Sunday, September 24, 2006

Blog-based library websites: An interview with David Lisa

I recently sat down with (ok, meebo'd) David Lisa, Director of the West Long Branch (NJ) Public Library, to discuss how he recently converted his traditional library webpage to a blog-based webpage.

Pete: Thanks for joining me this afternoon.

Dave: Always a pleasure!

Pete: For starters, tell me a little about yourself and your library.

Dave: My name is David Lisa and I am the Director of the West Long Branch Public Library. We are a small municipal public library. West Long Branch has about 8700 residents. We have three full-time employees and 7 part-time, 3 pages (PT) and one volunteer. I'm the only professional on staff. Other than that, we are your normal small burg PL.

Pete: Thanks Dave. So tell us a bit about your decision to make
your webpage blog-based.

Dave: I had worked on several different templates for the new version of our website and nothing was working. Then I attended the Web 2.0 seminar led by Michael Stephens and Jenny Levine and took what the speakers said to heart. It really seemed to me that if we started with a format and expanded upon that, we would be able to accomplish what we wanted to do. Namely to be able to give our users news about programming, spotlight our collection and keep them up to date on new additions to our collection. It also dawned upon me that we could utilize Blogger's template structure to organize our website by listing the links to the various pages on our site in the right column and be able to provide an archive etc. It did everything we needed! So, I set to work setting it up, then "adapted" our extant pages to the Blogger template format.

Yes, the built-in archive feature is wonderful. Are there any other specific benefits that you see with a blog-based website? Any drawbacks?

Dave: Well we are getting lots of great comments about how up to date our site is. People really like seeing the latest news on the front page in reverse chronological order. And, of course, one big benefit is being able to offer an RSS feed through
Feedburner. We like to stress that we can bring the news about the library to you on your schedule rather than you having to come to us all the time. One drawback has been that we have found that not a lot of people are acquainted with RSS feeds and we have to explain how to subscribe a lot.

Pete: That leads into my next question (or series of questions): Do you find that your customers understand the RSS feed? Are they using it? Have you done anything to promote the feed and/or teach your customers how to use it?

Dave: As I mentioned, there is some confusion about RSS still. I see that as being general initial confusion amongst the public at large. We really wanted to get the feed through Feedburner since they do a good job explaining it. We are pleased to have the feed in place and are actually waiting to see how it works out...right now.

Pete: Well, I think you're ahead of the curve. I believe the next release of IE will have built in RSS detection and reader. At that point, knowledge and use of RSS among the general population is likely to grow quickly and exponentially.

Dave: That's a good example of the confusion...try setting up an RSS feed with Firefox and IE and it's a different experience. We wanted the user to be able to click through the experience and know little about what they had to do to make it work. Feedburner does a great job enabling that.

Pete: And of course Feedburner gives you great stats and bunch of other nice benefits!

Dave: Feedburner has a nice page that you get after you click on our Subscribe link and it explains the variety of choices of RSS readers.

Pete: How much technical ability is needed to create a blog-based website? Is it something anyone can do or is a certain level of technical know-how necessary?

Dave: Good question. I believe that the approach we took to revamping our website takes little web publishing knowledge and could be mounted by people with little experience. And I think that is the direction web publishing is taking. Jenny [Levine] and Michael [Stephens] mentioned that web publishing software (Dreamweaver, FrontPage, etc.) will be outmoded by this approach soon... and I believe them.

Pete: Well, Blogger, Typepad, Wordpress really make it easy!

Pete: I see you have multiple authors. Who gets to post, and what do they get to post about? Did you and your staff come up with a blogging policy?

Dave: Glad you asked that question. From the get -go, I wanted our library website/blog to be a collaborative effort. I met with my Administrative staff and indicated that since we were re-creating the website in this fashion, I wanted them all to be involved. I also involved key members of the part time staff too (Book Discussion group moderator, etc).

Pete: That's great!

Dave: I also wanted staff members that are posting to be recognizable by name to library patrons that read the blog and could answer questions. We crave a fandom. [smile]. This is a truly collaborative experience.

Pete: I salute you! The research going on in virtual reference shows that customers really like to have a name associated with the librarian (as opposed to being served by ‘librarian34’). Using names is a great way to bring about more of a sense of personal connection.

Dave: I wouldn't have it any other way...I want it to be a personal experience for the user. We want to hear this: "Wow, Janice recommended the new DVD Lucky # Slevin. I checked it out and I loved it. Thanks Janice!"

Pete: OK, since we're on the topic of collaboration... It doesn't look like you have comments enabled. Any plan to enable comments?

Dave: We purposefully disabled it for now. We do have plans to enable them at some point, but we want to plan for it so we can handle it correctly.

