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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

MediaWiki Book Designer

The other day I pushed a new repository to github. It is my visual book designer tool for MediaWiki that I've been developing on and off for years now. I wrote a post a while ago on my now-defunct Wikibooks blog about it, and things have progressed significantly since then.

I started working on this graphical book interface years ago in response to complaints I had heard from new Wikibookians. Making new books was too hard, because it had to be done page-at-a-time and the book structure (TOC, chapters, pages, subpages, etc) needed to be created manually using a complex system of relative links. On top of that, Wikitext really loses what little charm it has when you start doing complex structural, organizational, or navigational things with it, and it was another hurdle that prospective new authors couldn't always seem to clear. In short, it was hard to setup a new wiki-based ebook at all, and much much harder to do it correctly. This is the problem that I wanted to address.

The book designer took a number of forms before I settled on a graphical, outline-based approach. I had been doing work on it and tinkering in my spare time for a while before I was approached by Professor Kidd at Old Dominion University. She was looking to integrate MediaWiki and wiki-based e-books into her classroom, but was looking for an easier way to build books. Actually she was looking for a large number of usability enhancements, but book building was a big piece of it.

One thing lead to another, her team picked up a nice grant to pursue the use of wikis in the classroom, and I signed on to help with some of the necessary development. The book designer grew from a curious little toy that I had been playing with privately into a full-blown extension. Development isn't 100%, but I decided that now was a good time to open it up to the public and host it on github. So, that's what I did.

This development project is also going to yield a few other extensions and enhancements which I will try to host publicly in due time. I'll post updates about all that when things happen.

The book designer project "works", but it isn't very pretty in a lot of places. It consists of two major components: the PHP-based backend and the Javascript-based interface. They communicate together through a quick-and-dirty (and very very ugly) interchange format. The user builds the book outline using the provided javascript tools, and clicks the button to save it. The javascript builds up a textual description of the outline and posts it to the server where the PHP backend parses that and creates the necessary pages with a large amount of helpful boilerplate text. When the dust settles, a complete skeleton book exists that only needs content to be added by interested authors.

I don't know how much more work I am going to do on this tool for the duration of this project. I also don't know how much I will be working on it thereafter, especially considering some of the other things I have going on in the coming weeks. But, if other people are interested in this tool and want to get involved, I will do everything I can to support that.

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