Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Writing a Book: Scope

This is the second part in my series of how to write a good wikibook, this one focused on the proper selection of a book's scope. The scope is, in a nutshell, the amount of "stuff" in the book. The scope defines for us what the book will include, what it will exclude, and to what depth the material will be covered.

One of the key concepts when considering the scope of a book, and the one that most wikimedians will be familiar with, is the idea that "Wiki is not paper". A wikibook simply doesnt have a maximum nor a minimum number of pages, and it is just as easy (and cost efficient) to write two short wikibooks as it is to write one large one. In the world of dead-tree publishing, books come with a pricetag--and that price tag is typically outrageous. We can't afford to buy two separate books, and so we prize books that cram in as much information as possible, even information that is loosely related or unnecessary.

Real-world books are designed for real-world needs: textbooks are typically broken up according to school semesters. Consider the school of economics, where first year students typically need to buy a book in "introduction to economics". The following year, you are buying an "introduction to microeconomics" and an "introduction to macroeconomics" book. To make matters worse, both of the two new books you have just bought include refresher chapters on the basic introductory material, as well as introductory chapters for the other discipline. At this point you have spent 300$, you have 3 copies of introductory material, lots of material overlap, and very little new information.

Being that a wikibook isnt paper, why shouldn't all this material be arranged more logically? instead of having an introductory chapter in each advanced book, you can post a link that says "read this first". Instead of having a series of books that are "introduction to...", "intermediate..." and "advanced...", you could have a single book with a single fluid progression of the material from the beginning to the end. This means there are fewer overlaps, fewer gaps, and more coherency between separate semesters of study in the same subject. Instead of having a whole pool, we can have three books on economics: "Economics", "Microeconomics", and "Macroeconomics". Or, if we were feeling ambitious, we could write just a single book with the knowledge that our book can be as long as we want it to be: "Economics". Of course organizing a large book that covers multiple sub-subjects and caters to multiple audiences can be an overwhelming task.

There is no one right way to do it, but that doesn't mean that some ways aren't better then others. Books, like many other areas of life, strongly benefit from a little bit of planning before you start putting pen to paper (or even finger to keyboard).

A different atmosphere

On the planet Wikimedia and in other places, I read posts frequently from disgruntled wikipedians. As I read over these posts, I find myself saying on a point-by-point basis that "Wikibooks doesnt have this problem", or "Wikibooks doesnt have that problem". And while I can't speak for all the sister projects, I can tell you that in my experience, the level of discontent is higher among the Wikipedians then it is among any other community group under the WMF.

I know that Wikipedia does have to face a number of problems that the other sister projects don't face, or that they haven't faced yet. There is the sentiment that Wikipedia is in some kind of competition with other encyclopedias (notably Britannica, which is mentioned most frequently), and also the fact that Wikipedia has grown a fair level of name recognition. When you know that the neighbors are watching, you do tend to put on a bit of a show, after all. Also, because wikipedia has grown so famous, there is certainly the urge for people to write up an article about everything, which has spawned a large network of "notability guidelines", many of which are very strict and rigid.

What the sister projects don't seem to have, or at least they don't seem to have it as much, is the drama. We don't have "factions", and we rarely have "trolling". There is no such thing as a "deletionist" or an "inclusionist". We have never voted to delete our Counter-Vandalism Unit. Bureaucracy, too, is something that many of the sister projects are proud to avoid. To put things into perspective about how little bureaucracy Wikibooks has, I had previously proposed a version of the "KISS" guideline, and the community rejected it as being "instruction creep". In this case, I suppose, the community preferred to lead by example.

Discussions are typically not heated, and very focused on the positive. People are congratulated on their successes, forgiven for their mistakes, and encouraged to continue their work. We block vandals quickly, we don't block our editors at all, and we respect everybody's best efforts.

The sister projects are hardly utopian, and I don't want to make it sound like we are so great, and Wikipedia is so bad. However for anybody who has grown a little weary of the hustle and bustle of Wikipedia, the sister projects share the same ideals of free content while fostering a very different working atmosphere. Sometimes a change of pace is all you really need to get your creative juices flowing again.

Writing a book: the Title

This is going to be the first part in a small series of posts about how to write a good wikibook. What I would like to talk about first is the title of a book, because it's the first decision that the author of a Wikibook needs to make, and it is the first thing that the reader is going to see when they read the book.

It's very tempting for people to try and emulate what they see in the real world. People are almost universally familiar with dead-tree books, and some very popular books have a noticable impact on our work at Wikibooks. Several books, and many requests at [[Wikibooks:Requested books]] will attempt to use naming schemes from existing book series, such as "In a Nutshell", or "For Dummies".

