Wikis and Access control

2006 August 11
by Karen

I’ve been following a discussion on Web4Lib concerning wikis and access control and was struck by the following post by one of the list members:

I am repeatedly impressed by how often, when librarians consider wikis, their first thought seems to be of access control. The idea of “just anybody being able to edit our Web pages” seems somehow innately abhorrent. It leads me to wonder if they “get” the very idea of a wiki. (original post from Web4Lib)

The post subtly brings up the questions of “what is a wiki” and “why would I want to use one” . In my mind, the primary characteristics of a wiki are easy collaborative document editing and creation. Wikis allow multiple people to easily contribute to the same document and track the modification to that document. For me, this is different from a content management system in the fact that in a CMS each page has an “owner” and if collaborative document editing capabilities exist the owner has to sign off on all changes to their documents before they are made “live”.

For me a wiki doesn’t have to have open editing for everyone. In fact, there are very good reasons why you might not want to allow anonymous editing on your wiki and not all of them have to do with defacement. If you are doing collaborative document creation and editing you want to know who created or changed what. Additionally, if you are a professor who has asked your students work on a wiki as part of their class assignments you will want to be able to tell which students are participating and which are not.

So why not let everyone just create they’re own wiki account if they want one? In the case of UH Libraries, we didn’t want people to have another username and password to remember (and us to manage). So we set up our system to use the existing Active Directory authentication information.

There is also of course the issue of defacement. It is important to the Libraries that the information available on our website is correct, particularly information concerning policies (that we have to enforce) and hours. That isn’t to say there aren’t places ont the Libraries website where outside contributer might enhance the information on our site. However, some information need to be set in stone. For example, it wouldn’t make any sense if you could go into Amazon and change things like the cost of books at will.
Additionally, it needs to be noted that access control not only is a question of who can edit what but also we can see what. At UH we have several wikis that are used for internal documentation of policies and procedures. These are not available to the public at large because they are for internal communication purposes.

Wikis are very versatile and can be used for in a number of different ways. If you want to see the diverse purposes that libraries using wikis for check out Darlene Fichter’s Wikis in Libraries page or Meredith Farkas’ Wiki World presentation (I’ve linked to the first relevant slide).

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