The Challenges and Benefits of Using Blogs as Departmental Websites

John M. Murphy, Cory L. Nimer, and J. Gordon Daines III
June 23, 2011


The L. Tom Perry Special Collections (LTPSC) is a mid-size manuscripts repository and special collections library, located in the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University. Its holdings include nearly three hundred thousand volumes, eight thousand manuscript collections, and half a million photographs.1 These materials document the history of the intermountain West, as well as providing primary sources for literature, folklore, and other academic studies.

Context of Case Study

In 2008, largely due to the increasing burden of Web design and maintenance, the Harold B. Lee Library Information Technology (LIT) Division announced that they were adopting WordPress as the organization’s new Web content management system. By doing so they hoped to push content development to the internal content developers within the library, while allowing their staff to focus on design. For the staff of Special Collections, the change represented a fundamental shift in their relationship with LIT. Although Special Collections had been among the first groups within the library to create an independent Web presence in 2002, the static HTML pages had become a burden for both the divisions.

With the implementation of WordPress came the opportunity for Special Collections to develop a more dynamic site, which we hoped would better address the needs of our diverse users. As a unit, Special Collections currently staffs eight full-time curators collecting a broad range of material from Utah history, to Mormonism, to motion pictures. As we began looking at how WordPress might be used, we were excited about the possibilities for allowing curators to control their own content and to reach out to their own communities, as well as the opportunities for the community to contribute back to the conversation.

Brief Description of Blogs

While weblogs, or blogs, were originally developed as static Web pages that were updated by online diarists, by the late 1990s blogging platforms had been developed to simplify the creation of entries.2 These entries, or posts, were then presented to readers in reverse chronological order, with the most current entries at the top of the page. These platforms continued to evolve, so that today blogs are basically simple content management and publishing platforms. In addition to posts, blogs also allow their users to create static pages, which may be used to augment the post content or act as resource pages, allowing individuals and institutions to build a complete Web presence. As well as simplifying weblog publication, blogging platforms also provide bloggers the opportunity to interact with their readers through comments. By engaging with their communities, blogs may be seen “not only as communication technologies but connective artefacts.”3

Although librarians quickly began promoting the use of blogs to advance institutional missions, only in the past few years have archivists begun discussing their use. Kate Theimer’s Web 2.0 Tools and Strategies for Archives and Local History Collections, notes that archives have used blogs in four ways: institutional blogs, processing blogs, archival content blogs, and blogs supporting traditional archival systems.4 Institutional blogs are used as a means of outreach, allowing a repository to post information about its policies, procedures, and collections. Processing blogs are also used primarily as outreach tools, but they give patrons an inside view of long-term processing projects as well as glimpses into some of the collection content. Archival content blogs are used to post date-based archival records, such as letters or diary entries.5 The final category of blogs, those that support traditional archival systems, vary greatly based on function, and include both blogs that publish responses to reference requests to “catablogs,” blogs that create catalog record-like posts for individual collections.

Many institutions now use blogs to connect with their patrons and to reach out to new user groups.6 Still, there are many repositories that have not yet integrated interactive tools like blogs into the institutional Web presence. Elizabeth Yakel has suggested that one reason for rejecting interactivity may be the perception that inviting the community into discussion will inevitably force archivists to “cede some control” over their materials to their readers.7 The amount of planning and work required to successfully maintain a blog may deter others. However, as users come to expect interactivity, blogs and other Web 2.0 tools are becoming more commonplace at archival repositories, and now the Archivist of the United States maintains his own blog.8


The software used in developing the site is WordPress, a blog publishing platform developed as an open source project in 2003.9 Although it was originally designed to support only one site at a time, in 2005 the developers of WordPress created a multiuser version to offer commercial blog-hosting services. This enterprise version of the software was made available publicly as WordPress MU in 2008, and is now included as part of a standard WordPress installation.10 Using the multiple user features of the software, the library can easily support a number of different blog sites with minimal overhead, allowing the development of different blogs for different departments.

