Good for Them, Good for Us: Blogs for Outreach in Visual Resources


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Elaine Paul, University of Colorado at Boulder. Presentation for VRA 28 Atlanta.

Presented as part of the "Utilizing Blogs to Improve and Market Resources" session.

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  • Re slide 6: For an earlier (and more complete, and completely on-point) description of ’twopointopians’, see the Annoyed Librarian’s posts on the topic. Start here:
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  • Blogs have been around in various forms for over fifteen years, but their widespread popularity really began to grow in 1999 with the arrival of hosted blog tools such as LiveJournal and While there are a number of visual resources blogs, there is comparatively little published documentation on their history and practice.
  • Because librarians and libraries were early adopters of blogs, we can look to the library literature and blogosphere for helpful information on planning and maintaining blogs, some cautionary notes to consider, and the benefits of blogs to both creators and readers.
  • Today I’ll relate these areas to my own experiences with my blog for the Visual Resources Center in the Department of Art and Art History at CU-Boulder, which I created in March of 2008.
  • But first, a little background on the discourse around blogging and Web 2.0 in libraries. As one of many social, interactive, user-centered, and collaborative tools and practices encompassing the Web 2.0 phenomenon, many librarians and libraries began to create blogs in the past decade as part of their efforts to embrace what is often called “Library 2.0.”As the considerable buzz around Library 2.0 grew, so did the backlash. Criticism was raised over the trendy adoption of blogs, wikis, Facebook pages, chat reference, and other tools, where “technolust” for the tools often seemed to supersede content creation and follow-through.
  • Isaac Gilman describes this as “‘twopointopia,”“a condition which compels otherwise rational people to implement Web 2.0 applications just because they’re new and different.”1 As debates about the nature and usefulness of Library 2.0 intensified, the phrase “Library 2.0” began to carry negative connotations in some circles.But recently, some observers have noted that Library 2.0 has moved beyond what Crawford calls the “shiny new toy phase” to one in which these tools are recognized simply as useful tools.2 While not the ends, they are a means to help facilitate the online communications and identity that we must develop as fewer of our patrons set foot in our facilities. Andrew Burkhardt has stated, “The time has come for libraries to be social on the web. Social is the new normal. It has become mainstream and people expect it. Library 2.0 is not dead, it has just become boring and commonplace.”3 Burkhardt then quotes Clay Shirkey: “Tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” Basically, this means that once we take social media for granted, we can really focus on their potential. Crawford’s research suggests that we’re now seeing fewer new library blogs and a fair number of disappearing ones. He sees this as a healthy development – fewer librarians are starting blogs simply because they feel they should, while newer social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook have provided more suitable forums for some types of communications. Crawford believes that these factors have bolstered the overall quality of library blogging.1. Gilman, I. “We're Content Creators, Too: Libraries and Blogging.” OLA Quarterly v.14 no. 1 (Spring 2008) p. 27.2. Crawford, Walt. “Shiny Toys or Useful Tools?” Cites & Insights 9:3, February, 2009. (PDF).3. Burkhardt, Andrew. “Socially Extend Your Website with Facebook.” Information Tyrannosaur. 23 Feb. 2010. ( 26 Feb. 2010. 
  • In some ways my own experience with blogging has mirrored the path from “shiny new toy” to “useful tool.” While early on I recognized the potential of a blog for outreach, my initial efforts were admittedly an experiment to explore the features and potential of a new medium. However, in the last two years my blog has evolved into a practice that not only allows me to communicate news, information, and an online identity that reflects the changing role of my facility in our department, it also helps me stay professionally focused and up to date. Those considering a visual resources blog should think first about what they want it to accomplish and whether a blog is the most appropriate medium for the job.
  • Then they should develop a plan for platform, scope, content, promotion, and evaluation. In their book on library blogging, Karen Coombs and Jason Griffey suggest that one should first identify the type of information needs a blog might address. They note that blogs are not usually the best format for static or highly structured content, but rather are most suitable for sharing information in short, news-like posts.4 Gilman illustrates that we can very generally divide library and librarian blogs into two main types:4.Coombs, Karen A. and Jason Griffey. Library Blogging. Columbus: Linworth Publish, 2008. pp. 7-8.
