In my last post on marketing with social media, I mentioned the Cambridge UL’s Incunabula Project blog as one which was starting to create a community around it, rather than simply being a one-way form of communication. In response to some comments on that post, I thought it might be useful to point to similar examples of ‘successful’ blogs by librarians. Then I started looking harder at the library blogs I thought were interesting, like the Wellcome Library one and some of the British Library ones and got a rude shock. It doesn’t take long to notice that many of them have almost no comments.
The Ted Hughes archive does relatively well with a total of 8 comments, and the Digitised manuscripts blog does even better, with 21 comments. On the other hand, there are none for Theatre Music Archive and only 1 for the Oral History of Science blog and the Wellcome Library blog has managed 4 comments in a month.
Are these figures untypical? A US librarian called Walt Crawford did a study back in 2007 on academic library blogs and found:”145 of the 231 academic library blogs – nearly 63% – lacked comments entirely” for the 3 month period he studied. The study’s three years old, but blogging was already fairly mainstream technology by 2007, so it can’t just be dismissed for that reason.
As Crawford points out, some library blogs deliberately choose not to allow comments (and this is true of such Cambridge sites as the English Faculty library blog. But a lot of blogs that do allow them nevertheless get either no comments or almost no comments, even when they’re including material that seems to me interesting. Is it because these blogs are just starting up, and take time to build an audience? It took this blog about six months or so before I regularly started getting comments. Well, the Endangered Archives project has been blogging for more than a year and hasn’t had any comments this year. On the other hand, the Incunabula Project blog only started in May 2010, so it’s not simply that.
I’m still not entirely sure of the answer – possibly those interested in some topics are more willing to comment on blogs than some others. This may be combined with factors that aren’t easily visible, such as marketing via existing e-mail contacts. I notice, for example, that the BL’s digitizing Greek manuscript projects rapidly attracted the attention of Roger Pearse who’s been active in putting theological projects on the web for a very long time.
But I think another factor may be the difference between information and opinion. A lot of posts on library blogs are framed implicitly as information, often as authoritative information. The library is doing this, this book from the special collection tells us X, Y, Z etc. It may be interesting to learn this, but it’s not really a way of starting a conversation. I suspect many people are put off from commenting because they feel they have nothing useful to say in response to such posts. In contrast, people are more likely to comment on a topic where they feel entitled to have and express an opinion, which is why political sites are flooded with comments and one of my most commented on posts was on why I no longer read historical novels.
The big exception to the reluctance to comment on information is probably researchers, especially humanities researchers. If someone tells me that this particular book shows us X, Y, Z, I’m trained to have a discussion about this: have you seen book A which shows the same phenomenon a hundred years earlier? Have you read this article, which discusses a similar topic from a different angle? How securely dated is the book you’re discussing, is it typical of works of this period, etc?
So those who run library blogs probably need to think about whether they want to encourage comments by readers, and if so, who their audience is and what they will feel confident talking about. It’s not difficult to start up scholarly conversations on blogs, once you can get a few academics interested. But if you’re trying to write for a wider public, you probably need to include posts that allow them to feel they have something of value to add. Maybe the UL’s Sassoon Project blog needs to get its readers to nominate their favourite Sassoon poem (or just tell us what their one is). And if/when the Tower Project starts a blog, it has obvious opportunities for getting reader responses to Victorian popular fiction, if it frames posts in a way that allows it.