9 things I’ve learned in the four years with the Biz Wiki

The original Biz Wiki
The Biz Wiki

It’s hard to believe that it’s been four years since I created the Biz Wiki. When I first wrote about using a wiki as a research guide, I had no idea where the wiki would go. For the four year anniversary, I think it’s important to address some of the things that I’ve learned over time.

1. Don’t be afraid to shake things up a bit

It was risky, initially, to drop my old static html research guides in favor of the wiki format.  It took a lot of work porting the content over (and I use “port”, as I didn’t simply cut and paste the old content in the move to a new system).  I had no idea how the new wiki would be received, or if it would even be used at all.

2. Experiment with new forms of media

In the process of trying something new, you get to experiment with new forms of media.  One thing I learned in this process is the way a media is “intended” to be used may not necessarily be the way that you wind up actually using it.  In the case of the Biz Wiki, I had originally set it up so that it would be a true wiki and that anyone could add or edit the content.  I didn’t promote this that much initially, and I still probably could have done a better job of encouraging students and faculty to be active in the wiki’s content.  However, four years later, I have a better understanding of where my faculty are and how busy they are.  As an example, I recently emailed my faculty members a list of items that I was recommending to cut, as I have to cut $68,000 from my budget.  Can you guess how many responses I got?  About 3.  Bearing that in mind, I think it’s unlikely that my faculty have the time or the interest to edit the Biz Wiki.  They see that as my job (as is managing the library budget), and as long as I’m doing a good job, everybody’s happy.  Many have questioned whether the Biz Wiki is actually a wiki at all, since I am the only one managing it.  You can call it what you want, but for me, it’s a wiki, and it just works.

3. Keep it fresh

A wiki is designed so that you can add and edit content with ease.  However, even a wiki with content as exciting as business research tools can get a little boring at times. (really, it can).  There have been times that I have gotten really, really bored with the wiki, so that even editing the existing content can become a chore.  It’s difficult to do, but I think it is really important to push through the doldrums and continue to manage the content.  When I find that I’m doing as much as I should to manage the content, I try to make a habit of periodically picking a random page and trying to tweak it in some way.  I’m also in the process of overhauling my Biz Wiki Screencasts page into something that is a little more user-friendly and easier to manage.

4. Steal ideas from others

In the process of keeping it fresh, sometimes you just run out of ideas.  I became very tired with the old look of the Biz Wiki, so I went looking for a new one.  As luck would have it, another popular wiki has a pretty good front page, so I borrowed the code, changed the colors, and made it my own.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I figure the more I can make the Biz Wiki look and feel like the Wikipedia, the easier it will be for my patrons to use.

Borrowing ideas from others is one of the best things you can do to make your content relevant to your users.  I’m constantly on the lookout for examples of how others are using social media and tools.  I look at other libraries, but I primarily like to look for other non-library examples.  I feel that if I just look at how libraries are doing things, then I may not be seeing other really good examples of social media.  As an example, take a look at how Larry Hyrb, the brand manager for  Microsoft’s Xbox Live uses twitter, a blog, 12 seconds, video, and podcasts. I look at stuff like he’s using and try to think about how libraries can use these tools to sell our brand.  We may not use them in the same way or get the same kind of feedback from our users, but we can still use the successfully to reach our patrons in different ways.

5. Listen to feedback

Now I’ll be honest here.  I don’t have faculty members calling and telling me how great the Biz Wiki is or how great I am. However, I do have students tell me that they used the Biz Wiki because their professor told them to.  That in itself is a huge compliment. Sometimes students whom I have never met or taught stop me in the library and tell me how much they appreciate the Biz Wiki and how much it helped them.  One professor even tells his students that they have it easy, thanks to the work that I’ve put into the Biz Wiki.  I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but comments like that help to keep you motivated.

Constructive criticism is also helpful, although I’ve not received much about the Biz Wiki.  However, the Business Blog was recently reviewed by a library school student, and it helped to hear an outsider’s perspective of that tool.  I recently became a bit bored with the Business Blog as well, and I changed the template up a bit and used the student’s comments in the process.

