How and Why to Try a Blog for Staff Communication

“What’s a good starting point for my library to get into blogs?” someone recently asked me at a conference. What a great question!

Weblogs, or “blogs,” are simply applications that take the muss and fuss out of generating Web pages. Weblog software can be configured, adapted, and tweaked for many uses, and it allows librarians to concentrate more on content and information sharing than on coding pages or using a Web editor.

Why not try using Weblogs for staff communication in your library? It’s a great first step! You’ll benefit from improved communication, practice with technology, and experience using social software. Starting internally also gives you a safe environment to plan, play, and learn how blogging works before creating an external Weblog. And the techniques and innovations described here are easy to do and are either free or inexpensive.

Internal Weblogs can be many things:

• Easy, do-it-yourself intranets

• A way to reduce e-mail and paper clutter

• A vehicle to share knowledge and experiences

• A way to create buy-in for projects

• A powerful communication tool

• An easy way to create dynamic Web pages

• A method to make searchable archives

Lane Medical Library at Stanford University Medical Center has used an internal Weblog to communicate frequently asked reference, information, and policy questions since October 2004. “Our intranet was just not cutting it for this type of information–poor searchability, cumbersome to add content, relied on a few people to add everything, etc.,” said Rikke Ogawa, information services librarian. Staff was sending too much content in e-mails, and “we needed something more permanent and easy.”

Here’s How to Do It!

These are the steps to start an internal Weblog:

Choosing and installing software
Planning and making policies
Training the staff members who will be using the Weblog
Promoting it to make staff aware of the Weblog
Choosing and installing software Choosing Weblog software is one of the most important steps in implementing internal blogging. Choices range from off-site Weblog host sites (such as Google’s Blogger site) to locally installed Weblog software. All of these solutions have pros and cons.
Hosted Applications

Hosted off-site solutions allow you to dive right in and have a ready-to-go Weblog in a matter of minutes. Pros:

• Easy to configure

• Can edit from anywhere

• Multiple authors

Cons:

• No useful categories to organize posts

• Stored with literally thousands of other Weblogs of all kinds

• The automatic “Next Blog” button on Blogger can lead to spam, porn, or otherwise undesirable Weblogs.

Other hosted solutions include Type-pad, available for a monthly fee after a trial period, and a new service from WordPress.

Local Server Applications

The other type of software is loaded locally on a library server. On-site solutions like Movable Type or WordPress are customizable to the users’ content. Pros:

• Loads of potential for configuration and added features called “plug-ins”

• Full support for categories, keywords, and other snazzy Weblog features (such as Trackback, a listing of other Weblogs that have linked to a post)

• Support for multiple blogs and multiple authors

Cons:

• Can be difficult to install and requires some knowledge of servers and programming languages; may not be the best choice for small libraries

• Can cost $100 or more

• May or may not include technical support

Open Source Software Applications

Open source software solutions prove to be the way to go for many institutions. With a community of support, various enhancements, available plug-ins, and relatively simple installation, software such as WordPress can be the perfect solution for internal blogging.

How can you decide between all these choices? Look closely at your library’s resources: staffing, funds, and time. If you do not have staff that can install and configure software on a Web server, you may want to look at hosted solutions first. If funds are an issue, you may want to look at a free hosted Blogger Weblog or a local install of the no-cost WordPress.

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Planning and making policies

Never start a technology project without first doing some planning. What are the goals of the initiative? One objective might be improving internal communication, which many libraries need to take seriously. Here are some areas to definitely plan for:

What is the purpose of the Weblog?

What information will be archived on the Weblog? Policies, procedures, staff directories, project updates, suggestion box entries, board minutes, meeting minutes, and more come to mind, as well as the ever-popular news and notes. Here at the St. Joseph County Public Library, one of our most popular categories on our intranet (based on Weblog mechanisms) is From the Suggestion Box because staffers know that’s where their questions and concerns will be addressed.

A small or medium-sized library might use various content categories for its internal Weblog, such as administrative news or a director’s report; individual, departmental, or branch news; policies; or a You Need to Know (a catchall category for announcements, etc.).

Who is the point person for the internal blog?

One mistake some libraries make is not putting anyone in charge of the internal Weblog. If no one knows who to ask about issues such as who posts or what’s appropriate for posting, the tool will not be utilized. Sometimes this person is in human resources or staff development, other times it’s the IT librarian, the director, or just someone with the initiative to set up and maintain the service.

Who can post? All staff? Managers only?

This depends on the goal. To disseminate and organize policies and announcements, a few “keepers of the knowledge” should be building the “repository.” A communication tool open to all staff has benefits as well: An open forum is a good thing. It could, however, become a free-for-all of personal news unless you have some guidelines for use and posting. Try an offshoot Weblog of “Staff Notes” where vacations, new babies, and other human-interest posts can be logged.

Is it passworded, behind a firewall, or open?

This depends on the size of your library, as well as what level of IT expertise you have on staff. Some larger libraries will have staff-only servers protected by firewalls while others may have their Web documents stored on servers off-site. Small libraries may have one server or may store documents elsewhere. None of these circumstances should hinder experimentation with internal blogging. You can blog without posting sensitive or confidential information and still have a useful tool.

Training the staff members

This step cannot be ignored. No technology-based service can succeed in libraries without some degree of training. This task is relatively easy: Gather bloggers, demonstrate the Weblog posting pages, and let them practice. Simple lessons for a training module might include:

• Choosing an appropriate title for the post

• Inserting links to the catalog or off-site pages into posts

• Learning how to go back and correct typos or errors once an article is posted

Allowing time to play and experience the mechanics of posting lets staffers become comfortable with the process and gives them a sense of ownership.

Promoting it to make staff aware

Promote the Weblog internally. Have a launch party! Offer prizes for postings to beef up online content. And make a commitment to utilize the internal Weblog as the single way you disseminate information. If staff members are still getting bulk news e-mails and printed pages to post on bulletin boards, you are muddying the waters of communication.

Benefits to Staff
Librarians report that there are benefits to using internal Weblogs. An important one is experience. Steve Backs, an adult services department manager at the Monroe County Public Library in Bloomington, Ind., began internal blogging within the last year “as part of our efforts to create reasons for staff to work with up-to-date technologies.” This may be the most important benefit of internal experimentation and use of new tools.

No matter what the size, staffing level, or budget of your library, there is an internal Weblogging solution for you.


This article originally appeared in Computers in Libraries magazine February 2006, published by Information Today Inc.

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