileges are only open to a certain user community (eg. internal communication wikis which operate as intranets)
  3. protected wikis - all content can viewed by everyone, but only certain users have editing privileges (eg. a library's subject guide wiki)
Regardless of the type or service, there is no denying wikis are useful tool that employ the web 2.0 staple element of community participation.

My Experiences
I created and collaborated on numerous wiki pages as part of a project for two MLIS class assignments last fall. While I agree with Boeninger (2007) that no advanced html coding skills are necessary, there certainly is a steep learning curve when it comes to wiki mark up language. I had to print out and use a guide produced by the professor in order to format headings, links and other differences in presentation. I suppose if one works with a program for a certain amount of time, one learns the language, but I found it very challenging to remember the mark up language at the time. Another problem I had with the group wiki project was maintaining formatting consistency between my content and the content from my group members. Creating the content is one thing, formating it correctly to match with other contributions is another.

In total, my group put in over 50 hours of work on over two dozen pages about Interlibrary Loan technology, which was then combined with other group' content to create a fully linked and integrated library technology wiki (it is a private wiki though, and cannot be linked here). Here is a screen shot of a 1500 word article I created, formatted and cross linked for our project:

Thus while I did find wikis easy to use, I also found it necessary to learn about formating and mark up. As such, I think blogs are easier to contribute to as they require less mark up. However, I do not deny wikis are a powerful collaborative tool. I also do not deny that despite its downfalls, Wikipedia is a powerful resource and I thought it might be time for me to try contributing to it.

Taking a cue from my class wiki experience, the first thing I did before contributing to Wikipedia was carefully read the page about how to edit a page, which gave an excellent explanation of wiki markup, and the edit toolbar legend page which described the functions of the toolbar icons. Though a lot of this was too complicated and would end up being rather unnecessary for my minor edit, it gave me a good background to editing etiquette as well as the steps necessary to contribute to the knowledge base.
I then wasted a ton of time looking for a Wikipedia page that might need a simple edit, as even though I knew a bit more about the mark up, I did not want to take on a major content edit for my first Wikipedia experience. As is often the case with Wikipedia, I got lost in trails of cross links. After combing through pages on my local area, library stuff, and pages relating to my hobbies, I finally found a page that had a picture description without a picture. I clicked the 'edit this page' tab, and immediately noticed a prompt box which encouraged me to read the rules for editing biographies of living people, as well as a box asking me to log in so my IP could be concealed. The boxes also said tests could be done in the 'sandbox' test page. I thought this was an interesting idea, and spent some time playing in the sandbox, editing the wiki markup.

I eventually returned to my edit page, and noticed the area with the mistake right away, even though the edit box is cluttered with markup code. I also noticed that the picture had been tagged as missing, so I did not hesitate to delete the description that was meant to go along with it. I made sure to write a description for my edit, previewed it, and then saved it, as per the etiquette instruction I read previously on Wikipedia. The new page now makes more sense and you cannot even tell a picture was meant to be in a certain space (which I have also narrowed since taking these screenshots). I checked the history page to see my edit, and was honestly pretty proud of my accomplishment. Though it was only a minor edit, I finally contributed to the monster resource that is Wikipedia.

It was quite a simple process actually. I can see the appeal of contributing to the Wikipedia community. It gives one a sense of importance and I would not hesitate to sign up and edit more pages in the future. I like researching topics that interest me, and I am compulsive about spelling, grammar and accuracy, so I can see myself using my librarian skills to help out the Wikipedia knowledge base in the future.

Uses in Libraries
Wikis can be used by libraries as content and knowledge management tools for:
I have viewed the building wiki on the intranet of one of the libraries I work for. Reading it was essential, as it gave me the knowledge necessary to impart on patrons later at the service desk. Once changes were made to the facility, it was easily updated, and in this way all staff members were kept informed. Thus there are numerous ways libraries could take advantage of this collaborative technology.