  • professional blogs that intend to keep other information professionals informed, and
  • outreach blogs that exist to share information with patrons. Outreach blogs,
  • which we’re discussing today, might focus on a particular subject, the dissemination of news, a particular audience, or, as mine does, a combination of the above.55. Gilman, I. “We're Content Creators, Too: Libraries and Blogging.” OLA Quarterly v. 14 no. 1 (Spring 2008) p. 14-16, 27.
  • In a 2008 article on planning, implementing, and assessing a subject blog at the Colorado State University Libraries,Joanna Blair and Allison Level provide a very useful outline of the items they considered in their planning process.6 While I didn’t consult this list in planning my own blog, I did consider many of the elements that appear here, and I think it’s an excellent framework in which to consider proceeding. I’ll address each planning item here as it relates to my own experience. 6. Blair, J., et. al., Creating and evaluating a subject-based blog: planning, implementation, and assessment. Reference Services Review v. 36 no. 2 (2008) p. 156-66 
  • In terms of scope, vision, and audience, I knew that my overarching goal was outreach. It was clear that a blog would be the most appropriate way to create a dynamic forum for sharing information and news with the primary audience for whom I would write -- the faculty and students we serve in our department. I felt that it was important to communicate the scope and intended audience on the sidebar of the blog itself. 
  • Once I’d decided that a blog was appropriate for my goals, it was time to select a software platform. Because I lacked abundant free time, expertise, and technical support for this initiative, I decided to try the hosted platform at This offered me a free, easy, and step-by-step process that would get me up and running quickly, with enough flexibility to explore customization options over time. Another popular and relatively simple solution is WordPress, which is available in a free, hosted version or one that you may download and install onto your own Web site. Regardless of the platform you choose, Walt Crawford warns against adopting what he calls an “eccentric template,” such as colorful backgrounds, which may look nice but can be hard to read and therefore drive people away. He suggests that black text on a white background is ultimately the safest choice.7 Regardless of the platform you choose, it’s important to enable RSS feeds for your content. People are increasingly accessing blogs and other news sources exclusively through RSS readers such as Google Reader and Bloglines, so you’ll want to make sure that your content is available there. This also gives you the option to syndicate your content to other places, such as Facebook and Twitter.7. Crawford, Walt. “Shiny Toys or Useful Tools?” Cites & Insights 9:3, February, 2009. (PDF). p. 3. Crawford, Walt. “Shiny Toys or Useful Tools?” Cites & Insights 9:3, February, 2009. (PDF).
  • I wanted a name for the blog that reflects the image that we try to cultivate in my facility. We want to convey a serious approach to our work and at the same time create a lighthearted and accommodating atmosphere. I chose the name Derivative Image because it reflects our work with images, while offering some other, playful possibilities for interpretation.
  • Blair and Level suggest identifying the highest priorities for topics of interest to the intended audience, which also helps to clarify and maintain the blog’s focus. Conversely, identifying the issues that the blog will not cover is also a useful exercise. I decided that, based on our VRC’s mission, the focus of the blog would be images, imaging, and related information resources. This includes entries about our digital collection; other digital image collections accessible to our patrons; our imaging and equipment training, services, and facilities; and information about related topics such as copyright, software, and tutorials. Occasionally I’ll include an entry just for fun, but I make sure that it is related in some way to our mission. While we work with images of art, architecture, and related visual culture, I’ve chosen not to include news about these broad topics unless it relates in some way to images or imaging specifically. I feel that it would be challenging for me to consistently and evenly cover topics such as artists or art exhibitions, and anyone wishing to access this kind of information can find it easily elsewhere.
  • From my perspective, one of the biggest personal advantages of blogging is how it helps keep me informed. Using an account with Google Reader, I subscribe to a wide variety of sources in areas such as image management, library science, technology, education, and the arts. I set aside around twenty minutes each day to visit my Reader page and scan the items that appear there.
  • Anyone wising to start a blog will want to look at some models for inspiration and ideas. These are just a few examples of currently active blogs in the field of visual resources, not all of which were in existence when I began my blog.
  • I’ve chosen to include links on the blog to our Web page, our Delicious account, our Facebook page, some affiliated and related resources on our campus, as well as the VRA and ARLIS. I’ve also included some links that I feel add a human dimension to our site, and while they are not strictly necessary I think they help portray who we really are. Many of our former student employees are artists (and one is now a librarian), so I’ve included a section with links to their Web sites. I’ve also created a section of links called “Frivolinks,” which I selected purely for fun. 
