by Joe Sciacca LTLS Consultant
Blogs: The Printing Press for the Masses
Blogs have become one of the main means of communication on the Internet. I look at blogs both from the perspective of a reader and also as a writer. Whatever your perspective, one thing is certain. Blogs are here to stay. Fortunately it is very easy to get started publishing a personal blog or starting a blog for your library. There are many blog software options. I'll describe some free and subscription-based options that I believe are easy to use and produce a professional product.
If you are new to blogs and want to get an overview of just what blogs are, my first step would be to check out the short video, "Blogs in Plain English" by the creative folks at Common Craft. Using jargon-free language and simple graphics, they explain the essence of blogging in under 3 minutes! For a more detailed overview on blogging, I recommend reading the blogging article on Wikipedia, the Internet encyclopedia.
One of the best things about the current blog platforms is that you do not need a high level of technical knowledge to start and run one. The main requirement is that you have something to say, and a commitment to regularly posting on your blog. For libraries, this is not usually a problem. I believe there is plenty to say about library services. You can post about newly-arrived materials, reviews, library events, story hours, special displays and exhibits, service announcements, summer reading programs, and much more.
I like the ability to create categories to describe the topics covered by the blog. As a blog reader, I like the ability to sort through all the postings on a blog by a specific category. This saves time and makes is easier to find posts related to that topic. I also find it helpful to assign multiple categories to a post. The LTLS Quick Connections blog, for example has categories for "Events & Meetings" and "Grants & Awards". If I am posting an article about a meeting dealing with a grant, I could assign both categories. As a reader of the QC blog, it is very useful to be able to link to all the articles tagged with "Events & Meetings", or those tagged with "Grants & Awards". This lets me zero in on just the posts on topics of interest.
Another feature of blogs is commenting. Blogs can be set up to allow readers to submit comments on the stories you post. This makes the blog a two-way communication tool and gives the author valuable feedback from your community. Blogs vary greatly on the amount of commenting. On blogs with active commenting communities, I find that I learn much more about the topics being discussed by reading the comments than just reading the postings.
Blog software also automatically produces a specialized summary of all posts that can be used by readers to keep up with what we are writing. This is known as a "feed" or "RSS feed". I discuss more about RSS feeds below. As one who tries to follow many different library-related blogs, I find that RSS is a way to deal effectively with information overload. It would not be possible to visit each blog that I want to follow one by one. RSS feeds save the day by making it easier to follow the content I am most interested in without having to visit each blog to check for new content. As a blog writer, I also realize that by producing an RSS feed for the blogs we publish at LTLS, we make it much easier for our readers to follow our postings. And the best thing is that the RSS feeds are generated by our blog software automatically.
LTLS publishes several blogs on different topics.
About LTLS Members
LTLS - Quick Connections
Blog software also makes it easy for a group of colleagues to share the writing duties and work together as co-authors of a blog. Lincoln Trail's blogs are all authored by a team of LTLS consultants and managers. We even have one blog, Youth Source, a blog on resources for libraries serving young people in school and public libraries, which is jointly authored by consultants from four library systems: LTLS, Shawnee Library System, Rolling Prairie Library System and Lewis & Clark Library System.
While there are many blog software packages available, I recommend starting with one of the following popular blog programs - Blogger, Typepad and WordPress. Each has a large user community and is actively developed with new features and add-ons. Blogger is a free web-based blogging platform owned by Google. Typepad is a subscription service on a web-based platform that provides a convenient dashboard to manage multiple blogs – great for situations where you envision creating more than one blog and want to be able to manage them all in one place. WordPress has a free version that you download and run on your own server . This is great for bloggers with more technical skills who want to get under the hood and customize the templates and page design. WordPress also has both free and subscription web-based versions.
For inspiration, I recommend checking out what other libraries are doing with blogs by visiting the index of library blogs at Blog Without a Library and the index at LISWiki. Since these sites are both wikis, if you have a blog that isn't listed, or when you create one, you can add it to the list.
RSS Feeds: Let the Information Come To You
I like to think about RSS from the perspective of a consumer and also of a creator. These are two distinct perspectives and it helps to be aware of both sides of the RSS world. As one of a team of authors on several blogs, I am aware that our blog team creates an RSS feed at the same time that we are creating content for each blog we write together. As a consumer, or reader, of blogs, I appreciate that RSS feeds are available that I can subscribe to, which lets me be more efficient in keeping up with a large volume of information.
As an information consumer, I regularly come across blogs that I want to follow. As I accumulate a large number of them, it becomes impractical to visit each one every day. This is where the blog's RSS feed comes in. Using the RSS feed, I can set up a subscription to a new blog and receive updates whenever there is new content. I don't have to visit the blog directly after that. Instead I can read the new articles using my personal RSS "aggregator" or "reader", where the current articles from all the blogs I am following are collected in one place.
