Later today I will be talking about academic and archive blogs to the Archives & Society seminar at the Institute of Historical Research. The talk takes as its beginning the work I have been doing for the Blogging for Historians project, but also goes a little deeper by examining how archives around the UK use blogs and social media (or not in some cases).
I have surveyed the websites of 113 archives including local, national, ecclesiastical, and commercial and checked to see who blogs, what they do with the blog, and what other social media outlets they have. I would say that the findings are not that unexpected, but do reveal some interesting trends. I would also say that this is just a preliminary study. The idea would be to take the research further, look even deeper, and find out more.
The second free public The Social Scholar seminar on social media features Mark Carrigan talking specifically about ‘blogging’. The emphasis will be on discussion, with Mark offering practical advice and encouraging us all to share ideas on how to get started as a research blogger. In preparation for the seminar I asked Mark a series of questions which are now up on SAS Blogs: An interview with Mark Carrigan. I also asked him an additional question about his views on blogging. This is what he had to say.
Hello Mark, do you think blogging is a useful pursuit for academics and why?
I think blogging can be enormously useful for academics but that the concept of ‘blogging’ can hinder the understanding necessary for this. Not only because it still has negative connotations for many but also because it can obscure what a natural activity blogging is for academics. The application of this relatively novel label to the activity can distract from the fact that a ‘blog’ is just a new tool for the writing and communication which have always been an integral part of scholarship. It’s in this sense that I think we can see blogging as an activity which is continuous with ‘traditional’ scholarly practice. The discontinuity emerges from the immense communicative capacity inherent in what are effectively free services. Blogs offer the possibility of instantaneous and zero-cost publishing to an international audience. This possibility is something which seems enormously important to me. I like to stress the continuities with those day-to-day practices which are familiar to academics because it’s only when we start from the recognition of continuity that we can begin to think practically about the possibilities offered by blogging.
If you would like to hear more from Mark Carrigan please do join us on Wednesday 13 November, 1pm-2pm. The Social Scholar is a free public seminar series held in room 246 of Senate House (University of London). Full details can be found on the SAS blog – The Social Scholar category.
In November I will be talking about the use of blogs in both academic and archival settings asking questions about best practise and the pros and cons of the blog as a tool for research, promotion, and discussion.
Blogs are increasingly becoming important to academics who write about History and to the archives-sector who support that research. As a tool it is partly about promotion and advertising of an institution or department, but the form that advertising takes is often of scholarly merit, and is increasingly helping to open up the archives and mysteries of the research process.
In November I will be talking about this subject to the Institute of Historical Research, Archives and Society seminar in November. The talk is a much greater expansion of the presentation I gave in the summer for the Social Media Knowledge Exchange conference and will include much of what I have learnt since. Here’s the brief abstract for more information:
Event Title: Blogging History: What are the uses of blogs in academic and archival settings?
Location: Bloomsbury Room G35, Senate House, ground floor
Date: 26 November 2013
Abstract: In this paper I will be looking at how blogs have become useful to academics, libraries, and archives as a means to promote, engage, and express interest in the History subject discipline. Based around my Blogging for Historians project funded by the Social Media Knowledge Exchange (www.smke.org) and upon further research into blogs linked through the blog aggregator, Early Modern Commons, I plan to investigate how blogs are being used currently, what purpose they serve, and what role they might have in the future.
Ask a blogger what makes a good blog post and they will often tell you that it should be short – somewhere between 300-500 words or 500-1000 words in length (no longer); it should include at least one image to make it look more attractive; and it should not be concerned with footnotes or excessive referencing. Bloggers will also suggest that the posts should be informal, perhaps placing complex topics into story formats or journal-styled narratives. Not all would agree however. There are other calls for blog posts to be longer in length (or as long as the subject requires them to be) and the focus of readability to not be placed on its length but on the way the content is formed. In these cases it is the structure of the text that becomes of paramount importance.
There is much that could be learnt by bloggers from what journalists do in writing articles for newspapers, blogs and websites. The essence of their work is to write short self-contained pieces which immediately grab the interest of the reader. One part of this is the concept of the inverted pyramid. This is a metaphor used by journalists to describe how information should be prioritised and structured as a news story. Academics generally leave their conclusions to the end preferring to begin by an introductory ‘scene-setting’ paragraph, followed by the argument supported by examples. The inverted pyramid turns this on the head. The most important information is now at the start, with examples and further argument placed below in order of descending importance.