WordPress includes a broad range of features for users to develop and manage their Web content. The software includes a simple Web-based interface for writing posts and administering the site, the ability to create separate pages for static content, and an extensible framework allowing developers to extend the basic functionality of the system.11

The Harold B. Lee Library also uses the Omniture Web analytics suite in conjunction with WordPress. Omniture provides reports about traffic to the various blog instances, though the information provided has varied over time. When the system was first installed, we received data about the number of visitors, pages visited, traffic sources, and use patterns. Due to a systems “upgrade” we now only receive information about the total number of page views.12


Our first planning meetings regarding the creation of a Special Collections blog were held in January 2008. At that time, our initial goal was to create a series of individual blogs that would primarily highlight new acquisitions and newly processed collections. During those early planning meetings we also discussed the possibility of creating blog entries that would also highlight or feature ongoing activities in Special Collections, including new exhibits, lectures, and the Special Collections film series.

Our first blog posts appeared in the summer of 2008, and since that time individual curators have used their blogs to not only discuss new acquisitions, but to promote exhibits, announce film screenings, advertise public lectures and presentations, and highlight “hidden” or otherwise unknown collection materials.

When the 2008 project team developed the new Special Collections website, their primary goal was to involve each departmental curator and librarian in the ongoing development of the site. It was felt that if every professional staff member was fully invested in the project, site content would finally be able to escape the static page content characteristic of so many pre Web 2.0 websites. To facilitate staff involvement and to embrace the full potential of Web 2.0 technology, the project team created seven interlocking blog instances: the institutional, Special Collections site, and six subject-based sites that mirror both the organizational structure of Special Collections and reflect our primary curatorial/collection areas.

The institutional Special Collections blog site, which is now maintained and developed by a Special Collections Web team composed of six Special Collections representatives, has three major content areas: 1) Finding Materials, 2) Policies and Services, and 3) About Us. The primary function of the institutional site is to facilitate access to our institutional holdings and collections. Users can search the Harold B. Lee Library’s online catalog for Special Collections, they can search our online finding aids, and they can search our digital collections. Users also have the option to search across the seven blog instances. Online registration forms were available through the Policies and Procedures page as are guidelines for the use of Special Collections materials. The About Us section provides contact information for Special Collections staff, gives a brief history of the department, provides information on opening and closing times, and highlights Special Collections events.

Six subject-based sites constitute the heart of the Special Collections website. They are: 1) Mormonism, Utah and the West, 2) Literature, 3) World History & Culture, 4) Photographs, 5) Arts and Communications, and 6) BYU History.13 They differ from the main Special Collections site in one fundamental manner: unlike traditional library websites where the site is designed around an online catalog, these six blog sites were designed to promote Special Collections, our exhibits, our activities, and our new acquisitions. The Special Collections institutional site privileges static pages whereas the subject-based sites privileges more dynamic content like blog postings.

The decision to have the main institutional site function in one way and the subject-based blog sites function in another meant that the project team needed to create guidelines for the type of content to go on the subject-based blogs to create consistency across the entire site. These guidelines help curators determine what content should be placed in blog posts and what on static pages. The guidelines indicate that blog posts relate directly to the collecting areas on the subject-based site. The posts may be about anything that the curator wants to blog about as long as it relates directly to the collection s/he manages; for example, information about a particular collection, events related to collections, related holdings at other institutions, and digital resources. Curators are also strongly encouraged to use images when appropriate and to include links to additional information if appropriate. All posts are also supposed to be categorized into one of the following categories: Collecting Area, New Acquisitions, New Resources, Collection Highlights, or FAQ.

