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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > November/December 2003
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Vol. 23 No. 10 — Nov/Dec 2003
Building a Home for Library News with a BLOG
by Doug Goans and Teri M. Vogel

As organizations of information professionals, libraries are busy acquiring, evaluating, selecting, and disseminating information. For dissemination, a library may use newsletters, press releases, or its Web site to let patrons know what is new and available.

In recent years, one Web phenomenon that has drawn a lot of media attention is blogging. Even if someone has never heard the word "blog" (short for "Web log"), chances are he or she would recognize one by its content and features. A blog is essentially a "What's New" page on the Web, an online journal or diary. Web pages for "news," traditionally built using static HTML, usually adopt the blog moniker when newer technologies such as XML or Web databases are invoked to manage the submission, delivery, and searching or browsing of the content. In addition, the layout of blog pages has a familiar feel across the Internet. Content on the page is presented in bursts of text arranged in reverse chronological order, including the date it was posted. There is also some means for a site visitor to access an archive of previous postings, usually by date.

Many libraries have "What's New" sections on their Web sites to publicize new resources, services, or events. We've had one since 2000, when I was hired as Pullen Library's Web development librarian at Georgia State University. Georgia State is an urban campus serving approximately 25,000 students who rely heavily on remote access to information and use the Web to access library resources and services. At Pullen, we also have a formal liaison librarian program where librarians are responsible for collection development, specialized reference and instruction, and outreach for one or more assigned academic departments. The liaisons have space on the Web site where they use FrontPage to build content for their patrons, such as class guides, subject guides, or newsletters.

In 2001 and 2002, I began moving portions of our static HTML content into a Web database and serving pages dynamically to site visitors. Examples of database-driven content include the e-journal lists, our subscription database list, and our personnel directory. Based on the success of these projects, I began contemplating ways to automate our HTML news pages. Specifically, I wanted to automate the submission and presentation of news content for the library home page. My plan was to store content in a MySQL database, a robust open source database suitable for Web projects, and manage the content using online forms.

In the fall of 2002, I met with Teri Vogel, one of our science liaison librarians, to discuss a project she was considering. She wanted to find a way to deliver news to Georgia State University science faculty and students that would be easier and faster to produce than a traditional newsletter. She thought that a blog might be the answer and wanted to know if library Web support would be available or if she should move ahead with this independently.

I shared with Teri my intentions to automate the Web site news, which had a few components of a blog system already being planned. We saw the potential advantages of a centrally supported system and decided to combine our two initiatives, and so our collaborative blogging project was born in November 2002.

House Hunting, Amenities

One of the first things we did when we started this project was to look at other blogs, particularly library blogs. We wanted to see 1) how libraries and librarians are using blogs and 2) what features we wanted to incorporate.

Despite the mainstream media coverage in places like Newsweek, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and articles in the library literature that advocate and promote the use of blogging in libraries, few libraries are actually doing so. While some organizations like Macromedia are encouraging their employees to set up their own blogs, the vast majority of blogs in existence are individual endeavors rather than organizational-level efforts. While some blogs are clearly managed by libraries to publicize their news and events, most blogs are personal sites, owned by librarians whose employers do not actively promote or link to them. Some personal blogs contain links to employers, but we rarely find clear integration between a library's Web presence and the blogs of its employees. For our project, we envisioned an official organizational blog to publicize librarywide news and events, with a hierarchy of integrated topical "sub-blogs" managed by smaller groups of librarians.

We already knew the typical features that we needed to include and could expand upon. We wanted each entry to be tagged with a time stamp, a subject category, and some indication of ownership so the reader not only knew when an entry was posted but also who posted it. We also wanted patrons to be able to access an archive of previous entries several ways: keyword searching, date browsing, and subject browsing. These are other features we wanted:

• Priority Announcements and Alerts: Tagging an entry to remain at the top of the page indefinitely—good for posting alerts about service outages or emergencies

• Group Blogging: We wanted the blogs to be cooperative efforts between groups of librarians wherever possible, to ensure shared responsibility for content management.

• Posting Manipulation: The ability to pre-and post-date content and suppress postings

• Cross-Blog Requests: A mechanism allowing an individual to request an entry be published to the library home page, as well as the ability to copy, link, or include content posted by any other blogger in our system to use in their blog

Rent, Buy, or Build?

