This weekend marks the conclusion of one of my classes this semester at Dominican University’s GSLIS. Internet Fundamentals & Design traces the history of the Net, features some simple Web page coding, and covers a whole lot of Web 2.0 exploration, including group presentations on how to implement new technologies in libraries. Yes, group projects, the bane of college students everywhere, are part of the course as well. Heck, we work in groups in libraries, we might as well get folks used to it in library school.
What’s struck me in the last few semesters I’ve been teaching is how technology can take some of the bother out of group work. In fact, it offers not only the experience with a new tool but it can also be fun to see your work immediately published online. Specifically, more and more of my students launch wikis to track their projects. It’s the ultimate virtual sandbox. In fact, you might find you’d like to add a wiki to your own online Web 2.0 playground.
Wait, What’s a Wiki Again?
Wiki software is simply a tool that does all of the dirty work of building Web pages, and it can be edited by anyone with access to the software via a Web interface. “Anyone” could be just you, your working group, or the world at large. Wikis allow for collaboration and a way to track the various changes on wild-generated pages. Librarians can use simple wiki software to edit documents, create Web sites, and share data. No more emailing a document back and forth or using the dreaded, I-never-liked-it-never-will “track changes” option in Word.
There’s a caveat here though. Blogger sites and blog software are rather straightforward to configure and use. So are sites I’ve written about like Flickr or tools we’ve featured in other columns such as instant messaging. Wikis, however, require a bit more know-how and have a slightly steeper learning curve. In our Social Tools & Libraries Road Show, Jenny Levine tells the crowd that she can’t wait to see the next incarnation of wiki software: easy, intuitive, and fluid, like an ultra-deluxe WYSIWYG interface. That certainly will make group work, in library school or in the trenches, even easier.
For now, though, we have some wild tools that can be very useful for projects. Ponder your goal–do you have some group work to do? A policy manual rewrite? A knowledgebase for the library system? Training documents? Do you want to build any type of shared resource with a group of librarians? If so, a wiki may be the perfect solution. Here are some tips for making the most of the wild, wild wiki.
Get in the Sandbox
If you’re not ready to install the popular open source Mediawiki on your library server, that’s fine! Look to a hosted option first. You can find wiki software hosted at various Web sites. A hosted wild solution can be configured and running in minutes. Two popular hosted wiki sites are PBwiki and seedwiki.
Making a simple wiki is really a snap, especially if you devote just a bit of time to getting your hands dirty in the sandbox. For example, at PBwiki I was able to create the “Tech Tips for Every Librarian Wiki” by just entering a name for the wiki and providing my email address. Within minutes, I received a click-through email and full privileges to edit my wiki. While I waited, I enjoyed a brief video about PBwiki and its features hosted by the PBwiki intern Jim.
Editing a wiki involves using a set of commands, such as brackets and asterisks, to make things happen on a page or using a set of WYSIWYG tools instead. PBwiki offers the most WYSIWYG features in Firefox or Internet Explorer. You do not have to have a command of HTML or CSS to create snazzy pages in a wiki environment. For example, two asterisks around some text makes that text bold. Quotation marks format text in italics. The style guide at http://yummy.pbwiki.com/Wiki Style explains everything from numbered lists to creating tables.
Links are easy as well. The style pages offer a few ways to make links, including just pasting in the URLs you want to be links or just using  brackets and |, like [http://pbwiki.com/| PB wiki] to get PBwiki.
The sidebar section is edited independently and can feature links and other information you’d like to display on all of your wiki pages. Images are inserted through a simple upload process. Clicking on the image in the side menu of the Edit screen inserts the image wherever your cursor happens to be. See the illustration above for the page I made in about 10 minutes of playing with my new wiki.
Check Out What the Other Kids Are Doing
Wikis usually come with some features that allow users to see who has done what on the wiki. For example, in PBwiki, by accessing a list of changes, you’ll find details of every change that’s been made to a particular page and who made it and when!
In the Settings area of PBwiki, you’ll also find useful tools for backing up, changing the “skins” (the templates) of your wild, gathering site statistics, sending notifications for email updates, publicizing your wiki, and more. seedwiki also offers a tagging feature for users. Commenting is also available to create conversation around your wild pages,
Here are a few more tips to help you implement off-site wikis in your library or information center:
Practice first and make it fun! Remember that focus on “experience and play” you may have heard about at conferences and on biblioblogs as well as in Brenda Hough’s CIL article in May 2006? Make your training and practice fun. One excellent suggestion I heard while working with librarians in Minnesota is to start a staff wiki first for practice and have each staff member build a page to share a favorite recipe. Staff will be engaged, get some new ideas for dinnertime, and realize they can edit a wild.
Give it some structure. Before you open it up for all of the folks who’ll be editing and creating on the wild, build in some basic structure if possible–general categories, the briefest of outlines, or a loose guide. Then let people in to play and allow them to fill in the blanks and to enhance the structure.
Or if you’re building a how-to guide, spend some time creating the pages and inserting images, and try it out on some staff members for their feedback. Then launch your new resource and invite comments and conversation.
Don’t even tell them it’s a wiki! Recently, I discovered the “New Phone Training” wild from the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Ind. A well-designed instruction tool, the wiki features an FAQ, a undoubtedly useful guide to setting up and retrieving voicemail, and pages devoted to every aspect of the new phone. My favorite part? On the front page, there’s a note from the creators:
Don’t be scared of the word “wiki” –this is just a Web page …
How true! We’re just talking about tools–tools that make creating Web pages, editing documents, or building new library resources a snap once you master the commands and techniques. Curious? Try a hosted wiki solution and see what this type of playground can do for you, your workgroup, and your library!
Allen County Public Library Phone Wiki: http://askacpl.pbwiki.com
This article originally appeared in Computers in Libraries magazine February 2007, published by Information Today Inc.