Friday, July 27, 2007

To Blog or not to Blog: the Sutherland Shire Libraries Story

In this post I would like to share with you the motivation behind the introduction of a blog as part of Sutherland Shire Libraries web presence, with the view that it may provide some insight to other libraries who are considering introducing one or more web 2.0 services to their online portfolio. From the outset I would like to state that this is the story of the process a single public library went through and it is peculiar to our situation. Even so, our story may inform your library service in some way and maybe answer some questions you have about moving down the library 2.0 path.

The genesis of the Sutherland Shire Libraries News blog involved a particular issue I was facing with our main web site. I am responsible for the bulk of the Sutherland Shire Libraries web site and I wanted to use the home page to highlight particular aspects of our library service - events, news, services, tips, etc. There is no doubt that I could have done this using the existing Content Management System (CMS) we use to maintain our site, however, I felt this would be a clunky way to do it. Our CMS is not the most productive tool going around and there would be a lot of work manually adding and archiving the various news items, which I expected would change at least every couple of days.

Around the same time I had been doing some reading about Library 2.0 (from some L2 evangelists such as John Blyberg, David Lee King, Michael Casey, Michael Stephens and Jenny Levine) and investigating what some other public libraries (eg. were doing with blogs and other web 2.0 tools. It occurred to me that a blog was the ideal solution to the problem I was facing. Blogging software/tools are essentially a CMS with the exact requirements I needed for this part of the web site. A blog could solve all the problems I was wrestling with in trying to introduce a rolling news archive on our home page.

A blog to the rescue!

So how did a blog fit in with what I was trying to achieve?
  • A blog is simply a web site that consists of a number of pages (or entries, posts, items) arranged in reverse chronological order. This is exactly what I wanted on our home page, to highlight the most recent library news. Every time I added a new item it would appear at the top of the list and the oldest one would drop off.
  • Blogs can accommodate multiple authors and those authors do not need any technical skill to contribute to them apart from using a standard web browser. No problem for any self respecting 21st century librarian. I figured that the staff with the most knowledge about each event or item could write a post for the blog. Our CMS handles distributed authoring but each author needs to come to grips with a sometimes confusing interface and workflow, which involves training and practice.
  • Blogs provide an automatic archive of past news stories. Anything that was added to the blog would be archived and access is managed automatically by the blog software, which creates a list of entries by date. Trying to achieve this on our CMS would have been extremely time-consuming.
  • Blogs allow a different writing style to traditional web writing. Ordinarily when writing for the web you try to be brief as most people scan the page quickly rather than reading every word from right to left, top to bottom. Blogs, on the other hand, lend themselves to more in depth description and allowing comments often promotes discussion among readers and writers.

One last problem

The blog idea fitted so nicely with what I was trying to achieve but it still left me with one last problem. How was I going to get the content from the blog into the home page of the main web site?

Blogs provide an RSS feed – a version of their content that can be understood and exchanged by machines. Ordinarily, RSS feeds are consumed in an aggregator but it seemed to me that there was no reason that a web site couldn’t be set up to display an RSS feed from a different web site. Indeed, I had seen this happening all over the web. This part actually proved one of the bigger stumbling blocks but I discovered a service called Feedburner which, among other things, allowed me to republish a feed as html using something called buzzboost. There are other sites that allow you to achieve the same thing, Feed2Javascript for instance.

Asking Permission

OK, I was now quite satisfied that setting up a blog and using that as the basis for a sort of running news service on the home page of our web site was technically feasible and would actually make the process of maintaining the news quite straightforward. It was time to suggest the idea to the Library managers.

Before I approached management with my idea I took one step back and asked myself, ‘do I really want to do this?’. You see, I had a fair idea of the response I would get and it sounded something like – ‘OK, you can do it as long as you maintain it and make sure the quality is maintained’.

Starting a blog is a commitment. You need to commit to regular updates; otherwise your readers will quickly lose patience. I didn’t necessarily want to be the only one in our entire Library service that was adding things to our blog. I already filled my days with my existing duties. How was I going to find time to keep adding new stuff to the blog?

This and some other management challenges formed the basis of some discussion with my management about whether we should go ahead with the idea. Obviously, in the end we decided to go ahead and introduce the blog. However, these are some things we had to consider before establishing our blog.

Management challenges

  • How do you get the balance right between maintaining quality and workload? Giving a single person responsibility for a blog provides consistency but it also imparts a significant workload. Multiple authors spread the workload around and allow the most knowledgeable staff to contribute their expertise; however, not everyone is a capable or natural writer. In the wash up we decided that all staff should be encouraged to contribute but rather than posting directly to the blog they would send their contributions to me and I would add them to the blog, thus maintaining consistency. This also meant that I could control which stories went on to the main site and when they appeared.
  • Is cost an issue? Blogging services or software is actually incredibly cheap. We use Blogger, which is free! There are many blogging tools and other web 2.0 services that are also free and where they aren’t free the cost is usually fairly insignificant. However, staff time costs and this may be an issue for you.
  • How important to you, your manager, your Council or other funding body is branding? Do you want your blog to look like the rest of your web site? Do you have access to staff with the technical skills to alter the default templates of your chosen service to match the rest of your online presence? Can you afford to pay someone else to do this for you? Are you happy with simply adding your logo to the corner of your blog? These are important questions to consider but keep in mind that these tools are designed for Joe Public to use and you can often do a lot without being an expert. It does take time though and the less technically adept you are the more time it is likely to take (see staff cost above!).

Unexpected Benefits

The upshot is that at Sutherland Shire Libraries we decided to implement a blog because it solved a particular problem we were facing. It wasn’t until we had established the blog that we started to see some unexpected benefits.

RSS technology wasn’t a very important part of the reason that the blog works for us. It is the glue that binds our blog and our web site. We were using the blog to improve our web site but the RSS feed also allows our customers - our community - to consume our content wherever and whenever suits them best. They no longer need to actually visit our site to see what’s happening.
In addition, allowing comments on our blog opens up a communication channel between us and our customers. Direct feedback from customers is something that you get surprisingly little of from people who visit the library in person. We hope that comments will allow people a little anonymity and make them a little more comfortable in telling us how they really think we’re doing. We haven’t been greatly successful in eliciting comments on our blog but I don’t think that is particularly surprising. Australia is still a long way behind some other countries in embracing the blogosphere but if we look at what is happening in the US I think it is only a matter of time until we start to get some really good feedback through this channel.

The moral of the story is…

The message I hope that you take out of our story is not that I think that you should all immediately go out and start a blog. That is not what Library 2.0 is about. What I hope you take from this is the benefits there are to be gained from many of the web 2.0 services that are available. Make time to keep up to date with what is happening in the online world because there just might be some service that solves a problem you are facing. Using these tools may open your service up to your community and get them involved in your library more cheaply and easily than you otherwise could.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.