Most of my feedback comes not from glowing reviews about the Biz Wiki or the Business Blog, but from listening to others.  Students and colleagues often tell me they searched for a particular topic in the Biz Wiki and did not find what they needed.  I take information like that, as well as the current projects students are working on, and use that for new or additional content for the wiki or the blog.  Listening to your community’s needs is truly one of the best feedback mechanisms you can use, and it will help you keep your content and your services relevant.  I’ve also found that looking at the hit counts for the Biz Wiki and Business Blog can show me what is being used and what is not.  Obviously I try to create more content that is similar to the stuff that is being used.

6. Help people find your content

You can create the greatest site in the world, but if you don’t link to it anywhere, no one is going to use it.  Yes, I am stating the obvious here, but some could use to hear that over and over.  In the case of the Biz Wiki, I link to it in various places on our library website.  You can find a link on our subject guides page, in the Company section of our database portal, in the industry section of our database portal, and listed twice in our Business section as well.   I’m also blessed to teach several hundred students each quarter, and I am sure to promote the Biz Wiki there as well.  It often helps to show them something they really need to get them to return to your site. As an example, if I have enough lead time, I may try to make a special guide just for that class.  Just a hint, show them the guide at the end of class, not at the beginning.  Otherwise it’s a little difficult to keep their attention.

7.  Adding and maintaining content is hard, regardless of the technology

Whenever someone asks me about wikis, I try to tell them in some way that wikis are not for everyone.  While a wiki makes it incredibly easy to add and update content from anywhere, it still takes time and effort to maintain the content. The bigger the Biz Wiki becomes, the more effort it takes to maintain.  I’ve got quite a few pages that are in need of updating, and I even have a few pages that will need deleting.  It takes time to do that work.  A wiki makes it pretty easy to do the work, but it does not make time move slower.  Other projects and priorities can distract me from the wiki, and occasionally I have to go in and knock the cobwebs off.  A wiki is an awesome vehicle for disseminating library information, but it does not have an auto pilot.

8.  If one tool doesn’t work, get another one

Sometimes thing just stop working.  I used to use Pidgin to connect to all of my IM services and with Meebo, until one day the Meebo widget stopped displaying my status.  I was disappointed, but I didn’t cry or freak out about it.  When your hammer breaks pulling nails you go get another one.  Likewise, when your widget won’t work, you find another tool that does.  In my case, I found Digsby, and it works wonderfully for what I need it to do. In a similar fashion, I have begun using Blip.tv to host all new screencasts that I do.  This tool allows for easy embedding of videos, and also gives me viewership stats.  It’s easy to get attached to the tool that you’ve used for so long, and new tools may not have the same feel as that old hammer did.  But new tools may eventually feel more comfortable and be more useful in the long run.

9.  Don’t settle

With any web 2.0 or library 2.0 or other tech tool, it’s easy to try something, and if it works, continue doing the same thing  or using the same tool.  While it is comfortable to keep doing the same thing, even if it has proven successful, I don’t think this is good for librarian or their services in the long run.  I’ve mentioned how bored I’ve grown with the Business Blog and the Biz Wiki over the years, and how that boredom drove me to some new ideas. I can only imagine how bored regular users of the sites must feel.  To alleviate my boredom, to challenge me, and to offer my patrons new and improved content, I have started doing more with screencasts and web video.  I look like a dork at times doing the videos, but at least I’m offering new and useful content to my patrons. I’m also learning something in the process, which means I’m growing as a librarian and hopefully enhancing the services that I offer as well.

If you’ve made it this far in the post, I thank you for sticking around.  I’m also curious what other might have to say.  What projects have you started and what was the most important thing you learned from them?  How did you keep the projects fresh and growing?  If the project died, why? What advice do you have for others who might be afraid of trying something new?

