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Twitter and Libraries

Twitter and Libraries

In preparation for our new library website, I have been working on some social media policies. I’ve never really been much of a policy person before, but I recognize that because I am bringing in some standard social media tools, I’m going to have to define some best practices. I got my first blog in 2001 and had many conversations back then and ever since about what is and is not appropriate content; I’ve had many years to think about it and get comfortable with my own boundaries. As I prepare to give each content creator in our library a blog, I realize that a policy might be the best way to share some of that experience. No need for everyone to stub their toes and scrape their knees via a professional medium.

Blogging policies are actually pretty easy to generate these days. There are tons of them around, since many industries encourage corporate/professional blogging, and most have developed policies for them. Maybe it’s also easier to do because we have, I think, determined the distinction between a personal blog (like this one) and a professional one. It’s not a foreign concept.

The hard part comes when trying to come up with a Twitter policy.

I posted both my draft blogging policy and my draft twitter policy on twitter to get some feedback from people who use these services. Here there are for your information. The Blogging policy starts with the legal and then moves into guidelines; the Twitter one doesn’t have as much legal, I think the general TOS of Twitter covers that.

These two are actually contained in one document on my side; I split them up because at first I wasn’t going to post the Twitter policy. I thought it would be…controversial, not helpful to anyone else, not useful outside our very specific context. I expected it to be widely disliked. I think what people are expecting is something more like this; some friendly guidelines that help a librarian engage with her patrons by treating Twitter as a personal, interactive communication medium. My guidelines are very nearly the opposite of that.

Now: as a librarian who uses Twitter a lot, follows a lot of librarians, and gets into a lot of discussions on Twitter about library issues, I understand where people are going with their personal guidelines. I suppose I think I’m the last person in the world who should tell another librarian how to use Twitter personally. As a person. As themselves. For themselves. For their own development. Reading through those guidelines, I can almost hear the chorus coming from all the non-Twitter, non-social media librarians of the world: “When am I supposed to find the time for that?!” I love using Twitter to share and question and communicate, but I’m not sure it’s the best use of an institution’s time. Which is why my policy runs counter to what I do personally.

So I guess my policy isn’t so much for the people who want to use Twitter the way I do. It’s for people who don’t, who have no interest in social media, but who still need to communicate with their patrons in the widest possible way.

Here are the reasons why I want to use Twitter for our library website and for our digital signage:

  • It’s easier/less intimidating to post to Twitter than to write a professional, thoughtful blog post
  • Because it’s so easy, I’m hoping I can convince the uncertain to make easy updates via Twitter that I can distribute throughout the website in key, relevant places
  • Twitter updates are the perfect size to feed onto our brand new digital signage, which is mounted in front of every elevator and pointing at every angle in our Information Commons
  • I can get many updates a day from library staff to the digital signage without having a login to the digital signage software
  • I can invite many people to update a single Twitter feed without opening the website up to risk by having many people update one node
  • I can get student staff input on a Twitter feed without giving them content creator status on the website
  • Unlike our website, Twitter can be updated from a phone, which means we are more likely to get rapid updates from our campus partners and IT staff
  • My current means of communicating things like “Blackboard is down! It’s not just you! We’re working on it!” is to write it on a white board and roll it out in front of the main doors.

I’m not planning to use Twitter for Twitter’s sake. I am advocating the use of Twitter as a broadcast medium, as unpopular as that might be. I’m not sure Twitter is really at its best when it’s conversational, though I may be in the minority on that. There are so many better conversational media, and we’re using those too. We’ll have mulitple meebo widgets scattered throughout the site; some staff want a personal one. If you want to have a conversation, we will ensure that you can. Twitter actually is a broadcast medium, as far as I can tell.

Maybe this is a redefinition of the term “broadcast”. On Twitter, I broadcast my thoughts, my ideas. When I’m at a conference, I broadcast a lot. My use in that case isn’t dependent on anyone reading my broadcast or responding to it. If someone broadcasts their own response to what I’m saying, I can broadcast a response back. Blogs are a broadcast medium as well, in very much the same way, in spite of all the hype about the conversationality of blogging. Just because it’s a broadcast medium doesn’t mean we’re not paying attention to its context or responding to questions or comments around it. Not using Twitter to @reply to singular users in public doesn’t make it less useful, in my opinion. Or even less personal, less engaging, or less a good use of the medium.

The great thing about Twitter is that I can use it this way and it won’t affect anyone else at all; in fact, I don’t really care how many other Twitter users follow our broadcast Twitter account. I don’t anticipate that our students will; almost none of them (statistically) are on Twitter to start with, or have any interest in using it. I don’t want to exclude them by using Twitter-specific conventions or lingo. My goal is not to draw them into Twitter or increase their use of social media (not with this initiative, at least). Our use of Twitter in this way serves our needs first; we have vital information to distribute to students in our own building and campus, and currently have very limited means of doing so. We’re going to use Twitter to distribute it in a way we’ve never been able to do before. If it happens to serve a Twitter community at the same time, I’m delighted.

In short: I wrote a couple of social media policies for libraries as institutions rather than for librarians as individuals. They may or may not be useful, interesting, or appropriate to your situation. I’m still not sure how I feel about them myself. But I will certainly be tracking how it works this year.

Any feedback or comments on the policies is gratefully accepted, and will probably spawn more navel-gazing and fussing on my part.

Lifecasting

Lifecasting

Based on the previous post, I am seriously considering a day of lifecasting with Jason and Alex. Not sure about the logistics at all let alone a date (Jason prefers summer), but I think it would be an interesting challenge. In sum: we record as much as possible of our lives throughout a single day, in as many media as possible.

