Much like anyone else who spends a decent amount of time on the internet, I find myself turning to Wikipedia quite regularly. I am unaware of any resource as thorough or as quick for many of my information needs (or whims) on a day to day basis. Detractors point out that anyone can edit Wikipedia and this can lead to inaccurate information. For me, the open editing is one of the draws. I’ve been reading Wikipedia for some time, and each time I find myself thinking that it would be fun to be more than a passive consumer. There are a few topics where I might be able contribute in a meaningful way. A brand new addition to the O’Reilly Missing Manual series, “Facebook The Missing Manual” was the last nudge to push me into full involvement.
Broughton has been actively involved as a Wikipedia contributor for almost 3 years. What he has created here is a great guide for the budding Wikipedia editor. It is not only technically thorough but it covers the trickier side of editing, the social and political aspects of the process. Wikipedia is itself very well documented. The book points out the shortcuts and pages that include the information a user will need. Like a lot of other software, and especially open projects, the person who prefers to learn from what is available on-line may find that this book is not needed. I like to have something I can carry with me and have open as I work. And unfortunately, while I do love the idea of Wikipedia, the nay sayers are right about some of the problems in regards to public access. Sometimes parts of Wikipedia that are intended for the new user, have been vandalized and are not available in the correct state. They will be fixed quickly, but that doesn’t help the person looking to learn right then. With this book, the reader has confidence in the quality of the information and the assurance that it will be available, whether they are on-line or not.
The book is divided into five parts and follows a very natural progression for the reader. It begins with “Editing, Creating and Maintaining Articles”. I signed up for an account and hit the link that was to take me to the introduction. It looked like someone had wiped out the information there and left a blank template. The book initially sends the reader to the sandbox to play with the editing tools. My first visit there was interesting as I was also introduced immediately to some of the problems. The parts of the template that is to be left in place were gone and some rather offensive photos and text were in their place. The edits I made were often wiped out before I could look at them and see how they turned out. I moved past this quickly, read through the instructions and tried making some small edits to sections of actual articles. I did not have any problems working through the book in this manner. My initial bumps in the road with the introduction and sandbox were a little discouraging, but I feel pretty confident those areas are just easy places for trolls and the like to try and have an impact.
All the sections have very detailed instructions as well as screen shots to compliment those instructions. There is a great value in just that material, but I appreciate that Broughton steps beyond a simple how-to with excellent information on why things are the way they are and pitfalls to avoid. He gives help with guidelines on what type of material is desirable and the best way to go about contributing, setting up a personal workspace, dealing with vandals and more. These are the foundational basics to the entire process.
The second section, “Collaborating with Other Editors” has great content with similar features. There is the information that informs the reader as to what tools are available and how to use them. The conventions explained here are especially helpful to know up-front as they will allow a contributor to be more helpful and less harmful. They can also give the aspiring Wikipedia editor a higher level of confidence when stepping into situations that may have a higher chance of becoming heated or contentious. I personally have little taste for conflict, but am excited about the tools and prospects for working alongside others to make articles even stronger and more useful.
Section three is one of the shorter of the five, dealing with formatting and illustrating articles. This is probably the most straight-forward content in many ways, the only extensive explanation needed is in dealing with images. Broughton explains Wikipedia policy in regards to open images and the exceptions that may allow for the use of non-free images. This section leads to the fourth which is “Building a Stronger Wikipedia.” This section covers a variety of topics including cleaning up articles, categorization, deletions and making citations stronger.
The three indices are somewhat interesting. The first is a tour of a Wikipedia page. Everything here is covered pretty well throughout the book. The author describes it as a place to check for a quick reference if needed. The book is very clear, this felt a bit tacked on and unnecessary. The second is “Reader’s Guide to Wikipedia.” Broughton says that, “Most of this book is aimed at folks who want to edit Wikipedia articles and become more active in the Wikipedia community. But this appendix is all about appreciating Wikipedia as a reader.” Actually, other than this little piece, the entire book is about editing and getting more involved. I’m not sure what to do with this. It’s not too big a deal, it’s just a few pages, but it struck me as odd. I guess it does complete the coverage so the manual is all about Wikipedia, not just editing. The last appendix “Learning More” is a typical list of other places to go for further information.
The index is thorough and the table of contents does a good job of breaking things down to a useful level. Chapter titles, descriptions and sub-chapter headings are helpful and not cryptic or cute. On the whole I found this to be up to what I think of as the high standards of the series. 45 days free access to the electronic version are included via Safari. The book makes clear that there are many variations of Wikipedia, serving up information in an array of languages. The manual does not try to cover all these versions. The manual is written with 100% of its focus on the en.Wikipedia.org domain, or the English version of Wikipedia. All version are built up from the same tools and I imagine that the differences are not too great.
Title: Wikipedia The Missing Manual
Author: John Broughton
Publisher: O’Reilly Media Inc.
Tagline: The book that should have been in the box.