Thursday, 15 September 2011

Thing 13: Just collaboration (running away with me)

In this Thing we're looking at three tools that enable collaboration and sharing of documents with others. 

Google Docs

Google Docs is a brilliant tool that does everything it claims to easily and smoothly. It's easy to set up (particularly if you already have a Google account), using it to create and edit documents is nice and intuitive, and likewise sharing and controlling access to your documents is a cinch.

I doubt, however, that I'll be using it very much, mainly because I'm not sure if most of the people I work and collaborate with are also Google Docs users. This brings us to one of the problems of collaborative working: everybody has to be using the same tools and applications for things to be shared effectively. At work we have a shared drive where all communal documents are stored. This is where people save documents that they want others to have access to, and it's the first place people look for useful documents. To use Google Docs instead of, or running in tandem with, this would, I think, be difficult. On the other hand, I can see how Google Docs would be useful for collaborating with people from different institutions or geographical areas, so I will certainly keep it in mind for future use.



I had similar misgivings about Dropbox, in that it seems to be solving a problem that I already have solutions for. If I want to transfer documents and files I tend to use a USB stick or email them to my web-based email account (I've also got some cloud-based storage space, which I never use, as part of this account). I wasn't sure that I needed any alternative or additional tools to achieve this.

Nevertheless, I gave Dropbox a go, and found the experience so whizzy that I think it will now become my preferred application for transferring files. Setting up an account was incredibly easy and quick - as in it took nano-seconds, so quick that it had been accomplished before I even realised what was happening.  I used it to store my PDR documents so I could work on them at home (because I'm that much of a girlie swot) and was very impressed with the way documents you edit on one computer are magically synchronized so that they are updated on other computers where you also have the client installed. Dropbox is one of those applications that works so incredibly well I can only assume it is powered by Voodoo! or something.

As with Google Docs, I'm not sure how many of my acquaintances outside of cpd23 are Dropbox users, which limits the collaborative possibilities somewhat. Nevertheless, if I ever need to share any documents with people who happen to have a Dropbox account, then I'm right on it.

Not the contents of my Dropbox, unfortunately
(Photo by Mr Thinktank)


I've recently used and added details to the Library Day in the Life Wiki when I took part in Round 7 of that project. I must admit that I felt slightly trepidatious when doing so: the scope of the Wiki - the fact that it's an international project with hundreds of users - made me more worried than usual  about accidentally hitting the wrong button and erasing other people's contributions. And in fact somebody did manage, accidentally I'm sure, to erase mine and others' entries so that they had to be re-added. This suggests another problem with collaborative tools: as innumerable locked Wikipedia pages testify, you can't guarantee that everyone involved will play nicely or competently with the information displayed in the Wiki. However, I'm willing to concede that this is a problem with the act of collaborating itself, rather than the tools used to enable that collaboration.

As a result of this Thing, I have started thinking about how I could use Wikis to share training and information documents with others in my workplace. In particular, the work I do with our institutional repository generates large amounts of documents and information - user manuals, correspondence with authors and publishers, meeting minutes and training notes - that are currently scattered throughout several folders on the shared drive and in the repository's email inbox. It would be useful to bring all of this information together in one place so that everyone who works on the repository can view, amend and add to it as necessary.

I've looked briefly at PBWorks and MediaWiki in preparation - the former looks slightly more user-friendly and simple to set up (and is free for librarians), so I will be investigating this one further. I have a horrible suspicion that the gravitational pull of the shared drive will be too great to overcome and that after a couple of weeks I might be the only the person looking at and contributing to the resulting Wiki, but I will push on regardless, as I do think planning and setting it up will be a useful exercise in its own right.

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