Blogging Libraries: The Crowdsourced Blog

In my last post, I was thinking about participatory blogs hosted by library websites. How can we make library blogs more effectual? Should public library websites offer broader topical blogs, potentially appealing to a wider audience?

Then I started drafting a follow-up. About an hour later, Toby Greenwalt, of the Skokie Public Library, tweeted the link to his latest post on the library’s The Studio blog. SPL hosts a handful of interactive blogs that touch numerous subjects from research methods to book reviews to patron suggestions. As Toby tweets, it can be a lot of work to keep a regular stream of content on all these blogs.

Not all libraries have one or two people on staff who can squeeze regular blogging into their schedule. So I asked around to see if and how libraries are mining the talents of their users to pick up the slack–to gauge people’s experience with crowdsourced blogs. The resounding collective reply suggests a dearth of activity. Despite constraints of time and staff, libraries are managing their blogs, largely, without involvement of the community.

What’s to stop a time-strapped library from fielding and posting community-centric articles from their users? The crowdsourced blog could be age-specific or reach out to community writers of all ages. The mission is to source a participatory digital playground and encourage intellectual exchange while farming out as much responsibility as possible. Volunteer editors would help ensure fairness and the general integrity of the blog.

Blogs could be specific to community topics or to general subjects like literacy, the arts, or education. The library could host a poetry and short-story blog, mingling suggested reading and reviews with user-written pieces. Subject-specific blogs, like a YA or anime blog, a foreign language blog, a nonfiction or movie review blog, might help stimulate microcommunities within your usership.

Of course, the library must not necessarily host even more than one or two of these blogs. Start with one–perhaps a general discussion blog, allowing contributors to share whatever they’ve been thinking about lately. Sure, there are a million corporate websites where people regularly share comments and opinions on topics of personal relevance. But in the interest of hyperlocality, I want to give these people a local voice–a forum in which they aren’t always relegated to the comment board, but where they may initiate their own discussions.

The goal is your own–to get regular users involved in a library-hosted digital discussion or to conjure a blog of interest to community groups who may not be using the library’s services and try to bring them into the fold.

Do these things work? I’m guessing many fine veteran librarians would deem this a potentially colossal can of worms. So call me a rebel. I want to try it anyway.

What are the potential wins for the crowdsourced library blog? If your library is hosting, or has hosted, a crowdsourced blog, I’m sure we’d all enjoy the opportunity to learn from your experience.

Blogging Libraries: Making Connections

Librarians from various areas have recently commented on the underwhelming interactivity that takes place on their public library blogs. These are blogs, hosted by the library’s website, that encourage patrons to share thoughts on a variety of materials and services. For whatever reason, these blogs simply haven’t inspired the level of participation the libraries had hoped to create. My questions are 1. Why not? and 2. What types of interactive blogs have met measured success?

Has your library’s website experienced interactive blog failure? Were you able to find a remedy and garner more interest and discussion? What types of blogs have you found to be both valuable and productive? Please share your experiences or thoughts on potentially effective interactive blogs. Regardless of the type of library, the blog’s nature is one of connectivity, and I suspect these connections succeed or fail for many of the same reasons.

Exit the Echo Chamber

I read another blog post the other day in which the term library echo chamber was used to describe professional discourse that goes unnoticed by every person in the universe who works outside the Info Circle. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the library science intellectual vacuum and it’s occurred to me that many librarians and students may wonder how they can make their professional voices heard on the other side of the library walls.

One very convenient solution occurred to me while talking with a colleague. Our discussion settled on how libraries and library-related issues have been treated by different areas of the press. The FOX News piece of last summer was ill-conceived and summarily swarmed upon by everyone from library patrons and students to librarians to the director of the Chicago Public Library. It was a sophomoric story–a regrettable attempt by a girl who may or may not have known she was kicking a beehive. But create a buzz it did. Other stories around the country have garnered similar attention and LIS people have piled on.

