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care2team 7 min read

Dreaming of a Wiki?


By Jessica Baumgart,  Professional Librarian and Blogger

Perhaps by now, you might have heard about the Web encyclopedia Wikipedia. Begun in 2001, the reference site is making waves because it uses collaborative Web-based software called a wiki to allow many people to contribute to the work. Traditional encyclopedia publishing seems to be rooted in the idea that only specific people work on the project, so the idea of having an encyclopedia anyone can edit is a bit of a change. A characteristic of the Web 2.0 movement, many organizations are beginning to adopt tools allowing for more collaboration and moving to more transparent systems.

Its name coming from the Hawaiian “wiki wiki” for “quick,” a wiki is a special kind of Web site allowing people to easily edit content without having any knowledge of HTML or programming languages. The tool also takes out the step of downloading and uploading pages, smoothing out and speeding up the process of changing content. Although many wikis require editors to learn a special syntax to format text, some wikis use WYSIWYG interfaces similar to those in several word processing programs. The syntax is often fairly basic. Because of its ease of use, its ability to enable multiple people to work on pages, and how it streamlines Web publishing, many people and organizations are adopting wiki technology.

Having pages anyone can edit fosters communication and collaborative projects. Wikis can enable communities to communicate much better with each other by giving them easy ways to share and record information, leave notes for others, and make contributing easier and collaboration more transparent.

Some organizations find using the software too risky, especially for pages mounted on a public Web site. Having pages anyone can edit, of course, means anyone can edit the pages. Maybe there are portions of the site an organization may not want another client to see or certain people to edit. Some open wikis on the public Internet attract vandals and mischievous individuals who will change content on a wiki just because it’s there and they can. Some wiki platforms address these issues by allowing restricted access to pages and various sections. Some wikis allow registered users just like many other closed Web sites. For completely internal projects, it’s probably better to mount a wiki on an intranet than on a public Web site.

Wikis come in a variety of flavors. The software can run on an organization’s servers, an intranet, or be hosted. Some platforms are free; others might charge money for the software and/or the hosting. Some packages, like MediaWiki, the software Wikipedia uses, and WetPaint, are quite robust, allowing the uploading and use of photographs and other files,
contributors to have their own pages, and pages with restricted access. Other tools, like pb wiki, TWiki, and MoinMoin Wiki might offer features like free hosting and more streamlined software.

Are wikis right for non-profits? Certainly! But before running out to join the wiki bandwagon, it’s important to evaluate the organization’s needs and figure out if the software is the right tool. Is a collaborative tool the best way to go? Will people use it productively and constructively? Are people tech savvy enough to handle the change and the new software? Will a wiki still be a good tool in a year? What about in three years?

To learn more about wikis, find some articles about them, visit sites using the technology, set up your own wiki using a free service, ask colleagues, or attend a professional development opportunity, like Wikimania. The second international Wikimedia Foundation conference, Wikimania, was the first weekend in August at Harvard Law School. Plans are in
the works for another excellent opportunity to bring people together to discuss the foundation’s projects, like Wikipedia, Wiktionary, and Wikinews, and wikis in general during the summer of 2007. This year’s conference featured talks by many high profile people, like Ward Cunningham, who invented wikis, Brewster Kahle, who runs the Internet Archive, and, of course, Jimmy Wales, who founded Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation. Next year promises to be just as fabulous.


Through her involvement in a group for people interested in new Web technology and her interest in Wikimedia Foundation projects, Jessica Baumgart has become a specialist in tools like weblogs, XML feeds, and wikis. A librarian for one of Harvard University’s communications offices, she is particularly interested in how libraries and similar organizations can apply these tools to their work.