Using Wikis to Create Online Communities
“Web design” used to be thought of as something only attempted by people who had specific technological knowledge. These people were in control of our websites and, in many cases, the content of those websites. Over the past decade, different tools have been developed to level the playing field and to give almost anyone the ability to develop a web page. Even now, there is still often a single person who is in charge of adding content to the website. Thus, many websites only reflect the vision of one person or a small handful of people. Other people in an organization may have great ideas about how to improve the website, but they are not included in the decision-making process.
Wikis level the playing field even further, completely democratizing the process of designing a website. A wiki allows anyone the ability to take part in the creation and editing of web content. With its simplified text-formatting rules that anyone can easily learn, it truly puts experienced web designers and web novices on equal footing. In public libraries, where the technological skills of employees can range from high to non-existent, wikis can allow everyone the ability to develop the website. The resulting website would reflect the imagination and good ideas of the entire organization, not just a select few with the requisite “tech-savvy.”
The possibilities for what libraries can do with wikis are endless. At their least, they are spaces for quick and easy collaborative work. At their best, they can become true community resources that can position the library as a an online hub of their local community.
What in the world is a wiki?
Wikis have been around since the mid-1990s, but only recently has the general public become aware of their existence. This is due, in large part, to the growing popularity of the Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/, an encyclopedia created by the online community. In the Wikipedia, any individual is allowed to create, add to, or edit any entry. Some of the more popular Wikipedia entries have been edited hundreds of times by dozens of different people. A wiki allows a group of people to collaboratively develop website with no knowledge of HTML or other markup languages. These people may know each other or they may be complete strangers who are all working together to create and edit a website. Wiki, meaning quick in Hawaiian, was developed to allow for easy and fast collaborative development and editing of a website. Wikis usually start as a blank slate and are developed by the community of users who choose to participate. Anyone in the community can add to or edit anyone else’s writing. In theory, the final content should represent some sort of consensus within the community.
Some wikis are open to everyone. This can become problematic when spammers or malicious people vandalize entries, but they are usually quickly fixed by concerned members of the wiki community. The community enforces behavioral norms, so that it doesn’t become a free-for-all. It is self-organizing group behavior in action. Other wikis are open only to specific groups like librarians, software developers, or participants in a class. These are wikis that are used to fill a specific need, and that need is how to find a way to easily collaborate and share information. Wikis are often used for intranets, research spaces, collaborative projects, creating documentation, and editing texts. Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig actually put the contents of his book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace into a wiki [no longer available] to allow others to update the information for the next edition.
It can be difficult for people to get used to the idea of a website that anyone is allowed to add to or edit. The notion of private property is so deeply embedded in our society that it’s difficult to imagine going onto someone else’s website and changing things, even when they want us to. We’re accustomed to websites where someone is the final arbiter on what can or cannot go into it. With a wiki, everyone is the final arbiter. If I don’t like what someone put into the wiki, I can change it. And if someone don’t like what I wrote, they can make their own changes. The wiki will develop organically to reflect the interests and needs of the group who worked on it.
What can my library do with a wiki?
Wikis are a great way of collaboratively developing a website, but they are not suitable for every web-based project. While some websites might benefit from the insights of the community, others function better under tighter control. If you are looking to develop content that requires input from people outside of the library, a wiki is a the ideal tool to solicit that content. The following are just a few ideas for how wikis could be used in public libraries.
Librarians have been creating subject guides on the Internet since before there was a World Wide Web. With the many “hats” that most librarians have to wear in any given day, updating the subject guides may not be a priority. Subject guides can languish online with dead links to long-gone websites and without links to newer, more useful sites. This may be because the librarian doesn’t have the time to update them or because the librarian must give the updates to someone else who actually puts them on the Web.
A wiki is a great format for a subject guide. Because it can be edited by anyone, patrons can add to the collection of useful resources and can prune away the dead links. The librarian can moderate the wiki and decide what websites can stay in the guide, or he or she can let everyone contribute freely. It’s a great way to develop a subject guide that really represents the interests of its users and doesn’t put the entire burden of finding websites on the librarian. Even without asking for user input, a wiki allows librarians with little web-savvy to quickly and easily update the subject guide. Chad Boeninger, Business Librarian at Ohio University has created a Biz Wiki http://www.library.ohiou.edu/subjects/bizwiki/ so that he can more easily update his subject guides and so that students and faculty can add to his lists of useful links.
Annotating the catalog
Most library catalogs only contain the most basic information on books. They have the elements that go into a MARC record: title, subject(s), author, year published, etc. When patrons go into an online catalog, they probably won’t know if what they’ve found is the sort of book they’re looking for until they pull it off the shelf. When users go onto Amazon.com, they will find a book synopsis, cover art, and reviews from people who have already read the book. This extra content helps people to get a better sense of whether the book will meet their needs. Why can’t we do that same at libraries? Adding wiki functionality to the catalog would allow users to post synopses and reviews for books they’ve already read. We can capitalize on the reading experiences of our patrons in order to help them make informed reading decisions from the library catalog. Right now, OCLC is working on putting wiki functionality into Open WorldCat http://www.oclc.org/productworks/wcwiki.htm, so that people can add reviews to book entries. The results of this test case will give us some idea about the power of allowing users to annotate the catalog.
