2.1 First things to consider
Setting up a blog is easy. Anyone with basic knowledge of the internet can do it with the minimum of fuss. You don’t need any technical experience and you don’t need to be an expert web designer. All you need are some good ideas about what you want to blog about and the passion and enthusiasm to maintain it.
Some institutions have blogging platforms customised for use by their departments. Therefore, if you wish to begin blogging within a university, museum, or archive setting it is well worth checking if there are any options (and rules) within the institution.
The most popular blogging platform is WordPress. Its basic form is free and this is usually enough for most people (for details on the enhanced WordPress.org see the section on Enhanced Features). Other popular platforms you may wish to consider are Blogger and Typepad, although there are others.
Here is a brief list of blogging platforms (prices are correct as of 2013):
Costs: Free/various prices
Information: WordPress is the most popular blogging platform because it is easy to set up, use, and manage. Add-on’s and other features such as web hosting can be brought as or when they are needed, but for most bloggers the free service is perfectly fine. WordPress has a good internal statistics system, various free plug-ins, and numerous free themes so that you can create a blog that looks relatively individual and interesting with a minimum of fuss. It is easy to create static pages, meaning that you can convert your blog into something more akin to an ordinary website. Indeed, with various chargeable features WordPress can be used to create a fully-fledged website if you so desire. WordPress is easy to integrate with social networking sites including Twitter and Facebook.
Information: Blogger is owned by Google and therefore you have access to all the benefits of integration with Google’s other systems. For example, posts can easily be redistributed through Google+ and adding adverts to monetise your blog is easy using Adsense. There are a limited range of themes but there is a fair amount of scope for tailor-making these (although you will require a little more technical knowledge to do this), and there is a ‘Dynamic’ view which allows users to choose between different designs to view your blog. Statistics are available – although it is generally useful to add Google Analytics for more detailed results (Again, this is easy to do. In fact Google Analytics can be added easily in a customised section of the menu options. See Google’s Help pages for details on how to do this.
Costs: From $8.95
Information: This is a popular blogging platform with institutions as it provides a relatively cheap option for creating multiple blogs with customised web addresses. It is a little more limited than either WordPress or Blogger, but does have many useful features. Typepad is fully customizable thus you can play around with the CSS change themes, and use Google Analytics and monetising applications. If you would like to give it a go, Typepad offer a 14 day free trial.
Note: CSS stands for Cascading Style Sheets – if you would like to know more about what this is take a look at the very useful and easy to understand CSS Tutorial from W3Schools.
change themes, and use Google Analytics and monetising applications. If you would like to give it a go, Typepad offer a 14 day free trial.
Information: Livejournal benefits from having a built-in social network but is more useful for personal blogging than for professional use. Its primary purpose is in the name – it is intended as an online journal or diary rather than a place to discuss research.
Name: Movable Type
Information: This is a professional blog/website platform which sells itself on being flexible and scalable. It is not generally used for research blogging, but is nevertheless a possible alternative. Be warned, however, that unlike most blogging platforms Movable Type requires a download to use the free software, which is designed for those with IT and web design experience only.
Costs: From $12 a month
Information: This is a useful system if you want a blog that acts and feels more like a website. It is used largely by professional firms. Squarespace contains a large selection of themes, many of which enable integration with social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
Information: In theory a micro-blogging platform similar to Twitter, however it can be the best form of blog for bloggers expecting to use a lot of photographs or images. Although easy to set up with lots of different themes available, it can become a little tricky to configure exactly how you want it.
This might seem to be the easy part, but it is actually one of the more difficult steps in developing a blog. Perhaps you want to blog about your own research or plan for this blog to be shared between members of the department as a means to promote what you are all doing. This sounds fine in principle, but now consider your readership. Who will be reading this and why? What will they get out of it, and what will you get out of it? Choosing a topic or theme is vital. It needs to be expansive enough that you don’t pigeon hole yourself and restrict what you can do, but it also needs to be tight enough that visitors know exactly what sort of content they will be getting. A department blog might not mean much to visitors, especially considering the wide range of interests, expertise and periods that will be studied by staff members.
