After a gap of 11 months the guest blog post returns with a post by Jenny Evans, Liaison Librarian: Maths and Physics at Imperial College. Jenny provides a background to two blogs (to support the Physics and Maths and Engineering departments) which were set up by liaison librarians in 2006 and answers many of the questions which librarians in a similar role may be asking: how did you get agreement from the management?; who contributes; what is the target audience; what do you write about; how long does it take to support; is it sustainable and, perhaps most importantly, can the blog service be regarded as a success?
Imperial College London is a science-focussed institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research with approximately 12,000 full time students. The Library comprises the Central Library and the Mathematics Department Library, located on our South Kensington campus, as well as campus libraries at Charing Cross Hospital, St Mary’s Hospital, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, Brompton Hospital, Hammersmith Hospital and Silwood Park.
Our first two blogs were created by liaison librarians, Ruth Harrison and myself, in March 2006. There were three main reasons we considered using a blog.
Firstly, we had tried sending out emails and newsletters to departments informing them of relevant developments. Problems with this method included academics wanting different formats, or complaining about email overload. From our perspective, as a newsletter tended to be produced only once a term, information we wanted to get out to them quickly was often out of date by the time it was sent.
There was the option of adding pages to the library website, however this relied on us getting information to another library staff member, and then waiting for them to put the page up. Which if you needed to get information out to staff/students quickly was not the ideal solution.
Finally, the library Web site doesn’t provide detailed subject specific information pages, which academics had complained about to us, so we wanted to address this issue – the blogs were a way in which we could provide very specific information and only to those people who wanted it.
As such, we felt a blog would be an ideal way to be able to communicate quickly, effectively and directly with our respective departments about information that was relevant to them. Blogs would enable us to post content as we needed to, they would be easy to set up and maintain, and we could delegate responsibility to staff where appropriate. It also meant academics could set up an RSS feed to the pages so they could control how they viewed the information.
We decided to start the blogs using the free blogging software from WordPress. It was a fairly new option at the time, but it was getting good reviews, seemed to be flexible, offered some useful features and was free.
Getting agreement from management
Working on the assumption that it is much easier to sell an idea that you can demonstrate we created a working prototype and began posting content to the blogs before presenting them to our respective managers. They then took them to the relevant management meetings. Although there was some unease about the lack of branding, and the idea that at the time not all liaison librarians would have a blog, it was agreed that as this was a form of communication, specific to a liaison librarian and their department (not unlike email) that we could continue.
Over the past 3 1/2 years, other liaison librarians have seen the success of our blogs and have created their own. We now have thirteen blogs covering a variety of subject areas. There is currently no specific ‘library style’ for the blogs, although some look more ‘Imperial-like’ than others.
Our blog authors are a mix of library staff – though all work in Library’s Faculty Support Services for Teaching and Research Directorate – as the blogs are aimed staff and students in specific departments/subject areas. As such, the relevant library liaison team are responsible for the blog. This could be a single person or more than one member of the same team. Our medicine blog is aimed at all medical staff and students and as such members of staff from all of the medical campuses contribute to this blog.
Each of our blogs has a different target audience, depending on what is thought appropriate for that subject area. This can include:
- Academic/research staff
- Postgraduate research students
- Postgraduate taught course students
- Undergraduate students
For example the maths and physics blog that I am responsible for (as I’m no longer responsible for chemistry) is aimed at academic and research staff, and research post-graduate students, although some content is relevant to post-graduate taught course students and I do make them aware of its existence. It is not so relevant to the undergraduate students, however I do have a maths projects blog I have created to support the projects they work on in the first and second year of their course.
This is also something that relies on the particular person or group of people responsible for each blog.
Examples of what people include in their blogs:
- New resources including new book purchases and journal subscriptions
- Custom search engines
- Journal citation reports/bibliometrics information
- Help/advice pages
- Support for teaching sessions
- Identifying key resources such as e-books
- Highlighting relevant parts of the library website
- Highlighting the physical location of relevant collections
- Overview of relevant key database and referencing information
Generally, we would try not to duplicate information found on the library Web site, but do highlight relevant content.
How long we spend maintaining our blogs
As you can imagine, this differs depending on who is working on the blog. I did a quick survey of fellow bloggers as to how often they post on their blogs and this ranges from a couple of times a week to once a month. Personally, I must confess I don’t spend as much time on mine as I used to, though my team member Katie does most of the posting these days.
You can find a link to our blogs on our library homepage and there is also a link from the College blogs page. I’ve also got links on the Physics department website and the Maths Library web page.
For my blog, I email department staff, PhD students and MSc students at least once a term, reminding them the blog is there and highlighting any current news. Some bloggers use Feedburner which enables them to give people the option to receive updates by email.
Our Life Sciences team introduce their blogs to students in induction sessions and point out useful features.
This is possibly something we could market better than we do so at the moment. Suggestions from fellow bloggers include giving them a higher profile, making them more visually appealing, perhaps giving them a similar style/layout.
As a whole our blogs have been very successful – they are all getting used. They enable us to raise our profile as liaison librarians within the departments we work with, and provide our users with a resource that is specific to their areas of expertise.
In the words of one of our Life Sciences bloggers:
“Subject blogs are an ideal way to gather relevant subject specific material together in one place for your staff and students, they can be tailored and expanded to meet the need and are much more flexible than having to coordinate an official webpage update. We introduce our students to them in inductions and point out useful areas such as ‘Finding Books’ (which is a well-used page) and Academic Writing Skills (another well-used page which lists academic writing skills books in the library with links to the catalogue – this really picked up over the summer when Masters students were focussing on writing up).“
The statistics available via WordPress do enable you to see details about how many people are viewing your blog, who is referring to your blog, what the top posts and pages are, search terms people are using to find you, and what people are clicking on and incoming links. However, this doesn’t include RSS feeds (unless you are using Feedburner). And these statistics do demonstrate that our blogs are being used.
Personally, I didn’t expect loads of comments on my blog – I use it more as a means of getting relevant information out to my departments (maths and physics) – however I do encourage people to get in contact via the comments mechanism of the blog. I have installed a MeeboMe widget on my blog which hasn’t had a great deal of use (though the widget I installed on the blog I created for my maths undergraduate students has had a few enquiries). My humanities colleague has also tried MeeboMe with limited success.
Our Life Sciences team has noticed that the more time they have invested in “developing, populating and marketing (not to mention regularly updating) the blog has seen a continued growth in usage figures”.
Another unexpected outcome has been the interest from third parties such as Victor Hemming from Mendeley who had seen “posts we had put up about referencing and networking for researchers. This initial contact led to Mendeley coming to Imperial to give a personal introduction. It was good to know that our blog was attracting the attention of useful people and sending them in our direction”.
Our blogs have been running for 3 and half years now and show no signs of slowing down. The bloggers I have been in touch with all feel that it is worth the time they spend maintaining and updating them.