Spellbound Blog: Using Blogs as a Professional Development Opportunity

Jeanne Kramer-Smyth
June 22, 2009

Introduction

Context of Case Study

This case study discusses blogging as a tool for individuals in the archives community.

Brief Description of Blogs

The word “blog” evolved as a contraction of the phrase “Web log.” Blogs initially only referred to online journals, but they have evolved beyond this narrow definition. Blogs are a powerful tool for professional development. They support the exploration of new ideas, interaction with the archival community, and facilitation of discussion among archival professionals. Reading and writing blogs are excellent first steps toward becoming comfortable and familiar with Web 2.0 technology.

The linear nature of blog posts and the discussions posted beneath them in the form of comments combines the structure of a standard website and the interaction of an online forum. For many, this makes blogs an easier entry into the world of the interactive Internet than other Web 2.0 tools such as Facebook, Twitter or Flickr.

Web 2.0 tool used: Blog

“The majority of corporate and professional bloggers have seen a positive impact as a result of their blog. Half are better known in their industry, and one in four have used their blog as a resume´ enhancement. Fewer than one in ten have seen a negative impact from blogging and one in three have yet to see an impact.”1

A good way to get a sense of who is blogging and how incorporated it has become into mainstream media is to read through Technorati’s annual State of the Blogosphere.2

A great challenge to archives professionals and students alike is finding and connecting with those who share their interests. In the summer of 2006, I was a part-time graduate student at the University of Maryland, enrolled in Tom Connor’s “Visual and Sound Materials” course two nights a week. The coursework sparked both my curiosity and my imagination. My class notes extended beyond the presented materials to cover additional thoughts and questions. Often, these notes addressed the many ways in which my new archives coursework intersected with my prior interests and experience. I launched Spellbound Blog in July 2006 out of a need to explore ideas that were beyond the scope of my class work.

At the end of that summer, I attended the 2006 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Washington, D.C. I presented a poster and gave out the URL of my blog (first, on home-printed cards, and mostly scribbled on scraps of paper). I took extensive notes during the sessions and pulled them together into detailed session summaries that I posted on my blog.

The great surprise was my discovery of the burgeoning archives–bloggers community. There were people interested in my ideas. Over the course of the following year, I wrote approximately fifty more posts. I found library, archives, history and technology-related blogs—all with posts to which I found myself wanting to respond. Sometimes people posted comments, sometimes they sent me e-mail. Through my blog, I found people to join me on a panel titled “Preserving Context and Original Order in a Digital World” at the 2007 SAA annual meeting in Chicago. By the time I got to Chicago, I was excited to meet in person those with whom I had connected online.

As I continued through my master’s in library science program in the University of Maryland’s “Archives Track,” I continued to blog. It was an ideal way to connect to the broad community of people with interests similar to mine—people around the world interested in archives, digital humanities, technology, innovation and the Web. Since I was a part-time student with a full-time job outside my area of study, I found it hard to connect with other graduate students locally. I only met those in whatever class I took each semester. I rarely was able to attend gatherings on campus, but my blog connected me to those who shared my interests—be they at my local institution or on the other side of the world.

Implementation

One of the first choices to be made when launching a blog is the selection of a blogging tool. A blogging tool is either a hosted or stand-alone software installation. Hosted options (Blogger.com, WordPress.com and Typepad.com being the most popular) provide a fast, free and easy way to get started blogging without requiring any special technical expertise. Select a tool and a name for your blog, and you can be blogging in minutes.

A stand-alone installation requires a lot more choices and a lot more effort, but offers a greater level of control. I chose to build my blog on a stand-alone instance of the free, open-source blogging platform WordPress, which shares the same code base as WordPress.com but permits me the freedom of total customization.

I installed and configured my own copy of WordPress. Financially, I pay annually for a hosting service that provides the database and computer server required to support the installation. My investment of time and energy was dedicated to customizing the appearance and components of my blog. There are many hosting services that provide one-step installs of WordPress via SimpleScripts,3 but even without this option, the initial installation of these types of tools are easy and well documented.

An additional benefit of setting up your own installation of a blogging platform such as WordPress is the opportunity to become more comfortable with installing and experimenting with new technology. I am quite happy with my choice, but many successful blogs use free blogging websites including:

One of the major benefits of using WordPress is that individuals around the world create and share plug-ins and themes.

Plug-ins let you add features to your blog while requiring virtually no programming. Examples of features that can be added to a blog via a plug-in are

  • Automated listing of related posts
  • Generation of a printer-friendly format of blog posts
  • Database backup
  • Spam screening

Themes let you change the appearance of your blog without changes to the underlying posts. In my case, I found a theme that was close to what I wanted and customized the few things I didn’t like. I replaced the top image with a photo I took myself and changed some of the colors.

