Institutional History blogs – which way forward?

(wikipedia)
(wikipedia)

How should departments and institutions encourage staff members to blog?  This is one of the questions that came up after I presented my paper at the SMKE Social Media conference a few weeks ago.  It is not an easy one to answer, largely because there is not necessarily a right or wrong answer at the moment.  Like a lot of aspects of social media this is something that is still being worked out and in the long-term might even not be particularly relevant.  Should institutions encourage staff to blog at all, is perhaps an alternative question that should be asked.  When I have talked to individual bloggers, at least in academia, many of them are unsure whether they want institutional involvement at all.  There is a call by some to enable activity on blogs to be included in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) or the equivalent assessing body whilst others feel that this would be an intrusion, and would take away from the enjoyment of blogging entirely.

For the moment lets ignore the alternative question and focus on the one raised at the conference.  Is it best for departments to set up their own shared blog to enable staff members to contribute and collaborate as a team?  Or, as an alternative, is it the departments’ role to simply support individual efforts, perhaps by providing a page on their website that indexes all the blogging and social media activity by their staff or by aggregating blog content in a central location?

The History Matters blog from the department of History at Sheffield does the former very well.  This blog uses the subject of how History is relevant today as a crux for drawing in the varied interests of the academics that make up the department.  It makes them think about their own subject in different terms (at least in many cases).  How does the study of commerce and diplomatic relations in the sixteenth-century relate to current day issues?  Is Anglo-Saxon England relevant to the modern world?  What can we learn from the study of events in the early twentieth century?  These are all questions that staff members are asked to consider when providing a blog post.  It gives them a different focus for their research and one that is becoming more important to funding bodies and government policies regarding higher education and research.

The alternative is something more akin to how the British Library and Institute of Historical Research (IHR) deal with the varied blogs run by their staff.  The British Library currently run fifteen separate blogs all of which are indexed on a webpage called British Library Blogs.  This page can be found under the ‘collections’ tab on the website.  In the case of the IHR all social media is indexed on a page under their ‘Digital’ tab, and the IHR main blog and the Seminars and Training blog (History SPOT blog) can be found as two lists of latest posts if you scroll down the front page of the website.  Their presence is clearer here and they do promote the work of the institution, although in neither case are they related to the individuals work within the department.  They are, by their essence, institutional.

This approach reminds me of the blog aggregating idea behind the Early Modern Commons, but rather than focused around general early modern blogs, a focus around the work of an institution or department.  However, surely there is another question here.  Should it, always, focus on the institution?  Much work that appears on blogs is individual.  The Russian History blog is a clear example even though it is a collaborative blog.  This blog is shared between individuals at various different institutions and is focused around the interests of the participants rather than representing institutional goals and purposes.  Then there is the personal research blog – focused solely on the work of one individual researcher – should this become part of the institution?

In some cases might it be more useful for staff social media activity to be linked around profile pages as well as other forms of indexes or aggregations?  Can we make these dull, often out of date profiles, into a social media hotspot which allow visitors to access a variety of staff activities online?  This sounds like a potentially useful approach although it is not free of problems in itself.  For instance there are issues around visibility and keeping the pages up to date.

All of the above are options, and there might well be others as well.  At the moment I think an important question is visibility and access.  How do institutions make the social media output of their staff visible and accessible?  Neither the British Library or IHR hold their social media pages at the forefront of their websites – it’s something that needs to be found.  I think this is beginning to change and I’m sure there are many other examples out there.  There are plenty of questions but not many answers, at least not yet.

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