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The librarian as knowledge manager

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Using a wiki as a knowledge sharing tool

Having realized the extent of knowledge in the "heads of our library staff members", the next step was to select a vehicle for sharing it. The staff intranet was little used for this purpose, being insufficiently interactive, out of date, and lacking clear navigation or search facilities.

It was therefore decided to replace the intranet with a wiki. Wikis encourage participation because they are seen as easy to use – anyone can upload information (there is no webmaster acting as a perceived barrier) – and also to update. They are good at encouraging collaborative work and "communities of practice".

One of the things that the knowledge audit revealed was that library workers had a strong preference for sharing knowledge informally. The wiki is ideal for that.

But how to encourage that informality and freedom of participation while at the same time maintaining a sense of discipline and the good organization that marks out a successful reference work? Is there a conflict between informality and structure, especially given that librarians are used to working in a structured way?

Karolien definitely agrees with the importance of structure and organization, and took a very planned approach to the management of the wiki. She adopted the Klobas life cycle of planning, designing, testing, launching, maintaining and evaluating, with the user at the centre.

As with all software projects, the initial planning stages are very important, and involve establishing the purpose of the wiki, determining the budget, identifying resources, and choosing the wiki software. The wiki comparison site, , is useful here.

The next stage for Vlissingen was to establish the design and the initial structure, which was based on that of the intranet updated to current needs:

  • mission statement and general information about the wiki,
  • library news,
  • library procedures,
  • staff knowledge profiles,
  • logistical information,
  • spaces for teams,
  • wiki documentation (including sandbox, tutorials and links to special pages).

Karolien believes that having this initial structure creates a basic navigation and helps people see where their contribution belongs. Some of the structure is locked so that people cannot change it:

"If we allow people to do that, then we will end up with a situation like we had before, which only adds to the confusion."

Some initial content, taken from the intranet, was provided so there would be no reluctance to add content to an empty site. Then permissions were granted –- member (user), member, owner, contributor, editor, reader and reviewer – and user documentation and "wikiquette" added.

The testing phase involved the usual proofreading, link and function checking, but also much emphasis on usability. A group of future users was selected to run a pilot, who, it was hoped, would turn into "early adopters", encouraging others through their enthusiasm. The unstructured nature of the wiki challenges the more structured ways in which librarians are accustomed to working.

The launch was planned to coincide with a training programme on Web 2.0 tools, after which people would have some familiarity with wikis. Special training was also given on the wiki.

To ensure ongoing coherence, a "wiki gardener" was appointed to work half-time on this project; her role is to ensure that the navigation remains logical. To avoid ambiguity, and a situation where "people are afraid of putting things on the wiki because they fear the wiki gardener", a description of her role is placed on the wiki.

One of the lessons learnt by Vlissingen was the importance of not underestimating the technical difficulties involved. Free open source software often requires more advanced technical skills, and plans to host the wiki on their own server had to be abandoned once it was realized that they did not have these in house. They eventually decided to go with an external hosting firm, which used the open source content management system, Plone.