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.

10 thoughts on “Using a wiki as a research guide: a year’s experience

  1. Hey Chad,
    I’ve emailed you once before about wikis. This question involves wikis but goes more general as well. I’m working on our library’s website and some wiki as subject guides. Somebody told me about a company that has templates for all sorts of stuff: websites, images, buttons, etc. I know little about webdesign. Have you ever worked with a company like that? What would suggest?

    p.s. I’ve enjoyed the guitar articles, especially I play for our churches worship team. Its a fresh surprise to see like minds. Thanks.

  2. Hi Eric. Good to hear from you again. I haven’t heard anything about that company, so I’m afraid I can’t offer much there.

    I’m glad you like the guitar posts. I play for our church praise band as well, although I haven’t played in about 8 weeks. (My second son will be 8 weeks on Monday). Life has been a little hectic, but I hope to pick it up again really soon. My fingers are starting to get soft, so I can’t wait too long to start strummin’ again.

    Take care and thanks for reading.

  3. Hi Chad – I’m just starting to explore using a wiki in my library and am finding that google doc seems to serve the same function but is easier for me to use ’cause I don’t have to deal with any code when I edit. Is there something I would be missing if I used google doc instead of a free wiki service like pb wiki? Any advice would be appreciated – Thanks, J. Odlevak, REFERENCE LIBRARIAN, St. Clair County Community College, LRC, Port Huron, MI

  4. Chad, I really enjoyed your article and found it very direct and to the point. I will be starting a wiki for senior high school students and think your ideas and the wiki set up were very informative. I will let you know how I do as I know I will be returning to your wiki for help and good ideas. Thanks!

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