Once you have created your blog and customized it to your specifications, you get to the fun part—writing! One of the nice things about blogging is that it is so easy to get your ideas out there. Blog posts are not the same as peer-reviewed journal articles. You won’t hook every reader with every post. You will be surprised by the posts that garner comments versus those that do not. See the “Lessons Learned” section below for detailed tips on the writing side of blogging.

Assessment

There is a statistic that people like to quote, that most blogs only last about three months. Your first measure of success as a blogger could simply be to make it to the six-month mark!

Beyond the simple metric of how long you have been blogging, there are a number of free tools to help you track your success:

  • Feedburner to track your RSS subscribers: At the end of February 2007, when I first set up my blog to use Feedburner to track how many individuals subscribed to my blog via RSS, I had one hundred subscribers to my feed. As of early April 2009, I hit five hundred subscribers, eighteen of whom receive Spellbound updates via e-mail
  • Google Analytics logs who visits your blog, how they got there and how long they remain on your site. Here are some examples of statistics about Spellbound Blog from Google Analytics:
    • 33,045 visitors from 145 countries/territories have viewed pages on my blog between July 2006 and April 2009
    • 50 percent of those visitors found Spellbound Blog via a total of 10,400 different keywords
    • 20 percent of those visitors went directly to my site
    • The remaining 30 percent were referred by one of over eight hundred referring websites; the top twenty-five sites referred one hundred or more visitors
    • Visitors spend an average of one minute forty seconds on the site and view an average of 1.86 pages
    • My average bounce rate is 70.84 percent (this means that only about 30 percent of the visitors to my site actual stick around to read anything)
    • 78.16 percent of visitors are new visitors
  • TD Word Count Plug-in for WordPress: As of early April 2009, I have written 109,152 words in 152 posts
  • Google Page Rank: The page rank of Spellbound Blog’s home page is third

How you measure the success of your blogging is based on your personal goals. Each individual blogger has to find his or her own rhythm. Only you can decide how much of your time you will dedicate to writing. Unlike an institutional blog which may have specific guidelines and expectations, individual bloggers can set their own criteria for success.

Lessons Learned

After nearly three years of blogging on archives topics, I have learned a number of lessons:

Lesson 1: Choose a Style

Spend time thinking about why you are blogging. Decide how you want to present yourself online. Consider your style of writing, the type of topics you plan to include and how you will present yourself. Will you weigh in on controversial issues? Will you target a specific set of topics? Do you plan to post every Wednesday night?

I decided to blog under my own name, rather than an alias. I decided not to set a firm publishing schedule. I chose a casual, but not totally informal, tone for my writing. Finally, I decided on the topics I was going to cover—and what I wouldn’t cover. I consciously chose not to talk about being a student, nor would I ever apologize for late or missing posts. My posts are purely an outgrowth of my own interests. Most of my writing relates to archives, the Web, interface design, visualization, metadata, Web 2.0 and online communities.

Lesson 2: Take Your Time

When you first launch your blog, it is tempting to write quickly and post frequently. I would argue, instead, to pace yourself. Do your research. Let your posts sit overnight. Read them over before you post. If you start out posting every day, you have set a pace that can be hard to maintain. There are certainly people out there who manage to keep up with that frequent a posting rhythm, but it is more likely that you will rapidly start feeling guilty about not keeping up.

Lesson 2a: Post Quickly on Breaking News

In direct contradiction with Lesson 2, if you have something to contribute to a hot breaking news, then complete and post it as fast as you can. There have been a number of cases in which I trusted my instinct to stay up late and publish a post right away and have been rewarded by being at the center of an exciting conversation.

Lesson 3: Participate in the Community

Be a good member of the blogging community. Read other blogs of the type you write. Respond to those who post comments. It may feel strange at first to post comments on blogs written by individuals you don’t know personally, but this is one of the easiest ways to form a professional connection. If you feel comfortable using a tool like Twitter, you are likely to discover additional blogs and discussions online that help you grow your connections.

Learn how to use trackbacks (links that point to another blog’s post) and pingbacks (a comment that appears under your post when some other blogger references it). When you post a response to another blog’s post, make sure you link back to that post or use the trackback link provided by the other post’s author. This will help ensure that the other blog’s author can take note of your response. When you see a pingback comment show up, go see what the other person had to say and respond, either via a comment or an additional blog post. This cycle of trackbacks and pingbacks makes it easier for blog authors to keep track of others’ interest in their ideas.

