|Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College;
Larry Hardesty, University of Nebraska at Kearney; Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia;
Steven Bell, Philadelphia University; Kathleen Hoeth, Florida Gulf Coast University
|Vol. 26, No. 3||January 2006|
The Library Blog: Innovative Idea or Wasted Words
by Steven Bell
You just learned your academic librarians created a weblog for the library. There’s been no dearth of discussion about personal blogs, but a blog for a library? That seems a bit out of the ordinary. Blogs are mostly personalized and often opinionated journals. That doesn’t sound like the sort of thing a library needs.
So you decide to give it a look. Let’s see. There’s an item about some new accounting books. Then a few days later another item about a workshop on how to write a term paper. Nothing for a few days and then another item about a change in the library’s printing policy. This blog, you think, is really dreadful.
Blogs are supposed to be dynamic, challenging, newsworthy, regularly updated, and even a bit entertaining. The library’s blog is none of the above. In fact, it’s downright boring. You think, who would want to read this, and why are the librarians wasting their time with this. Couldn’t they just do a newsletter or send out e-mails like everyone else?
Starting an academic library blog is catching on and librarians are jumping on the bandwagon with a fevered pitch. With so many library blogs a few certainly resemble the one just described. Despite the challenges of creating a good library blog, a few academic libraries are demonstrating that it can be done. But even with good content and regular updating, a library blog will be a waste of words and time if it doesn’t reach its intended audience. The real problem with library blogs is that librarians create them, and then expect the user community to come to it.
But a library blog is hardly a “build it and they will come” proposition. With thousands of blogs to choose from and with no compelling reason to read the library blog, college faculty and students are likely to pay absolutely no attention to the library’s blog.
Trends in Academic Library Blogging
Academic library blogs first began to appear approximately two years ago. The libraries that pioneered them used the blog as a tool to disseminate information about the library and its resources.
In short time experimentation was under way to see what might be accomplished with a blog. Some libraries promoted the blog as an internal communication mechanism that librarians could use to share information, such as a change in a library database or to alert colleagues to a new assignment generating many questions.
Other libraries sought to turn the library blog into a much broader resource, and used it to create streams of news that might appeal to specific segments of the user population. The library at Georgia State University gained early recognition for creating news feeds across many disciplines. In addition to standard library news, they offer over 15 feeds for news in fields such as education, economics, world politics, health, science, and history. Each must be maintained by a single librarian. Individual users can opt to subscribe to just the library news or as many of these other news sources as they wish to choose. Its purpose appeared to be the positioning of the library as a campus provider of world news.
There is no exact figure for how many academic libraries currently offer an active blog. There are several directories that list them, and those sources point to more than 100 academic library blogs. Some are probably now defunct or haven’t been updated, but, it is more likely that many additional academic library blogs have since started and are not yet tracked by these directories.
Despite the growth of library blogs, to date there is no research that attempts to document their impact on user populations. While a fair amount of time and effort can go into starting and maintaining a library blog, there is no evidence it yields a positive return on investment for the library.
There is no credible data that tells us if intended audiences read them, if they motivate users to make greater use of the library services, if faculty integrate library resources into their courses as a result of reading library blogs, and most importantly there is no indication of how library blogs contribute to students achieving learning outcomes. Administrators and faculty may be well justified in questioning the value of library blogs.
RSS Technology Makes The Difference
Despite concerns administrators may have about its worth, a library blog can be a valuable technology for marketing and promoting the library. It’s a relatively low-risk venture, it can be done at no or low cost, and need not take extensive time to regularly update. But if it fails to reach the user population, what is the point. To better understand why most library blogs fail to achieve their intended impact it helps to understand some blogging technology basics, specifically the relationship between blogs, RSS technology, and the news aggregator.
RSS, an abbreviation for Rich Site Summary or Real Simple Syndication, is the technology that enables those who create blogs to give potential readers an easy way to use them. With the glut of information internet users may access, how do those users find and become a regular reader of any blog? For any blog to have a chance of survival it must provide an RSS feed. The feed allows interested readers to subscribe to the blog so they can receive new postings from the blog as it is updated. In the Georgia State University example, each of the discipline specific news feeds is presented as an RSS feed on the Library’s blog page. But many library blogs are enabled to provide an RSS feed. Providing an RSS feed is only one half of the equation. In order for a member of the user community to subscribe to the blog he or she must use a news aggregator.
A news aggregator acts like a customized newspaper. Instead of reading a newspaper with articles assembled by editors, imagine having the ability to assemble one made up of articles from thousands of potential sources specialized to your interests. A news aggregator is capable of receiving the RSS feed from a blog. Whenever a new post is added to the blog, the RSS feed “pushes” that content out onto the internet where properly configured news aggregators can capture that feed and hold it for future reading. When blog subscribers activate their news aggregator they can then read all the stories received since the aggregator was last used. News aggregators are available as software that can be installed on a computer, or they may be found on the internet as freely available utilities. Two examples of the latter are Bloglines and Google Reader.
