This (very long) post is based on a Libraries’ workshop on blogging, held on 5/27/15, which was the second in a two-part series. View the original slides for this workshop here. Part one of the series was taught by Beth Snapp, and was titled “Carousels, Drop-Down Menus, and Forms: Little Known Features of OSUL Blogs.”
Why should librarians blog?
If you are reading this, the odds are you don’t think blogging in libraries is a complete waste of time. Nevertheless, I’d like to open with a brief discussion of what I see as the most compelling reasons for us to put our time and energy into blog-based publishing. I think of this list, collectively, as The Visible Library. (It’s a play on the phrase “The Invisible Library,” which is used to refer to those books that only exist in fiction.) All of these are ways in which blogging can provide greater visiblity to libraries and the work of librarianship:
- News and updates: Since they are easy to use and allow for chronological, serial posting, blogs are a good platform for announcements about services, collections, facilities, and upcoming events.
- Broaden the reach of our events: Speaking of events, we have too many of them that are completely invisible and inaccessible to anyone who wasn’t able – because of time or geography – to attend in person. Blogs can be used to distribute write-ups of events, to share research or interesting work done during the planning phase, or to continue the discussion afterwards.
- Educate users and peers: This one’s pretty self-explanatory.
- Tailored discovery: In our broad discussions about the principles of library discovery last fall, one of the ideas that consistently rose to the top was the need to provide tailored discovery environments for different groups. That’s a really tricky thing to do in traditional discovery environments (like the catalog), but a fairly easy thing to do in a blog environment. A blog can serve as an entry point into the library for a specific user group, where resources, services, and events of possible interest to that group are aggregated and described in accessible terms.
- Make the work of librarianship more visible: I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for this one. The work of librarianship is fascinating, and largely invisible to folks outside of it. It includes intensive research and innovative teaching, interesting (if geeky) technical processes, and the development of cutting-edge services. One of the best ways we can advocate for ourselves and advance professional practice is to show people – users and peers – what we do.
Starting a blog: The basics
So you want to start a blog? Or want to revamp or improve one you are already writing? Start with these three questions:
- What is your goal? There isn’t a right way to blog, and no one format or approach will work in every situation. What you choose should depend entirely on what it is you are hoping to accomplish. If your goal is “to have a blog,” I suggest you do a little more thinking before you dive in.
- Who is your audience? Of course, you can’t predict every type of person who might stumble across your blog and find it useful, but you can identify groups who you definitely want to reach. Make a list of those groups, and then, for each one, think about how best to communicate with them. Just putting the blog out there doesn’t guarantee that anyone will see it – it’s better to be proactive about announcing its existence and providing tools that make it easy for interested people to keep up-to-date with it. (More about this in the “Tips” section.)
- How much time can you devote to blogging? Given the answers to questions 1 and 2, how often do you think you will need to post? How long will each post take to write? Now think about how much time you can reasonably spare from your day job (or your free time) to blog. Do the two match up? If not, consider adjusting your goals or asking for help. (Though working with other people on a blog comes with its own set of challenges – more on that later.)
Different kinds of blogs: Ideas and examples
Now you know what your goal is, who your intended audience is, and how much time you have to devote to blogging – where do you go from here? There are tons of different approaches to blogging, and I can’t hope to list them all. Instead, I’m going to offer three general categories with some examples for each one. I’ve decided to base my categories on difficulty because I think it’s a useful perspective, but it’s certainly not the only one. Obviously, this is overly simplified and imprecise, and blogs can pull elements from more than one of these categories. Also keep in mind that harder isn’t better (or worse ) – successful blogs can fall into any of these categories, and what you choose to do will depend entirely on your unique goals, audience, and resources. Also, I’ve used a hiking metaphor.
These types of blogs tend to be pretty low-overhead. They are usually maintained by an individual (or a small group within an administrative unit), and posts can be created quickly based on available information. News/announcement blogs are a good example of this category, but it can also include simple research guides or educational resources.
- Showcase: “We have a new item!”
- News: “Library hours are changing.”
- Pointers: “Here are some resources on a topic.”
- Northeastern University, Snell Snippets (news and events)
- University of Edinburgh, Get The Best From The Library (short research guides)
(Ok, I haven’t included many examples of this category, because it’s fairly self-evident, and that second one is stretching the boundary between the first two categories. Sorry. I, too, have limited time to blog!)
Moderate to strenuous blogging
The blogs in this category are usually still individual or departmental, but they involve research and/or original writing. This is where blogging starts to look more like ‘publishing’ in the traditional sense, in that it is making original content available to the world. Obviously, this type of blogging is more time-consuming, and there are potential pitfalls. For example, if you are giving your opinion on a blog hosted by your library, to what extent do you need to make sure the library is OK with your opinion? There are significant rewards for taking those risks, though, in the form of more compelling content and more meaningful engagement with readers.
- Collection interpretation: “We got a new item, and did some research on it.”
- Editorial: “Here’s some information, and here’s what I think about it.”
- Showing your work: “Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at a project/service/etc.”
- Extending the reach of your event: “We had a cool exhibit. Let’s talk about it.”
- University of Pennsylvania, Special Collections Processing at Penn: This is a lovely example of a collection interpretation-type blog.