Once we decided that the blog model would be the perfect fit for our library's automated news endeavors, the next step was to determine how best to go about it, and to do this we needed to ask ourselves several important questions:

• What resources (personnel, expertise, time, technology) could we realistically devote to this project?

• How much control did we want to have over the appearance and functionality of the blogs?

• How were we going to implement the blog solution technically, and how would it fit within the library's ongoing and future Web initiatives?

From our research we discovered three blogging options:

1. Blog off-site using an external hosting service.

2. Use third-party blogging software to manage the blog on our server.

3. Create our own blog entirely in-house.

In terms of costs, advantages, and trade-offs, these solutions are analogous to renting an apartment, purchasing a house, or building a home. We evaluated and assessed the options, software, and services available against what we wanted for our library. (See chart on next page.)

The divisions between the "rent" and "buy" options are becoming less distinct as time goes on. Blogging software companies are now offering hosting as well. Basic hosting in some cases is free, and "premium" accounts are being offered with more advanced features for a fee (Movable Type). Some software companies are also the front ends for a separate hosting service (Blogger).

Let's Build It!

If my position as a Web developer did not exist, or if the library did not have unfettered Web server access, we might have opted to use third-party blogging software, which would have allowed us some degree of interface control while reducing costs associated with personnel and technology support. However, after weighing the advantages and disadvantages of the options and assessing our resources, we decided to build our own blog in-house. With absolute control over the features and functionality, we could incorporate the blog project into routine Web database development endeavors, we could use the MySQL database already running on our site to store the content, and we could have a hierarchy of multiple blogs under a single administrative system.

Under Construction

We decided to build two blogs simultaneously, one main blog for Library News in general and the sub-blog for Science News. By building them together, we could make sure the system was going to work as intended, and we could assess the challenges and issues that liaison librarians and future library bloggers might face. There were four of us on the development team: Teri and the other science liaison librarian to provide input on the interface and features, plus our Web programmer and me who would focus on the database and programming work. In December 2002, the liaisons created a prototype design for the blog interface, and I worked with the programmer to design Web templates in Active Server Pages (.asp) based on the prototype. The programmer and I then developed the interface with online forms to work with the MySQL database that powers the blog. We spent the rest of December building the initial system on a test server and moved it to the live server in January 2003.

The blog system went public quickly and without much fanfare so we could get the service running but still have time to improve it and address any problems. We used this time to review the system from all points of view (blogger, patron, and administrator) and to suggest and implement changes and enhancements to the interfaces, database, and programming. We were also able to take all of the preexisting HTML news postings from 2000 forward and import them into the database. Importing our older content allowed us to retain our collection of "What's New" information for the past few years and to populate our new blog system with archived content.

Between January and July 2003, we continued to actively use the system with occasional refinements. Staff carried out two major updates to the system during this time. First, we made the code more efficient and optimized it to accommodate the addition of future sub-blogs. Second, we validated the blog system against XHTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). We were building a blog system in-house so it made sense to at least build to the standards widely used on the Web for most blog services.

Having an Open House

We built our blog system with Windows IIS, MySQL, and Active Server Pages. The blogger uses an online Web form to manage content in the database. When a user visits the blog, the page queries the database, retrieves the content, and shows it to the user. There are two basic interfaces of our blog. The user sees a Web page with typical blog features (left), and the blogger sees the administration interface with forms to enter, update, and maintain his or her blog content (facing page).

Doing Home Improvement

Aside from the enhancements during the first part of 2003, we began to use the blog on a regular basis. We were immediately pleased with how easily we could publish content on the site in real time. The exchange of content between the main blog and the sub-blog also worked well. Overall, we were satisfied and got into the routine of actually using the system. Eventually we regrouped to consider future renovations to the system that we had not directly addressed during the development and testing phases:

• Creating more sub-blogs for interested departments and liaison librarians: We might want to provide a core set of topic categories for each sub-blog with the ability to add custom topic categories.

• Implementing e-mail subscriptions: We would like to offer a service to send a weekly e-mail with the latest blog postings to individuals who sign up for the service.

• Marketing the service: The librarywide blog can be accessed from the prominent News and Events link on our library home page. We can also include the blog URLs in e-mails, print materials, and as hyperlinks from other Web pages. Along with librarywide marketing efforts, the librarians who are blogging will also need to market aggressively
to their patrons.

