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.

mocha-dad-shakespeare-blog-cartoon

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.

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