Pete: Well Dave, I think you've done a great job with the site, and I appreciate you taking the time to share your experience with us. Is there anything you'd like to add before we conclude?

Dave: I'd just like to say that we actually stumbled upon this idea by accident, and it was all due to the seminar... so thanks for sponsoring it. We're always looking for new and different ways to do things here at WLBPL and we are having lots of fun with the website/blog.

Pete: Credit for sponsoring the seminar goes to Princeton Public Library and CJRLC (although we also had Michael Stephens present for SJRLC members that same week.)

Dave: Thanks for interviewing me!

Pete: You're welcome Dave. Thanks again for your time.


Thursday, September 14, 2006

Wikipedia v. Britannica: This time it's personal

Get thee over to the Wall Street Journal and read this gloves-off (you know, in a genteel way) debate between Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, and Dale Hoiberg, editor-in-chief of Britannica. Here's a taste:

Mr. Hoiberg: No, we don't publish rough drafts. We want our articles to be correct before they are published. We stand behind our process, based on trained editors and fact-checkers, more than 4,000 experts, and sound writing. Our model works well. Wikipedia is very different, but nothing in their model suggests we should change what we do.

Mr. Wales: Fitting words for an epitaph… ...We are open and transparent and eager to help people find criticisms of us. Disconcerting and unusual, I know. But, well, welcome to the Internet.
Personally, it took me a while to get to the point where I feel a fair level of trust in the quality of Wikipedia. I think Wales has done an excellent job of creating a system that maximizes the benefits of open source collaboration, while minimizing the drawback and dangers of having too much openness. I'm reminded of the brilliant article Clay Shirkey wrote a few years ago, "A Group is it's own worst enemy". Shirkey, building off of the concepts expressed by psychologist W.R. Bion in his seminal work,"Experiences in Groups", wrote,

Group structure is necessary to defend the group from itself. Group structure exists to keep a group on target, on track, on message, on charter, whatever. To keep a group focused on its own sophisticated goals and to keep a group from sliding into these basic [destructive] patterns. Group structure defends the group from the action of its own members. (emphasis is mine, pjb)

I remember being struck by Bion's work when I first read him in a college psych class, but Shirkey really brings it home. Although Shirkey is mostly focusing on social software, the concepts expressed in "Own Worst Enemy" are applicable well beyond that topic, and you might find yourself reflecting on the structure and health of your library (or your Bridge club, or your -- um, make that OUR -- government). Geek confession: I keep a copy of Shirkey's article in a "Ponderables" binder on my night table and re-read it regularly.

But I digress. Point is, Wales has done a great job of keeping Wikipedia from being it's own worst enemy, and I've seriously warmed up to Wikipedia as a trusted source.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

Blog Day (late and a dollar short)

Happy (belated) Blog Day everyone. I've been on vacation much of the past three weeks, watching the US Open and getting in as much tennis as I can, and in my rare state of email disconnection I missed blog day... So a day late, here are five blogs that I dig.

  1. Michelle Boule's, A Wandering Eyre. I first became aware of Michelle's blog when we participated in ALA's Web 2.0 Bootcamp. She's been knocking me out ever since. My biggest disappointment at ALA was that I wasn't able to push myself across the crowded room at the Blogger Bash fast enough to say hello. Hi Michelle!

  2. Meredith Farkas' Information Wants to Be Free. A great voice, great honesty, lots of smarts, humor, perspective. Meredith helps me broaden my knowledge, think more deeply, and just plain refreshes my hope for our profession.

  3. Blog About Libraries is a group blog much like the garden. I particularly enjoy Steve Backs' posts on customer service. I share and am inspired by his customer-centered outlook and approach to library services.

  4. Signum sine tinnitu--by Guy Kawasaki: I love the marketing ideas, the interviews with brilliant and interesting people and Guy's laid back vibe. It never fails to entertain or inform, often at the same time.

  5. Creating Passionate Users . Written mostly by Kathy Sierra, along with a few other authors of O'Reilly's "Head First" series, CPU is my "desert island blog". If I was stranded on a deserted island with my laptop and a wireless connection, this is the one I'd read. It activates the part of my brain that dopes me with endorphins when giving (or receiving good customer service) while also appealing to the trainer-boy in me. I love Kathy's insights on how to present information in a way that helps people get it, or "kick ass." To the extent that I kick ass on any given day, Creating Passionate Users helps keep my aim accurate :-)

Certainly not an exhaustive list, and it's hard not to mention all of the blogs that I love and read regularly. But I'd feel super-remiss if I didn't give a shout out to Karen Schneider's Free Range Librarian and Michael Stephens' Tame the Web. I have never in my life manifested an addictive behavior---until I started reading these blogs.