The importance of visual literacy

Over the past couple of months I have received numerous calls about the Biz Wiki.  The callers,  emailers, and IMers all have something in common:  they all own a business or work at a business whose name or contact information is incorrect on the Biz Wiki.  I even got a call recently from some lady in Mississippi who kept getting calls at her home  because people thought she was in the recycling business.  All of these people said they got their information from the Biz Wiki.  Actually, the did get their information from a biz wiki, but it was not The Biz Wiki.  I don’t have information about individual companies in the Biz Wiki, as it is a site meant to promote useful business research sources.  The other wiki is a collection of company names, addresses, and other information.   (I’m not going to link to the other wiki here out of spite, as I don’t want to increase it’s page rankings.   Google it if you want to see it. The address has something like bizwiki and .com in it. 😉   )  While the idea of using a wiki as a company directory is a good one, it’s not so good if a lot of the content is just plain wrong.  Wrong information is irritating, as are the frequent phone calls requesting that I fix the inaccuracies.   Folks are even more irritated when I very politely tell them they’ve got the wrong wiki, but a little visual literacy could have saved them a phone call.

If we compare the two sites, they are not very similar at all, save for the words “biz” and “wiki.” I seriously wish I had trademarked the name.

The cheap Biz Wiki knockoff
The cheap Biz Wiki knockoff
The original Biz Wiki
The original Biz Wiki

Folks are likely finding me by searching for Biz Wiki, and then they see a guy named “Chad” with lots of different ways to contact him.  They’re good at Googling, or so they think, and they think they’ve found the root of all the misinformation about their company.  Unfortunately, their sleuthing isn’t good enough, as somehow they can’t figure out that the two sites (see screenshots above) are not similar at all.  A quick look at the two sites ought to alert them that something is different with my contact information page and the other web site.  A simple look at the address bar would tell folks that the sites are in two different locations, but perhaps they don’t know to look in the address bar.    The people are kind of miffed when I p0litely tell them that I’m not the guy responsible for that site and I cannot correct the information there.  Many of them ask who I should contact, but the contact information of the other site is very sparse (a email form with no contact info whatsoever).

These are basic skills that librarians teach in information literacy and library instruction sessions.  We teach our students how to look for authority in a website, how to look at the address (edu, gov, org, com, etc.) , look for the author information, and even to look at the design.  Hopefully the things we’re teaching them are sticking, so they’ll be a bit more saavy consumers of web information.  While the phone calls and email about the other biz wiki are a bit annoying,  they do lend evidence to the fact that librarians are still important in the education process.  My theory is that the folks who called me never had a library instruction class in college, or perhaps they’re the one’s who didn’t listen very well.  I know I’ll be a bit more deliberate in my libray instruction sessions from now on, and hopefully I’ll save some poor chap some phone calls down the road.

Embedding Meebo into your wiki

This morning a colleague asked about embedding a meebo me widget into her wiki.  The problem is that a default installation of MediaWiki does not allow embedding of Flash.  After some searching around the web, I found this extension at Glenn’s Junk Chest.  I installed the extension on her wiki (not yet public), and on the Biz Wiki as well.  Thus far it seems to work fine, and it was very easy to set up.  If you’re interested, here is how I did it:

  1. Copy this code into a text file and name it gflash.php.
  2. Put gflash.php into your MediaWiki extensions directory.
  3. Enable the setting in your LocalSettings.php file by adding the following:  include('extensions/gflash.php');
  4. Add your meebo me widget with the structure as follows: 
    480 340 http://www.somewhere.com/someflash.swf 
    In the example, the numbers determine the display size of the widget or flash file.
  5. Have fun with your widget.  😉

Update:  Thanks to Paul’s question in the comments, I tested embedding a Captivate tutorial in the Biz Wiki.  You can see the results here.  I think it looks kind of nice and keeps the user in the wiki.  (However, this screencast was originally programmed to go to our library home page on conclusion, so users eventually leave the wiki.  This might be something to change in future versions.  )

Using a wiki as a research guide: a year’s experience

I was looking through Meredith’s links for her SirsiDynix talk, and noticed that she was linking to my Wiki As A Research Guide post from exactly one year ago today. It’s hard to believe that one year ago I got a hair-brained idea to experiment with a different method of disseminating information to researchers. It’s even harder to believe how successful the Biz Wiki experiment has been. Here’s a look at what I’ve learned over the past year of using a wiki as a research guide.