  • Other elements or widgets I have incorporated are a tag cloud, a random sampling of images from our VRC Flickrphotostream, a streaming rotation of thumbnails representing new images in our digital collection, and most recently, a Meebo instant messenger window inviting users to contact the VRC with questions.
  • Most people begin a blog with a soft launch in order to spend some time experimenting with the format and adjusting their practices before formally launching the site and inviting others to visit. My very first post, which is a little embarrassing in retrospect, was a “this page is under construction” entry. As I became more comfortable with the medium and began to find my voice, I was also building content. By the time I began to publicize it among our faculty and students I had enough entries to illustrate the range of topics they could expect to find there. I introduced the blog at faculty meetings and student orientations, sent out e-mails, and added links to the blog on my e-mail signature and our VRC’s Web site.
  • Blair and Level note that it can be challenging to quantify the effectiveness of a blog. I use Google Analytics to periodically view the traffic to our site, but there are people who use RSS feed readers to read blog entries without ever actually visiting the contributing sites. There are also feed tracking services such as Feedburner, which allow you to view the number of subscribers to your site. Better evaluation methods are something I hope to pursue in the future, and believe that we’ll hear a bit more about this topic later in today’s session. 
  • Blair and Level describe the publication and editorial guidelines that were established at the Colorado State Libraries. The two authors agreed to alternate responsibility for posting each week, agreeing that each would post at least once weekly. They decided to adopt a brief, “headline-style” of blog entries; if lengthier entries were needed they would cache the remainder of the post behind a “read on” link. They also created a short list of style standards, and decided to follow the publication guidelines of a familiar journal. In the case of my own blog, I’m the primary contributor, with my colleague LiaPileggi occasionally writing entries. Overall, I have the latitude to decide independently when, what, and how to post. My goal is to average one entry per week. Sometimes I manage more, and other times I struggle to meet this objective. I try to keep the entries concise, yet informative, with practical, “how-to” information wherever I think it will be helpful.
  • Observers mention again and again that once a blog has been created, it is critical to keep it lively and fresh with regularly updated content. As Walt Crawford states, a library blog with no activity for a long period of time “makes the library look sloppy at best, moribund at worst.”8 How frequently the content is updated is a matter of choice, but it’s best to be somewhat consistent. I’ll admit that there have been stretches of inactivity on my blog when major projects or events have occurred at my place of work. One strategy I’ve adopted lately is to have a collection of drafts for entries that I can quickly polish and publish if I am short on materials and time. My future plans are to make use of guest bloggers when I can, which may include graduate students, faculty, or colleagues across campus. Publicity is also an ongoing maintenance activity, and it’s important to find a way to promote your blog without being tiresome. As I mentioned earlier, providing a link to the blog on my e-mail signature, our Web site, and other VRC materials keeps it visible without overtly promoting it. Sometimes a faculty member or student e-mails me with a question about an issue I have blogged about. This is an opportunity for me to respond with a link to the blog entry. I’m always sure to let them know that they can follow up with further questions. They are usually happy with the information I have provided in the blog, and often comment about the other useful information located on the site. Finally, it’s easy to forget, but important to periodically check the links on your blog to make sure that they are still active.8. Crawford, Walt. “Shiny Toys or Useful Tools?” Cites & Insights 9:3, February, 2009. (PDF). p. 2.
  • Aside from a commitment to regular posts, there are other issues to consider before starting a blog. First, it’s wise to check on whether your institution has a social media policy. And if you have multiple contributors to your blog, you may want to establish some best practices. EllyssaKroski has provides some important points to consider9: using a disclaimer about your opinions being yours alone and not your employer’s is a good idea. Be careful not to disclose information about sensitive internal matters, and be sure to respect the privacy of your colleagues. Understand and respect copyright and fair use, always citing sources with links. Walt Crawford provides us with some more practical caveats. Don’t assume that people will visit your site, as many use feeds to access blog content. In that spirit, he advises against forcing users to a site with partial feeds, in which the feed is set to provide only the title or the first 50 words of your post. Many readers find this annoying and will simply ignore your blog. Crawford also recommends against getting too hung up on whether or not you get comments, arguing that comments are not necessarily a reflection of quality, interestingness, or traffic. Finally, he warns us to be prepared for spam in the comments sections. Be aware that some may wonder if your time is best spent on blogging. I consider this a personal and professional development activity that is worthy of my free time, which is when I write most of my posts. When I announced to our art historians that I was authoring a blog, the very first question one of them asked was how much time I was spending on it. The subtext from her tone was very clear – she wanted to be sure that I was not forsaking my other duties in favor of the blog. While a little disappointing, it was not surprising, and I was able to assure her that I was still focused on supporting the image needs of our faculty and students. Fortunately, I’ve since gotten a lot of complimentary feedback from many faculty members, but this is still a labor of love. If you plan to pursue a blog on company time, clear it with your supervisor first. As Jenny Levine, author of The Shifted Librarian notes, “Library 2.0 doesn’t really replace anything. Like so many library services, the opportunities these new tools afford us are in addition to everything we’re already doing, which causes problems, because we don’t get additional resources to implement them.”109. Kroski, Ellyssa. “Should Your Library Have a SOCIAL MEDIA POLICY?” School Library Journal, Oct2009, Vol. 55 Issue 10, p44-46.10. Levine, Jenny. “Library 2.0: Not Just for Users.” The Shifted Librarian. 24 Feb. 2010. ( 26 Feb. 2010.