Still, plenty of library stories show up on news sites and blogs and receive no attention at all. It’s occurred to me that these are missed opportunities for library people to connect outside the echo chamber. A few weeks ago, I noticed a little piece in one of our local fishwraps, submitted by a patron of the Chicago Public Library who was curious about a new change in ILL and circulation. I knew the change had something to do with the number of trucks being used to carry materials among the system’s branches, but as I don’t work for CPL, I certainly didn’t know enough to give a decent explanation and would be no help the curious patron. No big deal. Some good CPL employee would see this and supply an informed response, right? Curious, I looked for a reply the following day and was surprised to find that no one had commented at all. A little opportunity, but a missed opportunity nonetheless.

How can we little library voices express ourselves outside the echo chamber? One simple way starts with a daily check of what the rest of the world is saying about us. When you see a library-related story or opinion piece on a news site, study it and gauge whether the discussion is one to which you can contribute. When we contribute to these types of articles, we’re sharing with the general public. We’re helping readers (and often the writers) to understand library issues from an insider’s point of view. Librarians are the victims of our own underrepresentation. We should take every opportunity to share what libraries and librarians do, how each is evolving, and what communities have to gain from us.

A tip: Be academic. There are a few remarks left on my cyber footprint that I’d definitely like to have back, including the ones I left on the aforementioned FOX piece. Yikes. No matter that my comments received “likes” from 46 people. I could have and should have done better. Too often our contributions to discourse are the result of reactionary writing while ill or on little sleep, food, or java. We always need to comport ourselves better when submitting any material for public evaluation. (Some fruit and a fiber bar might be a good idea, too.) As I’ve written before, you never want to submit something for broad consumption which may later prove a source of regret. Treat any public comment as you would treat materials submitted to a professor. Assume your audience is intelligent. Be clear, concise, and professional. Organize your thoughts and write your submission out entirely as a Word doc. Edit it well and paste it onto the message board. Mention that you’re a librarian, archivist, cataloguer, LIS student, or whatever it is that qualifies you to make your remarks.

And who knows? Maybe you’ll get so comfortable writing and contributing in this way that you’ll decide you don’t need to start that LIS blog you’ve been kicking around. Who wants to be trapped inside this lousy echo chamber, anyway? It’s noisy and crowded in here.

Writing the Wrongs

In my travels around the blogosphere and LibraryLand, I’ve been somewhat troubled to find people pooh-poohing the importance of writing skills. One misguided person, whom I’ll call Tweep, checks in on Twitter with this: surprised so many ppl still talk abt writing skill, what abt freedom of expression! Right on, Tweep. The humanities are all about freedom of expression and so am I. Like e.e. cummings wrote, “feeling is first.” But poetry aside, the freedom to express oneself is no excuse for poor grammar, spelling, and mechanics, especially when writing anything of a professional nature. Why do we still talk about writing skill? Well, maybe we’re not talking about it enough.

Textese and other budget-conscious SMS language have created a serious devolution among American language arts learners where there already existed widespread deficiencies in student writing abilities. You can read this as, Kids weren’t writing well. Now they’re even worse. The influence of technology is always growing and spreading. Now in an age of digitization and mobile communications, educators have had to adapt and develop methods of teaching literacy skills to students who want lightning-quick communications and on-demand connections. And here comes the funny part: Texting, IMing, Tweeting, e-mail, Facebooking, blogging, and other cloud applications have everybody writing all the time. Multi-age writers of every skill level are writing for more reasons in more formats than ever before. That’s good. Writing, sharing, and getting involved in written conversations are all great ways to strengthen fundamental writing skills. All this writing–this transliteracy, if you like–can make people smarter. Great! We love smart. Smart is good.

