Monthly Archives: October 2008

So You Wanna Be A Librarian Blogger Star

There must be at least 500 librarian blogs. Probably closer to 600. I imagine Walt Crawford has probably given some more accurate librarian blogger data in one of his blog studies, but I think I’m in the ballpark. So let’s say you are a librarian and decide you want to have a well known blog. With the field as crowded as it is how do you get noticed? What do you need to do to make it to the A – or even the B or C – list? Maybe you just want a blog that uniquely covers some new, unknown territory. I got to thinking about these things because a newer- to-the-profession academic librarian recently posed these questions to me.

You can find all sorts of advice on the Internet about developing a good blog, but I think my younger, less experienced colleague thought I had some special insights on how to make it big as a blogger. Maybe he was asking the wrong person. But wanting to be helpful – what academic librarian turns down a challenging question – I gave some advice over the course of a few e-mail exchanges. And you know what they say about free advice.

Succeeding as a blogger in a crowded field, to my way of thinking, comes down to three things. All are probably easier said than done. First, find the right niche because that will establish your identity as a blogger. I come across lots of blogs and many of them are missing character. If your tag line is “thoughts about librarianship and working in libraries” or something like that it allows you to write about everything but in the end you may stand for nothing. I think the best librarian blogs are the ones where you know what the blogger stands for, and you can be reasonably sure you going to get some consistency over time. Here at ACRLog you know we’re going to be focusing on academic librarianship (maybe not right now). If that’s what you like to read about – and to get some attitude on the side – then this is the blog for you. If we suddenly started covering totally different topics everyday I imagine we’d lose the bulk of our readership pretty quickly. Finding the right niche is probably the hardest thing to do. It requires you to figure out what no one else is writing about and to capture the market on that topic – or you could just write about things with an incredibly unique point of view – the way no one else is seeing them. You’ve got to be different. Originality is the key.

Now finding a good niche will only take you so far if you lack good content to keep your audience coming back. So the second thing is to identify a niche that is likely to have a steady source of content. It doesn’t mean you have to blog everyday, unless you are filtering a steady stream of news on a specific subject. But without good material to keep the ideas flowing, so you can post at least once a week, the blog will probably fail to be sustainable. Witness the many librarian blogs that have bitten the dust. Again, a bit easier said than done, but not impossible. One way to do this is to look for a niche that librarians would find of value and would draw upon sources of information external to this profession.

Designing Better Libraries is a good example. Most of the content comes from journals, magazines, websites and blogs that most librarians don’t have time to read. So for them the content is new and fresh. I really enjoy the subject matter so I’m always eager to put a library spin on the posts. That way I’m not just regurgitating the material. Given the amount of information on topics related to design, creativity, and innovation there is almost always something to write about. In fact, if I had the time I could do two posts a week. It’s pretty easy to write posts that say “So-and-so over at Generic Blog just wrote a great post. Here’s the link. Go read it.” Not very creative, and it gets old pretty fast – both for the writer and reader. Library Stuff is one of the few blogs that can manage that style of pointing to other posts, but only because the posts have terse commentary – often with a touch of wit, joy, sarcasm or anger. Showing emotion or passion can make a difference. How about showing the readers your personal side – letting them share in your real life? That’s not where I graze, though I see it works well for some bloggers.

Having a blog with a good niche and steady content won’t help if no one knows about it. So number three is promoting your new blog. We saw a good example of that last week when the blog In the Library with the Leadpipe made its debut. Several of the bloggers posted announcements to their friends on Facebook (where they also started a group), and asked a few established bloggers to take a look and spread the news. I think I saw it in at least five places, including LISNews and Walt Crawford’s blog. So just as it begins the blog is getting buzz. I’ve come across a fair number of interesting librarian blogs but they just seem buried in the blur of too many blogs called “The Something Librarian”. Though it may sound contrived, it can help to occasionally offer opinions, challenge traditions, take a position or anything that might get other bloggers to link to or comment on your posts. I think filter blogs like Kept-Up Academic Librarian have their place, but it’s also quite satisfying to generate a conversation and learn more from the comments and allow them to broaden your horizons.