Issues and Implementation
One issue with wikis is content copyright. If numerous people contribute, who actually owns the content? It is easy to find other websites that have simple copy and pasted wikipedia content onto their own site for their own purposes. Wikipedia operates with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License for all text. This means users may share or adapt the text only if attribution is given or if the new text remains under the same license. As per usual with all online content, if a library wishes to create a public wiki, copyright licensing must be considered.

Wikipedia is under constant scrutiny due to its public nature and open editing capabilities. Critics cite spamming and malicious editing as problems, since users may twist the content to their own purposes. Since Wikipedia is used heavily by students for researching, libraries need to teach patrons information literacy skills so that patrons can evaluate its content and use other sources to verify the information presented within its articles.

Pressley & McCallum (2008) suggest librarians should be involved as content providers and editors on Wikipedia to create and maintain a more scholarly environment. Librarians may participate individually on a personal level, or in defined and visible editing groups. However, Pressley & McCallum (2008) also stress a librarians must follow Wikipedia's rules and provide tips for how to do so effectively. An example of librarians participating as a defined group within Wikipedia is the University of Washington Libraries Digital Initiative. They actually saw their own library website statistics jump once their presence and content was made known to the Wikipedia community (Lally & Dunford, 2007). This type of model could also reach new or reluctant library users and extend the library's special collections beyond the local library community.

Since wikis are just one tool of many that facilitate online collaboration and information sharing (Fichter, 2006), libraries need to evaluate their proposed use carefully. Boeninger (2007) stresses librarians must determine if a wiki is needed by a community before spending the time and effort to create them. As with all web 2.0 technology, including certain programs within your library should only be done if your community wants, needs and would benefit from its implementation.

If a wiki is deemed necessary, Glogowski, & Steiner (2008) suggest numerous necessary steps to take. First, all of the software options should be analyzed and compared against community needs before a wiki program is chosen. Once a service is choses, staff training sessions are needed to increase proficiency and comfort with the particular service. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, right from the inception the wiki should have a set of guidelines and regarding naming conventions, appropriate content, format and organization. Using a template, or even just agreeing on such rules would have made my class wiki project run more smoothly. Crawford (2009) adds that if a wiki is to be effective, library staff must maintain and update it regularly so that it may be an effective tool as opposed to a web 2.0 novelty.

I think wikis are a wonderful and infinitely useful web 2.0 technology. They are relatively easy to create (once you learn the mark up language!) and can greatly benefit a user population. I would not hesitate to contribute to or establish a wiki for my library.

What do you think? Would you be willing to learn wiki markup language? Is it worth the effort?

Boeninger, Chad F. (2007) "The wonderful world of wikis: Applications for librarie." In Nancy Courtney (Ed.), Library 2.0 and Beyond: Innovative Technologies and Tomorrow's User, (pp.25-33). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Clark, C., & Mason, E. (2008). A Wiki Way of Working. Internet Reference Services Quarterly, 13(1), 113-132.
Crawford, Walton. (2009). Shiny toys or useful tools. Cites & Insights 9(3), 1-9.
Fichter, Darlene. (2006). Using wikis to support online collaboration in libraries. Information Outlook 10(1), 30-31.
Glogowski, J., & Steiner, S. (2008). The Life of a Wiki: How Georgia State University Library's Wiki Enhances Content Currency and Employee Collaboration. Internet Reference Services Quarterly, 13(1), 87-98.
Lally, Ann M., & Dunford, Carolyn E. (2007). Using wikipedia to extend digital collections. D-Lib Magazine 13(5/6)
Pressley, L. & McCallum, C. (2008). Putting the library in Wikipedia. Online. 32(5).
Satterfield, B. (2006). Exploring the world of wikis: Collaborative web sites organize information, encourage participation. Tech Soup http://www.techsoup.org/learningcenter/webbuilding/page5511.cfm?cg=searchterms&sg=wiki
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