By Meredith Farkas | January 9, 2008
A while back, I wrote about the challenges I had in finding the right platform for our subject guides. Well, I’m pleased to say that I just linked to our subject guides from the front page of the library website, so they are live! I ended up using MediaWiki for the guides and tweaked the skin, Cologne Blue to meet our needs. It’s not the sexiest thing in the world and we don’t have every subject covered by a long shot, but we decided that we’d rather put it out where it can be useful than wait until we get to some “totally done” state (which will never really happen). It’s perpetual beta, baby! We still need to make some last minute tweaks before the students come back on Monday, but I think we’re in good shape to start and will be adding many more in the future.
My hope is that this doesn’t look like a wiki to the end user. I made sure that the editing options and other stuff like that were only visible to those who are logged in (and the only people with accounts right now are the librarians). So while you see a ton of editing options on the left-hand sidebar when you’re logged in, all you should see when you’re not logged in is a search box. I love that the guides are searchable and that we can assign categories to each page to allow students to browse as well. While we don’t have a ton of categories now, we may in the future. I also like that we have the option in the future of opening this up to further collaboration. I’d love to work with an interested faculty member on a collaboratively-developed course guide or subject guide at some point.
While there were many issues factoring into my decision, the main reason I chose a wiki is because everyone can create their own guides and edit them. I’ll be taking over the liaison duties for the Social Sciences in February and will also be in charge of doing LibQual for Fall 2008 (eeek!), so I’m going to be a lot busier than I was before. If we’d been in a position where I had to put up everyone’s guides and update them when they needed me to, it probably wouldn’t have gotten done. And it doesn’t just benefit me. My colleagues are really happy to have that control over their pages. When you have to ask someone else to do something for you, you’re going to be much less likely to make minor improvements on what you already have up there (I was like that too back when I didn’t have the ability to change our library pages in WebCT). My colleague, Josh, and I did a training yesterday on how to edit the wiki and I was happy to see how open to learning this everyone was. While I think they were a little freaked out at first, as soon as they actually started using the wiki, the anxiety level went way down. Prior to the training, Josh and I had been putting up everyone’s content, and we were a little worried that people wouldn’t feel comfortable taking it on themselves. Since the training, my Director has already put up one guide and is working on another. Woo hoo! Talk about leading by example!
Probably my favorite part of the subject guides is the focus on how-to’s. More general subject guides are great, but usually students are trying to accomplish something more specific. They’re not doing “architecture research” — they’re looking for information on a specific building or architect or design style. They’re not doing “English research” — they’re looking for literary criticisms, book reviews, etc. That’s why I think a task-based orientation works so much better than a subject-oriented one. The majority of the questions we get at the desk are from students trying to do the same few things and now we have guides that address those specific things that students are trying to accomplish.
We’ve been doing course guides since last year, but before, I always had to take people’s Word docs, turn them into HTML and put them on our site. It was time-consuming for me and annoying for the liaisons who created them because they couldn’t just make small changes on their own. Now, we’ll be doing all of these on the wiki, which I think will lead to more guides being created for classes.
I know this isn’t super high-tech or super innovative these days, but it’s a big deal for my library and I’m so excited to see it go live after so many months of evaluating, testing, planning, tweaking, and content development. We built a resource that’s (hopefully) useful for students where content is easily searchable and browseable. We streamlined the workflow for getting guides up and for maintaining them, which should lead to more up-to-date guides. We empowered staff to create and edit their own guides. We created something that could allow for future collaboration with faculty and (gasp!) even students. While it may not be sexy in terms of the technology it’s sexy in the sense that it’s replicable. This is a technology project that any library can replicate. You don’t even need to have a server since there are free hosted wiki options. As long as you have staff with a willingness to learn, you can make this happen.