I had really wanted to go to Library Camp East since some of my favorite people would be there as well as people I have been dying to meet for ages. It also sounded like a great opportunity to share ideas with other folks who are passionate about innovation and libraries. However, in early September, I got an offer I just couldn’t refuse. I was asked by Mary Ghikas, the Senior Associate Executive Director at ALA, to come to ALA Headquarters and spend a day teaching them about wikis. That day happened to be this past Monday.

The ALA has become really enthusiastic about using wikis to share information, create collaboratively developed conference guides, and to allow comment and criticism on certain documents and issues. They were brimming with ideas, but most of them didn’t know quite enough about what you could do with wikis to know if their ideas were do-able or not. In most cases, they definitely were do-able.

I spent the morning offering an introduction to wikis: what they are, why you might (or might not) want to use a wiki for your project, how wikis are being used successfully in a variety of settings and how to successfully implement a wiki. Lots of people already had ideas about what they wanted to do with wikis, so I got a lot of interesting and very concrete questions. They brough up a lot of issues that I had not thought much about in the past with wikis such as naming conventions and accessibility. I tried to show them what is possible with a wiki, especially in terms of setting permissions to give certain people more editing rights, but I also stressed time and again the importance of making a totally public wiki as free and open as possible so that it will still have that grassroots feel that makes wikis so attractive to contributors. However, with the ALA, there are certain limitations to complete freedom because they are a non-profit and have certain legal obligations. We talked a lot about how to develop guidelines, much like the Wikipedia does, that are not necessarily restrictive, but keep the wiki civil and on-topic. I also suggested that for conference wikis, they use a community management model and enlist library students and other interested folks in preventing spam or innapropriate content from staying on the wiki. My slides for that talk are here (PPT).

Meredith teaching wikis at ALA
Hands on wiki training. Photo by Jenny

In the afternoon, I did three separate hands-on sessions for 75 minutes each. In these sessions, each participant had a computer and I introduced them to wiki markup and had them develop a profile. I also had them wreck their profile (or someone else’s) to teach them how to revert spam and vandalism. It was so exciting to see their enthusiasm about creating a profile that lives online. For people who’ve never put any content on the Web themselves, it’s a powerful thing, but even folks like Teresa Koltzenberg, who have plenty of experience with the Web, were having a great time with this new “toy”. :) The slides from my hands-on sessions are here (also PPT).

The ALA’s first large-scale test of their wiki know-how is going to be the Midwinter 2007 Wiki. Although I suggested that they wait to announce the Midwinter Wiki to the public until every page has at least some content on it, I guess the cat got out of the bag as I just saw it on AL Direct and the TechSource blog (though I note that already there are way fewer undeveloped pages than a few days ago). Kudos to John Chrastka, the very enthusiastic architect of all this. He is also the creator of the ALA MemberBlog! With people like John, Mary, Jenny, Teresa (and many others whom I met during my day at ALA) working to make the ALA a responsive, transparent and innovative organization, I really feel optimistic about the future of the ALA. So optimistic that I plan to re-up my membership this year.

What’s really most fascinating about all this (to me, at least) is that Mary’s first exposure to me was Jenny and Michael’s talk last winter at ALA when Michael posted a slide with a from a very opinionated post I had written about ALA. I remember when I saw that Michael had put that in his presentation, I thought, wow, they are really going to hate me. From that, Mary looked me up and discovered that I had created a wiki for the 2005 Annual Conference. She then contacted me and we ended up working together to develop an official wiki for 2006. While I was initially surprised, I see that this is indicative of her passion for making the ALA better. So many of the people there are happy to hear constructive criticism and suggestions from members and I was so energized by their openness and enthusiasm.

What I also found interesting is that I kept saying things like “if you all start deleting things from a wiki, people may say that the ALA is preventing dialogue.” And someone would inevitably say to me that everyone using the wiki is “the ALA”, from Mary Ghikas to a sometimes disgruntled member like me to a brand new student member. We are all ALA, and I think the people who make the organization run are now working hard to make us feel that. It was just interesting to see how my own biases kept coming out in my language.

Thanks to Mary and everyone I met at ALA Headquarters for having me! It was a very fun experience!