  • Regardless of how much professional support each of us currently gets for new modes of outreach, our users now inhabit the digital world and we need to find ways to serve them there. Blogs are just one tool among many to create a digital presence. Our blog allows me to share more relevant information without forcing it on people. It also helps my facility convey our new digital identity. Our physical space doesn’t fully reflect the range of activities we’re now engaged in, so our blog is one way to express to our patrons who we are and the services we provide. This benefits both our users and us. They get better information, we have a practical tool to provide it to them, and that’s a win-win proposition.
  • Good for Them, Good for Us: Blogs for Outreach in Visual Resources

    1. 1. good for them, good for us<br />blogs for outreach in visual resources<br />Elaine Paul<br />University of Colorado at Boulder<br />Utilizing Blogs to Improve and Market Resources<br />28th Annual Conference of the Visual Resources Association<br />Atlanta, Georgia<br />March 17, 2010<br />
    2. 2. simple definition of a blog<br />“a web-based set of individual posts<br /> initially presented to readers in <br />reverse chronological order – <br />that is, newest first”<br />Walt Crawford<br />
    3. 3. <ul><li> planning
    4. 4. maintenance
    5. 5. cautionary notes
    6. 6. benefits to reader and writer</li></li></ul><li>
    7. 7. library 2.0<br />Wordle image from, using text from the Wikipedia entry for Library 2.0 <br />
    8. 8. twopointopia<br />“a condition which compels otherwise rational people to implement Web 2.0 applications just because they’re new and different” <br />
    9. 9.
    10. 10. planning<br />
    11. 11.
    12. 12.
    13. 13. outreach blogs may be:<br /><ul><li> subject focused
    14. 14. news focused
    15. 15. written for a particular audience
    16. 16. or a combination of the above</li></li></ul><li>planning checklist<br /><ul><li> other blog examples
    17. 17. ideas for permanent links
    18. 18. the launch
    19. 19. evaluation criteria
    20. 20. publication guidelines
    21. 21. editorial guidelines
    22. 22. scope/vision
    23. 23. primary audience
    24. 24. software/tools
    25. 25. name
    26. 26. highest priorities
    27. 27. “this blog will NOT”
    28. 28. sites that should be monitored </li></li></ul><li>planning checklist<br /><ul><li>scope/vision
    29. 29. primary audience</li></li></ul><li>planning checklist<br /><ul><li>software/tools</li></li></ul><li>planning checklist<br /><ul><li>name</li></ul>the name should reflect the scope and tone of the blog<br />
    30. 30. planning checklist<br /><ul><li>highest priorities
    31. 31. “this blog will NOT”</li></li></ul><li>planning checklist<br /><ul><li>sites that should be monitored</li></li></ul><li>planning checklist<br /><ul><li>blog examples</li></ul>see<br />
    32. 32. planning checklist<br /><ul><li>ideas for permanent links</li></li></ul><li>
    33. 33. planning checklist<br /><ul><li>the launch</li></li></ul><li>planning checklist<br /><ul><li>evaluation criteria</li></li></ul><li>planning checklist<br /><ul><li>publication guidelines
    34. 34. editorial guidelines</li></li></ul><li>maintenance<br />
    35. 35. cautionary notes<br />
    36. 36. benefits<br />
    37. 37. thank you<br /><br /><br />