• Branding: We need to ensure that a patron visiting one of the blogs knows the intended purpose of that page, the authority behind the information presented, and that the site is part of Pullen Library.

We areworking with our public relations specialist to add taglines and descriptive text to make these points clear to our site visitors. We also want to ensure that the blog page design integrates well with other standard library Web site design
elements such as logos, sitewide navigation, colors, and fonts.

• Statistics: We need to collect and keep statistics to measure use of the blogs. We plan to filter out the IP addresses of our blogging librarians' computers to increase accuracy of our patron usage.

It's a Co-Op: Rules for the Library Organization

Another feature that we discussed but have not yet implemented is a user feedback mechanism, usually called "Comments" in blog-speak. Because these blogs are part of our library's Web presence, the administration will have concerns about allowing patrons to "talk back," thereby adding content to the library Web site anonymously and possibly irresponsibly. Will our library permit users to post comments to the blogs, and, if so, how responsible will we be to moderate that feedback? We have seen that blogging raises questions that involve discussion and consensus building with library administration and individual librarian bloggers.

During this project, we faced several such questions that our four-member development team could not answer for the whole library organization. Who is permitted to blog, other than the liaison librarians? How do we determine the appropriate creation and management of new individual or group blogs? What process and procedures will be needed to accommodate departmental or librarian requests for blogging accounts? How will accounts be organized within the hierarchy of our blog system?

Home Sweet Home

Faced with several options to implement a blog model, we chose to build one in-house. We suggest that librarians who are considering blogging balance their goals with their available resources and personnel. The more technical support you have in-house or at your disposal, the more advanced system you can implement. If you are in an organization with minimal technical support, however, you can still set up a blog system to power the news and communications portion of your Web site. Options like external blog hosting or third-party software are reasonable solutions for libraries with more limited resources.

Setting up the technology may be the easy part. Blogs, like most Web text, will fail to attract repeat visitors if you don't keep the content current. The amount of time it takes to contribute and maintain content in addition to marketing the service must also be taken into consideration.

Why should librarians even care about blogs? Blogs are part of a burgeoning suite of personal communication and information management tools. They are already making an impact on the communication and social facets of the Web in general and are becoming part of the online landscape of technologies that, like e-mail, we take for granted. In short, libraries and librarians need to become familiar with blogging as more of their users embrace this technology.

The advantages of blogging cannot be overstated. We can post content 24/7/365 from any location with a Web connection. Our content is archived and searchable. We are tagging our posts with categories to allow browsing. Blogging may already be familiar technology to many of our students and Web-connected clientele, which strengthens our ability to quickly inform and communicate library news to them in a familiar Web space.

As of this writing we have accomplished these goals:

• We've doubled the number of people blogging in our library.

• The blog is driving our main News and Events page.

• The sub-blog for the Science News is up and running.

• We are preparing for a couple of new sub-blogs.

• More of our librarians have expressed interest in learning about our blog and blogging in general.

So far the system is working well to automate our news, which was my goal, and it is serving as a channel for liaisons to deliver timely and relevant news to their patrons, which was Teri's goal. We built a new house for our library news, but we will continue to look at ways to make our blog space (and our Web site) an inviting home for our patrons to visit often and to invite their friends to visit too.


Further Reading

Bausch, P., M. Haughey, and M. Hourihan.
We Blog: Publishing Online with Weblogs. Indianapolis: Wiley, 2002.

Blood, Rebecca. "Weblogs: A History and Perspective." Sept. 7, 2000.

Conhaim, Wallys W. "Blogging—What Is It?" Link-Up, May/June 2002.

Curling, Cindy. "A Closer Look at Weblogs." Oct. 12, 2001.

Weblogs Compendium.

[Editor's Note: At press time, the Pullen Library changed its name to Georgia State University Library.]




Librarian/Library Blogs


University of Baltimore Law Library Blog

Graduate Research Library, Pacifica Graduate Institute

The (sci-tech) Library Question—Randy Reichardt & Geoff Harder

ResourceShelf—Gary Price

LISNews—Blake Carver

Doug Goans is the Web development librarian at Pullen Library, Georgia State University in Atlanta. He holds an M.L.I.S. from the University of Missouri in Columbia. His e-mail address is Teri M. Vogel is a science liaison/reference librarian at Pullen Library, Georgia State University in Atlanta. She holds an M.S.L.S. from Clark Atlanta University. Her e-mail address is
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