Thing 22 of 23: beyond the author with wikis

Wikis, which we’re being asked to look at as one of our 23 Things, embody in the most intense form one of the big questions surrounding social media. Who actually provides useful content? Whose writing (or videos or pictures) are worth knowing about? The textual hierarchy has traditionally been strict. At the top are authorities and professional authors, who write published books, peer reviewed articles, etc. At the bottom are the users/readers, who are seeking out material. And in between are librarians, who guide the user/reader to the text they really need.

Right from the start, the internet demonstrated that there were talented ‘non-professional’ writers/artists/photographers etc who the gatekeepers of the publishing world had previously missed. The web also revealed that there was a demand for easily available specialist information beyond what reference libraries provided. The model for most information provision on the web, however, is still the traditional author or a team of authors. Wikis, however, belong to the postmodern world, after the death of the author. While archiving of previous versions of pages means the writing of them is not quite as anonymous as it appears initially, the possibility that anyone can alter a page still raises difficult problems about accuracy and responsibility.

What is surprising is how effectively some wikis have managed to overcome such problems. For all the weaknesses of Wikipedia, it’s made itself an indispensible reference tool, if used carefully. In my current cataloguing job, I use it all the time, such as when I need to check the location of an obscure Polish town where a coin hoard has been found. And the existence of linked Wikipedias in multiple languages makes it by far the most effective way of discovering that Sigmund der Münzreiche is better known in English as Sigismund the Archduke of Austria.

Yet the success of Wikipedia isn’t necessarily easy to replicate, as a look at the “recent changes” on some other wikis shows. You need a relatively large number of people willing to contribute, as well as effective but sensitive policing of contributions. I have to admit that I’ve never tried to create or edit a wiki entry, even though I’d often have the knowledge to do so. If I’m putting effort into creating something online, I’d rather do something that I can keep control of and take credit for. I’m not alone in this: there’s an interesting recent article on Inside Higher Ed about the use of wikis in academia which points to the ambivalent attitude many academics have to the whole concept of wikis.

In the comments on this article, there were some interesting points made about the potential usefulness of wikis for publishers and libraries, especially in providing an administrative knowledge base for internal procedures, and for advice on reference queries. My vague impression, from a look at one or two more general library-themed wikis is that at the moment they tend to be being used mainly as link dumps to material elsewhere that is still author-controlled. (Though this can still be useful, as a look at the Academic Blog Portal shows).

It will be interesting to see whether communities can be created within libraries (or in collaborations between librarians) that both contain sufficient people with the motivation to contribute repeatedly to a wiki, and have the confidence in accepting other people’s knowledge, whatever their position in the hierarchy is. The fact that wikis do not have an author (or even a team of authors) make them at once both the social media with the most social potential for libraries and the one it may be hardest to put into effective practice.

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