Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Blogging in Libraries

My usual readers (if there is such a thing) will excuse this change of pace for my usual reading-log-type-style, and indulge me as I post a paper recently written for one of my Library and Information Science courses this semester. To those visiting my blog for the purpose of reading this article, please feel free to comment and look around!

-Stephanie Maxwell

Blogging in Libraries
Like many aspects of life, libraries can always count on things to be constantly changing, and often the mark of a successful library is the ways in which they handle, manage, and react to a constantly changing environment. Although this applies to many aspects of the library, the evolution of technology is certainly one of the most crucial and defining challenges that libraries have to work with and respond to. Libraries have gone through many changes when it comes to technology over the years—automation, self-check-out services, website adoption, online catalogs, and adopting habits to the now ubiquitous nature of the internet being some examples. In today’s internet- and technology-driven society, the question of Web 2.0 is one that many libraries of all types are grappling with—how can libraries use Web 2.0 technology to better reach and inform their users, improve the services the library provides, and remain relevant in today’s society? The ways that people interact with and receive their information is changing and the ways that libraries are interacting with their users is changing as well. Alton Chua and Dion Goh introduce their study on Web 2.0 applications in libraries by saying, "To move in tandem with the rapidly expanding universe of digital information resources, libraries all over the world are striving to offer high-quality online experiences on their websites. Meanwhile, a number of libraries, particularly those in the United States, are shifting their perceptions of users from mere information consumers to producers and architects of information" (203).
One such Web 2.0 tool that is being utilized to offer a new kind of library experience is blogging. New blogs pop up every day, but do these blogs have staying power? Are they effective for the purpose, mission, and users of the library? What are the positive and negative consequences of beginning and maintaining a blog? Although blogging may seem like a very straightforward task for a library, there are several issues to be considered and weighed before implementing a blog and libraries must consider these issues before beginning one.
First, it may be helpful to define “blog” in order to fully understand the concept. One of the simplest and most concise definitions of a blog can be found in Lu and Lee’s article, “Demographic Differences and the Antecedents of Blog Stickiness.” They define a blog as: “websites with articles and commentaries displayed chronologically” (Lu and Lee 21). This is a very basic definition of a blog and while it captures the format properties of a blog, Amanda Etches-Johnson, author of the article “The Library Blog: Serving Users and Staying Relevant,” writes, “Much like the rest of the Internet, a weblog is in fact different things to different people, and that is what makes defining it so problematic” (32). The blog as “thing” has a very simple and solid definition, but what a blog is or means aesthetically and contextually to a specific institution or user can vary greatly by blog. For libraries in particular, it is important to first address their definition and idea of a blog before actually implementing one. There are different types of blogs that libraries around the world have instituted, and David Lee King and Stephanie Willen Brown give examples of what libraries can do with blogs: “communicate with your patrons, start conversations about various topics, promote new books, videos, or what’s new at the library, deliver an internal staff newsletter, offer subject guide current awareness, reach customers where they are” (36). Defining the purpose of the blog seems to be the first step in the creation of a successful blog—having purpose can drive the postings and the motivation for maintaining the blog.
Because of the seemingly constant inundation of Web 2.0 applications and features in daily life, it may seem as though every library should already have a blog. Etches-Johnson even says,
"Librarians were surfing even before surfing became a metaphor for trolling the Internet, and blogs provide the perfect format to present that material…. It is not surprising then that creating, maintaining, and reading weblogs feels like a natural extension of what librarians have been doing for most of their professional lives. For most librarians who maintain weblogs on a regular basis, publishing content to their blogs is part of an established personal ritual of keeping current by reading through library literature, listserv subscriptions, newsletters, zines, and other blogs. Sharing that content rises out of the collegiality that is such a defining principle of the library profession" (34). This is certainly true—for centuries, librarians have been “filtering” information for users, letting them know what is good information and alerting them to reliable resources while also promoting their collections. In this light, it seems that the question would be, “Why not have a blog?” In fact, in their study on Web 2.0 trends in libraries, King and Brown claim that libraries have to blog and use other Web 2.0 tools because, “…these tools are relevant to the next generation, and if libraries are not using Web 2.0, they will lose those patrons as they are already using these tools with eBay, Amazon, and even within newspaper websites” (39). If a library does not have a blog, does that make it irrelevant in today’s society? I do not think that this is necessarily true, but rather, believe that all libraries should at least consider blogging, but must weigh the implications of doing so.
