Mark Carrigan on blogs for The Social Scholar

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?

Mark CarriganI 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.

Maintaining a personal research blog – the highs and lows

I have been grappling with trying to understand exactly what I expect to gain from blogging for quite some time.  At first it was simply a requirement of the job, but then I saw potential fruit in a blog about my own research.  It would give me the opportunity to write – I thought – unburdened by restrictions of academia itself, and bypassing the need for everything to go through processes of publication.  But very quickly I got bogged down by it – finding that I was writing more for the blog than toward articles or a monograph of my thesis.  After a while my posts became fewer as the burden loomed ever higher over me.


In fact, I was pleased when I met others who shared my frustrations at the SMKE Social Media workshop held at the IHR in January.  Like me, those who expressed frustration did so not because they had lost faith in the idea of blogs as a useful medium, but because they felt compelled to write regularly and to write to a high quality level every time.  Blogs involve too much time.  This was a telling response from some of the participants.  A week later I interviewed Professor Tim Hitchcock as part of this project.  I got the impression that he sees a role for blogs, but not necessarily the one often claimed for or argued by others.  His Historyonics blog is there to upload bits and pieces that he would not otherwise publish in any other form.  Sometimes they take the form of ramblings about subjects (his attempt to work out meaning or purpose in something) and other times they are copies (wholesale) of his notes or written document for a talk at conferences, workshops or lectures.  One thing that was clear from this discussion – there was no pressure here to publish regularly.

When I visited Sheffield to interview Caroline Dodds Pennock and Miriam Dobson the multi-author blog was described to me both times in terms of making the work load manageable.  In terms of both the department blog History Matters and the Russian History blog, regular (but not necessarily scheduled) posts were seen to be important but not at the expense of putting too much pressure on any one person.  The same appears to be true for department blogs in archives and libraries.  Both the National Archives and British Library bloggers that I interviewed talked about sharing the load and making blogging manageable whilst also interesting for themselves.

The difficulty of blogging on a regular basis is therefore a very real obstacle.  Multi-author blogs do seem to be a way forward but they do not always present the best way forward.  I am still unwilling to reject my own personal blog but I feel I need to find a use for it, which has thus far been a little lacking.  Whilst undertaking this project this is one thing that I have learnt.

Writing blog posts should not be a chore, nor in many ways should it be about writing blog posts at all.  I think this is important for those early in their careers or starting out on a post doctorate to realise.  If it becomes either of these things then perhaps it needs a rethink.  Why write blog posts then?  It should be about your own research needs – forming part of the process that leads from ideas and knowledge to the setting down of arguments and understanding – and eventually towards finalised pieces for publication.  Blogs can fit into that process as a formative part of research.  Put down rough ideas and link them together.  Gather together a series of quotations or pieces of evidence and work out what they are telling you – write about it so that you gain understanding (this might be what you post on the blog), but then write it up as part of a chapter.  I remember my secondary supervisor for my PhD suggested I write down quotes or evidence on post-it notes or index cards.  This way it would be possible to layout on the floor my entire evidence base and rearrange it into an order that made sense.  This would then form the basis for a chapter.  I never did do it – I don’t think it was the right approach for me.  However, I can see a similar application for blogs.  I can put down my initial ideas, thoughts and arguments into blog posts then print those out and arrange them into a form that could become a chapter.  This might well work or it might not.

Another thing I have learnt through this project is that no two bloggers are the same.  We blog for our own reasons just as historical research is a unique and individual process.  A blog about your own research whatever form that takes should, nevertheless, rarely be about writing blog posts just for the sake of it.  What a personal research blog needs to be is part of your research agenda.  It needs to be part of a process whatever that might be.  This is what I will be trying to do with my own research blog over the next few months.  It will become part of the writing process.  Nothing will be written just for the blog, but as something that in some way or another will contribute to a book or article.

The Early Modern Commons (Sharon Howard) – Interview #5


“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.

The Early Modern Commons website
The Early Modern Commons website

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


Outline of questions asked during the interview:

  1. Before we begin could you tell us a little more about yourself?
  2. 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?
  3. How did The Early Modern Commons come about?  What was the original thought processes behind it?
  4. Do you think it has succeeded in terms of your original plans?
  5. 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?
  6. 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

  1. Who do you think is the main audience for Early Modern Commons?
  2. Do you have any stats about how many people visit Early Modern Commons or any information about what they get out of it?
  3. Do you do any promotion of Early Modern Commons?  i.e. social media (Blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc.), websites, leaflets etc.?

Best Practice & Concluding thoughts

  1. 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.?
  2. In your view, what makes a good blog post?
  3. Do you have any suggestions for best practise in using and managing blogs either as an institution or individual?
  4. Do you have any future plans for The Early Modern Commons aggregator?
  5. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Blogging for Historians Survey Results


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 owned

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.

The National Archives Blog (Ruth Ford) – Interview #1


“The organisation is so diverse with what we do.  We have government archive sector, genealogy, family history, academia; people have specialisms and they want to talk about them”

–          Ruth Ford (TNA)

BloggingforhistorianslogoThe first podcasted interview for the Blogging for Historians project was conducted on 9 January 2013 at The National Archives (TNA), in Kew (London).  The recording is a 22 minute long conversation between myself and Ruth Ford (Online Editor for the National Archives) in a room just off from the TNA main offices.   We discussed in some detail The National Archives blog; why it was set up, how successful it has been and how the TNA go about managing it on an institutional level.  The blog was set up early in 2012 to better enable the TNA to reach their varied audience in a more informal way than they can do elsewhere.   A distinctive element of the blog is its design and we talked a little about that as well and to the changes they hope to make on its first birthday.

The podcast is available to listen and download here or on the SMKE website:

Ruth Ford – The National Archives Blog Download

Outline of Questions asked in the Podcast

Purpose of the blog

  1. Before we begin could you tell us a little more about yourself and your position here at the TNA.
  1. Let’s move on to the blog itself.  When and why was the blog set up?
  1. Do you remember what discussions were had at the time?  What were the concerns, priorities, and hopes for the blog?  Could you give us an insight into the original thought processes?
  1. Which blogging platform did you use and for what reason?  What did it offer you that made it the most appealing and useful?
  1. This is a collaborative blog.  How is this managed?  Is there a process to ask staff to write posts for the blog or is it done more informally?

Promotion and popularity

  1. Who do you think is your main audience?  Does this affect what is written on the blog?
  1. In your view how successful has the blog been and what do you base this view on?  (i.e. stats, public discussion, in-house interest etc.)
  1. How many people tend to visit the blog each month?
  1. Have you received much in the way of feedback from those writing blog posts and those visiting the blog?  Do visitors often leave comments related to particular blog posts?
  1. How have you promoted the blog?  Other social media (Twitter, Facebook etc.), websites, leaflets etc.?

Best practice

  1. In your view, what makes a good blog post?
  1. Do you have any suggestions for best practise in using and managing blogs as an institution or individual?
  1. Is there anything else you would like to add?