If we look through the list of requested books, we can see a number of instances where people suggest titles that are lousy. The same types of people who are suggesting the book ideas are the people who are creating new books, so this makes a good case study. I'll give some examples of titles that were actually suggested on our site, so that you can see what I mean:

"Drawing Politically Incorrect Cartoons" How to draw a politically correct cartoon is likely the same type of process as drawing a politically incorrect one. This title is also a good example of a particular type of book that we see too often, the "How to do something bad" type of books. Some of them, such as "how to build a bomb", or "how to build a Bong" (both titles of actual books that we've had to deal with) are deleted swiftly, although others are left to linger in a VfD grey zone forever.

"How to Take Photos of Children and Infants without Getting Blurry Pictures" This title is entirely too specific. It should be assumed that any book about "how to photograph children" would include at least a side note about avoiding blurry pictures. For that matter, a book on "how to photograph people" would probably have the same information, but would be much more useful. And could you actually write an entire book about taking non-blurry photos of children?

"Nude Basketball" It's hard to tell which is more ridiculous: the fact that people attempt to write books like this, or the fact that there are people out there putting in requests for us to write it. The supply/demand curve here is mind-boggling.

"Who Really Cares about Philosophy?" Good question, who does care? What is the appeal of this type of title that a more simple and elegant "Philosophy", or even "Basics of Philosophy" couldn't handle? This is another good example where people try to write Wikibooks to mirror existing books. The author probably found a book with this same title, or a similar variant, and wants us to duplicate it free of charge.

"Flying Spaghetti Monsterism" Perhaps the wrong subject to be writing a book about. It seems the much more poignant book would be one about the effects of the First Amendment on public school curricula, or even the debate over Evolution v. Intellegent Design in America. After all, we want to teach things that people actually want to learn.

"How the Electricity in Your Wall Creates Your Computing Experience" Another title that is far too long winded. A much more simple book would be titled "How Computers Work". This is also an example of a potential book that is far too broad: there are too many subjects that you need to talk about between AC current and Windows XP.

"Microchips: Design, Production, and Business" Or, simply "Microchips".

"Widows Communication Foundation Unleashed" (sic) Another example of people trying to use real-world book titles as a model for a Wikibooks title. The danger is that "...Unleashed!" is probably copyrighted or something.

"The Illustrated Wikibook of Automotive Basics, Maintenance, Subsystems, and Problems" At this stage of internet development, I think we all need to be a little less excited about illustrations. If illustrations are that big a deal, go check out Commons.

"Urology (or Pee Studied)" It's either supposed to be funny, or some kind of shock advertising. Either way, not a good title.

"Yoda in Theory and Practice" What makes this title so funny is that it was suggested on the "Life Sciences" bookshelf.

"Robert's Rules of Order" Who is Robert and what, exactly, does he know about order?

Unlike on Wikipedia where there is a policy about using common names, Wikibooks leaves the title of the book up to the author. However, many authors just don't know what it takes to write a good title. Some of the best books we have are the most simply named, such as [[Calculus]] or [[Spanish]].

The Summer Lull

I am not familiar enough with any of the other sister projects enough to know whether this is a global phenomina within the WMF, or if it is specific to Wikibooks. There are a number of times each year where the participation in Wikibooks seems to dip very low, and other times of the year when the pace is almost frantic. These times tend to coincide with the academic calendar: During the fall and spring semesters participation is up, and during the summer or winter breaks participation is down.

This being summer, we are in the middle of our annual summer slump. On one hand, it's not alarming because we know that things are going to jump back into high-gear come august or september. However, it is a little disconcerting when a post on the [[Wikibooks:Staff lounge]] goes unanswered for a week or more.

I don't mean to make it sound like the entire project becomes dormant, because it certainly doesn't. However, we do lose alot of important contributors for various reasons:
1) Classroom projects only happen during the school year. That's about a dozen books at a time that only attract regular contributors in the fall or spring.
2) Many of our contributors are either teachers or students. These people tend to either have summer jobs or, at the least, have less computer access away from school.
3) People tend to take vacations during the summer, and to spend free time outdoors, instead of inside on the computer.

In some respects there are as many edits during the summer months as usual, but these are more frequently from anonymous contributors, or from contributors who don't participate in the public discussion forums. So even though work continues on Wikibooks, it feels more empty, more vacant. This is a time when the dedicated volunteers are able to get some serious work done, because they are not hampered by arguments or lengthy discussions. Authors can get back to the solitary business of authoring, and hopefully make some significant progress, before the influx of new and old users comes in the fall.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Casualty of War: Random Book Link

The first negative side effect of the organization project has surfaced, and it's one that was really unforeseeable. First, a little background:

On Wikibooks, the "Random Page" link, which connects to [[Special:Randompage]] is essentially useless. It could point you to any random subpage of any random book. Books are intended to be complete units, that is that you are supposed to start at one point and work your way to the end. Coming in to a book in the middle is useless. First you would need to figure out what book you are in (an easy task, admittedly), then go back to the Table of Contents, read up on all the necessary background information, and then read the page you arrived at.

For editors, the system is a little different. However, each book has it's own formatting conventions and style guidelines, so an editor cannot be expected to navigate to a random page and just make improvements.

