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The Tao of Law Librarianship: Becoming A Wiki Warrior

By Connie Crosby, Published on January 15, 2007

Like you, I've been reading about wikis, referring to Wikipedia, and even daring to edit the odd wiki page when something catches my eye and really needs changing. However, I did not really felt compelled to actually set up my own wiki. Then one day back in November I woke up and felt compelled to set up all my collaborative projects as wikis. A wiki warrior was born!

The true spirit of wikis is a web space that is open to and editable by anyone and everyone around the world. Mass collaboration such as this is now getting mainstream attention with best-selling business book, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. They talk about the way enterprises are changing, with wikis and other Web 2.0 applications as one of the catalysts. Tapscott and Williams explain, "in contrast to complex group collaboration tools, wikis conform naturally to the way people think and work, and have the flexibility to evolve in a self-organizing fashion as the needs and capabilities of the organization change. This flexibility arises from the fact that at their most basic, wikis are completely unstructured" (p. 255).

This flexibility can also be harnessed for specific projects where "the world" is smaller and better defined, such as within an association, a committee or a workplace. This is how I have been using them. One doesn't have to necessarily open them up to the general public. And while they can be used in a number of different ways, wikis are best used by a group of people working toward a consensus, whether it be creating an ultimate list of things or ideas, or coming to jointly agreed-upon wording in a document. I recently discovered a small interest group in my city who get together to talk about "the big picture" of the use and implication of wikis. They call their meetings Toronto Wiki Tuesdays. At the last meeting I attended, after some reflection we came to the conclusion that wikis are best used for convergent ideas, whereas blogs work better for divergent ideas. It is good to keep this in mind when considering what tool to use for a particular project.

A few specific examples will show you the power of wikis. One of the first I created was for a presentation to the Toronto Chapter of the Special Libraries Association, held in November. The topic was-surprise--Web 2.0. We had four presenters plus a moderator, and about two weeks to get our presentation together. Unfortunately we all live or work in different cities, so it wasn't practical for us to get together for a face to face meeting to put our ideas and work together. It didn't take a big leap of the imagination to think of a wiki, which itself is a Web 2.0 tool, to help us organize ourselves.

I started up a wiki using a free version of PBWiki simply by plugging in a wiki name and my email address from their front page. Creating a "PBWiki Identity" makes this process even faster in the future. I set up a front page with basic information such as a list of speakers and their contact information, the description of the discussion topic and event location and time. Since we would each have 15 minutes in which to speak, I gave us each a page on which we could put our list of resources, and then added the Chapter's logo graphic (copied over from their website, which presumably they wouldn't mind our using since it was a sanctioned event), and finally set up a table of contents in the sidebar which would show up on every page. Once everyone had put some resources in, a few days before the event I went through all the pages to standardize the look. We managed to have a venue that had a live connection to the web, so we used the wiki to give the presentations. One of our speakers loaded her PowerPoint file to the wiki and ran it from there. I note that, for anyone who doesn't have a live web connection, PBWiki can create PDF documents and slideshows (called "Portfolios") from the wiki pages.

After the presentation, audience members asked if they could have access to the wiki, not only to review the content, but also to try editing it. We gave them the password on the spot. I went back later to repurpose the wiki for a group resource by adding a page to which people could add their names (and link to their own pages with information about themselves), a discussion page, and a list of resources for learning more about Web 2.0. You can view the resulting wiki at http://speciallibraries.pbwiki.com although you won't be able to edit it since we've given the password out only those who attended the evening.

Wikis are great tools for the professional activities of associations and other communities, but we have also started using wikis for a few things in my firm as well. It started when we had to organize mass retraining for a major upgrade to one of our online services, LexisNexis Canada's online service Quicklaw. We wanted to show everyone who needed a session the training schedule as it got booked up, so decided to create a password protected wiki rather than a regular HTML page. We didn't tell everyone it was a wiki, but the webpage did indicate it could be edited. Most people told us the sessions they wanted and we added them in, but a few figured out they could put themselves in and had great fun moving themselves around as their schedules changed. The day of a training session, the trainers at Lexis used the password to go in and see who was scheduled for their sessions. We did not have to email them an ever-changing list. It was a simple but effective use of a wiki, and reduced our workload once it was set up.

Shortly thereafter one of our lawyers came to us for help in putting together readings for a course he would be teaching for the first time. We had a short period of time, and possibly up to three of us working on the research at the same time. How to coordinate the best websites and other research tools we would find? How to compile a list of our findings? We again decided upon a wiki using PBWiki. Each week's class, having a different subject area, was given a page where we listed and linked to articles, case law, and legislation of relevance. Major research tools were listed on the home page and we added to these as we found new resources to share. We linked to papers available on the web, and otherwise just listed the document cite. It was a bit of work, but in the end we have a great resource for future reference. The lawyer passed along the final group of articles to the school so that copyright permission could be obtained and the documents reproduced for the students.