Lesson 4: Assume Everyone Is a Potential Reader

You don’t know who will read your blog. I always consider this a good thing. I have made more connections in the archives world through my blog than I possibly could have solely through personal introductions and graduate school contacts. As a master’s student, I applied for an National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Digital-Humanities Start-Up Grant. What I didn’t know was that there were people at the NEH who read my blog. Rather than being an anonymous graduate student listed on a grant application, I was the author of Spellbound Blog. Many of my blog posts are related to the research I planned to do with the grant funds, giving greater depth to my application. The happy ending to the story is that I got that grant.

Even if your posts get no comments, are not bookmarked in Delicious or publicized in Digg.com, do not let yourself assume that no one is reading. Many people will add you to their RSS reader and catch up when time permits. Others don’t feel comfortable posting comments. It will take a new blog time to catch on, but if you participate in the blogging community and make others who share your interests aware of your blog, you will likely find blogging rewarding.

Lesson 5: Don’t Limit Yourself to Archives Blogs

Rather than reading only blogs related to archives, find blogs from other communities that discuss things of interest to you. Cross-pollination with other communities is very valuable. I follow blogs relating to digital humanities, libraries, information visualization, search engine optimization, and more. As you read, comment on and link back to these blogs, you will pull fresh perspectives into your online conversations. The more diverse the blogs you follow, the better the chance you have of finding some fresh new thread to bring back to the archives community. I make it a point to discuss ideas from outside the archives community if I believe that they could have a positive impact on those tackling similar challenges within our community. Of course, the more you participate in “outside” communities, the more the lines blur. I follow a great number of digital humanities blogs. They talk a lot about archives and I talk a lot about digital humanities—and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lesson 6: Learn SEO Basics

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is the art of tuning your Web pages to encourage high ranking in Google and other search engines. Part of SEO is about how your pages are actually constructed. The good news on this front is that most blogs do a good job of setting up their posts for consumption by search engines. In addition, there are a number of SEO plug-ins for WordPress that do everything they can to optimize your pages.

The other part of SEO is all about words. What you name your categories, posts, and even your blog itself has a huge impact on what additional Web traffic you will gain via search. Keep your blog titles straightforward. Imagine you are writing a newspaper headline.

Lesson 7: Writing Makes Writing Easier

One benefit of blogging which I did not anticipate was that the more you write, the easier it is to write. It may seem obvious, but improving my writing skills was not my goal when I started blogging. I was startled to realize how much easier it was to write a ten-page paper after I had been blogging for a year. In a world where the written word still holds a great deal of weight, learning to express yourself more easily and clearly is a great selling point.

Future Plans

Moving forward, my future plans include work on my own blog, the promotion of the benefits of blogging to the archives community, and encouraging greater acceptance of blog posts as a legitimate form of professional discourse.

In addition to continuing to blog, I plan to do a major overhaul to the layout and design of Spellbound Blog’s interface. As mentioned above, since I manage my own WordPress installation, I have the opportunity to customize my blog from top to bottom.

I will continue to pursue opportunities to encourage others to recognize the benefits of blogging. As the online archives community evolves, we will need more individuals to contribute to the conversation. The more diverse the individual bloggers, the stronger and more vibrant the archives blogging community will become. Of course, the benefits are not only for those who are blog authors, but stretch to include all those who read, bookmark, comment on, and Twitter about the blogs they read.

Finally, the body of blog posts on archival topics is growing every day. Blogs need to be recognized for the legitimate form of professional expression that they have become. Not all posts are going to be profound, fully developed essays, but blogging can do an excellent job of bringing to the surface conversations that often only happen in the hallways of conferences today. Blogs are equally accessible to all, regardless of travel budget cutbacks and career stage. An interesting and well-written blog will rise in popularity based on its own merits. I hope that the hard lines between official publications and the informal structure of blogs will continue to blur over time.

Resources

About Blogging

McNulty, Scott. Building a WordPress Blog People Want to Read. Berkeley: Peachpit Press, 2008.

Common Craft. “Blogs in Plain English.” Common Craft. http://www.commoncraft.com/blogs (accessed June 25, 2009).

Short and friendly video that explains blogs in plain English.

Finding and Following Blogs

ArchivesBlogs. “ArchivesBlogs—A Syndicated Collection of Blogs by and for Archivists.” ArchivesBlogs. http://archivesblogs.com/ (accessed June 25, 2009).

ArchivesBlogs gives easy access to a large number of archives-topical blogs. You can just subscribe to ArchivesBlogs or you can use it as a way to find individual blogs to follow.

Common Craft. “RSS in Plain English.” Common Craft. http://www.commoncraft.com/rss_plain_english (accessed June 25, 2009).

Short and friendly video that explains RSS in plain English.