There seems to be a general consensus in the library community on the most positive aspect of blogging, and this is best summed up by Etches-Johnson when she writes, “Apart from offering fresh library content on a regular basis, weblogs provide all the necessary tools to turn a library website into a collaborative network that encourages, and indeed thrives on, community participation and interaction, two of the cornerstones of the library as a community institution” (37). A library blog can provide a place in the “cyber-world” where people can seek out and form communities based on their interests as well as provide a place where users can interact in their own library experience, informing it based on their own proclivities. Also, King and Brown recognize the importance of the interaction between the librarian and the user that a blog can better foster when they stress the importance of a blog’s ability to support commenting options (34). Often, the librarian in the library can seem removed from the user— at the library, they are behind a desk and computer and they may be seen in a very professional and often harsh light, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but for some users may make them unapproachable. The introduction of a blog, however, has potential to break that barrier between user and librarian, allowing a librarian to possibly share their own personal experiences and interests with users and allow those users to respond to and converse with librarians. In this vein, another positive consequence of a blog is the exposure of the collection. No matter the type, size, or location of the library, a blog can be used to showcase the collection, alerting the community to new acquisitions, unique materials, and resources provided by the library. The blog can be used as a method of constantly making current and possible users aware of old and new resources, encouraging the community to use the library and what it has to offer.
Although the positive impact of having a blog seem extremely obvious initially, starting and maintaining a blog is not necessarily a simple task, and there are certainly risks that come along with it. In her book Effective Blogging for Libraries, Connie Crosby addresses the positive and negative impacts of library blogs, giving this advice early on: "Just because everyone else is doing it does not mean you should. A blog is just one tool in your larger toolbox of communication tactics. Think about your target audience, which community or communities you want to reach, and whether a blog is the suitable vehicle to reach them. Look at your organizational mandate and strategy, and determine if a blog correctly aligns with them" (3). A blog can really work well for some libraries and not for others, and the nature of the community and users needs to be taken into account when considering a blog. Crosby is confident enough in the power of blogs to write a book about how libraries can best adopt blogs, but also considers the risks of beginning a blog. Crosby sent out surveys to 88 libraries which had blogs and reports, "Risks identified include balancing the amount of time spent on the blog with the value (or reward) received in return; and getting others to support the blog project initially, including management, IT departments, Webmasters, and other staff members in the library of the library’s parent organization" (8-9). The time and energy that is expended in order to maintain a blog is often a full- or part-time job in itself and can be stressful and seem thankless, thus it is imperative for the library to have a strong plan and organizer for the blog, making sure that there are policies as to how often it is updated, what will be posted, who is responsible for posting, and other matters concerning the blog.
No matter if the purpose of a library’s blog is to interact with users, showcase their collection, humanize their staff, or generally expose the library’s offerings, the content of the blog needs to be determined and adhered to in order for it to be effective. In their study on what they call “blog stickiness,” (which Lu and Lee define as, “the time spent in the blog and retention to the blog” (22)) Lu and Lee found that the content quality, more than any other factor is what determines a blog’s “stickiness:” "…content quality is the only determinant of blog retention. The ability to forward articles via email and giving the number of readers who are willing to recommend this blog can facilitate the impact of social influence on first visit duration, but not retention. The user will revisit a blog only if the first visit attracts them to stay for a while and the content quality is good" (32). The quality of the content is a direct determinant of the impact of the blog, and should thus be given serious consideration in planning for a blog. The main risks of beginning and maintaining a blog are time and support, but King and Brown have suggested that these issues can be reconciled by simply changing the way we look at libraries: "David recommended a change of focus; instead of thinking about the time needed to keep up, one should have a willingness to change focus to make learning new technologies a priority. He encouraged audience members to think of it as ‘this is an important part of my job’…"(40).
Earlier, I discussed the notion that the ways people access and want to receive information is changing, and as such, the library needs to change with it to remain relevant and useful for the community it serves, and this idea feeds into a library’s consideration of beginning a blog—if the community would benefit and utilize a blog, then time should be made to accommodate that need.
