Congratulations : ye have overcome the wiki one*

Task 19 of the 23 Things program requires me to put a photo of my pet on the library staff wiki. My lilac Burmese cat Lily is already there, in excellent company with 77 other pets:

Lily

I regret that this was quite a difficult task for those who don’t have pets, those who have recently lost their pets, and those who struggle with the wiki software.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the origin of the wiki; my colleague Dana gives an excellent linguistic rundown on her post so I’ll save myself the time. But I think I’ve made it clear in a previous post that I like the idea of wikis as a means of keeping as much of our corporate work accessible, transparent and current as possible.

There are many reasons why wikis are better than intranets in our setting. For starters, intranets tend to be a top-down method of communication where senior levels of management deposit policy documents and statements to trickle down to their underlings. There is usually little or no encouragement for contributions from further down the food chain. That’s not how we want communicate in a library. Libraries are spaces for learning, creativity and collaboration at all levels of scholarship; that should include the library staff.

Secondly, intranets are usually maintained by a single administrator who uses complex HTML and stylesheets to build pages. While our web managers are quite capable of running a system like that, it defeats the purpose of a horizontal communication tool if we have to email them every time we want to make a change. Documents on intranets tend to go out of date very quickly and become redundant when an administrator has to see to other tasks; staff members are unlikely to pay attention to an internal method of communication if it’s perceived to be constantly out-of-date.

Many of my colleagues seem to have found using the staff wiki quite stressful. I agree with Dana that remembering the special wiki markup language is actually very difficult for those schooled in the HTML encoding used in websites; it’s like learning Dutch after learning German — the languages are similar on the surface, but sometimes their similarity is actively misleading.

For me, learning to use our Swinburne Library MediaWiki software has been a process of trial and error (lots of errors and quite a trial at times). I’d never used a wiki before June last year, but I found many of the help manuals on Wikipedia very useful for both basic and more advanced skills.

Library staff will have noticed that it’s particularly difficult to upload documents to a wiki. This is because wikis can’t really compute the concept of a word processed document; the software makes the assumption (whether good or bad) that if you’re adding textual content, you’ll do it in wiki markup. Uploading images is not an easy task, either.

I was disappointed that my idealistic viewpoint on democratic flows of information is hampered by my pedantry. I found it difficult to search for specific pages on the wiki; no matter which keywords I used, I often couldn’t find the page I was looking for. So I made a decision to introduce categories to our wiki, so that it’s easier to browse by topic, unit or campus for pages of interest. Every time someone adds a page to the wiki, the software sends me an email so I can log in to add the page to a category. This might appear a little intrusive, so please let me know what you think in the comments or on my talk page.

The other problem I discovered with wikis is that attempting to navigate around them can lead users into a bit of an abyss. It’s especially difficult to go backwards. You can click the Main Page link on the left-hand side panel to return to the homepage, but if you’ve come across a page purely by chance you’ll struggle to ever find it again. My response to this problem is to add breadcrumbs to each wiki page in the hope that it’s easier to feel my way around. On our Online Services and Strategies pages, I’ve also added a section for related links at the base of each page to help users find more information or return to an area of interest. If you’d like to do this to your own pages, please feel free. I think it’s a handy trick. Again, please let me know what you think in the comments.

*’ I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one.’ (1 John 2:13)

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