The guidelines also indicate the types of static pages that can be associated with each subject-based site and the type of content that belongs on those pages. The key concept is that content should always relate to one of our collecting areas. For example, a static page containing links to BYU history resources should be associated with the BYU history blog rather than one of the other subject-based sites. Multiple types of static pages can be created on each site. They include:

  1. Projects, which provide information about collection development, or other collection-related activities,
  2. Guides, aggregate descriptions of a collecting area’s holdings,
  3. Bibliographies focused on secondary sources related to a collecting area,
  4. Popular Research Topics focused on primary and secondary sources related to a specific topic within a collecting area,
  5. Forms specific to a collecting area,
  6. F.A.Q., generated automatically by the system when posts are categorized as FAQs, and
  7. Internet Resources page, which typically includes links to relevant databases, digital collections, and related sites).

It is important to note that not every site has every one of the static page types. Curators select static page type(s) most appropriate to their collecting area. They then create a page and manage the content on that page. The ability to manage this content empowers the curators in the Perry Special Collections and encourages them to think creatively about how to promote their collections online.

Although we no longer have access to user statistics, initial user survey information indicated that patrons enthusiastically embraced the new blog sites. Patrons discovered new collections they didn’t know we held and patron comments were both insightful and informative.14 They are also reusing the information from the subject-based sites in interesting, and unexpected, ways. It is instructive to take a closer look at two of our subject-based sites, Literature and BYU history, and how patrons interact with them.

Three curators manage the Literature site, which consists of a number of different collecting areas. The curators use the blog posts principally to introduce new acquisitions and to highlight important parts of our collections. Patron responses to the blog posts have been rather limited on this site but the few responses received show that patrons are interested in engaging with the content provided by our curators. For example, one patron left the following comment, “I can certainly recommend visiting the Special Collections and examining their Conan Doyle material…The staff were very helpful and I was able to see a lot of material. I often write about Conan Doyle manuscripts, and it was great to see ‘The Refugees.’ Doyle is better-known for his short stories and this was a rare opportunity to see a manuscript for a full-length novel.”15 On another post about the Victorian habit of giving books to children for Christmas another patron lamented “How many of those kids from the 1900′s probably dreamed of receiving a gift that many of today’s kids would not even bother to read.”16 Faculty members also point their students to this site to discover the types of materials available for research in Special Collections.17 The Literature blog provides an important entry point to many of the collections held in Special Collections for both traditional and non-traditional patrons.

One curator manages the BYU history site, which delivers information about the history of Brigham Young University. While patrons do not leave many comments on the blog postings on this site, the information in the postings has been used in many different creative ways, such as providing answers to questions on commercial and non-profit sites and serving as sources of information for knowledge projects. For example, information from the BYU history site has been used to answer questions on the website for ChaCha, which advertises itself as real people answering your questions.18 University Public Relations has also used material from the site to answer questions about historical traditions at Brigham Young University.19 Material from this blog has also been used to supply information for knowledge projects such as Wikipedia and Bukisa.20 These unexpected uses of information from the BYU history site demonstrate that while patrons may not leave comments on our blog postings, they engage with our content and find innovative ways to repurpose it.

Individual curators and special collections librarians have wide latitude and freedom in populating their individual blogs, thus the blogs cover a wide range of topics and subjects. Many in Special Collections have set individual goals to post new blog entries on a monthly and, in some cases, on a weekly basis. Over the course of the last year, some of our staff met this goal, others have not. Maintaining topical, current, up-to-date blog posts, however, remains one of our strategic goals. The project team continues to promote the value of the blog sites and recently a team member gave a presentation on how to engage with the blog sites at the department’s annual fall meeting. Department leadership recently decided to add creation of blog postings and static pages as goals to be addressed during the performance reviews held at the end of each year with curators. It is hoped that this emphasis on the importance of the blog sites to the department will motivate all of the curators in the Perry Special Collections to become more actively engaged with our website.


We had three major goals in revising our website:

  1. Driving more traffic to our website,
  2. Providing greater access to information about our collections, and
  3. Giving curators more control over information on the website about the collections that they curate.

A lack of planning for assessment at the beginning of our redesign project has made it difficult to accurately gauge how successful we have been in achieving these goals.

