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Getting Started with Wikis

Perhaps you have used the public wiki encyclopedia site WikiPedia, and wondered how to get started with a wiki application in your library. This article will look at projects that are most useful for a wiki format and review options for choosing and implementing wiki software.

Uses for Wikis

The main purpose of a wiki is to create a body of knowledge by capturing the collective intelligence of a group. Wikis are useful for any project that is worked on by more than one person. Some examples include:

Internal documents:

  • A grant application written by a team
  • Policy and procedures manual
  • Strategic plan
  • Technical instructions

External documents on a library site:

  • Research / subject guides
  • Community information
  • Any kind of library knowledge base

If you are not familiar with wikis, you can view a short, clever YouTube video called “Wikis in Plain English”. The video is 3 minutes, 52 seconds long.

For more examples of wiki uses in libraries, see How libraries can use wikis with their patrons. The MLA Hospital Library section also has a wiki to share best practices, and the University of British Columbia has started HealthLib-Wiki, a “knowledge-base for health librarians”. For a health care example, take a look at “Ask Dr. Wiki”. Ask Dr. Wiki’s tag line says that it is “a medical wiki with the goal of creating a collective memory for physicians, nurses, and medical students.” It includes review articles, clinical notes, and medical images on a variety of health care subjects.

Wikis can be public or private; in the case of internal documents, you will keep the wiki private to your small work group. In other cases, you may allow the public to edit your wiki; you may require that users are registered with your wiki before they can edit.

Choosing Wiki Software

Once you’ve identified a suitable wiki project, you now need to select wiki software. Your first stop should be the extremely useful site WikiMatrix. WikiMatrix allows you to select the wiki software packages or sites that you are interested in and then compares all of the features of the software side-by-side (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1. WikiMatrix screen shot comparing Confluence, Twiki, and WetPaint

Wiki software generally comes in two flavors, hosted and installed. Hosted sites may be free or have a monthly fee associated with them. Since hosted sites do not require any server installation, you can sign up for an account online and begin using the software right away. Installed software requires that your server administrator install the software and set up accounts before you can begin using the software. Some installed software is open source; others are commercial packages.

As you can see from the WikiMatrix site, there are dozens of wiki programs available. Some of the more popular programs are listed below:

Installed software:

Hosted services:

The programs listed above vary widely in their features and learning curve. Some wiki programs require that you learn a special coding language; others have “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) graphical interfaces; and still others use a combination of the two. If you are working with a group of library staff on a wiki project, you should plan to allow time for training to use the software.

Experimenting with a Wiki

If you don’t have wiki software available at your institution but would like to start experimenting, the free WetPaint hosted service is a good place to start. WetPaint has a simple WYSIWYG interface that will allow you to produce pages immediately. A drawback of using WetPaint for external projects, however, is that WetPaint displays ads on each page.

If you’d like to see what wiki coding is all about, you can also play in the WikiPedia “sandbox”.


Wikis can be a useful tool for building collective intelligence and working on group projects. Before getting started, it is worth taking some time at the Wikimatrix site to compare software features, and experimenting online a bit before picking a software package.

If you have questions about setting up a wiki or if you’ve created a wiki project that you’d like to share with the region, please contact Sharon Dennis, Technology Coordinator, NN/LM Pacific Southwest Region, or (310) 825-9170.

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