Still, constant engagement with the typed word doesn’t necessarily mean an emergent writer is getting better at the craft of writing. She has to be conscious of what she is writing. She needs to be not only writing, but practicing writing. In order to learn, writers must have some awareness of the fundamental guidelines that, when followed properly, can be the difference between an acceptable product and an unacceptable product. Otherwise, all this writing amounts to nothing more than useless repetition. Many people like Tweep have been engaged in multiple forms of written communication outside the classroom for years. Yet they still don’t get it. To many, Textese is more than a cheeky budgetary consideration. It’s an acceptable means of communication. It’s second-nature.

So I can’t help feeling a bit worried when I bump into literacy humbugs like Tweep in LibraryLand. They are students in graduate library programs. They are librarians. Sometimes–and this is the uh-oh part–sometimes they are blogging about libraries.

Increasingly, educational technology pushes literacy instruction beyond traditional learning methods. Computing technologies and the Internet give students and library people power to communicate worldwide in many formats, and the need for strong reading and writing skills is greater than ever. By altering how information is processed, interconnected, and applied, technology is changing how people read, write, listen, and communicate. It can be a tremendous instrument for teaching and learning. Misused, it can be spell failure and embarrassment.

I’m all for using digital media of every kind to promote literacy and make stronger, more confidant writers. Many hep, progressive teachers and professors encourage student writers to use blogging as a means of practice and growth. How they suggest students manipulate the public accessibility of those blog posts, I wouldn’t know. Different strokes, I suspect. But people in the library field–in fact, people in every field–should hold themselves to a higher standard of quality when adding their two cents to the professional cashbox. Particularly in a field like library and information science, one that aligns itself with educational institutions of all types and all levels, bloggers of professional content should conduct themselves as professionals and understand who they represent. Most bloggers, like me, write and publish on their own time and are accountable to no one. So it should move any professional contributor to hold himself accountable to his colleagues and his readers.

I’ve met all kinds of professional people in LibraryLand, but I’m sure not one of we smartypants librarians would dare submit a résumé and cover letter without first making sure those materials were proofread and free of error. Professional bloggers should consider their public blog posts in the same regard: your posts are professional documents submitted for the evaluation, education, or even casual perusal of your peers (and a hell of a lot of peers, at that). Many of those peers are close readers and may even be gifted writers. They may not be snobbish literary elitists or armchair editors, but they will hold your work to a higher standard and they do want to be impressed. Try to impress them. Don’t be a twirp and don’t be like Tweep. Why are so many people hung up about writing skills? Don’t find out the hard way.

Schooled: Peer Review

Nicole Fonsh has raised a discussion at the Hack Library School blog on the subject of peer review in the LIS classroom. Boy, I remember all the fun everyone had sharing papers and absorbing critical comments about their writing. The hot red faces, the nervous hands, the hours of extra reading. Yes sir, like those warm, breezy afternoons of yesteryear in the meadow, I remember those classes with pleasure.

But yesteryear is gone and the two-party practice of assigning papers to be written, submitted for grade, and returned is theoretically geriatric. Studies have shown that multi-age students contextualize and “learn better” when content is shared and interactive.

Several of my library school courses were structured in much the same way as the ones outlined in Nicole’s piece. Email everyone your paper a week in advance of class, read some or all of the peer papers, and be ready for discussion in class. One of these was moderated by John Berry (Library Journal) and was more writing-intensive, while the others were typical LIS courses. Two things I can relate about them:

1. Many LIS students aren’t very good writers and won’t often have much to share in the way of constructive criticism. Therein lies half the dread of peer review. The other half lies with those people, the less-confident writers, who loathe sharing their work with people they presume to be superior thinkers and writers.

2. Although, being a textbook editor, I didn’t usually find these experiences particularly engaging or productive, I know there were many students who were appreciative of the process. Peer review may have shown them ways to improve their writing and the ways they think about intellectual communication.

You can’t always rely on your LIS professors to be expert at judging the quality and content of your written materials. After all, they’re librarians, not Composition instructors. It’s a fortunate student who has the opportunity to share thoughts on library science and receive constructive insight on authorship with a capable peer group.

