Tuesday, April 28, 2009

MARAC: Wikis Here, There, and Everywhere

Well, here it is, a mere ten days late: my final MARAC Spring 2009 post. I think I’m going back to the daily post style that I used at SAA 2008 -- unless, of course, anyone out there has a better idea . . . .

The last session I attended highlighted the many different ways in which archives are using wikis. I learned a few things about the varied uses to which wikis can be put . . . and a few things about why my own experiences with them have been less than satisfactory.

Kate Colligan outlined her use of a wiki to support the University of Pittsburgh's processing of the records (1887-1973) of the Allegheny County (Pa.) Coroner. Approximately 30 people, most of them undergraduate interns, ultimately participated in this project, which involved the flattening, rehousing, and indexing of approximately 220,000 trifolded documents.

In order to sustain the interns’ interest in the project and satisfy the writing component of their internships, Colligan created the Coroner Case File Documentation Wiki. This wiki allowed the interns to share in real time interesting things they found within the records, add descriptive tags, supply file arrangement information, and document their responses to files concerning murders, suicides, and accidents. Colligan also gave students research assignments that broke up the monotony of (and sometimes disrupted) processing, and this research is reflected in the wiki’s detailed timeline of life in Pittsburgh.

Colligan concluded that when working with wikis, immediacy is a more important goal than perfect writing and presentation. One should also have a clear sense of one’s target readership. In the final analysis, the core readership of this wiki seems to have been the project staffers themselves; however, the wiki has been discussed in genealogical chat rooms and has gotten a fair amount of international traffic.

Finally, Colligan noted that the creation of the wiki means that the preservation issues associated with this project have grown to encompass digital materials. She isn’t sure what the future holds for this wiki, but it has survived a recent migration from an older version of the wiki software (PBWiki) to a newer one (PBWorks).

Jean Root Green succinctly discussed the Binghamton University Libraries’ internal staff wiki. The wiki (created with MediaWiki) has been in place since 2005, and its unveiling was accompanied by a lot of staff training and the development of style guides, templates, and resources that made it easier for staff to use the wiki appropriately. She stressed that the careful planning that went into the development of the wiki and its supporting materials is crucial to the wiki’s success: even people who generally aren’t comfortable with technology feel comfortable making use of the wiki.

The wiki enables staff to discuss internal matters candidly, collaborate on policy and other documents, and it automatically records and tracks changes. It has pages for all projects, committees, task forces, etc., and includes documentation for and links to additional information about all of the libraries’ information technology systems. In addition, it enables staff to publicize collections internally and post reports about conference sessions and other professional development events that they have attended.

David Anderson detailed how George Washington University’s Special Collections Research Center used MediaWiki to create the George Washington University and Foggy Bottom Historical Encyclopedia. Unlike paper encyclopedias, which fade from consciousness soon after publication, this encyclopedia is online, constantly updated, and frequently consulted.

Work on the encycopedia began in 2006, when Anderson created templates and instructions for adding content, and to this day it adheres more closely to the traditional scholarly model of enyclopedia production than to the interactive Wikipedia model: two editors initially oversaw the development of the enyclopedia, and Anderson now serves as the gatekeeper for all additions and revisions. I suspect that Anderson and his colleagues were drawn to MediaWiki not because it can incorporate user-generated content but because it’s free and easy to use.

Scanned documents, articles written by faculty, staff, and students, timelines, and other materials are regularly added to the encyclopedia. At this time, there are 2,910 items in the database and 648 legitimate content pages; each photo is counted as a separate page, hence the discrepancy. There have been over 2 million page views to date. The most popular pages are the main page, the A-Z listing of campus buildings, and pages dedicated, among other things, to football (the university hasn’t fielded a team since 1966), distinguished alumni, Muhummad Ali (who one spoke on campus), various aspects of student life, and cheerleading.

Anderson noted that Google and other search engines have indexed these pages, and as a result he and his colleagues have gotten some non-historical reference inquiries; as a result, he has modified some pages to include pointers to, e.g., campus events calendars.

I’m glad I attended this session. Wikis really are suited to the sort of internal information-sharing that Jean Green discussed, and can readily serve as the backbone of scholarly Web projects of the sort that David Anderson developed. Kate Colligan’s processing wiki is also a great use of the technology; such wikis can capture information that might otherwise remain unrecorded.

However, wikis also have their limits, and this session led me to realize that my colleagues and I have sometimes used wikis not because they were the best tool for the job but because they were the least awful of the available IT options. In some instances, we actually need is something that combines the best features of, e.g., Microsoft Word (i.e., ability to create long, complex, highly formatted documents) with the ease of use and change tracking features of the best wiki software -- without the clutter and chaos of, e.g., Track Changes. If you have any suggestions, I would be most appreciative.


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