To subscribe to RSS feeds, I use a specialized program called an "aggregator" or "feed reader". There are many choices available. The Wikipedia article "List of Aggregators" lists over 25 RSS aggregators to help with selecting one. My favorite is a popular free web-based aggregator called Bloglines. When visiting a blog, you will generally see a link to the blog's RSS feed. This may be labeled "Subscribe", or may just have a small orange graphic link indicating the feed. When you click this, you will be able to add the blog to your other subscriptions. Now all you need to do is visit your aggregator page to get the most recent posts to all the blogs you follow in one convenient location. Bloglines highlights the blogs that have new posts I haven't read yet, so I can skip them and click through on those with new content. This is a big time-saver and it is why RSS is so popular.
As an information creator, when setting up the preferences on a blog, the main thing I need to remember is to turn on the RSS feature of the blog program to make sure the blog is generating the RSS feed that our readers need. With the RSS feed turned on, the blog automatically creates a specialized text file called a "feed" that is made available to readers who want to follow your content. RSS feeds enable the reader to be notified when you create new content so they can read it when convenient.
The clever folks at Common Craft have created an excellent explanation of RSS called "RSS in Plain English".
LTLS uses the RSS feeds created by our blogs in several ways. On the LTLS home page, you will find short excerpts of the most recent postings from all the LTLS blogs. LTLS has also created a PageFlakes pagecast containing the most recent posts of the LTLS blogs. Visiting the pagecast allows me to see an overview of the most current blog posts on one convenient page. Netvibes also provides the ability to customize a dashboard page like this for your library's blogs and other blogs you want to feature.
I recently discovered another service that combines RSS with email. FeedMyInbox is a service that will send the RSS feed from any blog to my email address whenever there are new posts on the blog. Like many people, email is at the center of my online universe. So the ability to receive RSS feeds via email is a way to keep up with blog content in the same application I am already using for email.
Many web browsers and email clients have also been enhanced to function as RSS readers also. Firefox and Safari and Apple's Mail program are examples of programs developed for other applications that have expanded to include RSS reader features.
Wikis: Letting Readers Write Content
Your personal blog is yours. You are the author. The library's blog may be written by an internal team, but it represents the "voice" of the library. Reader comments open up the blog somewhat to ideas and opinions by readers, but comments are understood to be separate from the main content of the blog and not "official" library information.
So, what if I want to create a website that is built by a much larger group, beyond the library staff or a select group of insiders? This is where wikis excel. A wiki can enable the library to create a shared web space that the entire community can create together. On a wiki web site, visitors can register to edit some or all of the pages. The wiki reflects the collective knowledge of a large group. Wiki software keeps an extensive version history of each page, so if a visitor adds offensive or incorrect information, it can be easily corrected by rolling the page back to an earlier version.
In practice, wikis look much like regular websites. The main difference is that wiki software makes it easy for the website visitor to edit the pages. Most pages on a wiki will have an "edit" button on them, indicating the reader can login and edit the content. Most wikis require the visitor to register before being able to edit the page.
Once again, I recommend viewing the work of the clever folks at Common Craft who explain all you need to know about wikis at "Wikis In Plain English".
The best example of a wiki is Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. The English language version contains over 2.8 million articles, all contributed and revised by thousands of people around the world. One of my favorite mashups that combines Wikipedia and Google Maps really demonstrates the powerful model for Wikipedia. Wikipedia Vision shows a world map that displays a popup speech bubbles in near real time whenever someone anywhere in the world edits an article on Wikipedia. It shows the name, location and which they are editing. It's addictive. Chances are you know one or more topics well enough to be an "expert". You can read Wikipedia articles on your favorite topics and if you can improve the article, you can edit it, and your revision will become part of the encyclopedia.
As with blogs, there are many different wiki software platforms to choose from. Creating order from confusion, WikiMatrix, lists over 120 wiki programs from @wiki to Zwiki, and lets you select and compare the features of different wikis side-by-side.
My favorite is PBWiki, a popular free wiki provider with a special interest in education-based wikis. PBWiki has which has recently changed their name to PBWorks. PBWorks has both free and paid versions.
To find examples of libraries using wikis, I recommend visiting "Library Wikis" and LibSuccess' "Examples of Wiki Uses". As both of these sites are wikis, you can register and add your library's wiki to the growing list. The LibSuccess page includes examples of libraries using wikis for intranets, library web sites, project management sites, staff manuals, reference guides and subject guides.