Choosing a topic for your blog is therefore the most crucial step. It is important that whatever you choose it allows you the freedom for wriggle room, but is also something that you are enthusiastic and passionate about, or at the very least will find useful as part of your research processes.
It is worthwhile sitting down with a coffee and sketching out thoughts about this. What are you knowledgeable about? What aspects of your research or the research in a department do you wish to talk about?
Here is a clip from an interview conducted with Dr Caroline Dodds-Pennock from the Department of History, University of Sheffield. Here she is talking about the departmental blog History Matters and why they chose this particular topic:
Some people are good at coming up with catchy titles, others less so. It is again worth taking some time to consider a good blog name. It needs to sum up what your blog is about in a nutshell, whilst not being too long or cumbersome. Blogs often give the option for a sub-title so this can also be used to describe the blog a little more.
It is worth realising that your blog name will become part of the blog web address and thus will be a crucial element of the blog that is picked up by search engines. It is also – obviously – the name people will use when they talk or think about your blog. It matters what you call it. Using your name – i.e. John Smith’s History Blog – will tell people that it is your blog, but it’s not very catchy and very few people do this successfully. If you think about Mary Beard’s blog, it is well-known who she is, but her blog is called A Don’s Life – this tells you much more about what you will be getting in the blog than just using your name would have done.
To get an idea of blog names it might be worth checking out the Early Modern Commons blogroll. Here is a list of blogs about early modern topics, and whilst not necessarily directly relevant to your topic of interest, it will at least give you some idea of the type of blog names used.
There are no limitations on what you can choose as a blog name, although you might find that you are restricted by the url already being chosen. This is no bad thing, as you don’t want to choose a name for your blog which has already been taken. Once you have a few ideas it is worth using a search engine to check that no one else has already taken the name.
Most blogging platforms provide ready-made themes or templates. Themes are the look and feel of your blog. They decide how it looks, where menu items go and what colours are used. Usually themes come with an assortment of widgets and tools (these are explained in Elements of a blog) and with various options for customisation. Usually you can add additional menus or replace one widget with another. Often you can change the colour of the blog and replace any background or header image with one of your own choosing. Themes are highly customisable, but they are also produced with certain limitations. It is worth realising that some themes come with more customisation options than others.
WordPress is particularly good for this, offering hundreds of free (as well as chargeable themes) to try out. It is worth taking some time to play with these themes. In all cases you can try the theme on your own blog before you decide to keep it (and you can always change your mind later). Some are designed as traditional blogs (with each new post displayed above the former) but some now display posts in different ways. Here are a few examples:
History SPOT blog – a traditional blog format
Blogging for Historians – a traditional blog format but only showing title and first few lines with image
Template Pinword – designed specifically to show off photographs more than the text of blog posts
Template Aperture – designed to approximate a newspaper or news website
Blogger comes with a series of templates under the title Simple; Dynamic Views; Picture Window; Awesome Inc.; Watermark; Ethereal; Travel. These are similar to those offered by WordPress and it is possible to download alternative themes from elsewhere on the internet. The one exception to this is Dynamic Views. Dynamic Views allow the user to choose from seven alternative themes. You do not choose the theme, your reader does. Here is a video from Google on the Dynamic Views:
For customising blog themes or templates on Blogger also check out this video that demonstrates what can be done:
Within themes it is possible to create your own menus, create static web pages, change which widgets display and where they display, alter the colour and images contained on the blog and much else besides.
Finally if none of the themes provided by the blogging platform of your choice fit the bill then you can always go elsewhere to purchase one which is more suitable. Here is a list of ‘market places’ where you can buy themes:
Once you have designed your blog it is time to begin creating and adding content. First, you might wish to create some static pages (i.e. pages on the blog that don’t change over time) such as a profile page, project outline page, or further resource links page, or something else that might be useful to your potential readers. Then it’s time to create blog posts.
