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.
“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?
“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).