How the idea started
Early last summer, I had been playing around with wiki software for some time on a testbed server, but never really set up a wiki. The software was fairly easy to install, but once I got it installed, I really had no idea what to do with it or how I might use it. My only experience with a wiki was with the Wikipedia, and I did not see how something like that could be scaled down for library use. So, the wiki sat unused for a few months. Then one day I read that Meredith had just set up a wiki for the 2005 ALA conference, and then shortly after she created the LibSuccess Wiki. After looking at both of these examples, I then understood how I might use a wiki application to meet my needs and the needs of the community I serve. Thanks, Meredith, for your fine examples. They truly were an inspiration that helped me get my hair-brained idea off the ground.

How I set it up

There are a variety of options available to set up a wiki, and Meredith has created a fine list or wiki options on the LibSuccess wiki. I decided that I wanted a locally-hosted wiki, which is a wiki that is hosted on your own server or server space. In my opinion, locally-hosted wikis (and blogs for that matter) allow better customization of things like the style sheets, the layout, user permissions, etc.

To run my wiki, I chose the Media Wiki software. I figured if it was good enough for the Wikipedia, it was good enough for me. I also figured that the growth in the Wikipedia would ensure continued development of the Media Wiki software. Media Wiki is not that difficult to install, although you do need your own server (or rented server space) on which to host your wiki. You also need to have the ability to create a MySQL database (or have someone create it for you), and the server has to be able to run PHP. I’m not a programmer, but I have set up a number of database-driven blogs. If you have set up a WordPress blog before, you can set up a Media Wiki installation.

After I installed the wiki software, I began transferring content from my old research guides to the wiki. I explained some of my frustrations with my traditional research guides in the post from a year ago. In a nutshell, having three different research guides—one for general business, one for marketing, and one for international business–was redundant and confusing to the users. So, I began by taking some of the best content from the guides and populating the wiki.

How I use the wiki
I use the Biz Wiki to refer researchers to business reference books, databases, websites, and other research guides. There are different types of pages in the wiki. Some pages are just about specific reference books or websites, and they explain how the resource may be used. An example is Demographics USA, which is a print reference book. In the article I give the location of the book and also explain the type of content found in the book (and occasionally, how one might use the content). While this example is for a print resource, there are other similar articles about web sites and databases. In my previous research guides, I just gave a small sentence about the book and linked the user to the catalog record, which in retrospect, was probably not the best approach. Hopefully the Biz Wiki makes the reference tools more findable and inviting to use.

Other types of articles are more instructional in nature. These articles, such as Industry Research Basics or SWOT analysis, show the reader how to find particular types of information. These articles mention specific resources in the wiki and are cross-linked with those pages. Instead of lists of resources, I try to tell the user why a particular resource might be valuable to them when researching a particular topic. Again, one of my primary goals with the wiki is to promote the valuable (and expensive) library resources that we have available.

With each wiki page that I create, I make sure that I assign a category to that page. Perhaps it’s the librarian in me, but I think things need to be well-organized. Assigning a category to each article allows the user to find similar information, very much in the way clicking on a database subject heading finds similar information.

The wiki currently has 99 different pages. Initially it was quite a bit of work to add content to the wiki, but additions have slowed considerably. I now believe I have the most useful resources in the wiki, but as I find other resources or tips, I can add them with ease. Also, as I use the wiki and find something that needs to be updated, I can do so very easily. Because the wiki is edited via a web interface, I can make additions and changes at my desk, at the reference desk, in the classroom, or at home. This ease in editing enables me to provide up-to-date and relevant content to business researchers.

How others use the wiki
With over 28,400 hits to the main page of the wiki, the numbers show that it has definitely been used. If one looks at the Popular Pages feature of the wiki, there are more than 50 articles receiving more than 1000 hits this past year. The Industry Research Basics and Company Research Basics guides, the third and fourth-most-popular pages, have received 5500 and 4800 hits respectively, and I only created these guides in January 2006.

