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TL v57 n2 Emerging Uses of Wiki in Library Services
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 57 Number 2



Emerging Uses of Wiki in Library Services

Susan L. Jennings
Service Desk Manager for Periodicals/Films/Microfilms/Government Documents

Appalachian State University

Conference Abstract: How libraries respond and adapt to technological change is crucial to survival in this technological age.  In this session, Wiki technology’s practical application into the Library World will be explored and evaluated.  Included in this presentation will be a reflection/evaluation of the implementation of Wikis at Appalachian State University Library.

Aloha! Welcome to the wonderful island of Wiki Wiki (not to be confused with the beach of Waikiki (1). On the island of Wiki Wiki, one finds a “virtual” paradise. Why is Wiki such a paradise? Wiki Wiki is a utopian society where knowledge is shared and collaboration is the key to existence. Structure comes from the residents and the Wiki evolves from the islander’s collaboration and according to their direction.

Naysayers would try to discredit this place, citing problems with recognized authority, intellectual property issues and “poo pooing” the role and legitimacy of collaborative learning. Yet, Wiki seems to be the future. What is Wiki and why is the environment of Wiki Wiki so special? It is the purpose of this paper to define Wiki technology, discuss its initial use in the Corporate World, and, finally, its translation and emerging uses into the Library World.

In order to understand Wikis, one must first have a concrete understanding as to exactly what is Wiki technology. When Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web (WWW), he had envisioned creating the perfect virtual world . . . of a Semantic Web (2) . Berners-Lee wanted an interactive Web (3). His idea was to create open access to information and break down the barriers between content creators and content consumers (4) . It was in those same heady days, when “Timothy Leary [yes, HIM] was predicting that the PC would be the LSD of the nineties” (5) . Berners-Lee’s vision of a truly semantic web has not been fully realized… that is, until now. Wiki technology has brought visions of the semantic web into sharper focus and closer than it has ever been before.

Taking up where Berners-Lee left off, Ward Cunningham, Father of “Wiki” technology, created this collaborative software program in 1995 designed for true interaction and collaboration. Initially, its use was primarily directed at the corporate world (6). The word “Wiki” is the Hawaiian word for “quick” (7) . And “quick” it is! Like Cunningham, all know the all too familiar scenario of collaborative ventures (or more properly termed “misadventures”): “E-mails get passed around with differing version of documents-in-progress attached. Instant messages whiz by. Web sites are cited, then lost. It’s often a jumbled mess, with no central online location for shared data" (8) . Or, as one Graduate School colleague termed it, “Multiple Draft Syndrome" (9). Because of this chaos, Cunningham invented a better way to collaborate…enter, Wiki technology. In this way, collaboration turns into a true conversation… and a true way to collaborate (10).

One might ask, “What the heck is Wiki technology?” Jonathan Spiro, CEO and chief analyst of the research group, Basex describes Wikis this way: “Think of enterprise wikis as an electronic version of the post-it note’ … ‘They are informal, quick, easy to use, and allow workers to record thoughts and comments contextually” (11). Although a Wiki has the look and feel of a traditional web site, it “is essentially a small piece of server software that allows users to freely create and edit Web content using any Web browser and no other special tools” (12). Unlike traditional authored web pages and the fluidity of wiki technology, the wiki takes shape as content is added. Content can be added by every contributor rather than designated web designers and authors (13) . But be forewarned… “It’s not that authority can’t be imposed on a wiki, but doing so undermines the effectiveness of the tool” (14) and should be used judiciously. Creating a Wiki with access restrictions goes against the fundamental idea of the concept due to the organic nature of the technology (15). However, if privacy or authority is an issue, it can be accommodated in the Wiki environment.

“Wikipedia” is the most famous, or more precisely, “infamous” example of Wiki technology (definition dependent on one's viewpoint). Wikipedia has drawn criticism from library professionals due to its collaborative, “anyone-can-edit” nature (16) . However, due to its easy use, more and more users are forgoing older, “legitimate” sources like Oxford English Dictionary and Encyclopedia Britannica to use this new reference source. One hesitant contributor has said that “‘in a world awash in unverified and undigested facts, Wikipedia only muddies the quest for knowledge and truth” (17).