Will Anyone Read The Blog?
The necessary technology is in place to allow the library’s user community to connect with their blog. The problem that many librarian bloggers encounter in reaching their users is really one that they have little control over. Data from recent studies of internet users indicate that RSS and news aggregator technology is still little understood, largely unknown, and rarely used by the general public.
For example, a report published in July 2005 by Forrester Research found that just 2 percent of American internet users made use of RSS feeds. But colleges and universities are full of young, millennial generation technology gurus who surely must be using the latest communication marvels. Not quite. The same report stated that even in the 12 to 21 age group only 5 percent of internet users were making use of RSS and aggregator technology. The fundamental flaw of academic library blogging is the creation of a product whose intended audience is currently largely incapable of using it.
Are academic librarians guilty of being too far ahead of the curve or just bad planning? Many academic library bloggers appear to have ignored the importance of market research. Instead of determining if our user population wanted, needed, or was even technologically prepared to use a blog from the library, librarian bloggers forged ahead in their enthusiasm to exploit blog technology. As a result many blogs go unread.
Faculty and students lack motivation to voluntarily bookmark, subscribe to, or otherwise go out of their way to read a library blog. I learned this when I surveyed our students in the fall of 2004. Students were asked about their familiarity with RSS, news aggregators, and blogs. The findings paralleled the Forester Research report. Miniscule numbers of students knew of these technologies, nor did they have an interest in a library blog. Of course, none of this discouraged me from starting a blog for my own library.
Put The Blog Where The Students Are
A minor technology discovery made all the difference in my perspective on blogs. Given the lack of concrete evidence in support of blogging’s value to library users, I questioned why so many academic librarians were jumping on the blog bandwagon. Then in the spring of 2005 I discovered a technology known as the RSS to HTML converter.
Simply put, this allows an RSS feed to be converted into computer language that pushes library blog content to any standard web page, including academic learning management systems such as Blackboard, ANGEL, or Moodle. That’s important for two reasons. First, it eliminates the barrier created by student and faculty lack of awareness about RSS and aggregator technology; it makes no difference if they use or know about those technologies. Second, since we know that the user community will rarely voluntarily subscribe to a library blog, this technology puts the blog content where the intended audience is. For most college students, that’s the courseware site.
The beauty of this solution is that the RSS converter technology is freely available and is relatively easy to use. Within minutes, blog postings can be directed to courseware or the library’s own home page. A tutorial that explains how it works is found at the Low Threshold Applications web site (see the resource list).
Still, blogging to courseware presents two challenges, and this is where the academic administration needs to be supportive of the library’s effort.
First, this solution works only when librarians are actively involved in the administration of the campus courseware or at least have access to the courseware system. Implementing the RSS converter technology solution requires that academic librarians be familiar with the management of courseware sites. In institutions where there is a sharp dividing line between the library and courseware administrators, this will create significant barriers to librarians setting up course sites to receive blog posts.
Second, because faculty ultimately own their courses they must willingly participate in this process. The administration can set the tone for a successful implementation by communicating to faculty the importance of collaborating with librarians to help students become more knowledgeable about the library and its resources.
An Experiment and a Survey
In spring 2005 I enlisted 20 faculty members to volunteer for a library blog experiment within their Blackboard course sites. Working collaboratively we agreed that a maximum of three news stories from the library’s blog would be displayed on the course’s announcement page. When a student connects to his or her course, the announcement page is the first page to display. That makes it the most sensible target for embedded library blog posts because the news items from the library are virtually impossible to miss. It also eliminates concerns that students will never see the library blog owing to their lack of knowledge about RSS and news aggregators. The posts from the library blog are there whenever students visit the course site, as opposed to the students needing to go and find them.
Faculty did have some concerns about how the library blog postings might impact their ability to add their own announcements. Because the announcement page real estate is limited and valuable, it is essential that the library’s blog stories use it sparingly. The faculty members and I agreed that each posting from the library blog would contain no more than 150 characters to minimize page space consumed. Fortunately, the RSS converter technology allows for the easy setting of content limitations. Once the parameters of this experiment were established the administrative routines are relatively straightforward. With access to each course, a librarian inserts the code created by the RSS converter into the page where course announcements are created. That needs to happen just one time. After that the librarian simply updates the library blog.
As new posts are added to the library blog each is “pushed” to the announcement page of any course site in Blackboard configured to receive them. Instead of requiring each of several hundred students to subscribe to the library blog, those many students will simply read the library news postings as they access their course sites.
