Friday, December 19, 2008


I was talking to Pharos today, and he mentioned something that I've been mulling over for a while now in the back of my mind but never took the time to say: We at Wikibooks have a problem with our nomenclature.

Things were easy when we were just an e-book site, because we could extend the "book" metaphor to our creations with ease. A book is broken into little chunks which could be equally referred to as "chapters" or "pages". Wiki wasn't paper, after all, so it didn't matter if one of our "pages" was far longer then a single printed page would be coming out of your printer. The point was moot.

Things are a little bit different now though, because Wiki can indeed become paper in a very real way. All of a sudden we have an insurmountable wall of dense terminology where every word seems to have multiple meanings. Keep in mind that every "book" on our site has two possible incarnations: the on-wiki version and the printed PediaPress version (and even the downloadable PDF version, but let's ignore that for now).

With these two incarnations in mind, what do the words "book", "chapter", "page", "section", "unit", "module", and "heading" mean? If we keep up the metaphor and say the things on our website are "books", then what are those things that PediaPress are printing? A "page" on wiki takes up multiple "pages" in the printed book. A "chapter" in the book is made up of multiple chunks of stuff that we used to call "chapters" on the wiki. In short, we have a terminology nightmare on our hands, and as a result our best tutorials about the subject have descended into opaque and indecipherable jibberish where words are used in multiple different ways, often in a single paragraph or sentence.

And don't even get me started on the difficulty in trying to file bug reports with the PediaPress people, trying to explain how certain "features" in a published book correspond to wikitext syntax in certain places on the wiki. The fact that we've had any meaningful discussions with them is a testament to the sheer courtesy, patience and willpower that the wonderful PediaPress developers have shown. If it's this hard for us to do, I can't even imagine how confused our poor new users are becoming by this all.


  1. Confusing terminology is a problem on Wikipedia too. But the problem is accentuated when a project like Wikibooks has much less public exposure currently.

    I think terminology should be as transparent as possible, and require no explanations, because frankly most people are going to give up before they bother reading the explanation.

    This means that Wikibooks terminology should be directly derived from "traditional" words, but carefully selected, so they have an unambiguous meaning.

    So, I would suggest one wiki page be a "chapter", and a bloc of chapters a "part" of the whole, which is a "book". Or something on that model, anyway.

    In forming the terminology, sometimes it may also be necessary to use compound words to express finer distinctions, for example "printable book" or "book packet", which could apply to PDFs/physical books, which are in many cases actually compilations of chapters from several different books. (Pediapress on their site actually calls these "custom books", another option).

  2. Part of the problem is the official Wikibooks:Naming policy, which uses "chapter" and "page" in a quite interesting way. (In a flat structure, each wiki page could be called a "chapter"; in a hierarchical structure, a "page" may refer to a set of sub-pages.)

    I think we shouldn't try to define the best correct terminology (only very few people would use it anyways) but instead we should look at the currently unambiguous terms and encourage their use while the use of ambiguous terms should be discouraged (and "corrected").

    Based on the current usage the terms "wiki page" and "module" appear to be unambiguous while "page" and "chapter" are used ambiguously. "wikibook" is unambiguous and so is "part" (any subset of wiki pages of the same wikibook). Thanks to the collections extension the term "book" has become ambiguous. (It is either a wikibook or a collection.) The term "collection" itself appears to be unambiguous for now.

    Thus, I think we should avoid the ambiguous terms "page", "chapter" and "book" (and if they are used one should be extremely cautious about their meaning). The terms "wiki page", "module", "part", "wikibook", and "collection" should be fine.

  3. @Martin Kraus: Real books can be divided in parts as well. Therefore "part" is also ambigous. ;)

  4. Some time ago I was really thinking about this confusion with our terminology at pt.wikibooks...

    So... we really need to choose carefully the terminology used in our help pages, in such way that the readers could understand easily what we mean...