Many libraries have been working to make themselves a physical hub of the community. With community programming and useful workshops, libraries have attracted people to library who may otherwise have never visited. What about making the library’s website the online hub of the community? Libraries could create a community wiki that would be a one-stop-shop for community information. With the input of the entire community, it could become whatever the community needs it to be. Want to know who the best mechanic is for fixing old Toyotas? Check the automotive reviews on the wiki. Want to know when your child’s next Little League game is? Check the team information page the coach set up on the wiki. Want to find the spiciest Thai food in town? Read the member reviews in the restaurant section. Anyone could add new informative content. The library could team up with other local organizations to develop, maintain and add content to the wiki, but the bulk of the content will come from average member of the community. Opening up a community guide to the public allows a wealth of information to flow in that can make the library’s website a true community resource.
Wikis for Librarians
Wikis can also be used internally in libraries. In an average week, the number of emails that travel between colleagues in a library is astounding! When we’re working on a specific project with our colleagues, it can be difficult keep up with the flow of conversation in emails. We have to remember who to cc: on things and which ideas we have not yet responded to. Wikis are an excellent space for collaborative group work. All of the planning and communications can be documented in the wiki rather than in emails that can easily be deleted. Everyone can make changes to the wiki. If the group is working on a document, it can be edited in the wiki rather than having different versions of a word processing file going back and forth through email. It’s simply a better way of organizing the group’s efforts and keeping track of where everyone is in the process.
Libraries have increasingly been developing intranets for their staff where the administrators can more easily disseminate information. Making the intranet into a wiki allows both administrators and staff to easily add relevant news and other content. Are you sick of updating and printing out your large policy and reference manuals? Putting them into a wiki makes them accessible to all staff members and makes them easy to update on the fly. You don’t have to make every wiki document open to editing by all users of the wiki. Sometimes the purpose of a wiki’s page is just to make it easier for you to edit things.
Each year, there are dozens of library conferences taking place in various cities around the world. Oftentimes, the librarians attending these conferences have never been to the cities they are visiting. They may have a difficult time finding the best places to eat, stay, and visit on a limited budget. With a large conference like the ALA Annual Conference, new attendees may be overwhelmed by its size and not know how to make the most of their time. On the other hand, there are librarians who are experienced conference go-ers and there are librarians who live in the city where the conference is taking place. They have unique and useful knowledge that others would find tremendously useful. The question is: how do we hook these two groups up? The answer is: a wiki.
For the 2005 ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, I created a wiki to supplement the American Library Association’s conference information. After feeling completely lost at my first Annual Conference in Orlando, I knew there were people who would benefit from tips and advice on navigating Chicago and the Conference. Since I’m no expert myself, I called on the library community to help out. The result was the ALA Chicago 2005 Wiki http://meredith.wolfwater.com/wiki/. This wiki included restaurant reviews, a guide to wifi in Chicago, tips on getting around in Chicago, tips for conference go-ers, a list of unofficial and official conference events, people’s conference schedules, and much more. When I initially created the wiki, I had my own limited vision of what it could be, but other members of the community expanded it beyond my wildest dreams. Some people simply added a conference tip or the name of a restaurant they like, while other people added entire sections to the wiki. All of their contributions, no matter what their size, added up to a truly useful resource for people attending the conference.
All over the world, librarians are doing truly innovative things in their communities. Unfortunately, most librarians don’t document the things they do for the larger library community. This may be because they don’t think they’re doing anything revolutionary, but it may also be because they don’t feel like they have a place to easily share their ideas. A wiki can become a repository for the collective knowledge of the library community; a place where anyone can share their success stories, advice, and useful materials. I created the Library Success Wiki http://www.libsuccess.org to be a one-stop-shop for great ideas for librarians. If a librarian has done something at their library that they consider a success, they can write about it in the wiki. If they have materials or know of websites that would be helpful to other librarians, they can add that information to the wiki as well. The goal of the wiki is to help librarians replicate the successes of other libraries so that no one ever has to reinvent the wheel.
For WebJunction's Online Community focus this month, we've used the wiki to collect success stories about how libraries are developing online communities http://www.libsuccess.org/index.php?title=Online_Communities. Please feel free to stop by and add your own success stories!
These suggestions only represent a small portion of the possibilities for the use of wikis in libraries. Wikis can essentially be used for anything where collaboratively developed content or easy Web editing is desirable. Internally they can make it easier to share information among librarians. Externally, they can make the library’s website a true online community.
This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License