In order to better understand what it takes to institute and maintain a blog, I discussed the matter with Elizabeth Periale, the designer for the Smithsonian Libraries Blog. The Smithsonian Libraries Blog (http://www.smithsonianlibraries.si.edu) was launched in December 2007 as an experiment in outreach. Periale says, “The Libraries just wanted to try out a blog and see how it would go. It was pretty unstructured at the start. Just a few of the staff were involved and would post something when an event or conference or item of interest came up” (Periale). Although originally relatively unstructured at first, Periale volunteered to manage the blog in February 2009 which is when the blog began having daily postings. Very simply laid out, the blog features generally one post a day provided by the librarians at the different branches of the Smithsonian Library system from whom Periale solicits posts: "I send out a call for articles, with some suggested topics and the entire library staff (~100) is free to volunteer. Sometimes I do a special request to one of our branch libraries if I am looking for something relevant (American History do a post on D-Day, e.g.) I schedule the posts week by week or in advance as necessary. We try not to post more than once a day, but if we do, that's OK, too. I also have the blog feeding into the Libraries' Twitter and Facebook accounts. We're trying to reach out more and more" (Periale). The blog features articles written about resources, books, and unique items found in the Smithsonian Libraries, often showcasing videos and photos to support the articles. By seeking out various staff from different branches, Periale is able to create a community from separate libraries with separate interests which is held together through their common goal of outreach and education for their users and potential users. Periale herself often contributes to the writing of the blog while also synthesizing the articles, editing them, and posting them. When asked if she has come up against any resistance to the blog, she says, "There's no real resistance. I don't pressure anyone to post. Cajole, maybe ... The only 'resistance' is that people are already doing so many things that they don't think they can add blogging to the list. Sometimes they realize they can, sometimes they pass. More and more of our staff seem to post each month" (Periale). Not only does the blog invite the public to participate in the Smithsonian Institution community, but has the potential to create a stronger community within the staff as well.
Although comments do not seem to proliferate on the blog, Periale seems pleased with the level of readership that the blog garners: "Our readership grows monthly. When I took this on we only had a spotty readership. Now we get about 400 hits a day, directly to the blog. We also are read on Twitter and Facebook, so it's hard to know how large our audience is exactly, but our Twitter followers have climbed since February 2009 when we started posting daily from 79 to over 2500, so we're definitely getting more visible. We get some comments and questions, but mostly our posts are retweeted on Twitter or "liked" on Facebook" (Periale). Here, Periale brings up another method of outreach using blogs which is to link it to social media websites and RSS feeds, allowing users to share and “like” articles posted on the blog, giving readers the opportunity to view the blog in the way they prefer and to widen the readership by sharing what they find on the blog. Although it seems that the blog did not have a definite goal or structure in the beginning, it soon came under the direction of Periale who has commandeered the blog to a solid readership and has enabled the library’s collection to be noticed by and accessible to people who may not have had that opportunity without the blog, accomplishing the basic goals of a successful library blog.
Adopting a blog can be an extremely fruitful and positive endeavor for a library—it opens the line of communication between librarians and users, can inform users about activities and new happenings at the library, showcase the library’s collection, and generally institute the library as an active member of the blogosphere and community. Although the benefits of introducing a blog into a library’s current workload can have wonderful benefits, there are also risks to be taken into consideration such as time and staff support. Without a solid plan for the maintenance and content of the blog, these issues of time and staff support can easily cause the blog to fail. A library should only begin a blog if they have the time, staff, and enthusiasm to support it in the long-term. When Elizabeth Periale was asked if she saw any downsides to the Smithsonian Libraries Blog, she says, "I can't see any downsides. The benefits are that we get the Smithsonian Libraries out in the blogosphere every day. Our collections are much more accessible. Through Twitter we have connected with other museums and libraries and people in a very easy, relaxed way - it's much more easy to read our latest blog post by following us on Twitter than it is even to access it through our website - fewer clicks. Personally, for me, it's been fun to discover new things about the Libraries' collections, both by myself for the articles I write, and through the articles written by my colleagues" (Periale). The Smithsonian Libraries Blog is a perfect example of how a library blog can become successful, and this statement encompasses the benefits of a blog—constant reminders to users of the library’s presence, connections with other institutions and prospective users, new discoveries for users and for staff, and a general feeling of educating about and exposing people to the library and its collection.

