Making an econo library Q&A site with Question2Answer

I was sort of taken with SpringShare’s LibAnswers service when I first saw it—great idea for maintaining an FAQ/knowledge base. I immediately thought about how to find some funding for it, and that led to wondering about a free solution. LibAnswers is not even very expensive, but in the current budget climate asking for money for a new service is really to be avoided.

I googled for similar services and came across the phenomenon of the "Stack Overflow clone." The idea: q&a around some sort of common interest, usually with user-submitted answers, indications of user trust/authority, the ability to designate a "best answer," social tagging etc. The genre extends from the lamentable Yahoo! Answers the recently buzzworthy Quora, not to mention Stack Overflow itself. Often Q&A’s will be a portion of some larger site—think Metafilter’s Ask MeFi, MakeUseOf Answers, etc. (There’s probably something interesting to say about the relationship between Q&A sites and general discussion forums but I’ll leave that alone.) Stack Overflow appears to be seen as the starting point for Q&A platforms.

There are dozens of these clones, written in various programming languages, hosted locally or remotely, free/premium etc. (A good list can be found at the Stack Overflow.) Question2Answer was the one that looked most promising for my needs. It’s open-source, fairly new and under active development. Unlike most of the other open-source clones, it’s a LAMP package—so if you’ve e.g. installed and configured Wordpress, you know how to get around in it. (I wouldn’t know how to get started with a Ruby or Python package.) This also means you can test it locally by using XAMPP.Question2Answer The feature set is impressive. You can set tags and/or categories, moderate questions, set permissions for asking, answering, voting on answers etc., and do any number of things with layout. When someone asks a question, they are taken to possible matching questions, and "similar" questions can be made to display near one being viewed. It also has a plugin architecture with at least a few users contributing code regularly. Not many themes are available, but most of the elements are easy to manipulate via CSS. And—cool feature—you can designate a separate, more lightweight theme for mobile visitors. For analytics, you can of course use Google or any other package.

So, after a few weeks of playing with a test installation and working on the CSS (using our unfortunate college colors), I opened it to the public around the beginning of March. The "stapler" logo is supposed to refer to the most common library question, but it seems like I’m the only person who gets that… oh well. Branding is not my strong suit. So far almost all the questions have been "seeded" by us librarians. Only three have come from the public, and one of these was withdrawn soon after being posted. I’m using Twitterfeed to auto-post an RSS feed of the posts to our Twitter account. (Yes, the product generates a bunch of RSS feeds, so you can play with that to make widgets if you like.) I’m actually allowing users to answer questions if they like, though I don’t think that’s necessarily ever going to happen.

Screenshot of the SCC Library Answers site. Shows a question that came from a student and that does not make sense.Obviously this approach has some disadvantages compared to using a service like Springshare’s. I probably spent a good deal more time getting this running than I would have configuring LibAnswers, and I’m now responsible for backing up the SQL database, updating the software as needed, etc. If I need support, I go to the Question2Answer Q&A site and hope for the best.

Then there’s performance. Springshare seems to do pretty well on this score, likely using Amazon or some other cloud service, whereas I’m hosting this on a cheap commercial shared account that our instructional technology team recently got to allow people to start Web projects without going through the grind of marshalling IT support.

layout tab from site control panelBut on the other hand, you have a great deal more control over the look of the thing (I’m not a fan of Springshare’s design so this is in itself appealing). You can add stuff to the header—e.g. Google web fonts, favicons, site header/footer etc.—and do whatever kind of add-on widgetry you like. In addition, I generally find tweaking CSS rewarding, simply because it remains relevant and I really don’t want to forget what I know about it.

Anyone out there reading this, please have a look at our site and let me know what you think!

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