Increasing Traffic to the Site

The Harold B. Lee Library uses Omniture to gather Web statistics. These statistics have been provided to us from the launch of our redesigned site. Unfortunately, we don’t have comparison data from our previous website. The nature of the newly redesigned site also makes comparison difficult because content is decentralized and spread across seven blog instances while the old site was highly centralized. The following discussion pertains only to our new website and the data that has been captured about it. The data tells us the following:

  • That we have consistently hovered around 5,000 page views/month for the main blog site.

    LTPSC blog stats

    Fig. 1. LTPSC site statistics, 2008-2011

  • That the component sites with the most frequent blog postings (BYU History, World History & Culture, Mormonism, Utah & the West, and Literature) have the most consistent traffic (in the 1000-3000 page views/month range).
    • It is important to note that the activity on each of these component blogs is driven by the curators who have actively engaged with the site.
  • That the component sites with the least frequent blog postings (Arts and Communications, Photographs) have the least consistent traffic.
  • That traffic to our sites increases during Brigham Young University’s semesters and that it decreases between semesters.

The numbers of page views/month are significantly higher than we had anticipated. We believe that this is driven in large part by the fact that search engines have greater access to the content on our sites. We have also been pleasantly surprised by how consistent traffic has been to those blog instances that receive regular content from the curators.

Greater Access to Information About Our Collections

We feel that the redesign of the website has facilitated greater access to information about our collections. The bulk of the initial content on the website was transferred directly from the prior website. However, several collecting areas did not have adequate descriptive content on the older site and were updated during the migration to the new site. Blog postings (although not fully utilized by all of the curators) provide additional information about some of our collections. The other major improvement to accessing information about our collections is the fact that site content can now be discovered by Google and other search engines.

More Curatorial Control Over Website Content

The blog platform that we use provides the ability for curators to have direct access to information about the collections that they curate. However, curators have not engaged as completely with the blogs as we had hoped. About a third of the curators are very active in posting new content and updating the static pages that describe their collections, a third post and update occasionally, and a third don’t engage with the content at all. The curators that have engaged with content control have been very satisfied with the ability to manage their content. The other curators acknowledge that having control over the content describing their collections is desirable, yet they are unwilling to add the responsibility of actually managing that content to their already busy professional responsibilities.

Over all, we have been successful in meeting the goals that we established when we began our redesign process. We have made more content available to patrons, curators have the ability to become more involved in managing that content, and our website is getting more traffic. However, we have a lot of room for improvement particularly in the area of curatorial engagement with the website. We would like to see new content posted regularly to all of our blog instances and believe that this would drive up the traffic on the underperforming sites. Our experience has convinced us that utilizing interlocking blog instances as our departmental website has been a good thing and that traffic will only increase as we become more adept at using it and figure out ways to encourage curators to be more proactive in contributing to the blogs.

Lessons Learned

We have learned a number of valuable lessons as we have transitioned from a static website to a dynamic, blog-based website. These lessons include:

  • The importance of planning assessment before launching a project. One of our greatest frustrations has been our inability to adequately assess the impact that our transition from a static to a dynamic website has made in terms of use by our patrons. We have little data on how many people visited our static site and are unable to accurately demonstrate how successful our new website has been. We discovered the hard way that you need to know what data you will need to adequately assess the success of your project upfront and that you need to gather comparison data before a new project replaces the old one.
  • It is extremely important to have access to good statistical reports for all component parts of your website. This point is related to planning for assessment. The Harold B. Lee Library (of which we are a part) uses Omniture to capture Web statistics and generate reports about Web traffic. We discovered that it is critical to know what sorts of statistics that you will need and which component parts of your site you will need those statistics for in order to ensure that your data gathering tool will collect the information that you need.
  • User testing is a must to see what works and what doesn’t work…and that testing needs to be iterative. We originally just moved the content from our static site into the new dynamic site. We then decided to do a round of user testing and discovered that our users didn’t care about some of the information we had very carefully transitioned to the new site. We also learned that they wanted us to keep the entry to our site simple. They recommended focusing on one thing and doing it well. In our case we chose to focus on locating archival materials. Users also told us that they didn’t find our organization of the site particularly useful and that we needed to get rid of some of the clutter on the site. We reorganized the site based on their feedback and we are currently preparing for another round of user testing to learn how to simplify the site even further. Another thing that we learned from user testing was the importance of consistency across the interlinked blogs in order to improve the user experience by providing a consistent navigational experience.
  • If you are going to use a blog platform for your site and plan to have the blog be your primary access point, make sure that you have buy-in from all necessary parties. It is said that the key to a successful blog is the regularity with which posts appear. Our site has definitely proved this. Those blog instances with regular blog postings are the most visited portions of the site. There is a direct correlation between the frequency of blog postings and the commitment level of the curator responsible for a particular section of the website. Several of our curators are more committed to the blogs and this had led to unevenness in the number of blog postings on the different component sections of our site. We should have worked harder to ensure that each curator understood the purpose behind moving to a dynamic website and were willing to contribute to the site. This would have improved the quality of the site and would have reduced friction between the curators routinely contributing to the site and those not contributing.
  • Blogging should become an expected part of curatorial job assignments. We quickly discovered that curators are not willing to invest time and energy in something that they feel is not directly related to their job assignment. Curators would have blogged with more frequency if it was a job expectation. We have recently added blogging as one of the core components of our curatorial job expectations and will be discussing curatorial participation on the website as part of the annual evaluation process.
  • Expect your blogs to be used in unexpected ways. We have discovered that patrons take the content of our site and reuse it in creative and innovative ways. The BYU history blog is a good example of how content is being repurposed in ways unanticipated by our project team. Information from the blog postings has been used in a variety of ways such as providing answers to questions on commercial and non-profit sites and serving as sources of information for knowledge projects. For example, information from the BYU history site has been used to answer questions on the website for ChaCha, which advertises itself as real people answering your questions.21 The local 100 Hour Board has also used material from the site to answer questions about historical traditions at Brigham Young University.22 Material from this blog has also been used to supply information for knowledge projects such as Wikipedia and Bukisa.23
  • Publicize the blogs as much as possible. It is extremely important to let people know that your site is available and that it is dynamic. We have seen an interesting pattern emerge with our website in that most of our traffic occurs during the semester. This is partially due to the fact that our curators are publicizing the blog in lectures and interactions with faculty.

Future plans

What was new and exciting in 2008 now seems routine. As with the implementation of any relatively new technology or innovation, the difficulty now is to maintain a high level of interest in our blog postings. From an administrative perspective we face three fundamental challenges:

  • Challenge 1: Motivate curators to be more participatory in the blogging process.

As discussed earlier, some curators have enthusiastically embraced Web 2.0 technology and regularly create new content. Unfortunately, other curators have been less enthusiastic in embracing the possibilities of Web 2.0 technology.

To address the uneven nature of our blog posts, the Special Collections Department Chair has made the administrative decision to include blog posts as part of the annual review process.

  • Challenge 2: Further leverage Web 2.0 technology to better serve our users.

Although our blog postings are read by many, we recognize that if our blog postings are to continue to be interesting and relevant to our public we must continue to leverage Web 2.0 technologies.

To address this challenge, we are developing methods and techniques to create “content partnerships” with our fellow Harold B. Lee Librarians and subject specialists. In addition we are exploring techniques to develop and expand “link partnerships” with our users, researchers, and visitors.

  • Challenge 3: Continue to make our blog postings relevant and interesting to our uses.

By definition, Web 2.0 technology is interactive. When our IT administrators made it more difficult for users to “interact” with curators vis a vis blog postings they effectively eliminated one of the primary benefits of Web 2.0 technology.

To address this challenge, our primary goal now is to once again facilitate “commenting” from users. In addition we hope to include “link-backs” to history sites.

To make our blog postings more relevant and interesting we are also exploring the possibility of creating “archival correspondents” who would blog on activities of interest to our Special Collections patrons, including: library presentations, special collections seminars, and university lectures and forums.