It does raise other concerns though. For example, will the students perceive the library blog posts as useful? Will they act on the information they receive? Will they see the posts as an unnecessary hindrance that imposes on their course and interferes with their ability to use it? In this early stage most of the posts were standard library news items. For example, a change in the schedule for a semester break, a notice about an upcoming library workshop, or an announcement for an upcoming cultural program. How would the students respond to this news and information?
This standard library blog fare might otherwise fail to motivate students to subscribe to a library blog, and rightfully cause administrators to question the blog’s value. Putting the content where the students are should reduce or eliminate such concerns because it is no longer a matter of creating compelling content that will motivate students and faculty to subscribe to the library blog. Rather, the news is now presented to them in a way in which they can choose to either act on it or ignore it, and far less time and effort are exerted.
That said, library blogs must challenge themselves to create more interesting content that appeals to readers and rises above mundane announcements. Library blogs can include more news about campus events, provide concise research tips, and other content that generally escapes the boundaries of traditional library newsletters.
To better understand how students responded to the content and to answer some of the concerns about their reaction to the presence of library posts in their course site, I sent a survey out to the students in these 20 courses at the end of the semester.
Approximately 75 percent of student respondents indicated satisfaction with the blog posts, and recommended that the practice should continue. Less than 5 percent indicated the blog interfered with their use of the course site. Only 25 percent acted on posts, for example, coming to a library event or using a resource; that’s less than desired but still more than would have responded with no blogging to the courseware.
Perhaps the most telling statistic is that only 5 percent of the students indicated that they would voluntarily subscribe to the library blog. This response should serve as a wake-up call to academic libraries that believe if they build a blog the users will come. Reaching the user community requires a strategy based on the concept of pushing the blog out to users and putting the content where the user is.
My library blog’s usage statistics back this up. Before being pushed to courses, with only a link to the blog on the library home page, visits to the blog were negligible. During the experiment period traffic increased to almost 100 post views per week. During the fall 2005 semester the number of courses receiving the blog feed increased from 20 to 50. Also, the blog posts are now fed to a prominently displayed section on the library’s home page. As a result, the number of posts viewed are averaging between 150 and 200 per week.
Even if students just scan the headlines and summaries without connecting to the blog to view posts in their entirety, they are still getting regular news and information from the library. It gives the library an ongoing presence that keeps it front and center in the minds of students.
It is clear that pushing the library blog to those places where the user community is most likely to encounter it will increase readership. It virtually makes the difference between being ignored and being read.
Work Together For a Better Library Blog
With many pressing concerns to juggle, why should it matter to academic administrators or faculty whether their librarians choose to create a library blog? What if they do and no one reads it? Other than time, there is little risk or cost, and more than likely, once the novelty wears off the librarians will discard it like outdated technology. But a poorly conceived and executed library blog can do more harm than good. Library blogs that are heavily promoted and then deliver bland content or that are rarely updated do reflect badly upon the library, not unlike a dismal library web site.
Academic librarians have a highly successful track record for technological innovation. If your campus librarians are blogging already they probably know about RSS and associated technologies. Faculty can ignore it or choose to proactively involve themselves with the librarians to learn about it, and explore ways in which the library can lead the faculty and students in discovering and joining this revolution.
Administrators should seek to consult with their librarians to make sure any blogging effort is of high quality and takes advantage of RSS to HTML technology to push the blog out to the user community. With collaboration and thoughtful planning a library blog can be a positive, rewarding enterprise for the institution. —Steven Bell is Director of the Paul J. Gutman Library at Philadelphia University. Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Readings and Web Sites
Jacob Nielsen. Weblog Usability: The Top Ten Design Mistakes.(worth reviewing for an evaluation of a library blog). http://www.useit.com/alertbox/weblogs.html
Directory of blogs from a variety of different libraries, Academic, Public, Special, etc. http://www.blogwithoutalibrary.net/links.html
Links to Library blogs and their feeds, collected by Gerry McKiernan, Science and Technology Librarian and Bibliographer, Science and Technology Department, Iowa State University Library. http://www.public.iastate.edu/~CYBERSTACKS/RSS.htm
An annotated bibliography on library weblogs and blogging. http://blogbib.blogspot.com/
Georgia State University Library Blog site. http://www.library.gsu.edu/news/index.asp
Directory of Library and Librarian Blogs. http://www.libdex.com/weblogs.html
DMOZ listing of library weblogs. http://dmoz.org/Reference/Libraries/Library_and_Information_Science/Weblogs/
Low Threshold Application #44 - Integrating RSS Feeds Into a Course Site. http://jade.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/lta/archives/lta44.php
Low Threshold Application #36 – Using An Aggregator To Capture RSS Feeds. http://jade.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/lta/archives/lta36.php
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last modified: January 2006
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