I don’t know if my new colleague will achieve his goal of establishing a more widely read blog – I hope he will. Personally I think it’s getting hard to stand out in the crowd and attract the attention of the bread and butter of librarian blog readers – the younger generation of librarians who are accustomed to blog reading. Now I imagine they are spending more time sending and receiving tweets for their awareness and entertainment, and that reading blogs is, or will soon be, somewhat tired. I sometimes question how sustainable all of this librarian blogging is, and whether we’ll still be doing this five years from now. Perhaps it will last as long as we have a good topic, something to say about it and a need for conversation with our colleagues. But until then I wish my colleague good luck in his journey to librarian blogger recognition – or at least in bringing life to a blog that creates some value for those who read it. I admire his ambition but hope that, as always, he is motivated by a desire to provide meaning for others and a passion to help them learn. With these simple outcomes as your instrinsic motivation you will always be successful no matter how many librarians read your blog.

Why A CLS And ULS

An interesting question was raised by Lisa Allen over at the Facebook page for the ACRL College Libraries Section. Lisa wanted to know why ACRL maintains separate sections for college and university librarians when it is likely that many of us share and deal with the same issues. So myself and two other CLS officers had the task of responding to Lisa’s question – and that’s what we did.

Before I get to my response let me say that it’s a great question. ACRL maintains 17 sections (you knew that, right) and some are broad with large numbers of members, like CLS while others are quite narrow with many fewer members, like the Western European Studies Section. We should be asking ourselves if all of these sections are needed. Couldn’t we just combine a few of them since their members probably share similar concerns and issues? We’re no doubt always going to have overlap between the sections. Many CLS members are involved in information literacy activities, but so are members who belong to the Instruction Section. Likewise many CLS members are actually at “university” libraries, and there are absolutely shared concerns between college and university libraries. Sure, the academic libraries at Stanford University and Wofford College are extremely different, but who’s to say the librarians at these two institutions don’t share similar concerns – and more importantly couldn’t learn something new from each other.

For me that’s the bottom line – learning from your colleagues. Regardless of your library, if you find that your section membership enables you to learn new things to improve yourself and your library then that’s the most important thing when it comes to ACRL Section membership. And even though – to get back to Lisa’s question – college and university librarians share similar responsibilities, by virtue of membership in these two organizations you can actually learn and develop experience in rather different areas. But there are other specifics that lead me to believe that it continues to be important for ACRL to maintain both CLS and ULS, and I address some of them in my response to Lisa’s question:

Good question Lisa. I, as others do, maintain a membership in both CLS and ULS, so that I can keep up with both groups and their discussion lists. You are right on target when you note that the collib-l is a much more active discussion list. I’m not sure why that is. CLS is a larger section and perhaps that accounts for it, but it may also be that the ULS members go elsewhere for their conversations. To my knowledge the topic of merging the two sections has not come up, at least not in the six years that I’ve been actively involved in CLS administration.

It may seem like an odd separation, as we do have some common goals such as information literacy or faculty collaboration, but where we’re likely to see more of a division is in the research vs. teaching area. I suspect that some of the issues for ULS members are going to focus more on topics like institutional repositories, scholarly communication, and other topics that may be of less interest to CLS members who may be working in libraries with rather small collections and small FTE student populations.

I don’t know if others would agree but I think there is just a different vibe in these two groups and a lot of folks do like the CLS vibe, but like to keep an eye on what ULS is doing. That’s why I continue to participate in CLS even though I’ve moved on to a research university setting. Both groups have good programs at ALA Annual – and offer rather different discussion groups. I suspect that if we did merge them the single Section entity would retain most of what both now offer. It would probably be more a marriage of convenience than one that capitalizes on some synergy we’re not currently capturing.

CLS has been actively seeking out partnerships with other ACRL sections on programs and initiatives. I think that continues to present a good way for different sections to collaborate to deliver better services and programs to their members. I’d like to see us continue in that direction – separate but collaborative as needed.

One obvious advantage to a single CLS/ULS Section is that ACRL members could take advantage of all the offerings at a single price. Each section membership adds to one’s overall ALA registration bill. One obvious disadvantage is that with many academic librarians seeking to volunteer for service in ACRL sections and committees, reducing the number of sections would eliminate a large number of committee slots. As I weigh the multiple pros and cons of a CLS/ULS merger I lean towards maintaining two separate sections. I think each offers more than enough unique opportunties geared to the librarians at these different academic institutions to warrant their ongoing separate existence, despite what will always be some shared issues at both levels. But let’s continue to work at collaborating when it makes sense while we maintain our independence in support of those things that make us unique.