This type of writing focuses on getting the main point across from only a quick read. The detail and exposition is secondary. Journalists emphasize the first few lines of an article as the most important. This is where you lay out your argument and the main points you wish to make, you then explain them further or give examples. The title of the piece is also vital. Get this right and people will know what it is you are arguing and talking about before they even begin to read the post itself. In terms of getting people to come to a blog and read what it is you are talking about the title and first few lines are important. Search engines will only display these parts of the post, so those searching for content that is interesting to them will only click on your blog post if it is explicitly shown to be relevant in the title and first few lines. They will probably assess its worth on the first paragraph as well and only read on if that is shown to be what they want to read.
There is, of course, no right way or wrong way to write a blog post, but the inverted triangle does fit the blog medium well and might well be a useful exercise for academics wishing to succinctly explain their research not just for an online audience, but for their own uses. Writing in this form might well help scholars to understand their own arguments better, which might help them formulate those arguments more easily when they come to write the peer-reviewed version for publication.
NOTE: As you might have noticed this blog post fails the inverted pyramid test by introducing the point of the post half way through. This perhaps illustrates that this is only one way to do it, but not the only way. Or perhaps it just suggests that I need to work on my blog writing skills. Either way it is something that is worth considering.
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.
Last week I presented the Blogging for Historians project to the Social Media Knowledge Exchange (SMKE) conference. I was the first one up on the second day (the only thing keeping the audience and myself from the coffee). A video from this will be made available soon from SMKE, but in the meantime I thought I would share with you a few items from the talk.
1. Slide Show and video
Some of these slides won’t mean much without the context. I’d rather not upload the text from my talk here, simply because it is not yet in a format that is legible to anyone but myself, however I would like to talk you through some of it.
Slide two shows the History SPOT blog (my first ever blog). I began my talk with this blog as I wanted to point out the problems that can occur and stay with a blog if it is not carefully planned from the very beginning. To this day the url and the name of the blog (at least on a superficial level) remain generic and unexciting (see the arrows). This was in part because I didn’t know at the time exactly what the blog would be about or what the name of the project would eventually become. The History SPOT blog has been a success, but the legacy of not knowing the importance of the name, especially for the url, remains with it.
The third slide shows a screenshot of this blog (Blogging for Historians) – an example – I hope – of how far I’ve come in choosing good names (or at least adequate ones). Slide four shows the outputs for this project followed by slide five in which I have outlined the principal types of blogs that I have found being used by academics and practitioners in the History profession.
Slide six is where I introduced all of the blogs and bloggers who were interviewed for the project. Here I broke them down into the categories mentioned in the previous slide. I explained that my selection of bloggers was based on trying to get a wide range of types so that I would get a good understanding from each person I interviewed of best practice, positives and negatives of blogging, and a range of reasons why a blog has been setup in the first place.
The slides that follow highlight two aspects of the interviews:
1) why was the blog set up (it’s reason for existence)
2) how is the blog managed
I went through each in some detail then (as you can see in slide 13) summarised some of the other questions and answers. I then showed a video that is a rough cut taken from the interviews on the question of what makes a good blog post. You can watch this here:
I really enjoyed making this video, although I am the first to admit that it is a little rough around the edges. I think it’s useful. Each of the interviews are 20-30 minutes long – not many people will listen all the way through, if at all I suspect. This video is only a few minutes in length and focuses on just one aspect of blogging but from various different views. I’m hoping to make up more of these in the future from the interviews already conducted (perhaps adding some more illuminating video aspects along the way).
Back to the slide show – slide 15 through to 18. In the talk I now moved on to one part of the project that I felt didn’t work very well – the online survey. I would like to thank all of you who did take part in the survey. Your views were very valuable and useful. However, I only received a little over 120 responses; not enough to truly gain a clear understanding of peoples views and opinions. This is certainly part of the project that I will need to think about more carefully in the future.
The final slides take a look at the upcoming toolkit or guide to blogging, that forms the final part of this phase of the Blogging for Historians project. Here I have just outlined the principal parts of the guide and given an example from the section looking at blog platforms. There will be more about this (and the toolkit itself) on this blog very soon.
I finished my talk by looking toward the future. I’m hoping to conduct more interviews, although for now these will most likely be e-mail based. I’m also hoping to create more videos by breaking up the interview audio into smaller chunks. I will also, of course, continue to add to the Blogging for Historians blog and build up a stronger and hopefully useful resource for anyone considering blogging for the first time (or indeed anyone wishing to learn more about blogs who already has one).
2. Twitter feed
Throughout all the presentations over the two day conference many people in the room twittered online. In this regard I’m still in the pen and paper age, but I might well give it a go at a future conference as the result (which has been stored by SMKE on Storify) is quite interesting and represents well the outline of the two days.