While “Wikipedia” is the best known by-product of Wiki technology, Wikis are so much more. The corporate world was the first to embrace Wiki technology because it supports a dynamic and fluid framework of collaboration in a user friendly format all the while avoiding the arduous process than can accompany collaboration (18). According to Ross Mayfield, CEO and founder of Wiki vendor Socialtext, “90% of collaboration and 75% of a company’s knowledge assets exist in emails . . .[because of this,] there is no value for the organization apart from what people produce from the information" (19).  

Although there are numerous Wiki software applications available for creating and managing a Wiki, all operate in a similar manner. Some Wiki software is installed on ones own server which will require a “techie” person with some server/programming knowledge. Some Wikis, however, do not require any advanced technology knowledge and are free and readily available on the World Wide Web (i.e., ) Wiki technology provides access to shared files and the work can go forward.

Why is using a Wiki so beneficial? Here are some examples:

  • No special knowledge or education of HTML editing is required.
  • Low upfront investment and little if any cost (most Wiki technology is Open Source).
  • Editable by using any browser rather than a separate web authoring software package.
  • Emails may be integrated directly into “wiki pages simply by CC-ing the wiki capturing the message and indexing content with any attachments" (20).
  • Facilitates collaborative writing, editing, peer review, commenting and annotating.
  • Searchable content with the insertion of index terms.
  • Ability to customize to meet the needs of the organization.
  • Scalable and easily integrated with directory services.
  • Revision control with access to previous versions of each page.
  • Rollback options available to rollback to older versions if needed.
  • Visible tracked changes.
  • Speed of editing and changes in REAL time without approval “from above” or distribution (21).

So, if Wikis are SO great, one may wonder why more organizations are not jumping on the Wiki Bandwagon? The Father of Wiki, Ward Cunningham, has the answer: “Not everyone needs a wiki. Not everyone wants a Wiki. Not every situation benefits from becoming an open discussion or collaboration forum" (22) . My advice is . . . if it will make life easier and not add another chore or unneeded layer to the workflow, then try it! Wikis may not be for everyone!

It seems, though, that “the biggest obstacle to the adoption of wikis … is acceptance" (23). It is still a new and developing technology. Frankly, many organizations are hesitant to embrace this new technology because they do not want to give up control. The thought is “if anybody can edit my text, then anybody can ruin my text" (24).

Other issues which make organizations hesitant to jump on the Wiki bandwagon, especially in higher education, is the mine field of intellectual property (IP) rights by contributors (25).  Wikis muddy the waters of Intellectual Property Rights and makes an already murky issue even murkier. In order to combat this, Wiki technology has tried to address this by the development of several IP schemes:

A CommunityCopyright policy allows individuals to assert rights over their work while allowing their contributions to be modified within the wiki (Of course, the copyright owner can subsequently reverse those modifications)

A PublicDomain policy dictates that any contributors to the wiki space surrenders all copyright.

A mediation of the approach is PrimarilyPublicDomain which assumes a PublicDomain policy unless an individual specifies otherwise.

CopyLeft allows anyone to use the content of the wiki for any purpose and to make derivative works, under the condition that all copies and derivative works are released under the same license as the original. The contributor maintains copyright. (26)

But what about Wikis in the library environment? Sure . . . it works in the corporate world but how does this “wild and wooly” technology translate into the structured library world? Ummm… easily! Librarians have already had to adapt to change brought on by the burgeoning, information seeking world of which it is a part. Because the world of technology is constantly changing, the populace expectations grow. Patrons want the same conveniences in libraries as they find in their fast food, microwaveable, self service, drive-thru world. Because of this public expectation, libraries are constantly looking for ways to adapt to changing technology.

Over the past few years, library services have changed to embrace Library 2.0 initiatives which employ social networking application to provide library services. Libraries have employed the use of email reference, self service library records, personalization of databases, and Instant Messaging (IM) or chat reference, including even some 24 hour reference services. The complaint that is heard from Libraries are that “we never have enough staff time, resources, collections or patrons… we never seem to have enough of anything. Second, we use the resources we do have to do work and solve problems that have already been done or solved" (27). Wikis could be the answer!

