Using wikis in reference services

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This entry is out of date, and will not be updated, June 2017


See also Social media landscape | Top Fifty (50) Medical Wikis You Might (Want to) Know | Wikis

The purpose of this entry is to provide an overview of how wikis might be used to provide reference services in the day-to-day work of reference librarians. The advantages and disadvantages of wikis are also examined, including their use in one-on-one and group instructional services and publications' development. Traditional academic library references services have evolved in the web 2.0 era due to advances in information technologies, mobile devices and changes in human information-seeking behaviours. In addition, the value placed on collaboration has created an ideal environment for the use of wikis. Other online collaboration tools such as GoogleDocs provide similar spaces and a useful framework for project management. However, Google has its owns unique characteristics and affordances that are not the focus here.

What is a wiki?

What is a wiki anyways? Bejune[1] provides a definition taken from Wikipedia:

"a type of Web site that allows the visitors to add, remove, edit, and change some content, typically without the need for registration. It also allows for linking among any number of pages. This ease of interaction and operation makes a wiki an effective tool for mass collaborative authoring."[2]

First introduced in 1995 by Ward Cunningham, wikis were initially used to facilitate discussions, and collaborations among computer programmers. In 2001, groups of early information technology adopters created Wikipedia, often seen as the quintessential wiki. In its first years of operation, Wikipedia grew to more than 20,000 articles. In 2012, there are more than 18 million articles in more than 250 languages.[1] The success of Wikipedia is one indication that wikis can be used to draw on the network effect and create useful knowledge objects at the same time.

Major uses of wikis in reference & instruction

  • As collaboration tools
    • Example showing a school project:
  • As project management tools
    • Example for tracking project implementation:
  • As easily accessible websites:
    • Example: For making information readily accessible, and providing opportunities for contributions.
  • Content management tools:

Bejune[1] says that the use of wikis in libraries typically fits into four categories:

  1. Collaboration between Libraries (45.7 percent)
  2. Collaboration between Library staff (31.4 percent)
  3. Collaboration between Library Staff and Patrons (14.3 percent)
  4. Collaboration between Patrons (8.6 percent)

The use of collaboration between libraries or library staff aims to encourage collaboration between information professionals, and yet allow for outside collaboration with library users. With the rise of the social web, as younger generations are exposed to new technologies, more collaboration between librarians and user groups will be possible.

Using wikis in one-on-one & in groups


A key responsibility for reference librarians in public and academic settings includes the instruction of how to use the library's resources, whether during one-on-one reference interactions or within groups. Wikis can be used effectively in both of these settings to enhance the learning process for teachers and learners. Wikis are also a good complement to blogs, discussion boards and tools such as Twitter and Facebook.

One-on-one Instruction

One-on-one reference instruction involves a staff member, typically a reference, public services, or instructional librarian, who works with library users. This type of instruction presents advantages over group instruction. Solo interactions with reference staff provide users with customized training to suit their needs; the direction of the exchange can be adapted to questions and promptly identified and addressed. The pace and style of learning can also be altered to fit the individual.

One-on-one instruction may be hands-on for library users with the librarian-instructor taking on a mentoring or supporting role. This type of instruction has some disadvantages. For example, important questions brought up in groups may not arise when individuals work on their own. In using a wiki modified by trainees, discussion and commenting features provide the opportunity for students to bring up questions that may be addressed later by librarians.[3] Students have discussions with others in peer-to-peer settings which has a snowballing effect on the learning process.

Wikis also provide information on how one-on-one instructional sessions were perceived because they can be used for exploration and further discussion area in the history and commentaries.[3] For students who want guidance about how to find citation help, or who may need resources covered in a reference interaction, a wiki is an excellent option.

Group Instruction

Group instruction using a wiki involves either an individual creating an entry for collaborators or groups of people creating a single wiki for group work. The concept is the same as in one-on-one reference instruction, except that in this instance, “knowledge may be changing dynamically or where viewpoints differ about the knowledge.”[4] Several studies reveal that using a wiki for collaboration purposes can be challenging. This is because while one individual creates the wiki, group members may complete their work on other platforms, such as Google Documents.[5]

An existing wiki which is updated and modified by a group of individuals seems to be the best form of group instruction. The entry LIBR 559M - Social Media for Information Professionals is a great example. This entry is part of a course wiki and students, whether individually or in groups, update the information and add to it. As technology and social media changes, the wiki becomes a living document and maintain its currency.

Challenges in using wikis

Wikis are useful collaboration tools. Some issues or problems can arise from the use of wikis in reference services, however. One of the main issues is when users are unfamiliar with the technology and structure, or are untrained. It is important for wiki creators to ensure that editors and contributors have an understanding of the wiki software, coding language and other matters otherwise they may find it daunting and give up on it. [6] New wiki users may find it difficult to edit the contributions of others. Having some understanding of wikis and that editing the work of others is acceptable may help avoid this problem.[6] Wiki creators should consider this when creating the wiki and ensure that support for users is available, either through formal training, help pages or cheat sheets.[6] Another possible problem with the use of wikis is when contributors provide information but do not cite their sources. This leads to factual inaccuracies and plagiarism of all kinds. Wikis are open to editing from numerous contributors so it is important that users know how to cite their sources.

Other illustrative examples of using wikis

Collaboration between libraries:

Collaboration between library staff:

Collaboration between library staff and users:

Collaboration between patrons:


Wikis are proving to be useful for library instructors, reference providers and library users. The advantages for one-on-one, group instruction and reference interactions outweigh any disadvantages. As information professionals and library staff, in particular reference staff, continue to deliver services driven by technology, it may be necessary to look at innovative tools such as wikis accordingly. As the web continues to grow, so too will library's use of wikis as reference tools.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Bejune M. Wikis in libraries
  2. Bejune, M, 2007, Wikis in Libraries, p. 26
  3. 3.0 3.1 Rosen & Nelson, 2008, Web 2.0: A New Generation of Learners and Education
  4. Wagner, 2004, p.278
  5. Zheng & Zhuang. Collaborative Learning Activity Design: A Case Study, 2008
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Russell, 2008, Wikis and Collaborative Reference Services


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