3. Six responses to the Social Media Knowledge Exchange conference
As a light epilogue to the two day event a few of us were asked to comment on the conference and projects which has now been made up on a short video on youtube. Just bare in mind that this was recorded over lunch and we had only a few seconds to compose something in our head before finding ourselves in front of the camera.
For the last two days I was at the SMKE Social Media conference (Social Media Knowledge Exchange). It’s been really great few days, with plenty of interesting ideas raised, concerns and thoughts expressed, and meeting lots of people with interesting areas of research and interests. My deepest thanks go out to the SMKE organisers, especially our hosts the CRASSH centre at Cambridge. Anne Alexander especially deserves mention for coordinating everything so well.
A large element of the conference was the SMKE scholar projects that have been funded over the last year. We had everything from research into computer games and virtual realities, to social media as a tool for protest and organisation. Questions of legitimacy and verification were raised, concerns over ethics and copyright discussed, and thoughts about the benefits and risks of social media mulled over.
As a whole these sessions proved to be much more than showcasing projects, but thought provoking talks that showed off the various benefits and weaknesses of social media and gave a hint as to future ways forward.
First thing on the second day (Wednesday) it was my turn to talk about the Blogging for Historians project. I went through some of the things that were said by the bloggers who I have interviewed for this project, and discussed a little bit about my findings. It was interesting that it was the comment about word length and the style of writing for a blog that provoked the most interest and discussion. How long should a blog post be? Should we be suggesting a minimum or maximum? Is length really all that important or is it the style of the post that really matters? What draws people in and what sends them away? I’ll be thinking about this and other things as I finalise the toolkit for this project and I will try and post here about some of those musings as they begin to take form.
I’m told that the SMKE website will soon display lots of content about these and the other presentations, but for now here’s a link to the conference programme and to the Storify collection of Twitter posts (day one and day two) that they have gathered together. There was a lot of twittering, which is perhaps not that unexpected considering the topic of the conference but it surprised me just how much these 150 character long pieces managed to capture a good fraction of the conference for posterity.
“Blogs can go quiet for a long time and then just start up again. You think this one looks dead as a door nail, but it’s not.”
“There are as many good types of blog posts, as there are bloggers. It’s got to be something that the blogger wanted to write, and was interested in doing.”
The Early Modern Commons is not a blog about History but rather an aggregator for blogs covering the period c. 1500-1800. As the website says “It is intended as a resource to help readers to keep up with early modern blogging and to connect with people who share their interests”. This seems to me a great idea. There are so many blogs out there but relatively no easy way to find them. It’s a 50/50 chance that a Google search will bring up what you want as it is entirely reliant on key word searches which may or may not have been used by the author(s) of the blog posts. But now, thanks to Sharon Howard the architect and owner of Early Modern Commons, it is possible for anyone interested in the early modern period to locate useful and interesting blogs. It’s not comprehensive, but it is by far the best index out there.
It is possible to search by keyword and tags. There are also featured blogs, a list of the most recent additions, and a list of recent posts drawn from the entire catalogue. Sharon also lists upcoming conferences related to early modern matters, making the resource even more useful.
Recently the aggregator has been used for research by Newton Key on blogging practices (see the Open Peer Review version here Newton Key History blogosphere). Lee Durbin has used the feed data from Early Modern Commons to set up a twitter account called Renaissance Hub (Twitter username: @Renaissance_Hub).
The podcasted interview is available to listen online or download. It is 27 minutes long.
The Early Modern Commons, Sharon Howard (Sheffield) – 25 February 2013
Before we begin could you tell us a little more about yourself?
Let’s move on to the blog aggregator, The Early Modern Commons. Could you tell us a little more about what it is that The Early Modern Commons website does?
How did The Early Modern Commons come about? What was the original thought processes behind it?
Do you think it has succeeded in terms of your original plans?
It seems to me that the Early Modern Commons provides ample scope for developing networks amongst scholars and bloggers around specific themes within the context of Early Modern studies. Do you think that this has happened and, if so in what ways?
Could you give us an insight into how Early Modern Commons is managed? Do you seek out blogs on the right subjects or wait for blogs to be submitted? How much is it an automated decision vs. an editorial one?
Promotion and popularity
Who do you think is the main audience for Early Modern Commons?
Do you have any stats about how many people visit Early Modern Commons or any information about what they get out of it?
Do you do any promotion of Early Modern Commons? i.e. social media (Blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc.), websites, leaflets etc.?
