MediaWiki (Wikipedia and Beyond) by Daniel J Barrett

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MediaWiki (Wikipedia and Beyond) by Daniel J Barrett

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Category: Reference
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: If you're considering a wiki or using MediaWiki as a platform then you need this book. It's seriously good.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: October 2008
Publisher: O'Reilly Media
ISBN: 978-0596519797

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I don't usually open reviews by explaining how I came to read a particular book, but on this occasion it will help you to judge whether or not this book is suitable for you if you know where I'm coming from. Back in 2006 three people got together and between them they built a site - let's call it The Bookbag. In the early days Bookbag was for fun: it was rather like Everest. We did it because it could be there and we wanted to see if what we (loosely) had in mind could be done. It was a simple HTML site and I had no problems in mastering the technicalities. I'd built the site under instruction and I knew it inside out.

Then - something happened which we hadn't really anticipated. Bookbag took off and it was no longer feasible to spend time building static pages. After a lot of discussion we decided on MediaWiki but you can find out more about the thinking here. Only this time it wasn't me who built the site - it was our tech guy. I kept the front office going whilst the other two thirds of the business decided what we needed and how it should look. When it was all pretty and functioning we broke a virtual bottle of champagne over its database and I was given a crash course in Wiki Markup Language. It's over three years since we did this and it's proved to be a good choice - particularly as we had our tech guy to sort out any problems.

Time moves on and so did our tech guy who had other calls on his time - and I found that I was responsible for that bit at the back which I'd been trying to ignore for three years. My baby had suddenly grown teeth and could bite. I needed help. My first book was Wikis For Dummies by Dan Woods and Peter Thoeny. I haven't reviewed it but the content seemed dated (remember CamelCase?), a website to which I was directed had a security warning in three browsers and it simply wasn't specific enough for my needs. It was the last point which I really thought about and I turned to MediaWiki by Daniel J Barrett.

Good teachers don't just impart knowledge: they give confidence and enthuse you with ideas and possibilities. The book starts with, er, Getting Started. This is predominantly about you as a complete novice wondering about whether or not to use a Wiki and what the possibilities are. It's written in gloriously simple language which even a wrinkly like me can understand. In my spare time over Christmas I found myself playing about with our Wiki as I should have done three years ago. As I moved through Writing and Editing Articles my thoughts regularly began oh, gosh, we could... Some points weren't immediately relevant (translations, mathematical formulae...) but even those left me with the knowledge that the information would be there if we ever wanted to go down that road. In a couple of days I was a confident user of the Wiki and even did bits of of maintenance as I got into corners which had never before been swept. I already knew much of the information - now I understood it.

Progress slowed as I got further into the book. It wasn't just that what could be achieved was very much more complex, it was that I found many more dusty corners on the site which needed to be cleaned out. I donned my virtual Marigolds and cleared out redundant templates, double redirects and dead-end pages. There was an amazing sense of achievement. What also surprised me was the way that I stopped thinking in terms of our Wiki and began considering the wider possibilities as well as moving on from doing my best to produce good reviews to also to thinking about best Wiki practice.

The big leap is, of course, the one between using the Wiki, even in an advanced way, and actually being able to install or upgrade it. The book assumes that you'll have a certain level of knowledge to be able to install and I don't feel that mine is adequate - but then even that is valuable knowledge. I now know what it's reasonable for me to expect to be able to do and much of this is outside my current scope. Surprisingly though I took a lot away from this section. Local Settings.php (if you don't know what it is - don't worry) had always been something of a mystery to me but I can now read through it and understand what it all means. I'm confident that I could make changes - and have done so without the site falling over. I've had such fun too - we now have a search box which suggests the article you're looking for and I've discovered some simple ways of making the site run more effectively.

It's not just a hymn in praise of MediaWiki either. Barrett accepts that there are occasions when it's not the right tool for the job, or where there are shortcomings. If there are shortcomings in an area then he does his best to provide a workaround. It's a book written from practical experience in language which everyone can understand.

If you're considering a wiki or have MediaWiki installed then you need this book. It's well written, and user friendly - there's a card with the essentials of Wiki Markup Language and if you're nervous about transferring code from the written page to screen - a simple typo could take a good while to sort out (yes - I've been there) - then it's available on screen for 45 days for you. The cover price might look high, but believe me it's worth every penny and then some. I now have the sort of enthusiasm and excitement (yes - I know - I should get out more) that I felt when I first mastered HTML.

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