Current thoughts: photographs documenting where we are, what we look like; video documenting us interacting with our environments, pets, spouses, children, and possbly some video updates of us describing what we’re doing and what we’re thinking about; uploaded documents that we’re working on, email we’re sending (where feasible); playlists of what we’re listening to, lists of any movies/tv we watch; IM conversations; snippets of audio of things like our alarms going off, breakfast being cooked, etc.; descriptions and photos of any food we eat or drinks we drink; descriptions and data of basic things like maps of the area and weather reports. If we really want to get serious, we could add in things like body temperature and whatnot too. Full documentation.

At the the moment I think we should set up some separate place for all this information too be stored. The first thing that comes to mind is that we set up a blog with a lot of bells and whistles, and everyone who’s participating gets their own category. So you could see it all at once, or by person. I’d want to use twitter, but I’d want tweets to show up on the blog as well, in between the blog posts, ideally in a different colour. Marked off, so to speak. Also, I wouldn’t want to use my normal twitte account for all this. I bet that would just annoy the hell out of people. No sure if a blog will work as the basic platform, though. We still need to think that through. Jason may have a point about waiting a bit.

The general point of this exercise, as I currently understand it, is to demonstrate how much “information” we can create on a regular basis, turn it into digital, archivable material, and to force the question about how useful it really is. I’d also like to see for myself just what is and is not comfortable to reveal. Some obvious elements immediately spring to mind; can I ethically copy my email to the project? (As long as someone else’e email doesn’t show up as well? Can I ethically, or legally, make someone else’s email, addressed to me, publicly available? I suspect that would fall outside the scope of the project.) Will I modulate my behaviour because of how I want to be seen? Will I alter my behaviour because I know everything is being recorded? Is the concept of perpetual web archiving an influencing factor in what I’m prepared to share online? Does it stifle my communication? Does it inherently alter the nature of the information online? Traditional media certainly is shaped by its storage medium; I can’t imagine this would be any different. More than anything I’d worry that I’m being boring; will I spend all my time trying to be as witty and entertaining as possible? How does archiving actually become the material? I’m sure there are many more questions, these are just top of mind for me.

I think before we really get started I’ll have a look at lifecasting as it currently exists and see what I can learn from it. I don’t really want to do a life stream of video for archive, because the sheer size of the file such a video would have to be when it’s running the whole day makes me queasy. We could do ephemeral live streaming (I have no problem with that), but that sort of defeats the purpose. More investigation on this matter is required.

Anyone else interested in participating in this warped little experiment? It’s just one day. I think the reflection on the experience will be worthwhile. We might even have to write it up. We have lots of time to prepare. I think we have a lot of sorting out to do before we can really go forward. We can get together and develop some basic policy around how we’ll manage it. Jason’s probably right about the summer. It will probably take that long to sort out the details.

You in? Come on, it will be fun.

The Plight of Future Historians

The Plight of Future Historians

Today, the Guardian warns:

“Too many of us suffer from a condition that is going to leave our grandchildren bereft,” Brindley states. “I call it personal digital disorder. Think of those thousands of digital photographs that lie hidden on our computers. Few store them, so those who come after us will not be able to look at them. It’s tragic.”

She believes similar gaps could appear in the national memory, pointing out that, contrary to popular assumption, internet companies such as Google are not collecting and archiving material of this type. It is left instead to the libraries and archives which have been gathering books, periodicals, newspapers and recordings for centuries. With an interim report from communications minister Lord Carter on the future of digital Britain imminent, Brindley makes the case for the British Library as the repository that will ensure emails and websites are preserved as reliably as manuscripts and books.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this imaginary plight of future historians, in spite of being a librarian. And it’s not because I don’t see the value in content that’s on the web. There are two sides of the question that I take issue with.

First: “everything should be archived”. This is simply impossible, and is actually misunderstanding what the internet is. If you understand it as a vast publication domain, where things are published every day that just don’t happen to be books, then this desire to archive it all makes sense. But is the stuff of the internet really published? Well, what does “published” really mean?

To be honest, I think the term has no meaning anymore. At one point, “published” meant that a whole team of people thought what you wrote was worth producing, selling, and storing. It comes with a sense of authority, a kind of title. It’s a way we divide the masses into those we want to listen to and those we don’t, in many different arenas. It connotes a sense of value (to someone, at least). Many people object to the idea that there’s value of any kind of the wild open internet, because just anyone can “publish”. I learned in my reference class at library school that one should always check the author of a book to see who they are and what institution they’re associated with before taking them seriously; if you fall outside our institutions, why, surely you have nothing of value to say, and you’re probably lying! Wikipedia: case in point. We have our ways to determine whether we ought to consider what you’re saying not based on the content, but on who and what you are. Apparently this protects us from ever having to have critical reading skills. We are afraid of being duped, so we cling to our social structures.

So many people just turn that “publish” definition on its head and say everything on the internet is “published”, everyone has a pulpit, everyone can be heard in the same way. I object to this as well. Turning an ineffective idea upside down doesn’t get us any closer to a useful definition of a term, or a practice.

Currently, this is how I define “publication”: blocks of text that are published by a company have been vetted and determined to be sellable to whatever audience the company serves. This holds for fiction, for academic work, etc.

Is content on the web “published”? What does that even mean? I think we start shifting to turn that meaning into “available”. If I write something and post it online, it’s available to anyone who wants to see it, but it’s not “published” in any traditional sense. If I take it down, does it become unpublished? Can I only unpublish if I get to it before it gets cached by anyone’s browsers, before Google gets to it? What if I post something online, but no search engine ever finds it and no one ever visits the page? Was it published then? If I put something online but lock it up and let no one see it, is it published?

I think we need a more sophisticated conception of publication to fully incorporate the way we use and interact with the web. I don’t think the traditional notion is helpful, and I think it presumes a kind of static life for web content that just isn’t there. Web content is read/write. It’s editable, it’s alterable. Rather than dislike that about the content, we should encourage and celebrate that. That’s what’s great about it.

There has always been ephemera. Most of it has been lost. Is that sad? I suppose so. As a (former) historian-in-training, I would have loved to get my hands on the ephemera of early modern women’s lives. I would love to know more about them, more about what drove them, what they’re lives were like. But I don’t feel like I’m owed that information. Ephemera is what fills our lives; when that ephemera becomes digital, we need to come to terms with our own privacy. Just because you can record and store things doesn’t mean you should.

And this comes to the heart of the matter, the second element of the desire to archive everything that irks me. The common statement is that we are producing more information now than ever before, and this information needs archiving. The reality is this: we are not producing “more information” per capita. We simply are not, I refuse to believe that. Medieval people swam in seas of information much as we do, it’s just that the vast majority of it was oral, or otherwise unstorable (for them). These are people who believed that reading itself was a group event, they couldn’t read without speaking aloud. (Don’t be so shy if you move your lips while reading; it’s a noble tradition!) Reading and listening were a pair. In our history we just stored more of that information in our brains and less of it in portable media. If you think surviving in a medieval village required no information, consider how many things you’d need to know how to do, how many separate “trades” a medieval woman would need to be an expert in just to feed, clothe, and sustain her family. Did she have “less” information? She certainly knew her neighbours better. She knew the details of other people’s lives, from start to finish. She knew her bible without ever having looked at one. Her wikipedia was inside her own head.

Today we have stopped using our brains for storage and using them for processing power instead. Not better or worse, just different. We use media to store our knowledge and information rather than remembering it. So of course there appears to be more information. Because we keep dumping it outside ourselves, and everyone’s doing it.

Not to say that a complete archive of everyone’s ephemera, every thought, detail, bit of reference material ever produced by a person throughout their life wouldn’t make interesting history. I think it would, but that’s not what we think libraries are really for. We do generally respect a certain level of privacy. It would be a neat project for someone out there to decide to archive absolutely everything about themselves for a year of their lives and submit that to an archive. Temperature, diet, thoughts, recordings of conversations, television programs watched, books read, everything. We you want to harvest everything on the web, then you might as well use all those security cameras out there to literally record everything that goes on, for ever, and store that in the library for future historians. Set up microphones on the street corners, in homes, in classrooms, submit recordings to the library. A complete record of food bought and consumed. Everything. That’s not what we consider “published”, no matter how public any of it is. We draw the line. Somehow if it’s in writing it’s fair game.

But that’s not what people are generally talking about when they talk about “archiving information”. I know this is true because the article ends with this:

“On the other hand, we’re producing much more information these days than we used to, and not all of it is necessary. Do we want to keep the Twitter account of Stephen Fry or some of the marginalia around the edges of the Sydney Olympics? I don’t think we necessarily do.”

There’s “good” information and then this other, random ephemera. I will bet you that Stephen Fry’s twitter feed will be of more interest to these future historians than a record of the official Sydney Olympics webpage. And that’s the other side of this argument.

This isn’t about preserving information for those sacred future historians. This is about making sure the future sees us the way we want to be seen; not mired in debates about Survivor, or writing stacks and stacks of Harry Potter slash fanfiction, or coming up with captions for LOLcats. Not twitter, because that is too silly, but serious websites, like the whitehouse’s. We’re trying to shape the way the future sees us, and we want to be seen in a particular light.

I object to that process.

Gift Economies and Librarian Blogs

Gift Economies and Librarian Blogs

I’ve been turning over the idea of gift economies and the internet for some time now. For me it started with Henry Jenkins’ keynote at Internet Research 8 in Vancouver, when he suggested that fans who produce popular product should be paid by the company that owns the copyright. My gut turned sideways and I nearly shouted it, NO. NO NO NO. It registered at the top of the horribly wrong meter.

The more I thought about it, and examined my violent gut reaction, I started to think that adding money to the equation goes against the natural economy of fandom cultures. I’m pretty firmly convinced that fandoms revolve around gift economies, where fans create product that other fans consume, and the consumers are required to pay back the gift by providing feedback, linking others to the product, engaging in commentary about the product, or other fandom behaviours. I hesitate to say it, but another payback activity is deference. I shouldn’t shy away from it. It’s true. There are some fans who are seen to give more to the community than any individual can properly pay back, and thus resentments and frustrations are born. This is exactly gift economy theory, so I’m fairly certain it fits.

So my own reaction at the idea of adding money to the mix is justified; it’s the wrong kind of economy. It would swing the balance. It would increase resentment a million fold, because the people who get paid for their fandom production would become completely unpayable by fandom standards, and would be seen as a stooge of the original producer. I sell out. No longer fully part of the community. Untrustable. No spreading the wealth; any fandom creation is a product of the community, with inspiration and ideas from the community, build on the scaffold of commentary and conversation, beta readers, donations of art, video, songs, fandom trends and ideas, and communal construction of character interpretation. How can one person gain reward from something that is, at its heart, entirely dependent on the community?

So that said, I think I’m seeing the same thing happening in the librarian blogosphere, and I find it interesting. The Annoyed Librarian kept an anonymous blog ranting about librarianship. It was funny and wry and I don’t remember it being too terribly controversial in its blogspot form. People might have disagreed with her approach, but it was just one anonymous blog. There are many more named blogs to read.

But then Library Journal moved the Annoyed Librarian over to their website, and paid her to write her rants. Now she’s official, she’s part of the machine, and getting paid to do it. Perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention to the blogspot blog and its comments, but I think there’s a marked difference in the kind of comments she gets.

A Selection:
Since I am an Annoyed Librarian too, do I get a cut of the profits?
Rehashing old posts is the best you can do? Couldn’t you have just said this in a comment on the original post? How about some original material? I guess the AL cheerleaders are happy so that’s all that matters.
If you like light and fluffy posts, you’re in the right place. Not much substance here so far.

Generally speaking, librarians don’t comment like this on non-profit blogs. Now that the Annoyed Librarian is being paid for her trouble, that changes things. Comments that won’t help: when her attempt at humour is criticized, the Annoyed Librarian says this:

I don’t need Comedy Central, I’ve got LJ paying me to write this stuff.

And, the post that prompted me to write this post:

Set a date, tell your overlordier, plan a big finale, whatever you like, but give it up. Soon. Because the joke’s been played, we’ve all been had, you’ve picked up a few pennies, and now the joke’s just going to get old. Fast. And you know I know you know that.

I want you to hit it and quit. Can you hit it and quit?

In a world where librarians get book deals and we actually do get paid to do the work we write about, I was a bit surprised to see what I’m used to seeing in fandoms happening in the librarian blog world. But maybe it’s not fandom that generates a gift economy; maybe it’s something inherent in online communities generally. (Could that be so?) Apparently, we librarian bloggers also understand our blogs to be gifts to the community rather than something that aught to be remunerated financially. People are feeling skimmed off for cash. The understanding seems to be: you wouldn’t exist without us. If you get paid for what you do, you’re using us for your own profit. And you will pay our price for that.

I wanted to think about it in terms of fandoms and fandom culture, but maybe it’s much broader than that.

Write what you Know

Write what you Know

Eventually I will get back to interesting posts, the ones about information and educational technology and fun internet things, but I’m currently working on my dad’s 10 year old win98 machine, as my ibook is in the shop, and he’s got dial up. So I’m not using the fun internet things to their fullest. (He at least upped his “one hour per day” plan to “unlimited”, so now I can wait an indefinite amount of time for things to load.) My world is largely dominated by health-related matters at the moment, and since I don’t plan to experience this cancer business again (and, for the record, there’s no reason why I should fear I might; there’s no direct correlation between thyroid cancer and any other kind), so I’m being self-indulgent and recording my experiences and reflections here.

There was a kerfuffle some time ago when a more serious librarian blogger looked down his nose at those of us who don’t post exclusively about librarianship on our blogs within the “biblioblogosphere”, and as I recall a few of us rallied around the idea that our lives are not exclusively about librarianship, and we are healthier people for having multiple interests and experiences to share and ponder. And I will stand by my contention that I primarily keep this blog for me, and I will post as I feel compelled to. In the end, I think it makes me a better professional to see fodder to ponder in all aspects of my life rather than confining it to a tiny strip of “acceptable” material. I don’t get paid to keep a blog. I blog because writing is how I process information, and I like to share.

I’ll get back to the info tech soon enough.

Ephemera, Dignity, and Control: Should Libraries collect Blogs?

Ephemera, Dignity, and Control: Should Libraries collect Blogs?

This morning my friend Jeremy blessed us with a post about a project at the library school at UNC Chapel Hill entitled Blogger Perceptions on Digital Preservation. Not only is my comment on Jeremy’s post 5 times longer than everything he had to say about it, I still have more rant left in me that’s going to have to spill out here. (One can only abuse other people’s blogs so much.)

From their project website:

This research study grew out of calls in the literature of information and library science to regard these new vehicles for communication and information dissemination as valuable additions to the human record. The purpose of this research is to survey bloggers’ own perceptions on digital preservation. It is hoped that the results of this study will inform development of recommendations for impacting stewardship of weblogs at the level of creation, and the development of strategies for capturing the content of blogs for perpetuity.

I’ve heard about this kind of thing before. There are many librarians who think collecting blogs is the right thing to do. These are usually the pro-internet ones, the one who like blogs, use the term “web 2.0” with some fluency, know what a wiki is, have a profile on facebook, and maybe even use an RSS reader. They think it would be progressive for libraries to archive blogs in the same way they archive academic journals and Time Magazine. There’s a cultural currency at play there; as librarians, we underscore the value of one form of publishing when we opt to collect one variety of publication and exclude others. In selecting the American Historical Review and not The Inquirer for our permanent collection, we privilege one form of expression over the other; we say, this is worthy of your attention and a portion of our funds; this other thing is not. So I understand why so many digitally hip librarians are trying to widen the net and start scooping up blog posts as well as academic serial publications. It would be a act of friendliness toward us, of certain kind of regard; it would be, on one level, an act offering us a level of dignity that we so often fail to engender among the general population.

The first time I heard a librarian suggest that libraries start collecting blogs, it was like a punch in the stomach. I had a very irrational, visceral reaction to it that went like this: absolutely not, no, no way, stop now, please leave me alone. It was only later I stopped to think about it and tried to deconstruct why I had such a strong reaction to the idea.

The first issue is control. My blog is mine, and I can go back at any time and edit bits and pieces of it as I see fit. I’m particularly sensitive to the control issues around blogging, because I’ve been a blogger for many years and have been through many life-changing experiences throughout my time as a blogger. Not only have I dropped out of one graduate program and completed another, I’ve completely changed careers, moved many times, picked up and dropped hobbies, and thus I’ve changed the based focus of my blog multiple times. I’ve also grown up a lot since the beginning, and I learned through trial and error what is and is not appropriate to put on line. Actually, no, that’s not entirely a fair way to phrase that: it’s not nearly that simple. The things that were appropriate for me to put online in 2001 when I started blogging are no longer appropriate for me now that I’m a professional with a professional online presence. There are things I used to talk about on my blog back in 2001 and 2002 that I wouldn’t dream of posting now; it’s less a matter of cut-and-dried internet privacy and more a matter of direction. I’ve changed my direction, I’ve changed the purpose of my blogging, and so I’ve edited and pruned my blog as I went along. What if my blog had been archived back in 2001, and at intervals thereafter? What if someone had felt that I was part of creating a permanent public record?

I did say it in public, after all. Do we give up our rights to edit our work once it’s in the public sphere? Historically, yes; hard copies would be distributed, and the sheer logistics of it make that editing impossible. But we aren’t talking about a hard copy world, here. Why are we suggesting that the hard copy rules need to follow us into the digital sphere?

When I merged the first iteration of my blog (blogspot) into this one (wordpress), I brought it all over, the picked through it and locked a whole ton of posts. It wasn’t entirely a matter of being ashamed or having something to hide; they just weren’t in keeping with my current perspective on this blog. They didn’t fit into the open portfolio I’m keeping here. At some point, should those posts become relevant, I may re-release them minus the lock and refer to them. I deleted a bunch of stuff that just struck me as trite and boring, too. This is my archive, built and maintained primarily for myself and my friends, but others are welcome to visit and have a look through it as well. Does this openness strip me of my right to tweak my work?

There’s part of my objection: I felt that, should libraries collect my blog, keep a permanent archive for the public record, I would be losing something that’s important to me. I would be losing some ability to control my own work.

Most of the issue here seems based on a difference between old and new media, or old and new publication methods. We have ideas about works in progress, and we have a definite idea about what it means to be “finished”. We freeze things when they’re finished. We take a picture and say, there it is, it’s done now, and we mass produce the result. Novelists write and write, edit and edit, and finally finish their novels and hand them over. They’re published and, for the most part, that’s the end of the story. There are rarely revisions to published work; it’s gone out into the wild, it’s over now. There are millions of copies out there and there’s no taking them back. I know many writers who cringe when they look at their own published books, because they can still see errors that they can’t edit anymore. We take these fixed iterations of their work and put it in the library, because they’re done now. The stone tablet has been carved. This version of archiving is based entirely on the idea that the master copy is finite and complete, it’s the movable type all set in order, it’s the means of production rather than the product. The end user doesn’t have access to the master copy; once they have their version, they don’t look back at the master. But in the world of blogs, the master copy is the product. Sure, everyone takes their own copy; technically, every time you look at a website, you take a copy of it. In theory it’s the same master copy/copy world. But in practice, that copy is so ephemeral people often fail to understand that it even exists. They can fish a copy out of their browser caches, they can save copies down to their hard drives, but the vast majority of people believe that there is a single version of, say, a website, and in order to view it, they need to go to it and look. And when they do, their old copy is replaced by the new copy.

So why are we talking about taking still versions of blogs and sticking them in archives? Why are we taking a living document, killing it, and taking a picture? Where putting novels in libriaries provides the author with a distribution network, putting archived copies of blogs in repositories doesn’t increase distribution for the blogger. It merely creates a new master copy that the blogger has no control over. It takes away from the blogger.

However: libraries could always respect the rights of the blogger to constantly change their master copy simply by collecting their RSS feeds rather than the blog proper. If their parser checks back with the original document and syncs it, much like a browser does when a user goes back to a website and sees that something has changed, I could accept that. We could filter what goes to the library, and be very clear that some things are okay from that perspective and some things we keep just for us. That requires librarians to accept that we don’t have a complete or permanent record, however. We only have access to that information the blogger allows us to see, when they allow us to see it. And there’s no guarantee it will be the same the next time we go to look at it.

And that raises the question of the historical record. As a former historian-in-training I suppose I should be more sympathetic to this argument; someday some poor graduate student will do a dissertation about phd dropouts who become librarians and will want access to my blog. Well, that’s too bad for him, I’m afraid. He’ll have to hope that people like me will put something into the permanent historical record and not hope that someone someday will see the joy in archiving my digital voice, because I have no intention of ensuring that my blog stays around for centuries after my death. I’m not writing this for that future graduate student; I’m writing it as part of the dialogue that exists right now, a sort of extended public square conversation. It doesn’t exist in a vaccum, and is so dependent on the digital swirls of dialogue around it that I’m not sure it would make sense on its own. In fact, I’m not sure we should understand blogs as singular, decontextualized entities in the first place. (Though: can we even consider books as singular decontextualized entities, and am I inching toward complete nihilism here?)

I recently had a drink with a faculty member at my place of work who told me that his father destroyed all of his personal correspondence prior to his death. What right did he have to do this? Every right in the world, I have to say. Every right. There’s dignity in radio silence. Those letters weren’t written with the understanding of permanence. When we ask students to write something that won’t be seen by others and won’t be attached to their names, we can’t change streams weeks later and decide to make them public. We should have some respect for the boundaries in which a work was created.

When I was an undergrad I did some work in the National Archives of Canada on a project using letters written to the Prime Minister during the depression. As it turns out, if you really want to get into the permanent public record, send it to the Prime Minister’s office; they microfilm everything. EVERYTHING. The letters were private pleas from the desperately poor to the millionaire businessman prime minister at the time, R. B. Bennett. There were letters from children asking for skates, or for shoes so they could walk to school, or for pencils and paper. There were letters from men who couldn’t get jobs, and from women who were so distraught about their husbands’ financial emasculation that they sent secret letters to the PM asking for help. One of these letters had a note at the bottom: please destroy this letter once you’ve read it. That was from a woman so ashamed of the details she was writing about, so scared for her family, that she didn’t want a permanent record of it. And there I was, sitting in the archives in front of the microfilm reader, sixty years later, reading it. I felt sick. They should have destroyed that letter, and I couldn’t stomach the idea of taking notes on it and using it in my paper. I scrolled past it instead. Why did they film it? Did the person who took the shot of it cringe the way I did? But she did send it, didn’t she. She put it into the public record, with a postage stamp attached. It wasn’t intended for my eyes. At the time I knew I’d rather preserve her dignity than get one more source for a paper with hundreds and hundreds of sources already. There were other letters I could draw from to write that paper, there are other ways to get at that information without breaking a sort of historical trust. She had been wronged.

Some things were created to be, and should remain, ephemeral.

Long Live the Fangirl!

Long Live the Fangirl!

Dorothea hits all the right notes as she talks about blogging while employed, and also something else I never thought I’d see: apparently she’s been accused of being too fangirly. So, there’s two important points I want to touch on; blogging and having a job, and this idea of the perils of fangirlism (shall we say).

Blogging while employed isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. First, there’s the question; how much of your job do you want to put on your blog? My employer has been extremely supportive of me keeping a blog (we have academic freedom and all that), and my co-workers let me know when they think I’ve said something interesting. My blog has been a great learning experience for me over the years, and it’s a good archive of the things I’ve felt passionate enough about to tap out some words about. On that score, it’s a little bit like an extension of my research interests, and for my purposes that’s very helpful. After almost a year on the job, I’m less conflicted about what to say, and more challenged by finding the time to say it. What’s happened to me is this: the energy I have about my profession is going into my day job; the energy I have to write on a daily basis is going into my manuscript. That leaves precious little for this space some days. I feel, however, that this is a temporary blip; I put some effort into a redesign recently, and I that’s prompted me to take the time to throw some words on its crisp new pages.

Where do those words come from? Enthusiasm. No one sits down in their spare time to write about something they don’t feel something about. Enthusiasm is what keeps us going, it’s what keeps us interesting and interested. What, we should take the enthusiasm out, but keep the daily grind in?

I applaud Dorothea’s call to take the starch out of librarian blogging. This is the same conversation we’ve been having since the whole “there are no academic librarians blogging” fiasco from the summer. It seems some folks want our personal blogs to be 100% professional. (“Professional”, as Dorothea would have it.) Let’s not fall into this trap. We don’t owe the world a purely professional blog on our own time. What makes our profession is the people; our personalities, our aspirations, our goals and dreams. Those things are going to shine through. And I think that’s a good thing. If you want wholly professional posts from us, just grab the feeds from those categories, bub. Let us keep the personal in the loop here.

And about this idea of fangirling. I think Dorothea and I are on exactly the same track about this one. You have to have the space to be jubiliant about other people. It’s mission critical. Family Man Librarian appears to have been looking for “subjective” reports from the Computers in Libraries conference, and encountered Dorothea’s joy at meeting other librarians instead. (Note to the profession: subjectivity is dead, and blogs are not newspapers.) Is fangirling a problem?

You know, if you do it when you mean it, and not when you’re a) trying to get something, b) trying to rub elbows with “famous” people, c) doing it because you feel you should, I think it’s exactly the right thing. And if it’s not, my modus operandi has to change, because my entire world is shaped around when and where I feel the need to fangirl.

Last summer, we had a guest speaker come up from the downtown campus to speak to us about a web project that was about start going live. I had never heard of this speaker before, and in fact didn’t catch his name at the beginning of the talk, but I was so spellbound throughout that I absolutely had to corner him after the fact and gush at him about what he was saying, and how much I agreed, and how inspired I was by his words. That single conversation has lead to a chain of events I could never have strung together back then; showing enthusiasm, real, true, honest enthusiasm, is one way to develop lasting professional and personal connections. In sum: fangirling can be good for the profession, your institution and your career.

Long live the fangirl!

Keeping a Blog and Keeping your Job: Not a Guide

Keeping a Blog and Keeping your Job: Not a Guide

To start, the reason I have not been updating as much lately has nothing to do with the issues I’m about to peruse; I currently have no internet connection at home, and writing lengthy blog posts while at work seems inappropriate.

But my questions have changed now that I’m seriously on the job and completely open abou the existence of my blog while at work; how do you manage the line between being honest, tackling the issues, and not ruffling the feathers of the people you work with? Not just your boss, not just the chief librarian or the head of your department, but your colleagues, the faculty you work with, and the people you argue with in meetings? A blog should not be a ranty response to these people. A blog should not be the place where you post the things you wish you could say, but might have gotten lynched for. The last thing I want is for someone to return from a meeting, check out my blog, and see that I’ve responded negatively in public to an idea she presented in private.

Maybe this is why some people think there are no academic librarians with blogs. Is that what they’re waiting for? For us to dish about the dark corners of our institutions, to pillory those among us who are standing in our way? To reply in a forum like this against the vendors who want our budget dollars, the faculty members who don’t want to replace their overhead projectors with document cameras, the librarians who can’t move past the practices established twenty or thirty years ago? The hotshot new IT folks who think they have a clue and start pushing for changes that will not solve a thing?

I still intend to keep my blog, and to keep it in the same fashion I have been. But I am very aware of the changes to my own perspective on it. I embrace those changes in many ways; being careful about other people is never something I’m going to back away from. But I need to underscore that this blog does not reflect the inner workings of the library where I am employed; it does not uncover the dark sides of meetings I attend, and it does not even cast too much light on the directions my own library will take. How do you distill what is entirely of yourself when you spend most of your day in the midst of the issues you also want to talk about, among incredibly knowledgable, thoughtful, and optimistic people? Take everyone else out, let your voice only be your own? Let your opinions on issues be only yours? Not easy. Is it even possible?

My new struggle with this blog is to remain as honest as ever, as optimistic as ever, and to speak with a voice that stands a step away from my job. Not that my job won’t affect what I think or what I say, but I want my voice to remain purely mine, and with an audience that is not only external and not only internal. This may be more of a struggle about retaining a sense of independence than one of toeing the party line.

I can understand why lots of professionals feel unable to keep a blog. No one wants to keep a journal that’s so institutionally correct that they can’t express what they think; but no one wants to make enemies because of their hobbies, either.

Tricky.

Adminblog: Other (academic) uses for blogs

Adminblog: Other (academic) uses for blogs

I went on at length here about the use blogs in education, a topic near and dear to my heart and one many of my friends (and others) have spent years contributing to. As a (very) newly-minted librarian, my short experience working in academic library administration has shown me how useful a blogging system could be in an library environment.

Blog This!
To date I’ve mostly seen administrative blogs used for public consumption; many large libraries are using blogs and their associated RSS feeds to keep their users informed of news and updates. A blog as a public face of an institution means that the information on the website is constantly changing. In my experience in web-based community building, a constantly updated website is critical to it reaching into the public consciousness. If there’s something new and interesting on a webpage every day or every few days, web traffic stays high and the word you want to get out is more likely to get there. What can your institution contribute to the information landscape of its community? How can you make your website a must-see destination for members of your community? A blog like this takes time and effort to maintain, but the software by its very nature supports this kind of endeavour.

A blog written by a person can give an institutional website a human face, and as Google Scholar comes in to take over the finding of things, we as librarians need to step up to be the human face of this new information world. Blogs are a quick and easy way for us to start.

Are the printers down again?
But a public blog is only one side of what a good administrative blogging system could accomplish. On the other side of the reference desk, a staff blog could help keep an entire staff team up-to-date. When a reference librarian comes to the desk to start his shift, he needs to know a whole rash or things at once; are there any instructional sessions scheduled for today? Will I need to direct anyone to a particular classroom? Is there an assignment coming due that is bringing students into the library in droves looking for a specific source? Are the computers acting strangely? Are the printers down again? The number of possible bits of information required for each librarian or reference staff member on a given day is impossible to quantify. A blog kept by a group, noting anything unusual that is happening in the community or anything that the staff should be aware of, could keep a team on the same page.

Most organizations already do something else in place of a group blog. They send mass emails. Hundreds of mass emails a week, which generally clutter up mailboxes or get deleted. Wouldn’t a blog be better? Rather than spotty archives in people’s email, everyone could have access to ONE keyword-searchable, date- and time- stamped archive. Rather than carry on a conversation on a listserv, forcing all staff to get our witty repartee via email, staff with questions could post comments and have them answered by the poster or anyone else with information. I suggested complex, threaded comments for educational blogs, and I would definitely suggest them in this context as well. With threaded comments, questions could be asked, answered, and archived in a forum open to all staff without clogging up inboxes.

Keeping in Touch
At the library where I worked this summer, there were two kinds of people; staff who were often on the reference desk and those who rarely were. Many of the subject librarians were often too busy for long reference shifts. In the profession, the reference desk is in many places dying a slow death; the “reference librarian” is becoming a thing of the past; no one can be just a reference librarian anymore. Anyone with an MLIS is busy behind the scenes building collections, managing staff, arguing over digital resources, teaching classes, and consulting with faculty. As one librarian noted, cutting subject librarians off from reference means that the people buying the books and making the decisions are getting more and more distant from frontline knowledge and needs. While the reference staff are well aware of which reference sources are being used, what sorts of questions are stumping students, and what kinds of books are in need, the librarians exist in a more hermetically sealed world where they speak to advanced graduate students, faculty, and undergraduates only in a classroom setting. When they do make it to the reference desk they feel rusty and out of touch. A well-used, often-updated blog chronicling not just problems but also interesting questions, trends, and suggestions for sources would help keep staff in touch with each other as well as their patrons.

A frequently-updated group blog can also help train new staff, introducing them not only to the personalities in the department but also to the issues they face daily at the reference desk. And it can bring staff up-to-date when they return from maternity leaves or holidays, and even connect everyone with events and problems that occur in the evenings or weekends.

Categories and RSS
In an educational capacity, I discussed how categories with individual RSS feeds are necessary to filter content to one class or another; good categorization with RSS organizes content for consumption by a particular audience. In an administrative capacity, categories fulfill the same function.

What kinds of categories are needed depend entirely on the library and its set up; part of the benefit of a blog system is how flexible it is and how many options it presents. Determining what categories are significant for a particular workplace is as simple as searching through ye olde email inbox to see what sorts of information staff are generally sending out. Announcements of events happening in and around the library; new developments in databases or online sources; technical problems with photocopiers, printers, microfilm readers, or other equipment; lost items; class information and specifics regarding assignments; new print sources added to reference, or other significant sets; meeting minutes, etc. If circumstances demanded, a reference blog could have categories for each subject area to note any significant problems or interesting questions that arise in specific disciplines. This would make it easy to find class-related information and for subject librarians to keep tabs on the needs of the students in their disciplines. The blog archive could act as a record of frequently-asked-questions for specific classes and thus a resource for reference staff.

When we introduced the idea of a reference blog to the head of reference this summer, she had an additional category idea; just general chatter. As head of the department, she wanted to know in general how things are going; was it really busy on the desk today? What interesting things are happening, good as well as bad? What general problems are people encountering? What’s the general student mood? Are they stressed out? Are reference desk staff feeling cut off? Do they feel not properly trained on a piece of equipment or particular source? Did someone go looking for something in an obvious place and not find it? She wanted a category for the general, so she could scan it regularly and get a sense of what’s going on and how everyone is doing.

So how does RSS fit in? With only one blog, there is hardly any need to syndicate. With a good archive (which most blogging software has) and good categories, staff can simply use the website itself rather than aggregating its content. Having no new clients to download to their own computers is a bonus; the blog would be one stop shopping for most mass communication needs. A good blog archive structure can take away the need to store this information in a feed reader. For front-line staff and subject librarians, bookmarking the blog and possibly one or two category indexes would probably be enough.

But there are other complications. Many academic libraries exist as part of a system; at Western Libraries where I did my co-op term, there are seven libraries and thus seven reference desks, and I know many other systems are larger than that. Administrators will not want to keep track of seven or more separate blogs recording everything that happens; they need categorical RSS feeds so they can choose the categories they want to follow from each library and read them in the comfort of a solid RSS reader. This gives administrators an “at-a-glance” sense of what’s going on in the libraries and gives them the opportunity to dig deeper into any particular issue.

Shout it out
In an educational context, we want a blog that represents the student’s thinking, and then a page that represents the thinking of all other participants in class, with opportunities to comment and engage in a discussion. But the administration context is a bit different. It’s all at once an archive, a newspaper, and an alerting system, but not a record of personal thoughts and opinions. The people who use it are busy and don’t want to look in more than one place for information and updates, either. How can we keep all information relevant to the staff in one place?

What if we have an option that adds a particular post to every library’s blog? This is arguably dangerous. To compare with LiveJournal, this is the equivalent to posting to a community, but instead having that post hit everyone’s personal blog rather than one communal blog. The key difference here is that each blog is not personal; it is already communal. A system-wide option would allow higher-level managers make announcements that appear in a local space; a notice that appears in every local paper, so to speak. It would also allow each library to communicate important information with the entire system with one post, without sending mass email.

My monitor just exploded!
My goals with an administrative blog are clearly bent on keeping all the important information in one place rather than scattering it to a feed reader or page buried somewhere behind a link. In the structure I’ve laid out, there are a variety of categories for a variety of things, much of which might not be useful to staff in departments. However, certain categories might be extremely important to someone in another department.

At the library where I worked in the summer, there was a very carefully-constructed alert system created to let the LITS (Library Information Technology Services) people know when there were computer problems. Staff filled in a help form, which was sent to a generic email address that LITS staff took turns monitoring. That email was cc’ed to the entire reference staff, keeping everyone in the know about things technical.

What if we had a blog category for computer related posts? This would have the effect of keeping the entire staff informed of problems. But blogs aren’t the quickest way of getting the word out. Sometimes those help emails were dire; “the computers in the reference hall are down!” When those computers went out, they went out all together, as one 400-seat unit. That’s are emergency situation in an academic library. LITS received the same kind of alert messages from all seven libraries in the system.

A good RSS reader at LITS could keep everyone on the ball; a reader could check the feeds every few minutes for problems or questions. I trust RSS to get the message out fast, but RSS alone doesn’t seem like enough. There are lots of different questions that get sent on to LITS, and not all of them are emergencies. LITS could subscribe to all computer-related categories at the seven libraries, which would keep them in touch with all technical problems, questions, and issues. That in itself would confront a whole host of problems related to communication issues within the system, including keeping an archive of a problem so that a history of it exists (What if, for instance, printing always goes down at 2pm every other Thursday?) as well as alerting the rest of the related staff to the problem. But what if the category itself included an emergency flag that sent out an email notification to an address tagged by the category? That way, if smoke started pouring out of a monitor, the blog itself could act as recorder, archive, and emergency help line all at once.

That functionality could work its way through the entire system, allowing an administrator or subject librarian to be notified if something dire is happening in an area under their supervision, or simply if their attention or comment is required. This way staff could still get in touch with someone in a hurry using email without actually having to use multiple systems for recording information.

Keeping up with the Joneses
Blogging software is not new, but it’s still barely breaking into the larger world. What librarians and administrators need to understand is that blogs aren’t just journals; they are complex content management systems that have a lot of offer to a variety of environments. Since information and information delivery is supposed to be our area of expertise, it seems to me that it behooves us to get in touch with some of this software. And on the flip side: working in a information-heavy, blog-free environment was certainly an eye-opening experience for me. Everywhere I looked I saw another task that a blog could take over.

Now we just have to get down to actually writing the software for it. Unless someone else gets around to it before we do.

Blogging Librarians

Blogging Librarians

Okay, I’m starting to feel that I’m in such an old school of blogging that I missed some massive turnabout. Reading about bloggers these days has made me want to dig my heels in and express, over and over, that people are adding elements to the definition of “blog” that really should not be there. I’m standing firm on this one.

From Free Range Librarian:

For some time I’ve grumbled and groused about the practices of librarian bloggers. Too many of us want to be considered serious citizen-journalists, when it suits us, but fall back on “hey, it’s only a blog” when we’d rather post first and fact-check later, present commentary as “news,” or otherwise fall short of the guidelines of the real profession of journalism. (This is doubly ironic, considering how librarians squeal when people without library degrees claim to practice “librarianship.”)

We’re on the eve of having the first serious blog coverage for an ALA conference. (I’m going to be one of the Citizen Bloggers for PLA, thanks to Steven Cohen’s advocacy in this area.) I really would like this to be a credible event that reflects well on blogging in librarianship. But I worry that if we start off without agreeing, however informally, to a code of ethics, we may prove to our colleagues why blogging has its bad reputation.

I also feel that as librarians our “code” has to go even farther than in the examples I cite at the beginning of this entry. We are the standard-bearers for accurate, unbiased information. Blogs filled with typos, half-baked “facts,” misrepresentations, copyright violations, and other egregious and unprofessional problems do not represent us well to the world.

Keeping a blog does not by definition cross into journalism. I understand why people feel that it does; many blogs have a newsy feel to them, and since blogs are serial, I can see the connection. Vaguely. But a blogger is not journalist. A blog is a format. It’s just a personal webpage that’s easy to update, and is generally updated often. It’s really important that we not get so wrapped up in linking blogs with journalism that we start imagining that we have some kind of higher calling to “report” with accuracy. As if we’re some kind of playback device. As if this is the point of the profession.

I can’t work out which part bothers me more; reducing a blog to serial fact-spewing, or reducing librarians to “unbiased” cyphers of information.

Do with your blog as you see fit, of course, but generally speaking, historically speaking, a blog is one person’s perspective on what’s going on in the world. Whatever that world happens to be for that person. While I agree that anyone should be careful not to spout random bits of gossip and break copyright laws, no one should pretend they have the capacity to be unbiased. That’s not a benefit to anyone. Presuming objectivity is the first step in providing misinformation.

So, those librarians who are going to blog the ALA conference; do it with your personal lenses snapped into place. Blog about what it means to you. Blog about what you hear and what inpires you, what you disagree with, what makes you think. There are ways to get transcripts of what happened. Why would you strip out all that good, personal, thoughtful information? I’m not looking to blogs to report facts. I’m looking to them to provide a personal memoir of something, one person’s view. I’m looking for the subjective.

Technology is a tool that seems to make people feel hip and modern. While blogging may be the hot item of 2004, our ideas about librarianship need to crawl on out of the 19th century.