Sunday, June 10, 2007

Will your Wiki Work?

The readings for this week were very informative about all aspects surrounding the wiki—its history, the various softwares supporting wikis, the options for a wiki hosted on the Web or one that is installed and customized, the many applications of wikis in the library, and the best contexts in which a wiki will work. The authors were full of practial tips and advice that made a lot of sense to me. The wiki has been through a period of experimentation, and the contexts in which a wiki will and will not work are much clearer.

Wikipedia is not a good example to follow for wiki developers, especially not for those in libraries. I read with fascination Schiff’s article about the development of Wikipedia from a utopian online community devoted to the common good who could work collaboratively and produce an encyclopedia of unprecedented range, and led to increased regulations being necessary as a result of increasing problems, with more and more effort being spent on deleting and adding changes, dealing with vandalism, abuse, and pettiness of changes back and forth, so that so that the proportion of articles is decreasing. Although extensive, and easy to use and to edit, Wikipedia is not necessarily accurate. This is not a goal for libraries to aspire to either. Many of Wikipedia’s problems stem from its scale. I am interested that the somewhat disillusioned founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, concluded that “things work well when a group of people know each other”.

From what I have read and observed, I can see Fichter’s comment is very relevant: “Wikis work best in organizational cultures in which there is a high level of trust and control can be delegated to the users of the system.” In other words, wikis are not going to succeed in a vast context, where they fall victim to the abuses of Wikipedia, but rather in a stable context where people know and respect each other. Wikis are a tool with many advantages, but should not, as Farkas discusses, be used just because you want to have the experience of using one, but rather to serve a need. Kille describes wikis as a centralized repository of knowledge, with the hyperlinks connecting relevant pages and linking to related external sources as well. What a wiki should do for you can be achieved under controlled circumstances:

  • allow collaboration beyond the barriers of time and place.
  • improve efficiency, accuracy, and consistency of information
  • facilitate rapid transfer of information

Used under controlled circumstances, wikis have many used for knowledge management, with many applications for libraries: they can enhance the planning stages of meetings and projects, can be a source of information for a group (e.g., intranet, email lists), can organize information for easy retrievability in the context of reference services, and can be records of stages in the development of a project (through the editing history).

Despite what many authors say about wikis being quick and easy, in order for them to be accurate, they must be carefully done. For example, for the development of a significant repository of information for use in reference services, many staff hours, by one or many people, will be needed. Is it realistic to think that libraries have the extra staff time to prepare these wikis? In this context, I think wikis are another example of an effort-saving tool actually producing more work and higher expectations.

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