LISWIKI: THE FIRST 30 DAYS
by John Hubbard
Thank you for letting me give your readers a status report on the LISWiki experiment. I apologize for the lengthy essay, but as the saying goes, I didn't have time to write a shorter one.
WHAT'S THE POINT?
LISWiki.com was created on June 30, 2005. It uses the MediaWiki software foundation <http://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/Main_Page> for a subject-themed encyclopedia for knowledge and information about libraries, librarianship, and library science that is still largely unconstructed. It's an experiment and a playground. I've fielded further questions about the site's purpose on its About page <http://www.liswiki.com/wiki/LISWiki:About> and in a Web4Lib post <http://lists.webjunction.org/wjlists/web4lib/2005-July/037642.html>.
I've gotten some provocative questions about what the point of the site is, and whether this is another case of using a technology, in this case Wikis, without purpose. The best way I can explain the point of the site is to give some of the motivations I had for forming it.
As a librarian I've been enthusiastically following the revolutions that open access publications are causing. I've long seen proposals about how it could benefit library science <http://members.cox.net/bibliofuture/blog/#107199357211034095>. The literature has started to document how e-journals are used and cited more than print-only ones. I know that an online version of a student paper rejected by a psychology journal <http://www.tk421.net/essays/face1.html> continually receives hits from searchers who should probably be using PSYCinfo. I've also seen Blake Carver's LISNews.com readership grow far beyond that of an average library journal.
I've had fun contributing to several open content websites. I'm an editor at the Open Directory Project <http://dmoz.org/>, a community-built site whose mission is to index the web. The ODP drives many of Google's results and descriptions.
After finding myself using the site more and more, I've probably had the most fun contributing to Wikipedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page>, a free and open online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, which is quickly becoming one of the best sites the web has to offer. Wikipedia is the antithesis of the dot-com-era commercialization that bogged down the Web. The way the site shares information freely returns the Net to its ARPANET-era potential, which should excite Internet veterans and new users alike.
FROM DAILY LINK TO WIKI
I've had fun compiling the Library Link of the Day <http://www.tk421.net/librarylink/> as a current awareness service (which Ex Libris covered earlier, <http://marylaine.com/exlibris/xlib193.html>). The daily link is presented without commentary, but more and more I've been finding myself wanting to say something about the issues libraries are facing.
So why not just start blogging? In effect, I already do: if I have comments to share about library news, I just post them to LISNews.com http://www.lisnews.com/search.pl?op=stories&author=15>, an already well-established library news blog; there's no need to add more overlapping commentary to the hundreds of library blogs out there <http://dmoz.org/Reference/Libraries/Library_and_
My interests lie more in contributing to the scholarly knowledge about libraries. I chose the Wiki format because it has the potential to reach a wider audience more freely and more quickly than library journals. Wiki articles can also be updated (feed readers should notice that there is a toolbox link on every Wiki page to RSSify it, which is useful for tracking individual entries or recent changes to the whole site <http://www.liswiki.com/wiki/Special:Recentchanges>), and don't exist in a vacuum -- being community-built is a huge benefit of Wikis.
WHY WIKIPEDIA ROCKS
Not many librarians seem to understand the promise of Wikis and Wikipedia. Others can probably evangelize the benefits and disadvantages of a Wiki system better than I, but let me mention a few examples of how Wikipedia works. One entry that I like to point to when explaining Wikipedia to new users is the Pope Benedict XVI article <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Benedict_XVI>. Within minutes of the proclamation of the new pope, the entry for Cardinal Ratzinger was renamed and built up in to one of the most useful and current biographical resources on the Web. There have been several thousand edits to the Benedict article since, most all of which have added to or otherwise improved its value. However, during that first day and a few times since, an Internet troll replaced the pictures in the article with screenshots of Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pope_
The vandalism only lasted for a few minutes before it was removed, but for anyone loading the page at that time, Wikipedia would appear like a hoax site to them <http://www.liswiki.com/wiki/Hoax_sites>.
Critics point out that because vandalism can occur <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Vandalism> and its information cannot always be verified, Wikipedia should not be used, period. (This may explain why many of my messages to people about LISWiki and their areas of interest or control were ignored). These people seem to forget the fact that reputable sources such as Encyclopedia Britannica have been found to have many errors (see <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Errors_in_the_
Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica_that_have_been_corrected_in_Wikipedia>), or that events like the Social Text Affair, where a scholarly journal published a nonsensical article, have shown peer-review isn't always all it's cracked up to be (see <http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/>). And I don't know about your library, but we certainly have books in our hallowed stacks that contain information that's outdated or just plain wrong.