Best Practice & Concluding thoughts
I’d like to just move on briefly to Blogs about History in general. The Blogging for Historians project is particularly interested in what can be learnt between History academics and those blogging as part of their work in Archives and Libraries. Do you find that the Early Modern Commons draws in interest from a variety of professions or is it largely restricted to academics, or archives etc.?
In your view, what makes a good blog post?
Do you have any suggestions for best practise in using and managing blogs either as an institution or individual?
Do you have any future plans for The Early Modern Commons aggregator?
Between November 2012 and February 2013 the Blogging for Historians project asked for your views about blogging practises in the humanities. The results of this survey will form part of the eventual tool kit and it is hoped that it, too, can provide some useful data for future research into blogs and social media.
The survey was advertised on the Blogging for Historians blog, SMKE website and several other blogs. It was also delivered via Twitter and Facebook and on several mailing lists. The survey recruited 121 participants most of whom owned a blog of their own (84%), suggesting that the survey failed to reach or interest people who only visit blogs, or perhaps, highlighting that an increasing number both write and consume blog posts meaning that they are active on both ends of the scale. When asked for occupation 34.6% of participants said that they were academics and 23.1% postgraduate. A further 15.4% described themselves as early career researchers. Only 2 participants came from the archives and library sector, and a further 24% said that they didn’t fit into any of these categories. The survey results therefore represent academic historians and humanities scholars rather than archives and libraries, which unfortunately limits the scope of the results.
Several questions related to the potential ownership of blogs allowing us to gain a more in-depth understanding of the participant’s interests and activities. As the table below shows most participants own or participate in one blog only, although it is far from uncommon for two blogs to be owned. Only one person had more than four blogs (eight to be precise).
Blogs Participants Personal Institutional Mixed
1 43 39 4 4
2 14 11 0 3
3 4 3 0 1
4 5 3 0 2
More 1 0 0 1
A question was also asked seeking to find out how many of the participants blogged personally, on behalf of their institution, or as a mix of the two. Perhaps unsurprisingly most participant’s blogged as individuals. However, only four claimed to only blog as part of their institution, which either suggests that the keenest bloggers (and thus the one’s more likely to answer the survey) are those doing it for their own purposes. That said, a relatively small number claimed to blog both personally and as part of an institution which may suggest that a number of those asked to contribute to institutional blogs are also doing it themselves as well. The fact that four participants stated that they only own one blog but post a mix of posts for an institution and personally, perhaps suggests something about the perceived nature of blog posts; that both personal posts can lay next to one’s that reflect a professional nature.
An overwhelming 92.2% said that they write blog posts as an individual, rather than in collaboration with colleagues, probably representing the solo nature of research in the humanities more than anything else. What was more interesting from these results was the fact that participants who worked collaboratively on posts almost equally divided between those working within their own institution (6.3%) and those working across institutions (7.8%). Seven participants added comments which generally noted the context for blogging as a mixture of solo and collaborative activity, but highlighting the interconnectivity of the two forms. It would seem (admittedly from only a small number of responses) that it is not always easy to distinguish a collaborative enterprise, from personal research, suggesting the interconnection of research as personal and in relation to others. Much of this seemed to stem from blogs that are personal but written within a professional capacity that represents the department, institution, or collaborative project. It would, perhaps, be interesting to follow up this question with more about the relationship of the personal and the collaborative in academia, and the role that blogs might play in this interconnection.
“I think that at the moment we don’t yet have a clear sense of how blogging and the blogger-sphere and Twitter, fit into the academic world in general and that the best practice comes from standing back and saying well, what are you trying to do as an historian?”
– Professor Tim Hitchcock
This podcast looks at a very different type of History blog. Tim Hitchcock is Professor of Eighteenth-Century History at the University of Hertfordshire. He is a digital historian and has undertaken a leading role and contribution to various online projects including the Old Bailey Proceedings; London Lives; and connected Histories. Back in 2007 he also set up a blog that he named Historyonics to talk about various aspects of his work, upload transcripts from papers he has given, and as a means to comment on digital projects, although Tim is the first to admit that the blog did not start out with any particular goal in mind, nor does it necessarily now.
This interview was interesting for various reasons. First we are dealing with a personal blog set up with the only goal in mind to serve the authors own research interests. There was no institutional involvement here, nor any interest in promotion. Blog posts are not regular or frequent, but posted only when Tim feels he has something worthwhile to say. Yet, Tim has thought about blogs and their purposes and has much to contribute to the subject. His view is not one of complete devotion to the blog as a genre or tool, but neither is it negative to it either.
The podcasts is approximately 22 minutes long and is based on a series of questions adapted from those asked in the previous podcasts (see below for the questions).