Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2008-05-19/Wikibooks interview

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Sister Projects Interview: Wikibooks

By OhanaUnited, 19 May, 2008
Wikibooks logo

What is Wikibooks? What are its goals and objectives?

Wikibooks is an effort to collaboratively write open-content textbooks. There's often some confusion due to the name, but Wikibooks is for textbooks, not books in general.
The project started 10 July 2003 after requests from Karl Wick. As we all know, Wikipedia is not for instructional material. Karl had been working on collating articles on organic chemistry into a format that people could learn from. Of course, there was a VFD, and the book was deleted. That spawned the Wikibooks project, which Jimbo has hailed as "the next big thing in education" and is generally regarded as being a much bigger project than Wikipedia. It'll probably take 20 years or more to flourish where Wikipedia has flourished in a much shorter time.
In terms of history of Wikibooks, there have been a few major changes over the project's lifespan. Wikiversity (interview) used to be a project within Wikibooks. Wikiversity wasn't seen as a textbook, and therefore not suitable for inclusion in Wikibooks, so a VFD and proposal resulted in Wikiversity being split off. Wikibooks is still home to two major subprojects. The Wikijunior project is for kids' books, in an effort to write age-appropriate non-fiction books for kids up to age 12. The second project is our cookbook.
Another major development was the formalization of the exclusion of strategy guides (aka game guides). This was always the intent, but was insufficiently and unequally enforced. The rationale is that textbooks are inherently academic. If you take a course in university, there will never be a walkthrough as required reading, so we don't allow such things at Wikibooks. We do however allow textbooks about video games. If you're taking video game design, then of course you'll need that sort of textbook. The line is sometimes hard to draw, but the distinction is between a walkthrough and an academic examination.

What activities are performed most at Wikibooks?

Wikibooks editors, called Wikibookians, tend to work on their own project. Writing a textbook is a much more ambitious endeavour than writing an encyclopedia article for example, so people who are successful in doing so tend to be very driven, but focus their work exclusively on one book or one subject area. Since textbooks are instructional it is not enough to simply present information as you would in Wikipedia – the writing style and the overall structure must be coherent from an instructional point of view. Readers need to be able to learn from a Wikibook, so structure, organization and tone are very important. From this point of view, it's much more important to know your subject matter thoroughly. Many of our editors are educators of various kinds. Of course, Wikibooks is no more a meritocracy than Wikipedia, but it is much more difficult to write a textbook well if you don't know much about the subject compared to writing an encyclopedia article on a subject you're not familiar with.
Wikibooks has all the same maintenance tasks as Wikipedia does, but let's focus on the differences. As you can imagine, cataloguing our books is a major challenge. Until recently we used static lists to keep track of our books. Needless to say, this method isn't scalable, so we've now harnessed an extension called Dynamic Page List which allows us to dynamically list items in a category. We've created a new Subject: namespace for these catalogue pages. We also catalogue books by various other methods (Dewey Decimal, Library of Congress & Alphabetical), but these methods are becoming less and less important. Subject:Engineering is a great example of this new method. Exploring around in the Subject: namespace is always a great way to find books you're looking for but can't necessarily find in other ways. Maintaining these pages is as easy as ensuring that new books are properly categorized, which we did in the past anyways.

What are some of the tasks done by administrators?

Again, most administrator tasks are consistent across all wikis. One task which will not be familiar to most Wikipedians is importing. At Wikibooks, administrators may import pages from other projects with a full edit history (barring technical errors of course). Content is often imported by request – someone starting a new text will often want to use Wikipedia articles as seed material. Importing in this manner allows us to comply with the GFDL instead of the much more cumbersome copy-paste method.
There are sometimes irritating situations with this, and I'll focus on Wikipedia here, though it's not the only example. Wikipedians will often want to move content to Wikibooks after an AFD, but nobody bothers to check whether it's suitable for inclusion. Wikipedia has an inclusion policy, and few would be thrilled with people from other wikis dumping their unwanted content in Wikipedia. Likewise, Wikibooks is not a place to dump unwanted pages. It's not hard to determine what's acceptable – we're a very friendly folk, so just ask :)
Helping new contributors is actually one of the main tasks at Wikibooks. The bar is a little higher for beginners because we're writing textbooks not encyclopedia articles, so we try to focus very much on making our processes easy to follow, and the regulars are very available to help out new contributors. If you can't figure something out, there's a very active helpful community ready to help you out. In the past, I've had many emails using an amazing array of adjectives to describe how much more welcoming the Wikibooks project is to new contributors, and how helpful the community is. This is especially true of class projects. Wikibooks is sometimes used as a teaching tool, especially in universities. This results in a big influx of new contributors who need to be “herded” in the right directions. The professor often doesn't know any better how things work than the students to, so it falls to the community to help them along. And we've had many projects like this which have been highly successful. One such project was the Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education which is a recurring class project out of Old Dominion University.