Introducing Our New First Year Bloggers – Dealing With Vegetable Bribes

We’ve selected two new librarians, Susanna Smith and Olivia Nellums, to blog about their experiences during their first year in academic libraries.

Here’s one of the winning posts, from Susanna Smith of Gadsden State Community College in Alabama. Susanna says,

I work at a community college library, which comes with its own sets of challenges. I just transferred up to a new campus, and am the quintessential “one-person library”, doing a little bit of everything. Also, I share a frustration that many just out of library school share – the college hired me as a “Library Specialist” (non-faculty, support staff classification) yet I still do everything the librarians do (or more!). Many of us take any job in a library we can find, hopeful that we can build a resume to be promoted or find a “true” librarian position.

In her post, Susanna writes about the awkwardness of receiving gifts from patrons. Olivia’s post will follow. Please welcome them both to ACRLog!

I’ve been working here at the community college library since November. I’ve had all sorts of strange requests and questions and completely “off-topic” conversations with patrons who just needed to vent their spleens about something completely unrelated to library services. My prior experience in bookstore management and customer service prepared me well for those things, but today was a first. It was bribery – of a sort that I was completely unable to refuse.

During my shift I helped this very nice lady find some books on nutrition. She was quite energetic, and excited that we had a large selection (we have a nursing program so most of what we have is more technically-oriented than for a layman’s consumption). She also had a very thick accent, and so it was a bit of struggle for both of us at first to figure out what each other was saying. Finally we got to the section she was looking for, and I had to leave her there because I was the only one working the front desk and had someone else waiting.

She came down with an armload of books, ranging from a juicing guide to a nursing-and-nutrition title. She thanked me profusely and headed out the door. Just minutes later she popped back in with a bag, and proceeded to hand me some tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. “I have a garden, and I have enough to share! Thank you so much! I will bring you more when I bring back your books!” I gave her my heartfelt thanks and told her it really wasn’t necessary to bring more vegetables, but she said “No, you helped me! I will bring more!” So how do you handle a patron who insists on bribing you with fresh vegetables??!?

Our college has a very strict policy about accepting gifts from vendors and other “people of influence”, but I don’t think patrons count. And on the whole I thought it would be quite rude to turn down this kind lady’s offer, and I must admit if she brings some zucchini I couldn’t say no to that either.

How Dare They Reject My Conference Proposal

Academic librarians are the type of folks who will suffer in silence when dealing with a conference rejection. At best we may share our disappointment with a colleague or two or perhaps our supervisor, but in general (and yes, this is a generalization) I suspect that few academic librarians would make a public stink about how their great proposal for a paper or panel was somehow not accepted – and even go to great lengths to point out the failings of a conference that rejected their proposal. ACRL recently sent out its acceptance/rejection notices for the 14th annual conference in Seattle. It appears the competition was greater than ever for a presentation slot, with an approximate 20% acceptance rate. But can you imagine me using my blog to rant about getting rejected or even going so far as to publish my proposal here for you to tell me how great it is and how could it possibly have been rejected – and further telling you how sorry you will be to not be hearing me present it at the conference. “What could the fools on those review committees have been thinking” I would expect you to write as a comment to my post. Well, that’s just not our style. We take it on the chin and just keep on going.

So you can imagine that I was pretty surprised to see an entire thread, in a sector of the faculty blogoverse, by bloggers who took their conference rejections public – and even used their rejections as an opportunity to criticize the conference organizers for having lowered their standards by accepting proposals of lesser quality than their own. It started here with a post at Collins vs. Blog. The author of the post, , shares his/her thoughts about the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) and points to other bloggers who are similarly lamenting about the rejection of their proposals. Some of these other bloggers went so far as to post their actual proposals for others to discuss. A number of the commenters also went on to discuss their rejected proposals giving various reasons for why they think that happened – along with additional critiques of the selection process.

Now, before you jump to the conclusion that this all just a bunch of whining, bitching and all that sour grapes stuff, take some time and read some of these posts. The conference organizers may not take kindly to it, but the conversation appears to point to some ways in which the conference and the proposal selection process might be improved. Some of these suggestions appear to point to valid concerns about what might be a selection process that has inherent flaws. I suppose that my main concern about the use of blogging to complain about getting rejected and criticizing the selection process is that the conference organizers might be unhappy with me and that might affect my future opportunities with the association and its programs. I’m sure they are open to suggestions for improving the process, but is publicly blogging one’s complaints and criticisms the right way to go about creating positive change? Probably not.