The Wiki family of articles on the July 7, 2005 London bombings is another example of where they really shine <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/7_July_2005_London_bombings>. But it's not just the current events or the geek stuff -- although Wikipedia's Doctor Who articles are going to blow away anything you'll find on most any library shelf <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_who>. Some serious scholarship can be found on Wikipedia. Take a look at the articles on evolution <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution> or Anne Frank, for example <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Frank>.
WIKIS AND OTHER LIBRARIANS
I recently spoke with another librarian who said she'd "written articles on Wikipedia." When I stated that I had too, she asked me what journals they were published in! It turns out that she had only written about Wikipedia and had never actually contributed to it. I found that troubling.
A few other things motivated me to try a LIS Wiki. At ALA 2005 in Chicago, a panel on publishing in peer-reviewed professional journals opened with the protestation for authors to accept a two-year time-frame from submission to print. As an electronic resources librarian dealing with many technologies that aren't that old themselves, such articles would only be of historical interest. And why should a publisher profit from something I can just as easily put online myself? There was also a rather drawn-out discussion on Dig_Ref about the best way to compile a list of libraries using virtual reference <http://finance.groups.yahoo.com/group/dig_ref/message/11411>. It reminded me of a Dilbert strip where someone is droning on and on about forming a planning committee, while an enterprising employee actually produces tangible work. Why not just do it?
The success of the ALA 2005 Conference Wiki was exciting to watch <http://meredith.wolfwater.com/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page>. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, also spoke at ALA about the benefits of multiple incarnations of the Wiki software.
Those were the factors that led me to register the LISWiki.com domain, install the Wiki software on it, and open it up to see what would happen.
So far there have been just a few pioneering edits; it's possible people looked at the homepage, saw the rather slim contents, and moved on. I've added a few categories and put up some draft articles on library-related topics I found interesting (service charges; fear of reference), important (problem patrons; privacy), esoteric (library hand; festschrift; Mark and Park), fundamental ( reference desk; compact shelving), controversial (death of libraries; Cuban libraries), or just in need of a useful tutorial.
But I'm not interested in writing an encyclopedia myself! There have been times this month when I've felt like William Chester Minor <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Chester_Minor>, though I'm not that crazy. As I explained on LISWiki's "About" page, though I control things like the DNS records for the domain, I'm just a user on the site, the same as anyone else.
So it's been nice to see contributions from other people. Jenny Levine of http://www.theshiftedlibrarian.com/ fame started a nice article on Audio ebooks <http://www.liswiki.com/wiki/Audio_ebooks>. Motivated by the Dig_Ref discussion mentioned above, I started a list of chat reference libraries <http://www.liswiki.com/wiki/Chat_reference_libraries>, which has really taken off -- thanks in no small part to contributions from Stephen Francoeur, of <http://www.teachinglibrarian.org/>, and Sarah Houghton, of <http://librarianinblack.typepad.com/>. The Virtual Reference category has also started to develop <http://www.liswiki.com/wiki/Category:Virtual_reference>. There's even been a spam entry (someone put porn links on the homepage), but fortunately it was cleaned up quickly by another editor -- peer review in action!
My main wish at this point is that for potential contributors, especially those fans of Wikis with a library background -- library students, patrons, anyone -- to know the site is there.
A few days after I announced the site, Meredith Farkas, the curator of the ALA Conference Wiki, launched the Library Success Wiki for library best practices http://www.libsuccess.org/. This site was well planned out, has drawn considerable attention, and has gained many adherents. Just as the many blogger-created redundancies with the coverage of LISNews, however, there's the potential for it to overlap with some of the topics covered by LISWiki, which for now is focusing on some of the more "theoretical" aspects of libraries instead of those already covered by the "practices" Wiki.
Meredith and I have been in contact about these and other issues, and she's had some useful tips and tricks for improving LISWiki, like setting up shell article outlines and categories, for example, which seems to invite more community participation. Furthermore some of the reasons that I decided to try a LIS-only Wiki, as opposed to building up Wikipedia's already well-developed articles on library science <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Library_and_information_science>, are likely similar to Meredith's reasons for starting a discrete Best Practices Wiki with her name on it. So as I wrote in the Web4Lib post mentioned earlier, I don't really see the sites as competitors. Neither of us is in it for the money after all!