To attract more diverse uses, we are also making plans to develop a “cultural tourism” blog to highlight important cultural sites in our community and region.


Brazell, Aaron. WordPress Bible. Indianapolis, IN : Wiley Pub., c2010.

Hussey, Tris. Using WordPress. Indianapolis, Ind. : Que, c2011.

Sabin-Wilson, Lisa. WordPress all-in-one for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2011.

Sennema, Greg. “Using WordPress for Our Library Blogs.” Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research 2, no. 1 (2007), (accessed April 14, 2009). “WordPress: Blog Tool and Publishing Platform.” (accessed June 23, 2011).


1. L. Tom Perry Special Collections, “About Us,” Harold B. Lee Library, (accessed Feb. 16, 2011).

2. Paul Bausch, Matthew Haughey, and Meg Hourihan, We Blog: Publishing Online with Weblogs (Indianapolis: Wiley, 2002): 10.

3. Adolfo Estalella, “Blogs: From Communicative to Connective Artefacts,” in BlogTalks Reloaded: Social Software — Research & Cases, Thomas N. Burg and Jan Schmidt, ed. ([Germany]: Herstellung, 2007): 52.

4. Kate Theimer, Web 2.0 Tools and Strategies for Archives and Local History Collections (New York: Neal-Schuman, 2010): 36-52.

5. An example of this is the California Digital Library’s John Muir virtual event, which posted quotations from Muir’s letters over seven days. See Sherri Berger, “Creating a Web 2.0 ‘Event’ for Online Outreach,” Presentation, Western Roundup, Seattle, Washington, April 28-May 1, 2010. (accessed Feb. 16, 2011).

6. A list of archival blogs is available in J. Gordon Daines III and Cory L. Nimer, The Interactive Archivist: Case Studies in Utilizing Web 2.0 to Improve the Archival Experience (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2009)

7. Elizabeth Yakel, “Inviting Users into the Virtual Archives,” OCLC Systems and Services 22, no. 3 (2007): 163.

8. The blog, AOTUS — National Archives, is available at (accessed July 29, 2010).

9., “WordPress: Blog Tool and Publishing Platform,”, (accessed July 29, 2010).

10. As of version 3.0 of WordPress, multiuser functionality has been reintegrated into the development trunk of the project (see, “WordPress 3.0 ‘Thelonious,’”, (accessed July 29, 2010).

11., “Features,”, (accessed Feb. 16, 2011).

12. Adobe, “Web Analytics|Online Business Optimization by Omniture,” Adobe, (accessed September 3, 2010).

13. The blog instances are available at: Main site (; Mormonism, Utah and the West (; Literature (; World History & Culture (; Photographs (; Arts and Communications (; and BYU history (

14. Commenting was disabled on the blog sites by the library in August 2010 due to increasing costs associated with spam filters. We are currently considering other approaches to enable patrons to interact with our content. This includes looking at ways to encourage patrons to use the e-mail links on the various sites that allow them to contact curators directly.

15. L. Tom Perry Special Collections, “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” L. Tom Perry Special Collections, (accessed June 8, 2010).

16. L. Tom Perry Special Collections, “Christmas Books for Victorian Children,” L. Tom Perry Special Collections, (accessed June 8, 2010).

17. Kristi Young, interview by author, Provo, Utah, August 19, 2010.

18. ChaCha, “How Many seats are in the Marriott Center on Brigham Young University campus in Provo Utah | ChaCha Answers,” ChaCha, (accessed June 8, 2010).

19. Brigham Young University, “100 Hour Board,” Brigham Young University, (accessed June 8, 2010).

20., “Y Mountain,” Wikipedia, (accessed June 8, 2010) and Bukisa, “Presidents of Brigham Young University,” Bukisa, (accessed June 8, 2010).

21. ChaCha.

22. Brigham Young University, “100 Hour Board.”

23.; Bukisa.

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