by Darren MacLennan
Technical Services Librarian at SOWELA Technical Community College
Note: This article is presented as a capstone project for the Advanced System Administrator Course, which fulfills the requirements for Advanced System Administrator Certification. Learn more about the LOUIS System Administrator Certification and capstone project here.
One of the challenges that every institution faces is the method by which it uses to share institutional knowledge with its workers. While paper-based instruction manuals can work well to convey information, only a single person can use an instruction manual at a time, and more casual pieces of knowledge may not be written down. A single employee leaving a position can leave a substantial gap in institutional knowledge, causing disruption in the workflow. Using an institutional wiki can allow your library to create a valuable repository of information for your library’s staff, a document written by consensus that’s greater than the whole of its parts.
- What is an institutional Wiki?
- Externally vs. Internally Hosted Wikis
- Institutional Wiki Best Practices
- Wiki Best Practices: Content
- SOWELA Technical Community College’s Wiki
- Potential Drawbacks of a Wiki
- Further Reading
What is an Institutional Wiki?
At its basic level, a wiki is a collection of articles that its users have permission to edit. Wiki articles also retain a complete record of the changes made to them so that it’s possible to view the evolution of a wiki article over time or revert to an earlier version if necessary. Editors can decide how large or as small a wiki is, how private or public it needs to be, and the level of control that each of its users has to change wiki articles. A wiki can be the product of a single person writing an article or the result of multiple people pooling their knowledge to contribute their perspectives on multiple articles. Wikis allow for the contained within wiki articles, something that can’t be done with a paper manual.
An example of tagging a wiki article.
Externally vs. Internally Hosted Wikis
There are two types of wikis:
- Self-hosted wikis, which run from a local server.
- Externally hosted wikis, which are run by companies offering wiki hosting, either for free or for pay.
Externally hosted wikis have the advantage of not having the hassle of installing the wiki software but put the information on the wiki at risk to some degree; if the company servers go down, or the company goes out of business, the wiki goes with it. Both self-hosted and externally hosted wikis can be made as private or as public as desired, using passwords to guard access to the wiki.
Institutional Wiki Best Practices
Once you’ve selected your wiki software and installed it – or created it online - the next step is to create a structure for your wiki. A Table of Contents will allow you to give subsequent users a sense of structure as to where their material goes. The more structure a wiki has at the beginning, the easier it will be to know where to add appropriate information.
An example of a Table of Contents.
It’s important to assign user roles within the wiki to determine who has editing privileges and who doesn’t. Most users should be allowed to edit existing articles to maximize the input the wiki receives from its users. It’s also important to make sure that your users are comfortable sharing information using the wiki. Comfortable users are more inclined to contribute, which in turn will aid the wiki’s growth.
Although a wiki can function with only a small number of users contributing to its articles, it’s better to have as many people as possible using and contributing to the wiki. The more people contribute, the better the wiki will be, because there will be more up-to-date institutional knowledge in the wiki.
One way to encourage wiki use is to find a person who repeatedly performs a process within your library and assign them direct responsibility to create wiki pages on those processes. Subsequent users can polish or change the article as needed.
It’s also important to make sure that your staff regards the wiki as the central repository of information for the library, rather than using e-mail or chat to convey information. Having new hires go through the wiki as part of the onboarding process is a good way to simultaneously familiarize the new hire with the library’s institutional knowledge, and to establish the wiki as the central location for information.
Wiki Best Practices: Content
Wiki articles themselves should be considered dynamic and constantly changeable, rather than static. Users should be encouraged to add information to, remove information from, or clarify wiki articles for better comprehensibility and accuracy, and should feel that they have the authority to correct mistakes on a wiki article. Most wiki platforms include a Talk or Discussion page alongside each created wiki page in which the article itself – and the information in it – can be discussed, which allows users of the wiki to hash out any areas of disagreement.
An example of instructions for gathering statistics on a Wiki page.
Wiki users should have a conversation about what material should be stored in the wiki. Translating physical instruction manuals into the wiki format is an obvious choice, but wikis can also store knowledge that isn’t formal. One rule of thumb suggests that if you’ve done something three times, or have a project with more than three steps, then it’s worth creating a wiki article on the subject. A wiki is also a useful place to store bits of information that many people need, such as a Google Analytics code, or EZProxy prefix. Other topics may include specialized cataloging information, retrieving statistical data from databases, or library policies and procedures.
Users should write wiki articles in the present tense with strong, concise language. Images are extraordinarily useful in conveying important information, particularly annotated screenshots of library websites – a single image showing where a button is located can save users five to ten minutes of fruitless searching. Formatting of the article should be kept simple and direct.
SOWELA Technical Community College’s Wiki
SOWELA Technical Community College chose to go with a hosted wiki on PBWorks, which offered free hosting for small wikis and avoided the hassle of installing wiki software on a server. SOWELA’s wiki contains procedures for gathering IPEDS and ACRL data, step-by-step instructions for circulation and cataloging procedures in SirsiDynix Workflows and BlueCloud Analytics, and bits of useful information that would otherwise be unavailable. It has four authorized users, all of whom have Editor or Administrator-level access to wiki articles. The System Administrators for SOWELA use it most often for the purpose of recording procedures such as patron loads, book loads, or statistical gathering.
Potential Drawbacks of a Wiki
There are potential drawbacks in using a library wiki. The most central potential drawback is the amount of buy-in from potential users that’s required to establish and maintain a library wiki. Articles may be current at the time of their creation, but then slip out of currency as library procedures change and give bad information to wiki users. Wiki articles do require some degree of effort in order to create, especially if they’re image heavy, and this can be daunting if there’s a lot of information that needs to be translated into the wiki format.
Wikis also need firm structure if they’re to avoid becoming a dumping ground for random information. The Wiki administrators will need to undertake effort to ensure information is in an appropriate location.
While wikis do require time and effort to be successful, they stand as an excellent way to preserve and distribute the knowledge held by an institution. Here is a list of resources that may be helpful if you decide to build your own wiki at your library:
Best practices for using MediaWiki. (n.d.). Retrieved from MediaWiki:
Brown, J. (2021, November 17). Corporate Wiki vs Knowledge Base: Which is Better? Retrieved from
How to Build a Wiki for Your Small Business. (n.d.). Retrieved from Business News Daily:
How to Create a Wiki for Your Company or Team. (n.d.). Retrieved from Nuclino:
How we structure our company wiki: best practices. (n.d.). Retrieved from Countfire:
Joyce, N. (n.d.). Wiki Best Practices: Top 10 Tips. Retrieved from Tettra:
Mind Tools Corporate Team. (n.d.). How to Create a Wiki. Retrieved from MindTools:
Team, M. 3. (2021, June 15). 8 tips for creating a wiki everyone will use. Retrieved from Microsoft:
Tips for Wikis: Creating & Maintaining. (n.d.). Retrieved from ACRL:
What are some best practices for running an internal Wiki? (n.d.). Retrieved from Quora: