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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.

Thick Tweets

Thick Tweets

Another follow-up to a tweet, posted in response to David Silver’s attempt to use a Geertzian theory on twitter: bizarre categorization of tweets. With a link, this is “thick”
2:45 PM Feb 25th

I appreciate someone trying to apply thick description to tweets, but I’m not certain David Silver hasn’t missed the mark a bit here.

First: isn’t it frustrating that every time we experiment with web applications, there’s someone somewhere trying to tell us how to do it right? Case in point, back from 2005: “I just spent fifteen minutes clicking through about 20 Xanga sites and I CAN’T FIND ANY BLOGGING GOING ON! Is it me?” (my response). We like these applications to fulfill a pedagogical role, often to improve the profile of the use of the application to other academics and departmental chairs. Current case in point: some researchers/educators using Second Life don’t want to be associated with the “debauchery” of the Second Life Community Conference, and want to break out on their own in order to set the “right” tone.

So now we get to the “right” and “wrong” kinds of tweets. This is a challenging thing, since a tweet is only 140 characters long. Silver encourages students to “pack multiple layers of information within 140 characters or less,” and those layers are defined by links, primarily. Also by shout outs. And mentioning names.

I don’t think thick description is a good way to evaluate a tweet. A tweet’s value isn’t in how much information it’s conveying, it’s in the basic value of the information itself. Personally I quite like funny tweets, regardless of whether they’ve got links in them or not. The context of tweets doesn’t come from the tweet itself, it comes from the environment around the tweet, the news of the day, the location of the user, the user’s other tweets, the user’s blog, flickr stream, employment history, and the live events the user it attending. Tweets are ultimately snippets that don’t necessarily make sense in isolation. I’d suggest that to evaluate them individually is to miss a great deal of their “thickness”.

Some of my favourite tweets:

“Great design comes from an artistic or cultural impulse, not a focus group.”
11:06 PM Jan 24th from web cloudforest

Is there anything more newbish than using Internet Explorer? Question still valid after 12+ years of asking it.
2:31 PM Feb 27th from TweetDeck, BeCircle

Overheard this week: “Lent? That’s the musical with all the AIDS, right?”
3:58 PM Feb 27th from TweetDeck, RJToronto

Still ignoring Facebook 25 things requests, but copying my wife’s idea: I’ll gladly go for coffee/beer and answer them in person instead.
4:03 AM Feb 27th from web, oninformation

These tweets don’t really fulfill Silver’s “thick” requirements, but I find them interesting and valuable. They give me things to think about. How do you quantify the pithiness of 140 characters?

Not Everyone Lives Like Me

Not Everyone Lives Like Me

What a relevation.

When I first started this blog, back when it was on blogspot and it was pseudonymous, no one had the rules about what you should and shouldn’t put online. It was still early days. We experimented, we reflected, we discussed. I remember being told that I shouldn’t mention that my doctor had put me on an anti-depressant when I found myself unable to get excited about the phd program I was in. You can talk about a broken leg, but not a set of broken synapses. At the time I thought: why shouldn’t I write about things I don’t mind others knowing? Each person needs to determine their comfort level.

Time went on. Everyone was still talking about it (and, I suppose, they still are, aren’t they). Yes, anything you publish online can be seen by in-laws, employers, potential employers, potential dates, etc. But if you take that into account and think, yes, well, I struggled, I survived; why not talk about it? Isn’t it okay? If you accept that someone might take issue with you one day? Or if you know, if anyone WERE to take issue with you because of it, they aren’t someone you’d want to date/spend time with/work for?

I have deliberately held things back from this blog, many times, with those things in mind. Anything I wasn’t sure I really wanted my real name associated with, I didn’t put here. And when I was having biopsies and was scared out of my skull about my health, I shut up on here. That was purely out of fear and denial.

I’ve been blogging for 9 years now, and I’m fairly comfortable with what I’m willing to put on my blog. When I started working, I wondered about what was appropriate, but nearly four years in, I think I’ve mostly got a grip on that as well.

I’m not used to people being uncomfortable with it.

Most of the people I’m close to have had blogs for years and think nothing of it. When I meet up with people, they are often “my kind”, and are hip to the blog thing. I mean, so hip it’s square. Blogs are dead. Me and Jason finally agree: yes, blogs are dead, because blogs are everywhere. Everyone has one, so yeah, their novelty is gone.

But not everyone is in the same place as me. Not everyone is comfortable looking at people’s lives online. I remember once in a while someone used to tell me that they feel like voyeurs when reading blogs, but I’ve never understood that. Anyone with a blog knows someone might read it. There’s no reason to feel secretive about it.

But that’s my realization today: not everyone has gotten immune to the fact that everyone can create content at the drop of a hat with the internet. Inner dialogues now have a platform on places like twitter and facebook. Our insides are coming out.

I’m used to it. I love it. I’m comfortable with it. I like to engage with the world around me on a deep level. I don’t particularly do well having casual friends; I have intense friendships, or nothing. So this user-generated web is absolutely up my alley. Why only know the surface when you can dig deeper?

But that’s not everyone’s perspective. I know, not a revelation to you. It’s just a reminder to me. My way is not the only way, nor is it the default, or probably even that common.

So I shouldn’t be surprised if my web presence makes people uncomfortable. No one needs to consume my productions if they don’t want. I’m so used to being half online all the time that I think of my web presence as being half my identity. It feels completely natural to me.

Blogging in Education

Blogging in Education

In August, I was invited to come do a quick (about 15 minutes!) talk for new faculty about using blogging as part of teaching. Apparently the feedback was good, so I was invited to come back and do a longer piece on it. There are 40 people signed up, and the talk is today.

Normally talks don’t scare me particularly, because I do love to natter on about topics I’m interested in. (And really, a talk is very much like a blog post…I talk for a while, and then it’s open for others to comment, right?) But for some reason I’m anxious about this talk. Maybe because people signed up for it. They will be expecting things. Can I live up to their expectations? I don’t know.

I have things to say. I think they’re somewhat important things. Somewhat. I even have powerpoint! (Some cited CC flickr images and some power statements, but it’s in ppt!) But still.

The main gist of what I want to get across is something like…well first of, you have to match your tools to your content, your expectations, and your personality. There is no magic bullet technology that will work for everyone, and there’s no point using blogging if you’re not going to use it in a way that suits both the content, the syllabus, and your own style. A given?

I think the other thing I want to get across is the difference between formality and informality. If you want students to do more formal writing, I’m not sure this is the way to do it. Mostly because, in the case of undergrads, formal writing is not a comfortable form. It’s a way of distancing themselves from the material. It’s not honest for them. As they learn to use the tool of formal essay-writing better, it can become more honest, but…for most, not so much. If you want real thinking, really interest and passion and engagement, you have to toss formal essay-writing in blog form out the window. It’s too easy to plagiarize. And writing is good, and you can think of this writing as creating a portfolio of primary sources that can be drawn on later to create formal writing. I’ve been thinking of it in terms of honesty; allow students to be honest. If they don’t understand something and mention it, that will help them later, because they’ll be able to show how they come to understand something in a formal report.

Which leads me to something that bonked me on the head yesterday while reviewing for Learning Inquiry. I read this fantastic article that used some extremely bang-on terminology: productive failure, and unproductive success.

Here’s what I’m currently considering: we tend to reward unproductive success more than anything. If a student walks into a class knowing the subject material, that student will probably do extremely well. If a student spends 3/4ths of the class struggling with the material and getting things wrong, not understanding, struggling with concepts, and then really gets it, that student will probably not do as well. But that student is actually learning, and demonstrating learning. We don’t have an effective way of rewarding real learning.

Which is the key reason why I object to switching out the word “student” with the word “learner”, though I know it’s trying to get at the same idea. We don’t know whether we have “learners” or not, on a grand scale. Often we have a group of already-knowledgeable students who will unproductively get As and we feel good about it the learning experience. How do we measure learning? Real learning? Going from confusion to understanding? How do we even see it when undergrads often don’t even open their mouths in class? Do we really have a “Learning Management System”? Really? How do we really support and reward learning rather than merely unproductive success?

So I think blogging done well, set up with good expectations and with a fostered honesty, can reveal the actual learning going on, and can give students the option of displaying the learning they’re doing. And we can reward it that way. If a student struggles for the first half of the course and demonstrates that struggle, and then suddenly GETS IT, you’ll have evidence of their learning. You can reward that, you can grade them according to how they learned and how articulate they can be about the way in which they learned and why. At the moment we grade them based on whether or not they get it fast enough, for the most part. So you can use these tools to support and encourage productive failure as a means toward productive success. I’m not saying it’s enough to just try. Unproductive failure isn’t the goal either. Failure that builds into understanding is productive.

But the key part, it seems to me, is finding a way to get through to a class about how to use a blog. I’ve been thinking about this. I’m getting better at giving motivational speeches, and this one would be a challenge. I think you have to drop the formality, and encourage honesty. Perhaps a discussion about the wonders of productive failure is important. Or even to explain that formal writing isn’t objective, it’s just a tool for people to channel their confusion and passion in a culturally acceptable way. So let’s screw with what’s culturally expectable. Tell us what you really think. Have you ever heard of these ideas or concepts before? If so, where? Do you think it’s relevant? Why do you think you’re learning this? Do you understand the article? Was it too difficult to understand, the sentences too long and filled with jargon? Say so. Do you find this subject boring? Why? (Do you think political history is boring? Why? Because it seems too distant and filled with names and numbers, and not enough about juicy things like the real details of people’s lives? Valid comment!)

Undergraduate students are doing two things at university (among others): 1) learning content, and 2) learning to speak to faculty in the “right” way through their work, ie, learning formal scholarly communication methods. The second one is the harder one. Students sort of put on a voice they think faculty want to hear (which is where that dreaded word “utilize” comes in; it makes the student sound more formal, more serious; hahaha no it doesn’t). Students are often avoiding the learning part by trying to put on a show with the formal structure and language. So for get it for a second, for the blog part; let them just be honest about what they think. They can shape that into formal communication later.

As I’ve been writing this, Jeremy sent me this article about how students expect a better grade because they “tried really hard”. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying: let productive failure be okay in your class. Trying really hard and getting nowhere doesn’t deserve a better grade. You need to succeed to get a good grade, definitely. You have to end up at point B from point A. But how you get there might be different. I’m just saying: let students have a shot at getting there in their own way.

Using blogging to track productive failure isn’t changing the whole structure, after all. It’s just giving students one assignment, just one, where being confused about the subject is okay. If they can build on their failures and come to understand, to turn it into a productive success, just for one assignment, isn’t that a valid part of a well-rounded education?

10 Questions Every Blogger Should Ask

10 Questions Every Blogger Should Ask

Ahhhh here we go again. Someone, this time someone named Damien Van Vroenhoven, has not only decided that he understands what a blog is across the board (a form is not a genre, as a general rule), but he knows what 10 questions any blogger should be asking his or herself before posting on the interblag. Though I’d say the first question any blogger should ask is whether he or she wants to take advice from an online marketing blog, but that’s not on the list of questions.

“If you want your ideas and opinions to spread across the Internet, you need to make sure that your readers can understand what you’re saying as quickly as possible,” writes Damien. “Make sure you have the right content, links, images or titles in place to communicate your blog post’s purpose as concisely as possible.” I never write concisely on my blog. My blog isn’t about being concise. And I’m not particularly interested in my ideas and opinions being spread across the internet, either. Sharing ideas and musings with a tiny handful of far-flung, like-minded souls is more satisfying than playing the internet attention game.

“Will it entice readers and bookmarkers?” If the only way you can be novel, unexpected, or thought-provoking is by reading the blogosphere and finding a combination of keywords that hasn’t been put together before (as suggested in the 10 Questions post), I’m afraid you’re sitting on a blog I wouldn’t be terribly interested in reading. I probably wouldn’t be to interested in inviting you over for dinner, either.

I find the “fill a need” bloggers an interesting, though not new, development. I understand the logic. If you’re filling a need, your traffic will go up; write to the audience and give them what they want and watch your popularity soar! I’ve seen this done hundreds of times, I’ve even gotten caught up in it myself to some degree in other contexts. It’s an easy trap to fall into; we seem wired to respond to positive attention. Because you can easily quantify the numbers of readers, it’s easy to feel that progress means making that number go up, even if you’re not in it for the money or the marketing. We tend to make an economy out of everything, even when it doesn’t really serve us that well. Is blogging about getting more positive attention, or is it about something else? I blog to connect with people, to mark my own thought process, and to push myself to articulate and build on ideas rather than just letting them fall by the wayside. My blog serves me far more than it serves anyone else. And that’s the way I like it.

For the kind of blogging I do, and the kind I like to read, I prefer to focus to be on the needs of the writer rather than mine as a reader. I know how to get information that’s well-cited and researched. When I’m reading blogs, I’m looking for a personal spin on a topic, a personal epiphany from which I can derive inspiration and motivation. I’d rather see someone work through a thorny issue hundreds of others have already sorted out in their own unique way, using their own unique experiences, than watch people constantly try to anticipate my needs in order to keep me interested in reading. I find that attitude distasteful, as it is both servile and self-serving at the same time, and inherently, in my opinion, dishonest. I like honesty in a blog, a sense of the genuine. That’s what a lot of online marketers have failed to understand in the past about online cultures; real people thinking out loud is more consistently sought-after in the long history of blogging than journalism and marketing has been. And as Aleks noted not too long ago, I’m not the only one who hates a fake.

“Conduct polls on your blog if you are uncertain about how to establish your personal blogging style. If you openly ask for user input, chances are good that you will receive it. Act on their responses openly and honestly.” I have actually seen personal bloggers do this, bloggers not working within the IT industry or representing a corporate face. Your personal blogging style should not be dictated by your audience anymore than your fashion sense should be dictated by your neighbours’ tastes. Real trail-blazing is never done by people trying to appease an audience; truly unique art and ideas are always shattering, painful, and shocking for human beings until the idea makes its way into our larger collective consciousness and we can make sense of it. Think of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which moved from a shattering experience that caused riots to making it into Disney’s Fantasia within a few decades. The novelty of his creation was so confusing to people that they hated it at first, and then came to love it. Now his music doesn’t seem so shocking anymore. We have a collective intelligence, and it cannibalizes the newest of the new in order to refine our sense of order. You can listen to this very thesis expounded by the bright folks at Radio Lab:

New things are hard for people to comprehend; exploring them in public might not make you popular. Popular ideas are rarely truly novel and unique (though they sometimes are!). If you keep a blog about brave new concepts in a world that doesn’t particularly enjoy new concepts, brave or otherwise, does that make you a bad blogger? Does unpopularity always indicate uninterestingness? Were Edward Said and Michel Foucault ever best-selling authors?

This advice isn’t for “every blogger”; this advice is for corporate, IT-based bloggers hoping to use blogging as a form of viral marketing. I think the questions every blogger should ask him or herself instead are these:

1. What role do I want my blog to play in my life? This question should be revisited on a regular basis.
2. What kinds of things do I want to blog about, and what kinds of things do I not want to blog about? Another question that should be revisited at regular intervals. Is it wise to blog about your husband’s annoying habits? Should you be going on at length about your son’s therapy? Are you going to hurt the ones you love with your random and permanent online etchings?
3. Am I okay with everyone I’ve ever known/met/loved/hated reading everything I write on this blog? Because it’s hanging out there in public (unless I make sure it’s not).
4. Do I need to blog under an assumed name? This is especially important for anyone under the age of 25. You never know when you’re going to change careers and have something you wrote online when you were 15 come back to haunt you. Unless you really trust that you know what you’re doing, the answer to this question is probably yes.
5. What kind of impact does blogging have on me? Do I like it? Some people find blogging boring and/or stressful, but do it because it appears to be the norm in the communities they move within. Some people blog for the sole purpose of collecting comments from readers, and are constantly disappointed when they don’t get what they feel they deserve. Personally, I think blogging is best when it pushes you to think more deeply, make more connections between ideas, and revisit issues more regularly than you would otherwise. If blogging isn’t enriching your life, why do it?

Edit: Since a couple of people have asked for clarification, I’ll repost a comment I left elsewhere regarding why many people should consider blogging under an assumed name:

That comment wasn’t really directed at the library world, where named blogging is more normal. I was thinking instead of folks like Bitch PhD, who use their blogs to talk about professional, political, and personal matters, and don’t feel that the blog would really enhance their professional profile.

It’s not really a matter of someone working out who you might be, though. If someone is a big fan of a pseudononymous blog, they can often work out at least roughly who and where the author is. It’s more about protecting your googleability, and controlling what your parents, friends, exes, and future (possible) employers find out about you (and when). The moment your real name is on a blog, it will come up (close to) first on Google when someone searches for your name. That’s got to be a very deliberate decision on your part.

There are some interests and hobbies you might not want your patrons and colleagues to know about, but you might want to put on the internet anyway. A dear friend of mine, a faculty member in Vancouver specializing in literature, also happens to write bawdy fanfiction about television show characters, and is extremely popular in that subculture. She does not attach her real name to that blog, and while those of us who know her well know about it and can see her real self through that persona’s blog, her students and parents and colleagues can’t google her and read about her television musings. She was profiled in a national newspaper a couple of years ago, a full page spread about her hobby and issues around copyright/intellectual property. But still, no real name. She thought about what it might mean, and hedged her bets. Lots of people have been fired for the contents of their blogs, rightly or wrongly.

But as noted by the age thing, I mostly recommend pseudonyms for teenagers and undergrads. I’m sure you’ve heard about the issues around facebook, where young folks think that no one will ever find their drunken party pictures or their jealous break-up musings. The librarian blogosphere doesn’t really contain these things, but the blogosphere in general is stuffed of those kinds of mostly-personal blogs. Stopping to think about these issues is pretty key to information literacy in 2008; not the literacy skills needed to necessary find information (though it surely relates to understanding how information is found), but the ones needed when creating information.

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.



I’m at a workshop today, and so far all my notes on the first presentation revolve around various concepts of ownership. This something I’ve been chewing over for some time, and trying to find ways to express. My experience thus far in educational technology (and education in general, honestly) is that when the learner is granted a measure of owernship over the site of their learning, they are dramatically more engaged in the material. Owernship seems to be one of the important elements that bridges the gap between working toward a grade and working toward a greater, more personal goal. (And, inevitably, the grades sky-rocket when student engagement is that much higher.)

This is the argument I’ve tried to use in describing the difference between a discussion board and a blog; you get a different kind of content on a blog, at least in part because a blog belongs to the student, while a discussion board belongs to the instructor. On a discussion board, a single person can dominate the dicussion, because while the space is not finite, there is a single, shared location for input; on a blog, you naturally dominate it, because it’s yours. And everyone has their own space to dominate. The sense of space is completely different.

I keep trying to make this argument, but I always feel on shaky ground. It’s just my gut talking. Ownership: why is that so significant? My experience is that it’s true, but I feel like I’m not expressing it well or describing it completely enough. I feel as though I don’t entirely understand it myself.

But other words are coming out of this presentation that address the same issue: the presenter (Clare Brett) talks about the importance of student agency, of student control. Is this all part and parcel of the same niggling thing I’ve been feeing?

I’m also pushed toward thinking about what agency and ownership means very personally, in my own work; since I know that applications can be (and should be!) routinely improved and expanded, I feel very empowered by the introduction of systems like Blackboard to our world. Sure, it has its problems, but we can edit this thing, we can add to it, we can make it what we need. I feel my own agency in relation to it. So I can see what it means to feel your own agency, primarily because when I look around me I see a lot of people feeling oppressed by it, feeling boxed in, constrained by a piece of technology.

Deep Learning

Deep Learning


I’m gratified to see an emphasis on “deep learning” or reflective learning from faculty members; mostly because I have a tendency to work from my gut rather than theory (I’m working on that), and my gut reacts well to the idea that students need to reflect on what they’re learning. It’s nice to see that other people, who work from something more citeable than their guts, are thinking along the same lines.

I’ve never been that jazzed about the idea of an “e-portfolio”, because it seems a little basic. But I’m getting the idea now; it’s not all that different from where we’re trying to go with institutional blogging. We want blogs that stick around throughout a student’s academic life; not something that’s tied to the course, but to the student. This way, a student can go back over their own process, and as you get farther along, you could conceivably reflect on your entire academic career, tracing the growth of an idea or a concept over multiple classes and multiple years. So I guess I need to stop thinking about e-portfolios as a set item or piece of technology and more as a concept. Obviously I’m already behind the concept.

From a personal perspective, I finally went through and revisited my own archives, and found a post I wrote in 2001 about blogging in higher ed. I read this segment of the post during the presentation yesterday, because I’m surprised that I still agree with my younger self so much:

I’m getting more and more firmly convinced that blogs are tantamount to essential in humanities classes. I believe this to be true because a) it allows students to speak in a ‘public’ forum about their readings and the lectures in a course, no matter what format the class takes, no matter how shy the student is, and no matter how many students are in the class, b) it allows the instructor/TA to read, respond to, and evaluate students critical thinking skills, understanding of the course material, and if they’re paying attention at all, c) it allows students to read and respond to each other’s opinions in a ‘democratic’ space, d) unlike reflection papers or other forms of journaling for class, the responses are not static documents that are handed from student to evaluator, but exist as individual archives of thoughts and information that are permanently available to both the student and the teacher. Blogs as Educational Tools? April 5, 2001.

La plus ca change!

In the session I’m in right now, we’re talking about reflection in learning, and the conversation is really interesting. So much interest on the process! Someone just suggested that if you want to use reflection in class, don’t use the word “reflection”. The questions she suggested asking instead are What? So What? Now what? I like this; there’s a delgate here who’s an undergraduate student from Calgary who tells us that she’s been writing reflection papers for years and only just got it this last term. Students have an idea of what “reflection” means, and they can tell you that they’re doing it while not doing what we’re looking for. This reminds me of so many of the problems we hit in librarianship; the terms get in the way of getting the job done.

This conference is very good; of course, when most of the delegates are faculty, you end up with a roomful of very critical listeners who ask very pertinent and challenging questions.

Blogging: The Podcast

Blogging: The Podcast

A couple of weeks ago, my buddy Jason Nolan, Assistant Professor in Early Childhood Ed at Ryerson, came up to my place of work to do a talk with me about blogging.

There were a lot of ways we could go with this talk. Jason and I have been talking about blogging since 2000, so we have a lot of years of natter and thought to distill down into 50 minutes. We opted to go with the conceptual rather than the practical. This talk involved no powerpoint slides, no how-tos, no demos. We talked about why we thought blogging was good for higher education, but from the point of view of good pedogogical practice and the quality of the student experience. There were millions of things we wanted to spend more time talking about but couldn’t.

That talk has now been turned into a podcast by Jason; it’s a 44 meg file, however. But if you’re interested in hearing us blather on and hopefully make a point here and there, you can download the podcast here: Blogging: It’s good for you.

If you do, please let us know what you think! It’s the beginning of a lot more talking we want to do on this subject, so stay tuned!

Historicity, E-Persistence, and Blogs as E-Portfolios

Historicity, E-Persistence, and Blogs as E-Portfolios

From Ida takes Tea: why not to use blogs as e-portfolios:

The persistence of blogs (via permalinks, trackbacks etc, to say nothing of the recently-sued Wayback Machine) is at odds with the desire to create a personal repository that can be selectively shared and edited, over time.

Catherine has more to say that this snippet, but this snippet sums up an important piece of her issueswith the idea of blogs as portfolios. Put it out there and it’s out there for good. All data is ahistorical, existing right now even though it may have been created 6 years before. Students are not ahistorical; we need a system that respects the chronological growth of the student’s learning.

I actually found this argument really hard to wrap my brain around. I don’t know why the internet would seem more ahistorical than any other document. Manuscripts from the 14th century still exist, and I’ve even seen and held a few of them. The fact that they exist in the now, that I can pull them out and flip through them, does not convince me that they are of the now. Serial literature is the same way; sure, it might have just come into my hands, but I still look at the date on it. It makes a difference to me if the paper is today’s or one from last week. I see absolutely no difference between that and online publication.

This critcism feels as if it comes from a place without any online information literacy. The internet is full of documents, some of them old and some of the new. There are ways to date an online document, from clues as hazy as the design and layout of the page to as concrete as how many dead links a page contains, or the copyright or ‘last edited’ date. The same skills we teach students about information literacy apply here; does the content tell us anything about the age of the document? Is it full of references to something terrible that happened to the World Trade Center yesterday? “Yesterday” is a subjective term, and in a world where every post is written in the now, maybe this is just something you get used to over time. Diaries tend not to be retrospective of themselves; they are forever reflecting on now as if, well, it’s going on right now.

And actually, the fact that this criticism is being leveled at blogs in particular strikes me as odd. If anything goes out of its way to historicize web documents, blogs do. They are archived by day month and year, they are signed and timestamped. Most blogging software allows for some context for blogs, showing you a calendar and links to the post that came before and after the post you’re reading. Additionally, posts on blogs that are a part of a larger community also come with comments affixed, also time- and date-stamped. So, were I to pull up some posts from 1999, I would see, constantly, that it’s 1999. The comments may give me a sense even of how long that particular conversation went on. The post may be written with a sense of immediacy, but I have every chance to witness its context, its datedness. No document exists in a vacuum, and that’s just as true of online documents as of any other.

To turn this debate around a bit: were it possible for students to submit work to a journal and have it published, should we discourage that as well? After all:

persistence creates the illusion of fixed identity, whereas higher education explicitly conceptualises its mission as formative and processual: we believe that students are shaped, and we want them to be so shaped, by their experience of participating in a learning community.

If persistence disrupts that important process, should we disallow publication altogether? Does the requirement of faculty to publish diminish their ability to be formed by their work, to engage in a process of learning? Does hard paper publication prevent us from being shaped by the experience of participating in any learning community?

Or does publication (in any context) allow students the opportunity to engage in participatory learning? Doesn’t putting something out there allow us to grow while at the same time reflecting the benchmarks of our learning process? Why would a persistent record of that process necessarily be bad? To drag this out to an illogical conclusion, should we suggest that students not speak in class, for fear that they would express an idea that, in a few weeks time, they might think better of? Does student participation in any context limit who a student is by putting unformed pieces of them before the eyes of others?

The key to all of this is context. Something a bit newer in the blog world is the possibility of tagging and categories, and I think that this simple classification method bears mentioning in this debate. While Catherine sees no value in the persistence of blogs to education, doesn’t one old blogged idea now sit within a category of similar ideas, organized chronologically, so that the history of that idea can now be easily traced, with the emphasis placed on the most recent addition? Isn’t that even a better and easier historicity than, say, a paper publication? Or a conference contibution?

All that aside, I get the general argument. At its heart it’s an ethical question: should we be asking students to create a web presence that will be with them for life? This may not be their finest hour. Perhaps at some point later on in life they will want to create a new web presence, and they will have to be dodging the one we forced them to create.

Of course, this is a purely intellectual debate, based entirely on one assumption: blogs must be public. Blogs must be googled, tracebacked, ranked on Technorati, traded on blogshares, and tracked on the way back machine.

There is nothing about the structure or features of blogs that require them to be public. In fact, many of livejournal‘s 8 million blogs are entirely locked to the public. The posts are never found on the wayback machine, Google never peeks in; the posts exist only to the people allowed to see it.

As far as I’m concerned, educational blogs should follow Livejournal’s lead. I know there are educational blogging projects in the UK following that precise route. For an educational blog mandated by schoolwork, there should be multiple options: visible only to you; visible only to your instructor/TAs; visible only to your instructor, guest lecturers, librarians, and your classmates; visible to your friends at the school as you choose them, but to no one else; visible to anyone at the school; and visible to the whole world.

There is absolutely no technical reason why a student shouldn’t have complete control over how their e-presence is created. None of this precludes the use of blogs as educational tools or as e-portfolios. Google and the way back machine should not be figuring into the use of blogs in the classroom anymore than Old Navy and the Gap should. They exist, they’re out there, they’re ubiquitous; but we don’t need to invite them in.

The argument is often made that the public nature of blogs is an educational bonus. Putting your ideas out there for the wild internet to see means you may attract the interest of just about anyone, and you may benefit from their comments and questions. I know lots of people who will make the argument that class work should be available to all and sundry for pedagogical reasons. Since students own the copyright to their own work (including everything they create at the request of the professor and hand in), I think they shouldn’t be asked to put that work in the public eye, but that’s a conversation to have in class #1. There’s no reason why we can’t moderate the degree of “public” that students have to deal with, let them decide what they want to add to the public record and what they want to keep ephemeral.

I get frustrated by criticisms that are hinged on the limitations of one particular version of a technology. One of the best things that can happen to anyone is to learn enough about technology to realize that no interface is unchangeable. Everything can be changed, fixed, transmuted. If something is getting in your way, well just change it.

That’s what I love about the internet. Infinite possibility.