Libraries are now looking at Wiki technology and its potential uses. I see the potential for the utilization of Wiki technology in three distinct ways: 1) as an Interdepartmental tool; 2) as a cross team collaborative tool; and, 3) as an Intradepartmental tool.

Here at Appalachian State University, we are beginning to use Wikis in a variety of ways. As an Interdepartmental tool, the ASU Reference & Instruction department has used the Open Source software product, PLONE ( to provide a Wiki for reference services. It is a software program which seemingly is easy to use, edit and maintain, and the “price” is right if it is “Open Source" (28) .On this wiki, librarians can search the wiki for commonly asked questions (i.e. taking the place of the “ol’ rolodex” or providing indexed searching of subject/research guides), collaborate on subgroup assignments with restricted access (i.e. the Departmental Personnel Committee’s collaborative work), and personnel development features (i.e. helpful links, articles, and bibliographies of pertinent library related material of which participants find).

In the Wiki environment, Librarians may “share and collaborate on the research that we would have otherwise done individually. This allows for easier information management during the project and will improve the quality of our finished product" (29) .With application to Wiki technology, “we stop reinventing the wheel, we stop wasting resources, and we can say with confidence that we are building something for our profession" (30) . “Wiki is ideal for such activities because it empowers people to track many rapidly changing types of information, including policies and procedures that evolve over time, such as hours and locations of library service points and related services, technical glitches, and ways of approaching challenging assignments" (31) . Yet, even in this open collaborative environment, “doors can be locked on the Wiki” to allow contributors to work on confidential or not-yet-for-public-consumption documents. Although Reference & Instruction has led the way at ASU, an Access Services Wiki is currently under development. Hopefully, more teams will embrace this technology.

Wikis can also be used as a cross-team collaborative tool: Currently, ASU Library is undertaking the development of its new strategic plan. Since time is of the essence and long meetings may not be as productive, a Wiki seemed the perfect solution. The “Learning” subgroup developed a Wiki to collaborate on the development of objectives and activities. Members could independently contribute to collective documents at any time. Because of the nature of the work, only the members of the committee were allowed viewing and editing privileges. This allows for a certain degree of privacy and confidentiality when working on documents, policies, etc. which are not ready for public consumption. This work was done through a wiki created on (

And finally, Wikis can be used as a library intranet. How many times has one heard the phrase “When did that department decide THAT?” or “I didn’t know that was the policy?” By using Wikis as an intranet in the libraries, all departments can be on the same page, forms used across library departments can be consistent, and the knowledge base can grow as needed with all in the library collaborating. This has not become a reality at ASU although I keep hoping! ;-) Hopefully, it is a vision of the future here!

In conclusion, Wikis can be included in many different ways in libraries to make collaboration and information dissemination possible. Through Wiki technology, libraries can create knowledge bases “to support work that moves quickly from discussion to collaborative writing, to create a place for writing, editing and storing meeting notes and reports, or it could even become the platform for the library intranet" (32) . Wikis could become the perfect medium for sharing information i.e. about databases and provide instruction on how to use or navigate certain products. Added to this, there is the element of documenting comments and problems when assessing “test driving” new databases (i.e. accessing problems and concern experienced by both the librarian as well patron perspectives) and collaborating on lists of helpful hints in order to make searches more successful. With this collaborative feature, all can share and all can add to the knowledge base. Retrieval of information is made easy because of the ability of Wikis to index information available for easy search and retrieval. Isn’t that the true basis of knowledge? Collaboration and Access?

Wiki technology seems to be the perfect marriage of interactive technology with the Library World. As time and technology changes, so will Wiki. Wikis and the technology of “web-based, collaborative content creating and editing” are here to stay (33). Will libraries embrace this new technology? Only time will tell! One word of warning: While I am a strong supporter of Wiki technology within the library setting, as always, I think that “technology should be a supporting player in any collaboration effort, not the driver" (34) and caution should be used when implementing technology. Do not implement a Wiki just because it is the current fad. Having said that, as more and more successes with the implementation of Wiki technology in Library services come to light, one suspects that even the most skeptical opponents of collaborative technology will come around and embrace the technology should the need for it present itself.