Where possible I would recommend trying to write 5-10 blog posts before you launch your blog. Write these on a text editor such as Word and have them ready to post at intervals that suit you. This way it is easier to maintain the blog on a regular basis (you are basically giving yourself a head start!). Always include an image with your blog post (you can find a selection of images under Creative Commons licences at Wiki Media Commons). Also include links to other websites or resources whenever they are mentioned in the blog post. This is not only useful for your readers but helps to link the content of your blog to the wider world wide web.
You see widgets all the time on blogs. They are usually in the side bars (either left or right, or sometimes both) and feature archives of blog posts, search engines, links, latest twitter activity and all sorts of other content that the blog owner has decided to include on the page. They are a self-contained block within the blog that performs a specific function. Plugins and the different theme options can provide additional widgets that are more powerful and diverse than the basic ones that come with a free blog.
WordPress – Go to the dashboard – appearance – widgets
The available widgets for your theme are shown in the central column. You can click down on any of these and drag them to the right-hand column and drop them into the side bar (also to the footer and header if relevant). You can choose the order in which the widgets display and customise them to a degree (i.e. give them a useful title and choose settings).
Blogger – Go to layout
You will be greeted with an outline of your blog structure. From here just click on the relevant ‘Add a Gadget’ link. A pop up window will appear with a list of ‘gadgets’ or widgets. Choose from the list available or search for others that might be useful.
The menu might be across the top of the blog, to one side or appear as a drop down menu. Blog themes usually provide easy access to making your own menus and these might differ slightly depending on theme and blog system.
WordPress – Go to the dashboard – appearance – menus
You will first be asked to give your menu a name (this is for your use only and allows you to have multiple menus that can be changed if/when you wish). You can then add menu items from the static pages you have created and from specific posts, links or categories. This is useful if, for example, you wish to make a menu that divides up your blog by a set of categories that you have given your posts.
Blogger – Go to layout – Add a Gadget – Pages
The Pages gadget allows you to create a menu from static pages. This is more limited than the menus available from WordPress.
2.8 Blog Post
All blogging platforms will provide a structured form for you to fill out to create your post. This includes:
Title – a title for the blog post. Make sure it is not too long but is descriptive enough for a reader to know immediately what the subject of the post is about.
Content – this is where you put the blog post itself. A more-or-less standard toolbox is available for changing the colour, font and size of text, adding images, video and audio, adding links and various other elements that make up a blog post. It is often easier to write the post in an ordinary text editor (such as Word) and then copy and paste it into the blog. Multi-media such as images will need to be added separately.
Keywords – a series of words that describe your blog post. This is useful for search engines to find your content. Always try to add 5-10 keywords that describe the post. Often blogs provide suggestions and/or provide a list of previously used keywords, which is useful if you are trying to use or create a standard list of keywords or relevant metadata tags.
Categories –similar to keywords, however these can be a much smaller list of words that allow you to group blog posts around particular themes or topics. Thus a blog about World War II might categorise posts by nation or event.
Schedule – you can either post your blog post immediately or schedule it for a particular day and time. It is often useful to schedule, especially when you have more than one post to put up or have written the post at an odd time of day (i.e. out of work hours when people might not pick up on the new post via advertising on other social media).
Social Media – this allows you to select or deselect other social media which you have already set up to promote your blog posts (i.e. you can set up a blog to automatically post on Twitter a link to your new post).
Featured Image – some blog themes require a featured image to use for display purposes when only the truncated version of the post is used. Usually it is easiest to use an image that appears in the post itself but you don’t have to do that. You can choose something else entirely.
Preview – This allows you to see how your blog post will look on the screen before it is published. Always do this if for no other reason than to make sure that the spacing has come out okay and it looks right on screen. It will often look very different to how it looks when you are creating the post.