Institutional History blogs – which way forward?


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.

History Project Blogs

Recently Stephen Robertson (University of Sydney) talked to the Digital History seminar (hosted by the Institute of Historical Research) about the Digital Harlem, Everyday life 1915-1930 project.  This was one of the earliest attempts to link historical data (in this case legal records, newspapers, and other archival and published sources) to a Google map, making spatial connections and analysis possible.  The project was developed by four historians in the Department of History at the University of Sydney and intends to expose the lives of ordinary African New Yorkers living within the boundaries of Harlem.

The Digital Harlem blog (click here to visit)
The Digital Harlem blog (click here to visit)

What struck me particularly about Stephen’s talk was how the project blog and website remain intrinsically separated.  The website does contain mention and links to the blog but you do have to hunt it out.  This is a problem which Stephen Robertson himself noted, expressing ambitions to find a way to more closely align the blog with the project website.  In the case of Digital Harlem this would be particularly beneficial as the website presently provides access to the data itself through the use of the map but does not contain any access to analysis regarding what has been found out, and what might be achievable.  The project blog has, however, become that very place.  There are over 100 posts on the blog, most of which examine or analysis some aspect of the records and searches that can help gleam new information about Harlem in this period.

I have come upon a similar problem with the History SPOT website.  The project blog is largely concerned with summarising and promoting the podcasts from the IHR’s large array of seminars, workshops, and conferences.  I have often replicated that information on the actual site page where the podcast lays but it is a fairly inefficient method.  Is there a better way?

Let’s look at a few other examples from History websites.   I’ll begin with those produced by the IHR.  The History of Parliament website refers to three related blogs: History of Parliament blog; Victorian Commons blog; and the Director’s blog.  These are listed alongside other social media in a relatively small blue box at the bottom of the page.  The Early English Laws project does slightly better in that the blog is part of the website (available from a tab on top menu).  However, the posts are still segregated from the main content itself providing traffic only one way (from links in the blog to the content but not from the content to the blog).  The ReScript project contains a list of the most recent blog posts as title, date, and authorship under a ‘news’ column that is quite prominent on the website home page.  This seems a little more integrated in that users coming to the site can, at a glimpse, see some of the most recent blog content.  However, the majority of the content are updates and news items rather than actual analysis or research.  British History Online meanwhile does contain the IHR Digital blog as a tab, but most of the content on that blog is tangential to the content of the actual site.

After looking through as many History websites as I could think of, I was amazed at how few either had a related blog and even where they did how little the connections between it and the site were.  For the most part, blogs remain steadfast in their disassociation from the actual project website.  This surely poses the question over what role a blog should take in a digital project and if it to be seen as useful or necessary.  Where useful there is also the question of integration.  Blogs are most likely viewed as useful through the developmental period of the project, but then abandoned once the main website is up and running.  The blog is then all but abandoned.  I have seen many examples of these types of blogs often from JISC-funded projects.  The inclusion of it may have a use, but if not maintained or worked into the greater scope of the project post-development, then it would seem doomed to failure.

If you have any thoughts about digital project blogs or about what I say above please do write in the comments section below.  Alternatively please take a moment to fill in my survey about best practise blogging in the History sector.  You don’t need to own a blog to take part, only visit them occasionally.

Access to the survey can be found from this link:

It should take no longer than five minutes to complete and personal details will be kept confidential.  Statistics from the results of the survey alongside my thoughts and analysis will appear on this blog early in 2013.

The pros and cons of academic blogging

The other day a colleague of mine directed my attention to a series of articles from the Journal of Victorian Culture.  One rather innovative feature of the journal is a regular digital forum section which looks at how study of the nineteenth century will change as it is encountered through digital means (with both positive and negative viewpoints welcomed).   I started by downloading and reading the article by Rohan Maitzen.  The article – Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as Academic practice – sounded like just the sort of thing to start me thinking about the subject of academic blogging more widely.

The author is a perpetual blogger having set up the Novel Readings blog in 2007 and adding posts to a variety of other blogs on or around the topic of literary criticism.  Maitzen notes that there was no original intention that the blog would have any impact on her academic practises but very soon it did just that.  Maitzen explains that “as I was blogging about my reading and because that reading began to reflect my investigation into the history and purpose of criticism, my blogging and my academic research began to converge” (Maitzen, p.349).  Furthermore “writing online had a different dynamic one that itself began to influence my thinking about the processes and aims of criticism” (also Maitzen, p.349).  For Maitzen then, the act and process of blogging – an activity originally initiated as a convenient method to deliver thoughts and ideas about her research in a faster and more open way – began to become part of the research process itself.  The act of blogging enabled Maitzen to firm up her ideas, and to converse with others in an open and immediate debate.

I doubt whether this approach would work for everyone – we each research and form our ideas differently – but the case of blogging for academic purposes is made clearly here.  A blog enables conversation and debate instantaneously (something that the traditional journal article is unable to do), it helps spread knowledge and ideas, and, through the writing and structuring of the blog post, helps to inform and develop conclusions and arguments.  In Maitzen’s own words blogs are free and accessible and “restores immediacy to scholarly discussion, removes logistical roadblocks to knowledge dissemination and up-ends the communication/validation hierarchy in favour of the open exchange of ideas” (Maitzen, p.352).