Google. “Google Reader.” Google. http://www.google.com/reader (accessed June 25, 2009).

Google’s RSS Reader is a popular and free option for subscribing to and following blogs.

WordPress and WordPress Plug-ins

WordPress.org. “Codex: Glossary.” WordPress.org. http://codex.wordpress.org/Glossary (accessed June 22, 2009).

Glossary defining terms related to blogs, blogging platform technology and WordPress.

___________. “WordPress: Support.” WordPress.org. http://wordpress.org/support/ (accessed June 22, 2009).

Online community for WordPress users ready and waiting to answer your questions via their extensive and busy forums.

Torbert, Michael. “All In One SEO Pack” SemperFi Web Design. http://semperfiwebdesign.com/portfolio/wordpress/wordpress-plugins/all-in-one-seo-pack/ (accessed June 25, 2009).

Kramer-Smyth, Jeanne. “WordPress.” Spellbound Blog. http://www.spellboundblog.com/WordPress-customizations/ (accessed June 25, 2009).

A list of the WordPress plug-ins used to customize the appearance and functionality of Spellbound Blog.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Resources

Google. “Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide.” Google. http://www.google.com/webmasters/docs/search-engine-optimization-starter-guide.pdf (accessed June 25, 2009).

The best introduction to search engine optimization. This document, originally created by Google for their internal staff, explains best practices for ensuring that your web pages (and blog posts) achieve the best possible ranking on Google search result pages.

______. “Google Insights for Search.” Google. http://www.google.com/insights/search/ (accessed June 25, 2009).

This free tool lets you examine search statistics and trends by keyword phrase, search type, and topical category.

Blogging Assessment Tools

Google. “Google Analytics.” Google. http://www.google.com/analytics (accessed June 22, 2009).

Google Analytics is a free service that lets you learn statistics about your blog’s Web traffic.

_______. “Feedburner.” Google. http://feedburner.google.com/ (accessed June 22, 2009).

Feedburner is a free service provided by Google that enables you to track statistics about those who subscribe to the RSS feed of your blog.

TDavid. “Plugin: TD Word Count.” TD Scripts. http://www.tdscripts.com/wp/tdwordcount/ (accessed June 25, 2009).

This plug-in makes it easy to get a quick overview of the total word count from published and unpublished posts on your blog.

Notes

1. Technorati, “Technorati: State of the Blogosphere 2008—Day 2: The What And Why of Blogging,” Technorati, Inc., http://technorati.com/blogging/state-of-the-blogosphere/the-what-and-why-of-blogging/ (accessed May 17, 2009).

2. Technorati, “Technorati: State of the Blogosphere 2008,” Technorati, Inc., http://technorati.com/blogging/state-of-the-blogosphere/ (accessed May 17, 2009).

3. SimpleScripts, “SimpleScripts Automated Script Installation and Management,” SimpleScripts, http://www.simplescripts.com/ (accessed May 17, 2009).

4. Jill Hurst-Wahl, “Digitization 101,” Jill Hurst-Wahl http://hurstassociates.blogspot.com/ (accessed June 22, 2009).

5. Digital Curation Blog, “Digital Curation Blog,” Digital Curation Blog http://digitalcuration.blogspot.com/ (accessed June 22, 2009).

6. Richard J. Cox, “Reading Archives,” Richard J. Cox http://readingarchives.blogspot.com/ (accessed June 22, 2009).

7. “Beaver Archivist,” Terry Baxterhttp://terryx.wordpress.com/ (accessed June 22, 2009).

5 Responses to 'Spellbound Blog: Using Blogs as a Professional Development Opportunity'

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  1. First off a Big thanks goes to “Jeanne Kramer-Smyth” for such a great article. I found it to be very informative. The Resources that are listed are invaluable. Again thank you very much.

    Tim Galoppa

    6 Sep 09 at 2:17 pm

  2. Very nice summary, I especially liked the lessons learned. Great job!

    webdesignnc

    22 Sep 09 at 8:11 pm

  3. Wow! I know I am a little late reading this post but I am really surprised more people have not commented. You have a ton of helpful information on Blogs and Blogging. After reading this post I almost feel like a mini expert. Thanks for the great info.

    Mroberts1996

    27 Nov 09 at 5:31 pm

  4. Many thanks for posting the case study! I plan to start up a blog for myself soon, and now I can’t wait!
    (most likely will be “Curious Deaf Archivist”)

    Elizabeth Henry

    31 Jan 10 at 1:02 am

  5. There are always bits and pieces which are sometimes very tricky to deal with when blogging especially in wordpress. Your article has provided some very helpful answers to many of them. Thanks.

    David Nando

    4 May 10 at 3:58 pm

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