Using Wikis for heritage collaboration and outreach

What can a wiki do for you?

I’d like to thank Jeff Guin for asking me to write a bit about how to get started with wikis and how they can be useful to folks interested in cultural heritage. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to write about a technology I find so useful and flexible. To introduce myself, I’m one of two objects conservators working at Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. You can learn about some of what my colleagues and I do through our slideshows on Flickr. I created two small wiki projects, Pemulen TR-2 and Social Media 4 Collections Care [archived] and contribute very occasionally to Wikipedia.

What’s a Wiki?

smccThe term “wiki”, derived from the Hawaiian word for “quick”, refers to a website created with software that allows a group of people to create and edit the site collaboratively. Every change is recorded. If something didn’t go as planned, a wiki page can be reverted to a previous state, if desired. Most wikis have two areas where administrators and members of the wiki can add text: content areas and discussion or comment areas where users can pose questions or make observations about the content. Some wikis are designed such that content areas and discussion areas appear as separate pages while others have discussion areas positioned under the content areas.

MediaWiki is the open source software created for the best known wiki, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. With more than 91 thousand contributors working on over 17 million articles in 270 languages, arguably it has become a first stop for getting information on just about anything. Anyone can improve existing articles or create new ones, as long as the input meets the Wikipedia community’s criteria for notability and neutrality. A help page, “Advice for the cultural sector” includes suggestions for introducing yourself to the community and suggestions for getting started.

Examples in Heritage

The project “Wikipedia Saves Public Art” provides new users with even more help getting started. Project members created a welcoming tutorial for beginners who want to participate in this project to document public art within Wikipedia but need to know the basics of how to use WikiMarkup and get some guidance on the Wikipedia culture. Additionally, a resource page with links to their article template, style guide, and image guide provide new users with helpful tips for creating a successful reasonably respectable first article. I know because I’ve used it myself to create an article about a sculpture on a college campus.

But perhaps you’re looking to share your observations about a particular material or aspects of your original research. While this information could be incredibly useful to others, it does not fit within Wikipedia’s criteria for inclusion. There are wikis that where these advicecultseckinds of information might be more appropriate. Two, both built using the MediaWiki software, have been funded by the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, Preservapedia and the American Institute for Conservation’s Conservation Catalogs Collaborative Knowledge Base. Preservapedia is a source of information for those working in historic preservation and is open to anyone with an interest. AIC’s wiki is intended for professional conservators and was based initially on the Specialty Group Catalogs, written compendiums of information on specific topics related to the preservation and conservation treatment practice, though resources beyond the catalogs are now being added as well.The wikis allow the catalogs and other resources for the conservation community to be updated easily by their editors and to link related articles by different specialty groups to enhance collaborations among the disciplines. Placeography, a project by the Minnesota Historical Society where contributors can share information and memories about structures and neighborhoods, also uses MediaWiki for its software.

There are other, simpler options if you’d prefer to collaborate with even smaller groups. PBworks and Wikispaces, are two hosted software options I’ve worked with. Both companies offer users the opportunity to create at least one wiki free of charge and offer a variety of feature upgrades at a monthly rate.There are many other wiki software options.Some are hosted, others would need to be installed on a server.

Getting Started

To get started on a hosted wiki, you need to open an account on one of the sites. The sites have straight-forward, menu driven editing tools. You don’t need to know HTML or WikiMarkup, the code thats used to format Wikipedia, to create something functional quickly. In addition to text and links, most wiki software also permit inclusion of uploaded files and others have modules to include images, video, slide presentations, calendars, audio clips, RSS feeds, instant message discussions, maps, and polls hosted on other sites.

Administrators can control what sort of visibility the wiki has to the general public and what sort of editing rights members of the wiki hold. Administrators may choose to hide their pages from search engines and only allow access to members that they invite. Thus they can be used as internal organizational documents, such as disaster plans or long range planning documents.

Alternatively, wikis can be made available to search engines to allow for public discovery and administrators may allow anyone, even those who choose to remain anonymous, to comment on or edit the contents of the page, if they wish. Some sites also allow more refined control of user privileges. While some wiki members may be allowed to edit the content, others only may be granted privileges to read and not edit or only be allowed to comment in discussion areas, if the administrator desires.

Wikis can be used by multiple authors or content editors to collaborate on writing projects or presentations. The Pemulen TR-2 wiki was initially created to allow me and two Shelburne Museum conservation fellows, Rachel Penniman and Laura Brill, to develop a presentation that we gave at the Wooden Artifacts Specialty Group’s session at the American Institute for Conservation’s 2009 annual meeting. When Rachel had moved to another state for a job, the wiki allowed us to share documents, images, and ideas as we planned our talk. Now that the upnextpresentation is over, the wiki is a useful way to share and discuss what we learned with others who weren’t able to attend the meeting and is a place to continue to update what we’re learning about the polymeric emulsifying agent.

Wikis can be platforms for events. The Institute for Museum and Library Services used the Wikispaces site to create UpNext an online discussion that ran over 10 weeks, March-May 2010, exploring the future of museums and libraries. Facilitators framed and posed questions on ten pages and members of the wiki were invited to discuss those questions and raise new ones on the Discussion pages of the wiki.

Although not an exhaustive list by any means, I’ve collected more examples of how wikis are being used by museums and others interested in caring for cultural property and links to articles about creating wikis on Social Media 4 Collections Care [archive]. If you’ve got a favorite heritage-related wiki that you’d like others to know about I hope you’ll share it here.

Related Post:
Cultural Outreach through Wikipedia and The Commons Case Study

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