What’s not to like, right?  Well there are issues with the blogging model.  For starters, not all academics agree with Maitzen’s approach.  A well-regarded digital historian, Dan Cohan summed up one viewpoint of blogs as being viewed as “the realm of self-involved, insecure, oversexed teens and twentysomethings”.  Cohan notes here (this quote was taken from his blog – see here ‘Professors-start-your-blogs‘ that blogs are often viewed negatively in academia because they were originally used as publically viewable diaries by self-promoting teens.   The argument runs that anyone wishing to put themselves out there like this are only acting like an insecure teenager desperate to be noticed.  This is obviously not Cohan’s opinion and his response to such an accusation is:

“Blogs are just like other forms of writing, such as books, in that there’s a whole lot of trash out there—and some gems worth reading. It just depends on what you choose to read (or write). And of course many (most? all?) other genres of writing have elements of self-promotion and narcissism. After all, a basic requirement of writing is the (often mistaken) belief that you have something to say that’s important.”

Another issue seemingly expressed by academics is the fear of plagiarism and the need for official recognition.  By making research and arguments public in a traditionally non-academic forum (or at least a forum not recognised officially or one that gives much in the way of academic credit) there is the risk of someone swiping your ideas.  This is an issue that I have come across before, when investigating the pros and cons of producing podcasts from academic lectures.  A survey that the Institute of Historical Research posted online in 2010 (IHR Online Research Seminar Delivery Survey) asked two questions in this regard.  1) Would you be more likely or less likely to give a paper at the IHR if you knew that it was going to be podcasted?  2) Do you think it is a good idea for the IHR to podcast its research seminars?

In general most responses to the survey had positive replies to these questions, although there were misgivings about the effect these might have on the seminar atmosphere.  In particular some worried that postgraduates and early career academics would be highly concerned about the reception of their paper and fear potential negative effects in regard to eventual publication.  There was also a more general fear of embarrassment especially when presenting unpolished ideas in the public domain and concern that their paper and its contents would be ‘out of their control’ when placed online.  Two years on and I have seen very little evidence that either is the case (although this is based on my own experiences running the podcasting programme rather than based on any empirical evidence).

It is, I think, highly interesting how many academics feel comfortable presenting their research in a perceived ‘safe’ environment of the seminar room where the audience is limited but are more afraid of wider dissimilation.  There is a fear that the provision of the paper online will be misused and plagiarised.  At this point, at least, it would seem to be an imagined or potential threat, rather than anything based on precedence or evidence.

It is even more interesting that the exact same concerns presented against podcasting are also noted in literature against blogging.  The literature suggests that some fear writing blog posts because they might represent half-baked ideas, research in progress, or unsubstantiated research.  Blogs are seen as beneficial because they promote and increase professional visibility but are, at the same time, feared for the potential for negative exposure and embarrassment.  Amber K. Regis seems to think that over the last five or six years, academics have become more accepting of the format, citing institutional blogs as an example (see Amber K. Regis, ‘Early Career Victorianists and Social Media: Impact, Audience and Online Identities’, Journal of Victorian Culture (2012), 1-8.  Nevertheless, worries remain.  Do blogs dumb down?  Are they written in a hurry, therefore not reaching the stringent levels required by academia?

An additional factor often noted around 2005/6 (interestingly) is concerns over the amount of time blogging might take away from ‘more legitimate academic activities’.  This is a concern.  Blogging does take up a fair amount of time.  It is necessary not only to research a subject, but to then turn notes into something that not only makes sense but is interesting to read for non-specialists and acceptable to a specialist audience at the same time.  Both Maitzen and Regis argue that although blogging does take time, it is time well spent and can better enable the research process whilst also providing impact outside of academia.

I’ll end this post as I began by returning to Rohan Maitzen’s article from the Journal of Victorian Culture.  On the first page Maitzen lays bare her belief of how blogs should fit into academia.

“I do not think every academic should blog, and I certainly do not think blogging should replace all the other ways in which we carry on our work as intellectuals and educators.  Blogging will neither suit nor serve every academic nor every academic purpose.  I am convinced, though, that academic blogging can and should have an acknowledged place in the overall ecology of scholarship” (Maitzen, p. 348).

Maitzen is therefore calling for recognition of blogs as an academic output, to be included in such exercises as the REF.  Her vision (as is many other academics who blog) is that this format can slot into academic work alongside all the other forms, and that in many cases it might even improve the other research outputs.

What do you think?  Should blogs be used in this way?  Should we be looking to placing blogging into the ‘ecology of scholarship’ as Maitzen suggests?

If anyone has any further thoughts about the pros and cons of blogging I’d love to hear them.  Do you agree with my appraisal here?  Is there anything I’ve missed out or not emphasised enough?   Please do leave a comment below or feel free to email me at with your thoughts.


Rohan Maitzen, ‘Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as Academic Practice’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 17:3 (Sept. 2012), pp. 348-354

Amber K. Regis, ‘Early Career Victorianists and Social Media: Impact, Audience and Online Identities’, Journal of Victorian Culture (2012), 1-8

Dan Cohan, ‘Professors, start your blog’, (specific blog post at

Matt Phillpott, ‘IHR Online Research Seminar Delivery Survey (28 July 2010)