I wish I had scientific proof about why this is working so well, but I can only theorize about these numbers. I believe that most users of the wiki (undergraduate and graduate business students) come to the wiki and either use the search function or browse by category. Either way, they find an article or page that looks good to them. They can then click on a cross-reference article in the page, or click on the article’s category to find more information. I have not done any usability testing with the wiki, but I am assuming that because it looks similar to the Wikipedia (same software, as described above) the Biz Wiki’s familiar interface and organization make it easy for researchers to use.

Promoting the resource
As we all know, we can build or create the coolest resources available, but if no one uses them, then the cool factor wears off very quickly. I’m very fortunate to talk to 300-600 business students each quarter, and I demonstrate the Biz Wiki to students in formal instructional sessions and while answering reference questions. I almost never showed students my old research guides because I thought they were boring and not very useful, and because I was not very proud of them. I am very proud of the Biz Wiki and I love showing it to students. I also really love it when a student stops me in the library or tells me via email or IM that they were able to find information because of the wiki. It’s great to know that you are making a positive impact on the student learning experience.

Challenges and things to consider
One of the biggest challenges that I faced with the Biz Wiki was coming to terms with how users might actually use the wiki. When I first built the wiki, I had grand ideas that faculty, staff, and other librarians would be more than willing to contribute content. As it turns out, no one has stepped forward to add or edit content. They simply use the wiki as a searchable, well-organized library resource. This was difficult for me to understand because I had hopes that the Biz Wiki would be a resource that would promote collaboration and community among business researchers. While no one else is creating content for the wiki or providing feedback, the potential is there for future collaboration and community building. In the meantime, I’ve grown to understand that users may actually use something in a different way than it was originally intended, and I’m okay with that.

Anyone with a blog or a wiki will tell you of the nightmares they have with comment spam. When I originally built the Biz Wiki, I set the wiki so that anyone could edit the content. I began to get flooded with comment spam, so I disabled anonymous edits and required users to register before making changes to the wiki. Unfortunately, spammers were still persistent and went the extra step to create accounts in order to post links to all kinds of dirty things that I won’t address here. As a last resort, I locked the Biz Wiki down so that only I can create user accounts. I placed a message on the login screen and in various places on the wiki inviting users to contact me if they would like an account. Thus far, no one has taken me up on the offer. More than likely has had some influence on the lack of community edits, but it is my only solution for controlling the content at the moment.

What the future holds
I have been very pleased with my experience of using a wiki as a research guide, and I can tell you that I have no intentios of returning to my old traditional html guides. Only time will tell how the Biz Wiki will be used in the future. I will continue to add and edit content on an on-going basis, while weeding pages that are no longer relevant or out of date. It is my hope that the wiki will continue to be a viable and useful resource to business researchers at my institution and beyond. And if the day should come when the Biz Wiki is no longer useful, I only hope that another hair-brained idea will come along.

Further reading on the subject
I’ve been very fortunate to talk to a number of folks about my use of a wiki as a research guide. Here are a few links to additional reading and presentations:

Ohio Digital Commons for Education (ODCE). “Using Blogs and Wikis to Promote Information Literacy and Library Resources.” March 6, 2006. (PowerPoint slides).

Computers In Libraries. “Wikis in Action: A Wiki as a Research Guide.” March 22, 2006.

Computers In Libraries. “Wikis in the Classroom: Powerful Tools for Library Instruction.” March 23, 2006.

HigherEd BlogCon. “Blogs, Wikis, and IM: Communication Tools For Subject Specialists.” April 12, 2006.

eBay Wiki Workshop

eBay is having a workshop about using the eBay wiki:

Host:     eBay Staff
Date:     Friday  07/14
Time:     13:00 – 14:00 PT

Description:    In this workshop, Joe McCaffery, an eBay Product Manager, will review the eBay Wiki. We’ll talk about what a Wiki is and why eBay is providing a Wiki to the community. We’ll go over some best practices for writing an effective article. We’ll also review some practices that should be avoided when contributing to the eBay Wiki.