I suppose the same could be said about potential redundancies between LISWiki and Wikipedia. I must admit, as I've explored ideas for new entries I've been surprised to see such topics as Conan the Librarian were already covered by Wikipedia <http://www.liswiki.com/wiki/Conan_the_Librarian>. Still, I stand by my reasons for forming a subject-specific Wiki: that articles on topics like Razoring and Faculty Rank for Librarians seem a little specialized for a general encyclopedia.
One interesting thing I've noticed is that most of the types of edits being made are on the order of adding data or sentences to a long list. That's a good start, but I'd like to see more back-and-forth editing, as is done in Wikipedia (well, short of edit wars, anyway <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Edit_war>). This is the most important point I'd like to make: having a MediaWiki backend to a communal directory of listings or a best practices clearinghouse is a fine first step, but it doesn't really realize the full potential of Wikis. Rather than just having contributors independently maintain their own listings or recommendations or add in plugs to their own sites, I'd rather see more librarians collaboratively building the encyclopedia. This means copy-editing other people's contributions (as a few grammar and typo-fix edits have already done), and/or even (gasp) boldly making major structural or content changes to work another person has begun in order to improve the usefulness of the articles.
For example, the list of chat reference libraries has become one of the most developed and popular articles on LISWiki <http://www.liswiki.com/wiki/Chat_reference_libraries>. A few dozen librarians have gone in and added or tweaked the listings for their own library, and that's great. Thanks to the help of everyone that contributed, the list is now probably one of the best ones out there. Plus the way it's open to editing gives it promise for continuing to grow and not remain stagnant like other one-person attempts out there.
But if you had to ask me what my favorite article was so far though, or namely the edit I was happiest to see, it would be something like the addition of a single word in the "weeding" article <http://www.liswiki.com/w/index.php?title=Weeding&diff=2372&oldid=2216>. As you can see in the article's edit history, after I put up a simple dictionary definition for the term, another librarian added "condition" to the list of weeding criteria. This is the type of community building of the project that excites me the most. If done on a larger scale (along with better categorization and more front matter development on things such as help pages and policies), it could develop LISWiki into a true library and information science dictionary and encyclopedia, possibly even on a par with the existing quality but commercial and/or offline ones in existence (just as Wikipedia's quality now matches that of Britannica and the like, and just as the LISWiki chat libraries list has developed into something of value.)
At a 2005 ALA Annual Conference panel Jimmy Wales described Wikipedia's purpose, with a straight face, as simply trying to compile and distribute the world's knowledge. And guess what? They're doing it! <http://en.wikipedia.org/wikistats/EN/PlotsPngArticlesTotal.htm>
I think LISWiki has the potential to become the most complete free and open compilation of knowledge about library stuff. But without wider community participation, it also has the potential to become nothing more than "John's LIS Braindump." I'm committed to keeping the site running, maintaining the technical systems in place, and having fun with the experiment while I watch to see who will find the time to share their knowledge.
So here's my sales pitch that I'd like to close with: if you've ever had a thought about libraries and librarianship that you wish to share, don't keep it a secret! I don't care if it's some incredibly insightful revelation, making mundane clarifications about library terms, adding in-depth analysis on a library issue, or just copy editing my sloppy prose.
It's understandably alarming to surrender your work to public editing, but Wikipedia demonstrates that such sharing can be highly effective; a community-built knowledge base has the capacity for far greater scholarly achievement than the sum of its individual contributions. Since our profession is built around facilitating access to information, we owe it to ourselves and to our successors to freely contribute to an open community encyclopedia of library-related knowledge.
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Prefer action over study. If you or your team is studying something to death - remember that death was not the original goal! I have been in libraries where their systems folks in the host institution were studying whether to upgrade from Windows 95 to 98 in 2005! Scary. Although we have a great core competency in research and study, we must know when to fish or cut bait. In risk-averse cultures this is particularly difficult. What needs to be learned and understood is that delay is as big a risk as poorly considered action.
Stephen Abram. SirsiOneSource: 32 Tips To Inspire Innovation for You and Your LIbrary, Part I, http://www.imakenews.com/sirsi/e_article000423643.cfm?x=b4TcM1g,b2rpmkgK,w
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