Anonymous Authorship

Back in November, two of my fave LIS bloggers kicked up dust around the topic of anonymous professional authorship. On the In the Library with the Lead Pipe blog, Emily Ford outlined her feelings about anonymous and pseudonymous authorship. Emily condemned all forms of professional discourse in which an author hides his or her identity with anonymity or veils himself with an assumed name.

Undisclosed publications lack credibility and are prone to counter-productivity. As a teacher and librarian I always encourage my students to consider their source. What authority does that source have to make that argument and those claims? Without knowledge of an author’s expertise, experience, and general knowledge of the subject, how are we to even consider this kind of discourse as valid?

In response to this piece, Andy Woodworth posted “Anonymous Rex” on his Agnostic, Maybe blog. In it, Andy takes exception to several points, linking to Louis Gray’s 2009 blog post, “Welcome to the Reputation Economy”, and making some interesting suggestions regarding source credibility.

With the rise of the reputation economy, what matters is the establishment of the identity. If they are a consistent writer of meaningful content, then it builds towards that of a contributor. If they are loaded with divisive and invective terms or attacks on one’s person (as opposed to ideas), then it shifts towards a detractor.

It’s the credibility of this detractor that most interests me here. Inherent is the suggestion that credibility is subjective. A librarian and editor of educational materials, I’ve always thought of source credibility as a minimally relative concept. When judging the reliability of a source, one evaluates certain criteria. For instance, Wikipedia and other shared-authorship dot-com sites are largely unacceptable as sources for scholarly research, while everyone accepts encyclopedic sources like World Book as authoritative sources. This is mainly because the people who write entries in World Book are known scholars and researchers, their credentials disclosed plainly.

What most strikes me is what we’re saying about information literacy when we begin teaching students to consider anonymous blog articles as credible academic literature. Questions are certain to arise. Where do students draw the line between credible and unreliable? Why can’t vitriolic articles be treated as credible if the criticism is sincere and the supporting details are factual? How thin are we spreading the field of credible literature?

Self-published doesn’t intrinsically equal unreliable. But neither is a published print article any more authoritative than its self-published counterpart. Rather, the problems stem directly from anonymity. If the credibility of the author cannot be confirmed, then neither can the credibility of her work. Of course, one can verify or disprove factual legitimacy of any alleged qualifiable or quantifiable piece of information within a self-published work. Yet the authority of any original material contained within an anonymous work remains asterisked. The fact that the work is published without accountability of an established publisher renders it deficient where professional and scholarly research is concerned.

Andy goes on to ask whether the library profession should defend those who choose anonymity in professional authorship.

Is there a compelling reason not to extend this courtesy to professional discourse when the content is well written, well reasoned, and within the scope of professional literature?

To this I would say not necessarily, because the anonymous author of this type of content has no reason to hide behind a pseudonym. He simply chooses to, for whatever reason. Still, although I wouldn’t dissuade library students from consulting or using these pieces as professional information sources, I would suggest these sources be used off the record. I may encourage students to consider the content of these pieces and to allow the anonymous sources to inform their thoughts, arguments, and viewpoints, but, for purposes of academic research, to treat them as supplementary and confine their official research to professional sources who have the credibility of disclosure.

A Proper Mechanic

If you’ve followed me for awhile, you may know that I’m a textbook editor and librarian. When I began this blog, it hadn’t occurred to me that I would incur so many writing-themed thoughts related to librarianship and professional discourse. As those thoughts develop, I sense that I’m going to be bringing my work home with me–writing about writing here on my independent blog. Sooooooo, I thought it best that I revisit previous posts and replace my lazy, comfort-driven lowercase sentence-starters with proper capitalization. As we all know, if we are to make a proper and lasting impression upon our readers and colleagues, one thing we don’t ever want to do is present writing which may appear to contradict some of the statements, lessons, and tenets put forth in our content.

More to come on why words do hurt, blogging to strengthen writing skill is a trick, presentation is pretty, and other things. In the meantime, check out the new grown-up, mechanically-proper versions of my prior posts. Cheers.