Although the students wouldn't need it for their official course readings, we decided nevertheless to repurpose the wiki for the students themselves. We branded the pages with the school logo, moved the common resources to a separate page, put the course description and a welcome note on the front page, added a page for students to list their names, and added a page where students could add comments or discussion. I made a backup of the website since PBWiki at the free level does not allow for going back to previous versions of the pages. The password was handed out to students, and they have been encouraged to add their notes and resources as they wish. It was pointed out that this was set up for their convenience and is not an official part of the course. It is too early to tell how much editing will happen, but we hope at least this will be useful as a website.

Another group of lawyers recently came to me needing a web space in which to work on a book. As they described their vision of what they needed, I thought immediately of wikis. This project, however, I thought should best be kept confidential inside our firewall. I had recently seen a brief demonstration of Microsoft's new Sharepoint wiki application. I was able to make the case to our IT department that we should set this up (we didn't have it already in use), and I was given a CPU to be used as a server, along with Microsoft server software and assistance from our technical staff. Within a few days they set it up, and I started learning how to create a wiki using Sharepoint. The end result looks similar to what we created previously for the course. The front page has a welcome message. There is a page with resources and web links to resources that will be useful to the whole group in their research. Each chapter of the book, already mapped out with various authors, is given its own page. On each of these pages I wrote in space for articles, website links, case law and legislation.

I found my first run at creating a Sharepoint wiki to be more work with a slightly steeper learning curve than with PBWiki. Sharepoint has a lot more related features that can be added, such as calendar and document libraries. But my initial impression is that the look and feel isn't as flexible. For the others using it, however, it should be easier. The editing window is a Microsoft editor, so very much like the one everyone is used to in Word. I still need to work on getting others-especially those who are not web savvy-up and running using the wiki pages.

There are lots of great examples of other wiki uses out there. To see an excellent wiki used to create an extensive list, visit Amanda Etches-Johnson's the Blogging Libraries Wiki. It was created with MediaWiki, the same application running Wikipedia. Anyone can go in to edit an entry, and she can view changes as well as go back to previous versions of the pages if someone "contributes" graffiti.

Wikis are also being used world wide to organize conferences. BarCamp, the "un-conference," is the notable example. One could say the whole event itself is very wiki-like. Someone anywhere in the world decides to organize a BarCamp or similar event. He or she creates a wiki page linked to the main BarCamp wiki. Those interested in helping with organization settle on a date and location. With any luck they convince a school or someone else to donate the physical location. On the wiki, a designated space on the front page or separate page is created for registration; to register for this free event, you just add your name and related information onto the wiki page. Similarly, a place is made for people to add the sessions they would like to offer to the group on a page, and another list is added for session requests. Optionally, someone might set up a page looking for sponsors. I like the PodCamp Toronto 2007 wiki pages in particular. In the case of a BarCamp event, first thing in the day the participants meet and set the schedule for the sessions depending upon participants' interest. I have also seen other similar events post a schedule to their wiki and have presenters book themselves in to their desired time slots. With either method, this new conference creation model means it is no longer necessary to spend big bucks to attend a commercially created conference; you just create your own!

I am still learning about the software options available. As with anything, different features suit different projects. If you are into Open Source, there are definitely more options for working inside the firewall. From our wiki set up for the SLA-Toronto presentation in November, Dave Hook includes a list of wiki software at the bottom of his presentation page which is worth exploring. You really do need get out there and play with this to learn how it works.

When you are ready to graduate to serious projects, here are some considerations to take into account when working with wikis:

Tracking edits and version control

If keeping track of who has changed what, and having the ability to go back to previous versions of the document(s) is important, look for a wiki application that gives you this kind of control. Some, like PBWiki, only give you this power at paid levels and not at the free level.

Security

Is the wiki something you want to share with the world? Different wiki software has different levels of passwords. Some allow for anyone to edit the wiki, you can set it up so that everyone can see the content but only those with a password can edit it, and you can also set it up so that only those with passwords can see the wiki or edit it. For real security, an enterprise will want to consider having the wiki set up inside the firewall.

Confidentiality

If you work in the government or with confidential information, take care as to the type of projects you use wikis for. Carefully consider whether personal or client data is appropriate for a collaborative site, whether it be wiki or not. A wiki can certainly be used as a fast way for a group to work together on a joint project, such as health care professionals in different locations trying to pull resources and data together on a quick-spreading disease. Or for a library to quickly inform its constituents about legislative changes affecting them.

Copyright

Some wiki applications allow you to post photographs and load in documents to which you can link. Unless they are images you own or documents you have created yourself, take care with regard to obtaining copyright clearance. In the case where you are sharing a wiki publicly, it may be preferable to link directly to a document on the web rather than saving it to your wiki as far as copyright goes.

Becoming a "wiki warrior" has actually been one of the easiest things I have ever done. It has actually been a lot of fun because I get to play with new, easy software and be a bit creative as to what I want to do with it. It is also particularly rewarding to have others pick up on the wiki pages I have created and run with what they use them for, adding comments and links and other resources. I recommend librarians working with any type of group learn how to set up a wiki. You will be surprised how fast it takes you, too, to become a wiki warrior!

Do you have career-related anecdotes or ideas for professional development that you would like to share with Connie Crosby? Email her.