I’ve served on ACRL national conference selection committees. It’s not an easy job. Let’s remember that the people who serve on these committees are academic librarians just like you and me, and that they are volunteering their time – and it takes a lot of time to go through 250 proposals knowing you can only select 40 or so of them. That’s not to say that the selection criteria and process used to make the decisions couldn’t be subject to occasional review to determine if improvements are possible. For example, a common complaint about ACRL presentations is that they can lack quality. The reviewers can only base their decisions on what they read; they have no idea if the proposal authors can put together a high quality, informative and engaging presentation. The only way to do that would be to know who submitted the proposal and determine their past presenting experience. Of course, that would eliminate the blind review process that makes ACRL National our profession’s premier scholarly conference.

It’s unfortunate that so many proposals, many of them good ones I’m sure, are rejected. But that’s the nature of the game we choose to play when we submit our proposals for ACRL conferences. I would still encourage readers to develop and submit their proposals even knowing the odds of acceptance are slim. It is good to go through the creative process of completing the application, and once you have started on that road there is no telling where it may lead – even if your proposal is rejected. One year my proposal for a paper presentation and then a poster session was double rejected. Ow! Guess what. That paper idea went on to become an article published in College & Research Libraries. Back then we didn’t have blogs to complain about getting rejected. The best revenge, I guess, was simply proving to myself that I had an idea of value that the conference reviewers just didn’t recognize.

Are Books Next? About Time!

Jennifer Howard of The Chronicle reports on two heartening developments for academic publishing. One is that a company is providing easy-to-use software for managing digital content for university presses. It has been hard for UPs, which are in most cases very small enterprises with extremely tight budgets, to have the time and resources to develop electronic platforms. Tizra just signed a deal with the Association of American University Presses to host content for participating presses. (And while I’m talking about the AAUP – have you signed up for Books for Understanding? What a great collection development tool!)

Even more exciting, Bloomsbury has launched an academic imprint that will make all of its books available online immediately through a CC license, with print supplied through POD, more expensive per unit than traditional printing, but better suited to titles with small print runs and a small but persistent backlist. They hope to have as many as 50 titles in the humanities and social sciences by the end of 2009. This is a terrific experiment.

“What I believe—and this is what we’re putting to the test—is that as you’re putting something online free of charge, you may lose a few sales, but you’ll gain other sales because more people will know about it,” said Frances Pinter, Bloomsbury Academic’s publisher.

Ms. Pinter, the former publishing director of the Soros Foundation, approached Bloomsbury with the idea. Some research organizations have tried out similar hybrid models, she said, and found them sustainable, even profitable. She cited the example of HSRC Press, the publishing arm of the Human Sciences Research Council, in South Africa. “They have been doing this for a couple of years, and they have seen their sales increase by 240 percent,” Ms. Pinter told The Chronicle. . . .

“I’m tired of the divide between open-access people who have nothing but disdain for publishers, and publishers who don’t really know how to take a few risks and try some new models,” she said. She would like Bloomsbury Academic to demonstrate that publishers can add editorial value to scholarship without having to choose between locking it down or giving it all away.

The National Academies Press has long since proven that online full-text access to books can help sales. OA evangelists in the trade market like Cory Doctorow are convinced it works, even when downloads are free, and it certainly has for him. It’s great to see a publisher bring out books in the humanities and social sciences that are truly OA – because if it works, it could ease some of the anxiety that academic publishers justifiably feel. Too many of them are having to publish large lists of popular titles to subsidize academic books, and it’s stretching them dangerously thin. My feeling is that UPs have a higher purpose not being filled by trade publishers, and asking UPs to be trade publishers as well is a huge mistake when there are plenty of small regional publishers and larger trade houses for that popular material. How ironic that a trade publisher is now picking up the academic role that UPs are struggling to fill.

An advantage that book publishers have over journal publishers is that there still is value added in the printed book. Long form texts are still pleasanter to read on paper, and printing out a 300-page book is a different proposition than a 12-page article. Those truly interested in reading an entire book may well pay the price for the pleasures of print. Bloomsbury is making a wise move, and I’m hoping this development, as well as Tizra’s platform that will nudge AAUP members into the digital age, will bring academic books to a wider audience and strengthen an essential piece of the book trade.

Now: a question for you – are you involved in a library / university press collaboration? How do you feel about the Tizra development? Any thoughts on what Bloomsbury is doing? We’d love to hear news from the trenches.