Williams Essay 2

Wikis helping a University’s Library Reference Services

Reference Services and Knowledge Management

According to Smiti Gandhi, a senior research librarian and author of the article, “Knowledge management and reference services,” “reference librarians have long recognized the need to capture, codify, record, and ‘fix’ the collective knowledge of their colleagues in some sort of explicit knowledge artifact” (374). This recognition stems from the fact that reference librarians have an incredible amount of tacit knowledge regarding library, community, and online resources. No single librarian can know everything, but collectively “reference librarians possess tremendous knowledge about various reference processes and information sources” (374). Gandhi states that reference librarians need knowledge management systems to capture their communal knowledge. Knowledge management systems are needed in reference services because they can help librarians (a) systematically collect and organize explicit and tacit knowledge, (b) increase efficiency in locating answers to frequently answered questions, (c) improve decisions regarding sources to consult, (d) improve knowledge sharing, (e) acquire more in-depth knowledge of the library and its resources, (f) better understand the types of questions asked at the reference desk, (g) improve collection development, and (h) improve patron access to information (Gandhi). Overall, successful knowledge management in library reference services can help “establish internal benchmarks, identify and record best practices, and create an environment of continuous learning” (378).

Early attempts to capture the knowledge of reference librarians include handwritten or already typed reference files and index cards that contained frequently asked questions, typically arranged alphabetically or by subject. Eventually these early systems were computerized and keywords were created to access their content more readily. These automated systems were then placed online, sometimes as static Web pages or as online databases. Again, the advantage to recording the answers to difficult or frequently asked questions is that reference librarians are recording their explicit knowledge about particular sources, as well as tacit knowledge that they have internalized, while creating knowledge artifacts that can be organized, managed, and reused. Wikis can help reference librarians fill this knowledge management need because they serve to store their internal and public knowledge as well as store collaborative knowledge.

Wikis are Internal Knowledge Warehouses

Wikis function extremely well as collaborative knowledge warehouses (Fichter; Frumkin). When used in the context of library reference services, knowledge repositories can take a variety of forms when reference librarians utilize wikis as a knowledge base used within the library. Since wikis can be installed behind firewalls or password protected, they can be set up as an internal, private tool.

Wiki could be used as a ready reference database for frequently asked questions. The advantage to this type of wiki is the ability for anyone easily to add new content at any time or revise content on the fly. Since a wiki is a Web-based tool, it is also readily accessible. Another use for a wiki as a knowledge storehouse would be as a peer resource guide. For example, subject librarians or librarians with other specialties could contribute information and tips on library resources for other librarians. An advantage of having this take place in a wiki is the ease with which librarians can keep the content current. In addition, librarians may discover new tips they want to share about a resource and it would be very simple for them to add that information to an existing wiki page. In this way, librarians could create new knowledge by building on existing knowledge in the wiki.

Another way to use a wiki as an internal knowledge base would be to organize it around a particular function. For example, many reference departments also provide library instructions of how to effectively use the library, both in on the library website and in the library itself. All of the librarians who teach library instruction classes could contribute to a library instruction wiki specifically tailored for their community of users. This type of wiki could include handouts and tutorials used, teaching techniques and tips, class specific information, and anything else librarians might find useful. An example of a library instruction wiki can be found at the Oregon Library Instruction Wiki (http://instructionwiki.org). This wiki is a resource for anyone, but a similar wiki organized around a specific function like this one could be used within an organization as an internal tool as well.

Wikis are Public Knowledge Warehouses

Wikis could also be used as collaborative knowledge repositories for the public in the reference services environment (Frumkin). The reference librarians at Butler University have created a wiki called “WikiRef” (http://www.seedwiki.com/wiki/butler_wikiref) that is intended to be a collaborative review of reference resources available through Butler University Libraries. This wiki is public and open for editing by anyone – not only librarians, faculty, staff, and students – although it was designed primarily as a resource for the Butler University community. An advantage to having an open and public resource like this would be to facilitate a discussion about resources and encourage user participation in the library, in addition to having a resource that features the collective knowledge of its users. Wikis can also be used as subject-specific public resource guides. Most libraries publish their subject guides as static Web pages. Providing that information in a wiki open to the public can add more functionality to that type of resource. The “Biz Wiki” (http://www.library.ohiou.edu/subjects/bizwiki) at Ohio University Libraries is an example of a wiki being used in this way. The Biz Wiki contains information on the business information resources available through Ohio University Libraries in addition to some business how-to research guides. All of this information was initially written by a reference and instruction librarian, but anyone is free to collaborate, comment, edit, or add new content.

Wikis are Collaborative Work-spaces

Finally, wikis can be used as collaborative workspaces to help manage knowledge for specific projects or teams in library reference services (Fichter; Frumkin). The wiki could be set up as a private wiki accessible only by a group of team members or it could be set up as publicly readable but editable only by members of the group. The MIT Engineering and Science Libraries B-Team have created a project-specific wiki (http://www.seedwiki.com/wiki/b-team). This team of librarians created the project workspace to investigate the changing information needs of the MIT community and make recommendations about the libraries’ role within this environment. Librarians could also use a wiki to work on a jointly authored document or to write policies as a group. Although other online tools exist that perform this collaborative writing function (e.g., Writely at http://www.writely.com/ or Writeboard at http://www.writeboard.com/), wikis can be used this way also. Overall, wikis work well as a collaborative workspace and are even more effective when used with distributed work teams.


Wikis offer many benefits to a university’s library reference department such as, serving as a internal and/or public knowledge management warehouses. Wikis allow librarians (and other users like staff and students) to add content, make additional changes, or comment on new content, thus improving the library’s reference efficiency, accuracy, and consistency of information. In this way, wikis help librarians and administrators can carry out their work more effectively. Wikis also allow librarians to better serve the staff and students of the university through its database of frequently asked questions and its instructions on how to effectively use a library. Through this, Wikis serve an easy and effective outlet for library users to obtain and share knowledge with the library reference service. So not only does the Wiki serve the librarians but also the users of the library. Finally, wikis are successful when used as an online workspace for groups or teams working on a project or when used for collaborative discovery. Again, library users will benefit from a library’s wiki. All in all, wikis have tremendous value as knowledge management tools, especially in the library reference services at universities.

Works Cited

Gandhi, Smiti. “Knowledge management and reference services.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 30(5), 368 381. 2004. December 1, 2009.

Fichter, Darlene. “The Many Forms of E Collaboration: Blogs, Wikis, Portals, Groupware, Discussion Boards, and Instant Messaging.” Online 29(4), 48 50. July/August 2005. December 2, 2009.

Frumkin, Jeremy. (2005). “The Wiki and The Digital Library.” OCLC Systems & Services, 21(1), 18 22. November 25, 2009.

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