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Book Review: Wikipedia – the Missing Manual by John Broughton

Wikipedia is a popular website that uses wiki software to create a network of encyclopedic pages. It is free to use, and you have likely come across it in your online searching for information. The content of the site is created by hundreds of thousands of volunteer editors who regularly monitor pages to prevent vandalism and spam, as well as the errant spelling mistake. The wiki is set up so that anyone can edit a page, which may seem like a free-for-all, but there are systems set up to regulate the addition of content, and for the most part, the content is fairly accurate and well-written.

MediaWiki, the software used by Wikipedia, is one of the more common wiki applications out there, but it is by no means the most user-friendly for novice editors. In addition, Wikipedia has a plethora of rules and guidelines which are not always easy to track down. If you have never edited a wiki page, or written an encyclopedic essay, it can be a little intimidating to jump right in. With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that someone has written an off-line guide to Wikipedia.

That someone is John Broughton, who has been a registered editor at Wikipedia for two and a half years. Aptly named Wikipedia – the Missing Manual, it is the latest in the Missing Manual series from O'Reilly, started by New York Times technology columnist David Pogue. The book is also available online through O'Reilly's Safari Books Online, but despite my day job as an electronic resources librarian, I still prefer to hold books in my hand (or lay them out on my desk) when I am reading them; however, you may find that the online version is a handy, keyword searchable reference for when you need to look up just a few things.

As I noted, Wikipedia has plenty of documentation on how to edit itself, and if you are willing to find your way through all of that, you may not want to read this book. I have muddle through a few Wikipedia contributions (both new pages and copy edits on existing ones) without this book, but in reading it, I frequently found myself making notes of things to look up later or tweaks I could do to make editing easier. The book does not contain anything you probably would not find on Wikipedia. Instead, it takes that information and lays it out in a workflow that is designed to take the novice user from ignorance to full-on Wikipedia-obsessed editing.

The book is broken out in to five parts, concluding with a few useful appendices and a lengthy index. The first part goes over the process of editing, creating, and maintaining existing Wikipedia articles. Notably, the author waits until the third chapter to cover the process of registering an account on the site. While it is possible to edit a Wikipedia page without having an account, your access to additional functions and features, including the addition of new pages, is significantly limited. Broughton gives you all you need to know for basic editing, and then explains why it is important to register an account before he goes on to lay out all of the other things that are possible on the site.

The second part covers aspects of collaborating with other Wikipedia editors. This is essential, since anyone can edit a page, you will find that most articles on Wikipedia are the result work by several different contributors. Most contributors never meet face-to-face, so online etiquette is essential, not to mention following the site rules so that you do not inadvertently come across as a troll or spammer.

The third part discusses the process for formatting and illustrating articles. If you have used Wikipedia for very long, you will recognize that there is a stylistic design to the layout of content on the pages, and it can be jarring when you stumble upon a page that does not follow that design or has so little content than it cannot conform. If you want Wikipedia readers to take your writing seriously, you must follow the formatting conventions of the site. In addition, content like tables and images will enhance the reader's understanding of the article content, so using those things appropriately is important.

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