Karen Coombs beat me to the punch with an excellent post on a Web4Lib comment I had noticed recently as well:

“I am repeatedly impressed by how often, when librarians consider wikis, their first thought seems to be of access control. The idea of “just anybody being able to edit our Web pages” seems somehow innately abhorrent. It leads me to wonder if they “get” the very idea of a wiki.” (original post from Web4Lib)

The post subtly brings up the questions of “what is a wiki” and “why would I want to use one” . In my mind, the primary characteristics of a wiki are easy collaborative document editing and creation. Wikis allow multiple people to easily contribute to the same document and track the modification to that document…. For me a wiki doesn’t have to have open editing for everyone. In fact, there are very good reasons why you might not want to allow anonymous editing on your wiki and not all of them have to do with defacement. If you are doing collaborative document creation and editing you want to know who created or changed what. Additionally, if you are a professor who has asked your students work on a wiki as part of their class assignments you will want to be able to tell which students are participating and which are not.

I think people often think that the “idea of a wiki” means “open editing by everyone in the known universe” (an idea notably seen in the Wikipedia). Ward Cunningham defined a wiki as follows:

A wiki invites all users to edit any page or to create new pages within the wiki Web site, using only a plain-vanilla Web browser without any extra add-ons (from The Wiki Way, page 16).

The question is, who are the users? If the users are meant to be library staff working behind the firewall, then a wiki Intranet is meeting the essential criterion of a wiki. And why in the world would you make a wiki for staff open to editing by patrons? It just doesn’t make sense. If it’s a wiki meant for patrons to add to and edit, that’s another story.

Even if a wiki userbase is “everyone in the known universe” it may be necessary to institute some access control. While Ward Cunningham’s original Portland Pattern Repository wiki is open to anyone who wishes to edit, even he recognized that some wikis will need access control in his book The Wiki Way. Even the Wikipedia has created some security measures and editing restrictions for pages that receive a lot of vandalism. Our wikis live in the real world which sometimes involves attacks by spammers and vandals. What kind of a resource would a wiki be if it was just full of spam and other garbage? From personal experience, if you don’t have enough members of the wiki community to keep the wiki orderly and free of spam, it is essential to institute some kind of access control. Personally, I’m not worried about people so much as spam.

A wiki is just a tool… kind of like a blog. A weblog was originally defined as a collection of links in chronological order. When you think of the dozens of ways that blog software is used today, you realize that the tool does not define the use or the content. Similarly, a wiki can be used for many purposes. It needn’t even be collaborative! While Chad Boeninger had hoped that faculty and students would add to his Biz Wiki, the fact that they haven’t doesn’t mean that his use of wiki software for his subject guide was a waste. Wiki software is also very useful for quick updating (which is so important when you are dealing with subject guides). The ability to easily search the wiki and to create browseable categories means improved findability.

On the other hand, I do think that people sometimes can be way too worried about access control. Other than spam from bots, I have never had any of my wikis defaced. There does need to be some level of trust involved in collaborative editing. That’s just the way it is. I was once asked for advice on wikis from someone who said that her library was thinking of developing a wiki for internal use (behind the firewall). She said that her colleagues would only use a wiki if each group at the library could close their pages off from editing by members of other groups in the library. With that level of mistrust (when you can’t even trust other members of the library staff) I don’t know that a wiki would really meet their needs. A CMS or some other sort of intranet software would probably be preferable.

In conclusion, I think a wiki is useful to meet any one of the following needs:

  • collaborative editing
  • ability to quickly and easily update content
  • ability to easily find content through searching and browsing

While collaboration is the most unique and exciting characteristic of wiki, it is not the only reason to use one. It isn’t called quick (in Hawaiian) for nothing.