- Stuart Shieber, Harvard University, The Occasional Pamphlet: This is the only non-library blog I’ve linked here, and I included it because it is a great example of a model of blogging that I think is especially useful for busy librarians. It’s updated infrequently (about every 2-3 months), but each post is thoughtful and worth reading. As long as your goal isn’t to be a place for breaking news, and you provide ways for people to get notifications when new content is posted, there’s nothing wrong with intermittent posting if it’s done well.
- Edinburgh University, Bits and Pieces (digital preservation): This blog gives a behind-the-scenes look at a 2-year digital preservation project. Because this is a field that is still very much in development, and with which many libraries are struggling, being able to follow along as someone else works through the issues is invaluable.
- University of Iowa, Preservation Beat: I don’t think folks who work in preservation are more likely to blog than anyone else – I just happened to come across two examples in different areas of preservation and thought I would contrast them. In this one, the Preservation Department of the U of Iowa Libraries shares its work preserving collections.
- New York Public Library, Three Faiths (exhibit): This is another two-fer – this time of exhibit-related blogs from NYPL. This one was created in the run-up to an exhibit and includes both making-of posts and related content by a variety of authors.
- New York Public Library, All Possible Worlds (exhibit): This one serves as a space to continue the conversation after a successful exhibit on Voltaire’s Candide.
The most difficult category! These blogs have all the characteristics of the last category (like original content), but they also take on the challenge of synthesizing information or resources from multiple parts of the library (working across administrative boundaries), or bringing in different perspectives (like student workers or users). Those writing/editing such blogs have to keep a broad eye on the work of the library, and/or wrangle other people into contributing to their blog. People-wrangling comes with a set of challenges (even more so when the guest bloggers are not library employees), and working across administrative lines is challenging at the best of times, but for those who can navigate it, this is really exciting and fruitful terrain. I don’t have a ton of examples for this one (for obvious reasons), but anyone at the Libraries who is interested in doing something like this should come talk to me – I will do whatever I can to support you!
- Target audience: “You’re a grad student in the humanities? Here are some things that might interest you from around the library.”
- New voices: “Read what our user/student/volunteer has to say!”
- Cool work happening here: “Read what this scholar is researching in our special collections.”
- Duke University, Humanities @ Duke University Libraries: A variety of folks writing about all things humanities-related.
- University of Edinburgh, University Collections Volunteers and Interns: Exactly what it sounds like.
Assessing your blog
Odds and ends related to blog assessment:
- How will you know when you have reached your goals? So your latest post on Chaucer got 50 views. Yay? What does that even mean? How many people were you hoping to reach? Or is there some other metric that is more important to you? How you will assess your blog depends entirely on what you were hoping it would accomplish, so once you have your goals figured out, take a moment to ask yourself this question.
- Is your blog writing valued? Does your supervisor support your blogging habit? Will your faculty peers appreciate its importance when tenure season rolls around? The value of blogging isn’t self-evident, so make sure you are communicating with other people how your blog is helping advance the success of your program and the Libraries as a whole.
- When it’s time to let go: Not every blog has to last forever. In fact, some blogs are meant to be short-term, and that’s OK. Even open-ended blogs may cease publication for a variety of reasons. If your blog isn’t doing what you want it to do, or you find you just don’t want to work on it anymore, don’t be afraid to wrap it up and put a bow on it. We (IT and the Publishing Program) are still figuring out how to handle no-longer-updated blogs – should they show up in the main blogs list? Should they be archived somewhere? In the meantime, let us know what you would like to see happen with your finished blog.
Tips for successful blogging
- Push it! Make sure you provide ways for people to get notifications of new content – that way they don’t have to remember to check in on your blog periodically. Email subscriptions are a good thing to turn on (there’s a widget). You can also link your blog up to social media accounts so that a Tweet or a Facebook post is automatically generated when you publish a blog post. Consider announcing your new blog (once there’s some content on it) on relevant mailing lists or in your holiday card. (Thanks for the idea, Nena!) People can’t read it if they don’t know it’s there, and they’re all really busy, just like you.
- Make it web- and sharing-friendly: Caitlin McGurk is going to write a guest post on this topic (I’ll link when it’s up), so for now I’ll just stress the importance of clean URLs (you can edit them when you’re creating your post), catchy titles, and images.
- Don’t be afraid to aggregate: Think hard about whether you need to have your own blog. Could you team up with other folks doing similar work to all contribute to a single blog? Coordination is tricky, and someone has to step up to be the editor or nothing will ever get done, but there are some great opportunities for collaboration if you can do it. You can use categories to make sure that your posts can be viewed separately, linked to, and posted on your website through an RSS feed. If you all really want your own blogs, consider aggregating anyway. It doesn’t hurt to have a central place where everyone’s posts appear so users can browse them all. If you’re interested in doing this, talk to IT about different ways to do it.
If you found this useful, let me know. I’m still figuring what kind of blogging support I’m going to offer through the Publishing Program – including whether we will keep having workshops like the one this post was based on. What do you need to be a successful blogger? This inquiring mind wants to know.
*I realize the credit statements on the bottom of the images are getting cut off, and I don’t have the time to figure out why right now. (Good thing I’m a total expert on blogging, huh?) Instead, I will just say that all of them came from The Noun Project. If you haven’t seen it before, check it out. It’s really cool.