28 August 2018

Blogging for library and information professionals - notes from an ALIA panel

Last night I was a  panellist at an ALIA Queensland event on blogging for library and information professionals. My co-panellists were Alisa Howlett (www.acrystelle.com) and Amy Walduck (Pineapple Glam), and the session was chaired by Michelle Hughes.

The event was streamed on Facebook Live and is available to watch if you missed it last night. My raw notes for the event are below. Not all of these thoughts made it into the panel discussion, which was a lot more free-range!

My main takeaway from the event is that there is no one 'right' way to approach blogging. Although the three of us had similar motivations for blogging (sharing with others, contributing to professional discourse, maintaining a credible online presence), the platforms we used, the ways we come up with ideas, our writing styles, and our processes from inspiration through to a final product were all totally different.

The panel discussion is making me re-think my own blog and plan some improvements to it, including possibly moving to another platform, re-theming, paying more attention to visual communication (thanks, Amy!) and considering ways to highlight popular or curated posts better (thanks, Alisa!)

Tell us about your blog - is it professional or personal?

Mostly professional, though over time I have probably started to provide a more personal take on professional issues.

I know from feedback from readers that posts that I felt were verging on the too-personal have actually resonated the most. By nature I am a private person, so sharing thoughts about things like impostor syndrome, the negative impacts of being a perfectionist, and being ambivalent about stepping into a management role does not come easily. However the thoughts and feelings that I have shared reflect my experience of the complexity of professional life as a librarian in the 21st century, and having people respond with recognition and empathy has helped me to become more comfortable with opening up in that way.

Reasons for blogging and what you hope to get out of it?

I had actually forgotten this before I started preparing for the panel, but I started regular blogging for a work project well before I had my own blog. The funding agency required the project to communicate and it was free and easy to set up a Blogger blog to do that. The project team collectively wrote thirteen posts over about a year.

Once I had jumped into blogging I realised that it was a great way to write regular shorter pieces on topics that were of interest to me and hopefully others. I liked the immediacy and the non-scholarly nature of it, which made it easier to present more provocative or ambiguous viewpoints.

Do you set goals for how much time you dedicate?

I don’t have specific goals around writing time but I do include a blog writing goal in my performance plan with my supervisor. For the past two years my goal has been to write six posts a year so it is not a particularly hard one to achieve.

I participated in #blogjune for a couple of years, where the goal was to write a blog post a day for the month of June. It is intense but fun! I did write a post a day one year and a post a week the following year. Now I just stick to my own not-very-regular schedule.

I have been along to the ALIA Shut Up and Write sessions and used some of those for blogging. It was great to have some external impetus!

It’s probably important to note that there is also non-writing work involved in maintaining a blog, such as:

  • Sourcing images (with appropriate licences for re-use, of course!)
  • Setting up and renewing your domain name
  • Responding to comments (including dealing with spam, which is mostly filtered but not always)
  • Keeping static pages up to date and fixing broken links. 

Do you have a specific theme/subject you stick to?

Most of my posts are about career or professional development issues of one kind or another.

I sometimes use the NewCardigan Glam Blog Club theme as a starter.

At times I’ve used my blog for a 'behind the scenes' look at other people’s jobs. I find it really fun to do Q&As with colleagues that have jobs that are maybe a bit mysterious to other people. When research data management was still emerging, I did a couple of Q&As on that. Last year I did another series featuring colleagues of mine that include non-coding IT skills as part of their professional practice.

I’ve also used my blog as a place to publish submissions that I have made on industry issues, such as ALIA’s publishing strategy consultation and a letter to my MP about the de-funding of Trove.

I also often include references to further reading. Sometimes I wonder if a bibliography is unnecessarily nerdy, but a lot of my ideas for writing come from what I'm reading. Sometimes I like to review or reflect on the literature in a bit more depth, rather than just sharing a link on Twitter. Acknowledging that inspiration and encouraging others to do more professional reading is something I am always happy to do.

How do you keep motivated to write?

I don’t have to try that hard to stay motivated. I usually enjoy the writing and editing process. Unlike more academic publishing you also get the satisfaction of hitting the ‘publish’ button yourself when you are done and not having to wait months and months to see it appear in a journal.

I don’t really force myself to write now if I don’t feel I have something to say that people would be interested in. I would rather write fewer more substantive pieces on things that I hope will really resonate with people.

How do you attract people to read your blog?

I usually include the web address for my blog in my biography for events and publications and in my social media profiles.

Twitter is the main channel I use to promote specific posts. Three quarters of the traffic to my blog comes directly from Twitter. I also sometime link to my posts on LinkedIn.

I am pretty sure a significant amount of my Twitter traffic comes from the Aus GLAM Blog Bot, which autotweets my new posts several times on the day of publication. One thing that I have noticed is that the time of publication makes a difference to the size of the audience, so having a notification go out a few times at different times of the day really helps.

I try to provide reasonably descriptive titles. Looking at the stats for my blog, I can definitely see that a more provocative headline draws people in.

I’m not much of a visual communicator, but I do try to include at least one image in each post to make it more visually interesting.

Has blogging improved and made you feel more confident in your writing and is it a completely different style?

I’ve always enjoyed writing and I did a journalism major as part of my first degree. Although I realised quickly that journalism wasn’t going to be a career path for me, news writing training provided me with a good grounding in non-academic writing.

I’ve also done writing-for-the-web training with different employers, and that’s been helpful too. I would recommend writing-for-the-web training for anyone in the library sector as the principles will make all your writing better.

Blogging is different from other professional writing that I do. Scholarly writing requires a lot more time and a lot more effort to comply with style guides, referencing systems, and the general requirements such as including a literature review. If I am submitting to a journal or conference proceedings, I would usually run a draft past a writing mentor or peer reader when doing that kind of writing, as the standard is very high.

I also have to do a lot of business writing at work e.g. reports and project documents. There are a lot of similarities between blogging and that kind of writing, in terms of keeping paragraphs short, using plain English, and making use of headings and bullet points to structure your writing for easy reading by busy people.

Any interesting connections or opportunities that have come out of a blog post you wrote?

Last year I published a series of posts based on a presentation that I gave at the New Librarians Symposium. One of the things I showcased in that series was the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA), a widely-used IT competency framework.

I received an email from one of the senior people at the SFIA Foundation saying that they found my application of SFIA to the library world interesting to read. As a result of that series of posts, I also had a number of students and recent graduates get in touch with me via Twitter, which was really gratifying and expanded my Twitter network quite a bit.

What tips would you give to someone who is wanting to start a blog?

I would encourage anyone starting out to think more about the audience than about yourself. Rather than thinking about writing as self-expression (what do I want to say?), think about what your audience needs or wants, and what new or interesting perspective you can bring that no-one else is currently providing.

You could try guest blogging or writing short pieces for newsletters like ALIA's InCite first to get a feel for the effort that is required. It is also possible to publish pieces via LinkedIn now; this could be a good way to get started on a smaller scale with your existing professional network.

Always be ethical and professional and make it explicit somewhere on your site that your views do not represent those of your employer. Being aware of any formal social media policies that your organisation may have is really important, as these policies can differ quite a bit depending on where you work.