To that end, we decided to implement a "Random Book" link, instead of a "Random Page" link. A little bit of fancy javascript, combined with the list at [[Wikibooks:Alphabetical classification]] created a random book link that worked very well. However, when the Alphabetical classification was changed from being a manually-updated list to being a series of categories, the Random Book javascript was broken.

The fix for this is likely going to be an easy one. However, it does go to show that radical changes, even if they are radical improvements, can cause unforeseen problems.

WMF Separation

There has been some discussion here and there, most of it only in passing, that perhaps the WMF will want to focus more of it's attention on Wikipedia, and less of it's attention on the other sister projects. There has even been some discussion floating around (notably among some of the board candidates) that the WMF should consider dropping the sister projects entirely, essentially becoming a proper "Wikipedia Foundation".

I don't want to propose to say that this idea is a particularly common one, and I am certainly not advocating that members of these sister projects become afraid or start to panic. However, considering the frequency with which it is brought up, it is worth some general consideration.

I would also like to point out that there are a few forces that seem to be pushing the opposite direction as well: The advent of Commons, as being a central shared media repository does seem to show that the powers that be are very interested in additional integration and collaboration of the various sister projects. Several projects have already specified that all image uploads must be made to commons, which makes all these projects intimately dependent on this central shared resource. Also, Single-User-Logon (should it ever be implemented) will have a very large effect on inter-community unity.

Perhaps there are some benefits that the sister projects could reap by being separate entities as well. Some projects, such as Wikibooks or Wikiversity would really benefit from more of a grass-roots advertising effort. In Wikibooks specifically, we won't realize our full potential until we are able to interact with schools, governments, and universities on an individual level. If you consider the amount of money that governments spend on textbooks for children, the cost of donations to Wikibooks in order to produce a free set of downloadable textbooks is small. Likewise, university professors could be writing textbooks for their students, and University students (especially students in the field of education or library science) could be writing and editing free textbooks as class projects. It's these kinds of relationships that we really need to foster, and we need to think about whether being part of the WMF is helping us or hurting us in this regard.

Even small issues, such as the use of Wikimedia logos or Brand names, have slowed down our ability to print and distribute our books at Wikibooks. The solution to this might be as simple as asking "may we do this", although discussions to that effect have not been fruitful historically.

And is there even a procedure now for the WMF to transfer control of a project to another entity? What if another organization offered to "adopt" one of the projects, or purchase one of the projects? What if one of the projects asked to leave? Would we be creating a bigger problem for everybody involved if somebody tried to do this? These are things that I think the board needs to think about, especially considering some of the candidates who very well might be elected in the near future.

This post is not meant to advocate for either viewpoint (I personally would prefer that Wikibooks remains under the umbrella of the WMF, at least for the foreseeable future), but instead to raise awareness that these issues are slowly bubbling to the surface.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Organizing and Projects

We've started a number of projects recently at Wikibooks that are really going to help improve not only our image, but also our general usability. First and foremost, we have started planning stages for a general overhaul of our Help: namespace. Many of the pages in that space were either imported from Wikipedia and never updated, fallen completely out of date, or are duplicates. There is a general idea that the help pages should themselves be formatted as a book, to create a "help book" instead of a "help namespace". I had the radical idea of creating multiple help books, and creating an entire help bookshelf, although the jury is still out as to whether that idea is too ambitious or not.

Another project that has been started recently is a general overhaul of the various categorization an organization schemes in use at the site. Among these that have already been worked on are the Dewey Decimal System, The Library of Congress System, and the Alphabetical Listings pages. These pages have been redone to utilize MediaWiki categories that will automatically update, instead of lists that needed to be manually updated. Of course, there are trade-offs to be made when we change anything so drastically, but the improvement in useablitity seems to outweigh the lack of per-book customization (ability to associate development stages and infobox icons with the book titles in a category page).

With the help pages and classification pages taken care of (or at least being in good hands) we can start to set our sights on other pages, such as the oft-overlooked Community Portal. With a working (and aesthetically pleasing) community portal available, it will open the way for new rounds of collaboration and improvement in an organized and positive way.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


The United-Nations Asia Pacific Development Programme (APDIP) has donated two more of it's e-primers to Wikibooks, bringing the total of donated books to 18. I have been informed that two more primers are in development, and that these two will also be donated to Wikibooks.

For anybody who is interested in this project, or who is interested in reading some of these e-primers, visit:

For more information about the APDIP, visit:

These e-primers are a great milestone for Wikibooks, because the APDIP is a prestigious international organization that is using information technology to help people. Using Wikibooks as host to their publications is a great sign of confidence in our project.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Welcome to the Wikibooks News blog. I've started this blog for a number of reasons: First, I wanted to have a forum to discuss my opinions about Wikibooks, textbooks, and open content educational materials in general. Second, I wanted to create a public forum where I could advertise the work that the volunteers at Wikibooks are doing. Hopefully, as time goes on, I would like to add other Wikibookians to this blog, so that they could also share their stories and their opinions.