Using a Wiki for the library

Last issue I put your attention on wikis, the Web 2.0 tool behind – for example – Wikipedia. I pointed to some useful health related wikis and the ease of editing Wikipedia pages (hopefully you didn’t edit that entry on EAHIL too much …). Today I found a nice definition: “Wiki pages look and act like normal web pages, except they have an ‘Edit’ link that makes it easy to modify existing pages and add new pages”.[1] In the meantime I was able to play a little bit around with some wikis – as well software to be installed as web hosts. Here are my experiences:

PBworks (formerly PBwiki)

If you look for an thoroughly easy way to start a wiki by yourself, there is no way around hosted wikis[2]. PeanutButter Wiki[3] (PBWiki) is a cute example and definitely worth a try:You can just cut&paste whole web sites into the editor and PBWiki will understand it – no need for sophisticated reformatting and remembering that ##xyz## is for bold and [[url anchor]] is for a hyperlink. That feature is a great benefit if you don’t start from the scratch, but have already some web pages to build on.

  • You can embed any RSS feed in your wiki’s sidebar.
  • You can choose from three layouts.
  • You don’t have to bother on technique, software, security, spam, storage, etc.

Take a look at the zbmed wiki, which I created in half an hour for our medical library.[4] PBWiki is for free, but – of course – you can upgrade for a fee. Eight dollars a month will give you seven layouts, 1GB storage, and RSS feeds for each page not only the start page. Even if the advertising mails are sometimes boring, the human support will reply to your questions in time (although they didn’t know, why the use of their new point-and-click editor crashed my FireFox browser). There were no problems with Microsoft Internet Explorer.


On their server, the University Zürich provides PmWiki for faculty, staff, and students. With this wiki software, Anna Schlosser from the Medical Library Careum[5] successfully created a wiki for internal management purposes. PmWiki[6] can be downloaded for free by anyone, it needs only PHP-support – a prerequisite nearly every web server provides. It comes with a nice and well organized layout, which can be modified by skins and templates. By using extensions (‘recipes’)[7] one can customize the wiki greatly and add new mark-up.


If you think in terms of user friendliness and acceptance, MediaWiki[8] should be one of the first options: It’s the very wiki software Wikipedia is based on. It’s free and can be installed on any web server with PHP and MySQL (but beware, it’s really huge) and provides the look & feel of Wikipedia to your wiki. Virtually anybody which you would like to make happy with a wiki is already acquainted with Wikipedia, so MediaWiki will be a real advantage. If you don’t have access to a server or don’t like to install and maintain hundreds and thousands of files, MediaWiki can also be used via hosted server, e.g. at WikiCities.[9]

WikkaWiki is a “flexible, standards-compliant and lightweight wiki engine”.[10] It is released under an Open License and can be used by anyone. It strikes me, because of its many features:

  • It’s much more plain and clearly laid out than MediaWiki and therefore easier to administrate.
  • It stores the pages in a MySQL database, so I could “just copy” my respective blog entries to the wiki.
  • Such as MediaWiki it can be installed on any standard web server which supports PHP and MySQL.
  • And last but not least: I know the developer 😉

How can you make use of wikis?

At my library’s blog we have a category called FAQ – Fragen & Antworten.[11] There we offer and archive the frequently asked questions of our customers and the respective answers of the library. Recently it became clear to us that for this kind of knowledge database a blog isn’t that useful at all. The about 100 FAQ entries were partly outdated, not linked to each other, and not easy accessible because there were buried in the huge overall blog. Both to promote this special set of information to our customers and to benefit from the wiki features, we created a distinct point of access by converting the FAQ entries to a WikkaWiki wiki[12] (Fig.1). The advantages:

  • Tremendously easy creating, modifying, and linking of pages: Just type a word with a capital in between such as MedicCenter and the wiki will embed a link to that respective page. If the page does not exist, a click on the link will let you create that page from the scratch.
  • A “Page History” preserves older versions of a page and makes it possible to restore it.
  • The reader can comment on the entries such as in blogs. If you don’t mind, the readers can even modify them.
  • The list of “Recent Changes” to your wiki pages keep you informed of what’s going on. Of course, you can subscribe via RSS to every page. If you write for instance a page on PubMed and keep it updated, the user will be currently aware, if there are downtimes or new features or whatsoever happened with that database.
  • You can fine-tune access and browsing by providing categories.

Knowledge-Wiki of the Medical Library Münster

A second usage for a wiki which hits you right in the face is the library homepage itself. With WikkaWiki you can easily create a homepage in no time, with Pbwiki you don’t even need a server and get your own web address in addition. Or make use of a wiki for promoting conferences. For the example, the organizers of the EAHIL conference at Helsinki choosed Atlassian Confluence[13], an „Enterprise solution wiki“, for their nice programme web site.[14]

Since years I had hesitated to take a closer look at wikis, because I was already satisfied by the features of weblogs and tried to concentrate on that tool. But now I’m somewhat overwhelmed and excited by the power of wikis. I will explore this Web 2.0 tool further and let you know.



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