Purdue’s Virtual Notebook: A Wiki Worth Reading

Another day, another question–or, to be more precise, the same question.  If you’ve ever worked at a reference or a circulation desk, you know what I’m talking about–those questions that pop up over and over again with such incredible regularity that you hardly have to think before directing a search.  Without missing a beat, you can navigate a patron to the appropriate resources because you’ve frequented this topic so–well, frequently, that you’ve got it down.

If you’ve found yourself in this situation, rest assured that you’re not alone.  Back in 1897, Eleanor Woodruff, a librarian at the Pratt Institute Free Library, wrote about the repetitive nature of reference questions in Library Journal (Bejune & Morris, 2010, p. 27).  Woodruff advocated for recording questions and answers on readily available materials, such as old catalog cards, and arranging them by subject to expedite the process of finding answers to common queries.  Locally developed reference resources are now well-established , and the forms they take range wildly from vertical files and Rolodexes to Post-it notes and Word documents.  Today, reference tools have become increasingly web-based.  One solution for ready-reference is the wiki.  Wikis, which are free, require little technological knowledge, and allow open access, have many advantages over more traditional physical reference formats and have replaced messages, email lists, and handwritten notes at some university libraries (Bejune & Morris, 2010, p. 30).

One particularly innovative use of wikis to support reference is Purdue University’s Virtual Notebook.  In 2007, upon the suggestion of a graduate reference assistant, Purdue library staff began to create a virtual reference tool to replace the physical reference notebook that had served as a resource for reference desk staff for over ten years.  The wiki, which was powered by Atlassian Confluence software, allowed contributors to work asynchronously or synchronously, either on campus or remotely.

Content for the Virtual Notebook was gathered from a variety of sources, including the existing FAQ Engine, discussion lists, archived chat and email questions.  Contributors also created new content in response to other questions that they had received from library patrons.  Once the content was collected, it was organized into subject headings which serve as the primary form of navigation through the Notebook.  Virtual Notebook users can also use keyword searches to search the entire document, and staff can leave notes or messages for each other in a dedicated space, replacing emails or sticky notes left in a physical location.

While the Virtual Notebook provided several significant advantages over the Purdue libraries’ intranet-based resources, including easier editing options, revision history, and an open architecture allowing anyone to contribute, implementation and use of the resource was underwhelming.  Changing reference needs, consolidation of libraries and reference/circulation desks, and new software adoptions presented challenges to the utility of the wiki and highlight the ever-shifting technoscape of the modern library.

The Lowdown

What new knowledge, skills or understanding have you gained? (Description)

This week, I learned about Purdue University’s Virtual Notebook, a wiki that was designed to combine the physical compilation of notes and various digital services used by library reference staff to provide patron assistance.  The wiki combined the content of the FAQ Engine with questions asked of staff through email or chat as well as anecdotal questions.  While the wiki was advantageous in that it provided for open contribution and had improved search functionality, it was unfortunately underutilized by staff and quickly became at-risk for replacement or complete overhaul as library needs changed over time.

How can you use what you have learned? (Application)

I think that the idea of replacing physical notes with a wiki is quite reasonable and useful.  Since wikis can be edited easily and modified by users, they present a great opportunity for staff to continue working together to build a useful resource.  One of Purdue’s greatest challenges was the combining of several circulation/reference desks into one, which created a much wider array of questions.  This made it difficult to maintain the comprehensiveness and relativity of the wiki.  In a different scenario in which the library were smaller, the field of questions more focused, or the staff more acclimated to using wikis, the Virtual Notebook may have functioned as a reliable tool for a greater period of time.

How does it relate to library work? (Reflection)

Wikis are a popular and useful tool that can be implemented by libraries in a variety of ways.  It’s important to be familiar and comfortable with this technology.  However, it is also important to reflect upon the ultimate implications of the Virtual Notebook, which became irrelevant very quickly–technology changes quickly and in order to retain relevance, it is important that librarians stay abreast of new developments.

What resources (activities) have helped you to understand and/or have been interesting to use? (Activities/ Resources)

Bejune, M. M. & Morris, S. E.  (2010).  The development of the virtual notebook, a wiki-based ready reference technology.  Reference & User Services Quarterly, 50(1), 27-34.

Gottfried, J., DeLancey, L., & Hardin, A.  (2015).  Talking to ourselves: Internal communication strategies for reference services.  Reference & User Services Quarterly, 54(3), 37-43.


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