Chua, Alton Y.K., and Dion H. Goh. “A Study of Web 2.0 Applications in Library Websites.”
Library & Information Science Research 32 (2010): 203-211.
Crosby, Connie. Effective Blogging for Libraries. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2010.
Etches-Johnson, Amanda. “The Library Blog: Serving Users and Staying Relevant.” Last One
Out Turn Off the Lights. Ed. Susan E. Cleyle and Louise M. McGillis. Lanham, MD:
The Scarecrow Press, 2005. 31-44.
King, David Lee, and Stephanie Willen Brown. “Emerging Trends, 2.0, and Libraries.” The
Serials Librarian 56.1 (2009): 32-43.
Lu, Hsi-Peng, and Ming-Ren Lee. “Demographic Differences and the Antecedents of Blog
Stickiness.” Online Information Review 34.1 (2010): 21-38.
Periale, Elizabeth. Personal interview. 2 Nov. 2010.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Won't You Be My Neighbor...

"I met Patti because later, I, myself, came to feel isolated among those
same neighbors. I met Patti because at some point it seemed
both absurd and wasteful to be living unconnected to
the people all around me."

Recently, I read Peter Lovenheim's book In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time and had a chance to reflect on my own neighborhood experiences.

Some of my earliest memories involve the neighborhood where I grew up. From the time I can remember until my freshman year of high school, my family lived in a 3-bedroom house in a suburb of Cleveland. Our street was relatively quiet because my brother and two sisters were some of the only kids on the street and most of our neighbors were older people. We played roller hockey in the street, freeze tag across the lawns that flanked our own, and staged shows in our front yard--our neighborhood was our world. There was never a time when we did not know all of our neighbors--they were always invited to the parties my parents threw (and even if they did not come, they were at least informed of the party and warned about the noise), we were often sent to one house or another for sugar or milk, and we always knew that we could never get away with anything crazy because there were always neighbors watching out for us. We moved from that house when I was a freshman in high school (with four kids, one full bathroom, and three bedrooms, we needed more space) and I was completely devastated, but not necessarily because we would be leaving the house itself (I then shared a bedroom with my two younger sisters and would be getting my own room at the new house), but because we would have to leave our street. Throughout the years of living there, my family had cultivated friendships and relationships with our neighbors that meant a lot to me--one of our next door neighbors was to become my Confirmation sponsor--and that street held a lot of memories for my family. Looking back, it was the perfect set-up for growing up and it really taught my siblings and I how to be good neighbors ourselves, and in moving, I think that I was the saddest to lose the sense of community that we had garnered there.

Although I was really sad to leave my childhood home, there was certainly nothing to worry about when it came to a neighborhood feeling. We moved closer to Lake Erie, about a mile from the old house, where the streets surrounding us make up Utopia Beach Club, a park, pool, and clubhouse that sit at the end of our street to which people pay yearly membership fees. The beach club is comprised of six streets of homes and is a big part of life there. UBC hosts activities all year round from spaghetti dinners, to Sunday morning breakfasts, to celebrations for Memorial Day and Labor Day, to a "welcome back to summer" Family Day complete with games and dancing. Through events such as these and the general welcoming nature of the neighborhood, there is a certain unique community that has blossomed there--everyone knows everyone (which has its pros and its cons) and to my own amazement, people are astounded by the neighborhood. I have often brought home friends to parties and events at UBC and usually they make some kind of statement about how they never knew their neighbors growing up. Because of my own wonderful experiences in my neighborhoods growing up, I never realized that most people do not have the support system of a friendly neighborhood.

A few months ago, I came across Peter Lovenheim's book In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. The premise of the book stems from Lovenheim's own neighborhood in a suburb of Rochester, New York where, in 2000, a man committed murder-suicide, killing his wife then himself while his two children were int he house. This family lived several houses down from Lovenheim, and in hearing about the tragedy, he realized that he had never said more than two words to anyone of that household, further realizing that he did not know or speak to any of his neighbors. This realization led Lovenheim to attempt to initiate contact with his neighbors one a time, getting to know them, then (for the purposes of research and his book) often spending the night at their houses, getting an intimate glimpse of their true lives. The neighborhood is relatively affluent and is home to physicians, business owners, and other well-paid professionals, but no one knew each other, and Lovenheim found through his interviews that people would rather get in their car and drive to the store for sugar rather than ask their neighbors for some. Lovenheim begins his "getting to know the neighborhood" study with an older man who is a retired physician and widower, following him around on a normal day, talking with him, and spending the night at his home. Over the next couple of years, Lovenheim visits several neighbors, one of whom is terminally ill, and begins to cultivate a community out of these people who live so close to one another.

The journey that Lovenheim takes is really amazing, but also one that evokes a sense of sadness in me. I cannot imagine living in a place where I was not able to run to my neighbor's house for a cup of sugar (or more often as it happened in my own case, to share a new book or have a drink), and it makes me sad that there are people who don't know their neighbors. In my opinion, growing up in a strong supportive neighborhood was the best situation for my family. Currently, my parents live next-door to my own best friend's family, and there is rarely a day that goes by that our parents don't talk. When baseball season starts, you would be hard-pressed to find a Friday night where my dad is not sitting out on our front patio with a beer in his hand, listening to the Tribe game with a circle of neighbors who drop by to stop for a drink, to listen the game, or just some friendly conversation. The people in UBC don't all necessarily get along all the time--just because they all live in the same place does not make them any different from anyone else--but knowing that there are people around who look out for you and are on your side is a wonderful thing and that is what Lovenheim tries to establish in his own neighborhood, and to a certain degree, it works. The woman he meets who was terminally ill becomes friends with the widower and they are able to help each other in different ways--the woman provides a companionship and purpose for the man, and the man is able to drive the woman and do odd jobs for her. And that's really what neighborliness is about--being able to look out for others while knowing that others are looking out for you. Knowing the people around you and caring to know them creates a community of all of us, dragging us from the isolation of our own bubbles and making us responsible for the well-being of that community.

Peter Lovenheim's book is a very easy and interesting read, one that makes me wish even more that I knew my neighbors in my current neighborhood. In a world where people don't sit out on their front porches anymore and no one knows their neighbors, his book shines a light on the small ways that we can make the world a better place, one where we share responsibility in looking out for others and helping people out when we can.

Keep Reading,

PS. I'm so bad at updating this... but don't worry... I will have a post about my year in reading! Those are always my favorite posts! :)