Sunday , February 25 2024
Learn how to contribute to Wikipedia from start to finish, or simply add some tips and tricks to your bag.

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.

Part four focuses on enhancing the encyclopedic quality of Wikipedia through tools such as accurate navigation connections, article categorization, and basic copy editing. Appropriate page naming is one of the first steps in making sure that readers can find the information they seek, so occasionally you will find it necessary to move content to a more accurately named page or to redirect readers to that page. In addition, when words or names have multiple meanings or contexts, disambiguation pages are created to allow the user to locate the information they seek. Broughton uses this section to explain the value of these tools, as well as the technical process for using them.

The author concludes the main content of the book with a section on customizing your experience with Wikipedia through existing user preferences and the addition of editor-created JavaScript code that modify the behavior of Wikipedia pages when you are editing them. This is the main section I know I will be referring back to over the next few weeks and months as I tweak my Wikipedia account with the information gleaned from this book.

If you have no interest in becoming a Wikipedia editor, you may find "Appendix B: Reader's Guide to Wikipedia" to be of interest. At around twenty pages in length, it is a comprehensible explanation of the purpose of Wikipedia, why you would want to use it, and a few key aspects that you will want to pay attention to.

Unless the site makes some radical changes, Wikipedia – the Missing Manual is not likely to be one of those tomes that addresses content on the web and becomes irrelevant even before it is published. This book would be appropriate for both personal and shared libraries, and should be on your bookshelf if you do or ever plan to contribute to the Wikipedia project.

About Anna Creech

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