If I want to become an active editor, what should be my first step (other than signing up)?

We try to keep the bar to entry as low as possible. Most people will find that Wikibooks is a much more laid-back environment for contributing than Wikipedia. We're a very tight-knit group of contributors, and we tend to work very well together.
If you're interested in writing a text, first see if there's something you can add to or re-work. Just like there should be one article per topic in Wikipedia, there should be one text per subject in Wikibooks. Only when scope or audience is significantly different should there be more than one text on a subject. If there is a pre-existing book, then get crackin!
If not, then you'll want to start off with a detailed outline of the structure of the book. You want to detail the scope of the book, and the overall picture of what you'll be teaching. Once that's complete, then start filling in content. Many new authors at Wikibooks make what I consider to be a mistake: they dive right in with contributing content with no clear idea of what the text should look like in the future. “Scope creep” is common, and can be easily avoided by planning what you want to do ahead of time.

Does the project have any plans to promote itself or recruit more members?

Contributors are the number one thing Wikibooks needs to succeed. Wherever I can, I try to talk up Wikibooks, and I know other regulars do too. Beyond that I'm not aware of any organized large-scale efforts to get new authors to come to Wikibooks. User:Whiteknight has given several talks on Wikibooks, which are certainly helpful. We need more press to gain the scale Wikipedia has. This is something that Wikibooks should be dealing with as a community, and I don't think we've done enough in the past.
For any Wikipedians involved in a WikiProject, you may well be interested in coming over to see whether we have texts that you can contribute to, or if there's a gap in coverage you can help to fill.
Recently there have been a number of book donations – authors of books have decided to release their book into the wild and add it to our collection. Getting the book converted to wikitext is often a major hurdle, but it's great to have a book added all in one go. While this increases the number of books we host, it doesn't usually add more contributors. Content is great, but without the people to back it up, that's all it is.

What are some difficulties that Wikibooks faced?

The major difficulty that I see for Wikibooks is getting new contributors. The only thing that will make us successful is more people to maintain the wiki, but more importantly contribute content. Many contributors come and write a single book, then leave. We need people to come and stay. Even if you're not going to contribute another entire textbook, there is always editing to be done. Slow, steady and long-term work in a variety of areas is preferable to contributing only one book and leaving.
To do this, we need to become more recognizable. One way is by choosing a new logo for our project. The discussion about our new logo isn't restricted to Wikibookians – anyone can come help improve the options and help us decide what to pick.
Another ongoing set of issues is technical. MediaWiki was written for Wikipedia, so it's unsurprising that the software isn't ideal for writing textbooks. We have many wishes for software features, but there's been little progress in getting anything major done. My hope is that the Foundation may hire another developer which would allow some additional time to go into developing features for the non-Wikipedia wikis (Wikibooks is not the only project that feels ignored). I should be clear that the fault doesn't lie with the developers – they're doing excellent work. In recent months we've seen fruition of efforts on SUL and FlaggedRevs. Global blocking seems to be coming along shortly; same for rev_deleted; and global groups are potentially in the near future. It's just that none of these developments are helpful for Wikibooks to overcome some problems in using software designed for a slightly different purpose.

How can I recognize the best works of Wikibooks?

Wikibooks has Featured Books just like you find Featured Articles at Wikipedia. We've divided the books by subject on Featured Books, and there's a corresponding subject page at Subject:Featured books. These books must meet certain criteria and are discussed thoroughly before being marked as featured. We're excited to get Stable versions enabled to assist this process.



Also this week:

Wikilobbying — Board elections — Wikibooks interview — WikiWorld — News and notes — In the news — Dispatches — Features and admins — Technology report — Arbitration report


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