Despite the hesitancy and problems associated with the implementation of Wiki technology, more and more libraries are moving to Wiki technology, Throughout this process, it may be wise if libraries accept the following Wiki prayer and adopt it as their mantra: “Please, grant me the serenity to accept the pages I cannot edit, The courage to edit the pages I can, And the wisdom to know the difference" (35). Hopefully, one day, all will be greeted with the words “Welcome to Wiki Wiki Island, the new home to Library and Information Services! Come on in… the water is fine!”

P.S. Personal Note: If you didn’t make it to the presentation, here’s the link to the practice wiki… if you would like to practice, feel free to email me ( and I’ll give you permission! Happy Wiki-ing!

1. Note: “Wiki,” “Wiki Wiki,” “Wiki” written with an uppercase “W” and “wiki” with a lowercase “w” will all be used throughout this paper and in quotes because of the difference in how it is referred in the literature. No matter how it is referred or spelled, “Wiki” refers to the same technology. For the purposes of clarity, any reference to “Wiki” not located within a quote will be capitalized. Original case will be maintained within the quotes. In the “Wiki” world, some only capitalize “Wiki” when discussing Ward Cunningham’s initial wiki product with lowercase “wiki” for all its offspring; See John Joyce, "Wiki Wiki," Scientific Computing & Instrumentation 22, no. no. 3 (February 2005) 10 April 2006.

2. Penny O’Connor, "How we Enhance Information, and how we are Enhanced . . . Conference Report: Managing and Enhancing Information: Cultures and Conflicts, the ASIST Annual Conference, Providence, Rhode Island, November 12-17, 2004." Library Hi Tech News 22, no. 2 (2005). Journal on-line. Available from

3. Brian Lamb, “Wide Open Spaces: Wikis Ready Or Not,” Educause Review (September/October 2004: 36.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. "Startups Bet on Wikis and Blogs for Business; Companies Like JotSpot and Five Across are Looking to Turn the Web from a Read-Only to Write-Able Medium, Putting Tools in the Hands of Business Users that, Until Now, have been Largely the Domain of Private Individuals and Groups." InternetWeek (February 14, 2005). Journal on-line. Available from
retrieve&tabID=T003 &prodId=IPS&docId=A128648660&source=gale&srcprod=GBFM&userGroupName

7. Darlene Fichter, "The Many Forms of E-Collaboration: Blogs, Wikis, Portals, Groupware, Discussion Boards, and Instant Messaging." Online 29, no. 4 (07/Jul/Aug2005 2005): 50.

8. Ibid.

9. Ashley McConnell, Colleague, University of Tennessee Knoxville, IS 592 Project Management Course, Summer 2006.

10. Darlene Fichter. "Using Wikis to Support Online Collaboration in Libraries. (Wikis)." Information Outlook 10, no. 1 (Jan 2006): 30-31. 

11. " Wiki-Wild World." Information Age ( London, UK) (Feb 10, 2006). Journal on-line. Available from .>

12. "What's a Wiki?(Web Server Software)," ExtremeTech.Com (May 9, 2003); Fichter, “Using Wikis.”

13. Ibid., 40.

14. Ibid., 45.

15. Lamb, 38.

16. “What’s a Wiki.”

17. Kerry Webb, "When You really Need to Know." InCite 26, no. 6 (06/2005): 30.

18. Laurel A. Clyde, "Wikis." Teacher Librarian 32, no. 4 (04/2005): 54; Fichter, “ Using Wikis,” 31; " Wiki-Wild World."

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Adapted from “Wiki-Wild World.”

22. David Mattison, "Quickiwiki, Swiki, Twiki, Zwiki and the Plone Wars." Searcher 11, no. 4 (04/2003): 32.

23. “Wiki-Wild World.”

24. Lamb, 40.

25. Lamb, 46.

26. Ibid.

27. Hill, Chrystie R, "Everything I Need To Know I Learned Online." Library Journal 130, no. 3 (02/15/ 2005): 35.

28. ASU Reference Wiki or the Plone Website

29. Lamb, 40.

30. Hill, 35.

31. Rob Withers. "Something Wiki this Way Comes." College & Research Libraries News 66, no. 11 (2005): 775.

32. Fichter, “Using Wikis,” 31.

33. Mattison, 32.

34. Fichter, “Many,” 48.

35. Lamb, 48.

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