Social Computing Day

If Tuesday was “mashup day” for me, Wednesday was “social computing” day. I learned lots about wikis, blogs, and some of their non-traditional applications.

Those who don’t understand wikis would be well advised to look at the reprint of Nicole Engard’s article in ONLINE in the conference proceedings as well as her presentation on the conference Web site. (Nicole is Web manager at Jenkins Law Library in Philadelphia.) As she noted, a wiki is an editable website that does not require knowledge of HTML. Anyone can edit a wiki page, and at any time, a page can be reverted to any previous version.

Like many social networking software platforms, wikis empower users (although as a later speaker noted, it is common for users not to exercise that power). Some common wiki applications are brainstorming, policy drafting, or sharing the task of taking meeting notes. Wikis are particularly useful for conferences where people can post their schedules, make connections, find out about the area. (IL 2006 has a wiki—click here.) Many wikis offer an RSS feed so users can keep up with changes.

There is a huge list of wiki software platforms, the largest of which in the consumer space is PBwiki. Wikis can be run on an intranet, as Nicole’s article describes. They can overcome problems such as a lack of easy collaboration between departments, difficulty in finding information, and the need for all content on the intranet to be posted by the intranet management personnel. At Jenkins Law Library, the wiki platform was written in-house; it incorporates the WYSIWYG Pro text editor.

Improving collaboration is a common reason why organizations install wikis. Darren Chase, Informatics Librarian at the Health Sciences Center Library of Stony Brook University, likened their original intranet to a woodpile. They knew where the wood was, but it was difficult to find a specific piece. They looked for a “fast, cheap miracle” that would provide collaboration, a knowledge base for working documents and policies, in-house control, troubleshooting FAQs, and be web-accessible, and easy to use—a very tall order!

Wikimatrix provided Darren and his colleagues with a large matrix to easily compare a wide range off wiki software. They chose Twiki because it offers easy editing, access control, and other desirable features. Darren’s advice to wiki installers is to make it easy, keep it simple, provide hands-on training to users, and offer refresher courses.

The St.Joseph County Public Library in South Bend, IN is a good example of a wiki success story. Marianne Kruppa, Library Webmaster, has a great idea—Don’t Call It a Wiki! Lots of people (including some library staff members) are afraid of technology and will be put off by technology jargon. Instead, call it what it is—a resource list, subject guide, etc. Marianne also highly recommends access to a “sandbox” server for testing new products and services. She also suggests a separate wiki for library staff so they can express themselves freely and have fun.

Librarians have long prepared “research guides”—long lists of sources for their users—but traditional guides are not searchable, have redundant resources, and are not interlinked, so that the same content had to be edited multiple times if it appeared in separate guides. Chad Boeninger at Ohio University, has begun using a wiki for his research guides and has found that wikis do very well for this purpose and make it much easier to maintain the guides. Not only is it very easy to add content, there is an unlimited amount of room for it, but the guides can be organized by categories and are searchable. They have a huge potential for building community.

Wiki-based research guides also make excellent teaching tools because they are easy to update, and there is no longer any need to produce handouts for students and they are always available, even when the instructor is not.

Challenges of wikis include getting others to contribute, maintenance, and keeping the organization and structure current as new content is added. Spam is also a problem. But the advantages are great: they extend the reach of the librarians and make their job easier, and they make information and knowledge more accessible.

The final session of the day turned from wikis to blogs. Walter Nelson, Webmaster at the RAND Corporation has established blogs for non-traditional purposes using Moveable Type. He likes Moveable Type because it can be formatted to look like your Web site; in fact, it can be made to BE your Web site. It is very easy to use, and can be extensively customized. Authors do not need any special software or skills to add content, and it can automatically generate an RSS feed.

Feed2JS is the second part of Walter’s blog program. It generates Java Script that can be pasted into any web page. RSS feeds can be displayed as a bulleted list of links to blog postings, so that users can go directly from the feed headline to the content.

Walter emphasized that it is important to think outside the standard blogging features. Blogs can be used for a wide variety of purposes, such as a database publishing tool that produces a database sorted chronologically and by category. Blogs can be used for corporate announcements, event calendars, image databases, and many other uses.

Karen Coombs at the University of Houston uses blogs for internal communications. Some of those she has established are
• Committee blogs to make announcements, post minutes and other documents and gather feedback on what the committee is working on
• Blogs for service points that are maintained by staff working at desks. These are used for announcements of new resources, problems, or questions. The service group blog displays on all computers at reference desk so that the staff can leave notes for each other on what’s happening.
• Blogs for working groups that allow people to share information, post items of note or interest, and reading materials for discussion.

Finally, Aaron Schmidt at the Thomas Ford Memorial Library said that in a public library, nobody cares if you have a blog! Users do not care how information gets on the Web. Blogs are about connecting and social relationships. Aaron has linked the library’s OPAC to a blog, and now users can post comments on items in the catalog. The blog is also used as an uploading and photo commenting tool because it is connected to Flickr.

This was a wonderfully educational day. It provided many ideas for interesting and non-traditional uses of blogs and wikis. I look forward to trying out some of them!

Don Hawkins
IL2006 Blog Coordinator and Columnist, Information Today


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