A HUMAN VOICE
by Marylaine Block
One of the innovations I've been delighted to see on library web sites is the blog. What makes me even happier is how many public, academic, school, and special libraries are now doing it.
One reason I like blogs so much is that the format virtually compels you to talk like a person, not like the official voice of the library. Most official library prose is careful, neutral, restrained, and, not to put too fine a point on it, boring beyond belief. How often have you heard a librarian (accurately) describe a character in a book as "icky," as "Liz" did on Madison Public Library's MADreads blog <http://www.madisonpubliclibrary.org/madreads/>? The grayness of our prose is odd, considering that librarians are readers who know what sparkling prose looks like. And all the odder when you consider that most librarians are really pretty interesting people.
A library's blog allows its readers to get to know the library staff in a far more meaningful way than through their formal transactions, which may otherwise be limited to strictly utilitarian questions like "How do I get a printout of this page," or "Where can I find this book?"
Betsy's Blog <http://www.champaign.org/teenspace/read_watch_listen/betsys_blog.html> at the Champaign Public Library, for instance, reveals this "middle-aged teen librarian" as someone who's up to date on current teen interests, and who knows exactly how to pique their interest. Note the items, "Teenage Stringless Guitar Player Needed, or the Prize No One Wanted" (Respond quickly if you need some Black Diamond guitar strings plus picks and a strap"), and "How can you NOT love a book with a crowned cow on it" ("Cows, football, and a frustrated teenage girl add up to a fun summer read.")
It's also a way to acquaint your public with services they didn't know you offered. The St. Joseph County Public Library blog <http://www.libraryforlife.org/blogs/lifeline/>, for instance, tells people about a variety of ways they can turn old family photos into Christmas gifts. In the process, it explains how the library can help them learn about preserving old photos, identifying and dating them, and tracing family history.
Similarly, when the Santa Clara County Library's Latest SCCoop <http://220.127.116.11/> announces a book talk on "books and media appropriate for gift giving for all age levels," and its Graphic Novel Discussion group, it's telling people who still may not realize it that librarians are happy to help you find the kind of books you want to read or give. (You'd be surprised how few people know that libraries offer readers advisory services.)
A blog encourages, nimbleness of response to recent events, because for many libraries, it's far easier to add something quickly to the blog than to the web site itself. For instance, as I'm writing this, the Iraq Study Group report has just been released. The Topeka-Shawnee County Public Library's Paper Cuts <http://papercuts.tscpl.org/> immediately added a link to the online document, and noted that "If you don't like reading long documents online, our library has three circulating copies... and one that will always be available for in-library use..."
The Allen County (IN) Public Library <http://acplinfo.blogspot.com/> used its blog to announce a new current information feature: an automatically generated, automatically updated mashup of images of new books acquired each day <http://blog.acpl.lib.in.us/amzamash/book_wall.php>)
And if there's any notion in the public's mind that the library provides information only for serious or educational purposes, the library's blog will swiftly show them otherwise. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, for instance, the Springfield-Greene County Library's Teen Thing Blog <http://thelibrary.org/teens/teens.cfm> linked not only to turkey and vegetarian recipes for Thanksgiving dinners, but also to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade line-up and to a site that explained "the history and science behind Spongebob, Snoopy and friends." The Memphis Public Library & Information Center Reference Highway blog <http://mplic.wordpress.com/> recently posted links to Tennessee restaurant inspection scores and "The Secrets of Mystery Shopping Revealed."
The blog is also a wonderful way for library directors and staff to explain themselves to the public - their policies, issues they're grappling with, new services they've introduced, etc. Among my favorites are Kankakee Public Library's She Said/He Said <http://lions-online-shesaidhesaid.blogspot.com/>, the musings of director Cindy Fuerst and assistant director Stephen Bertram. Among the things they've recently discussed are how, by considering only the best fit for the job, they've managed to hire a staff that matches the racial and ethnic composition of their community, and why some traditional old services have been rethought or replaced with others that fulfill the purpose in new ways.
But a library blog does need to be approached with commitment, as a library service that like any other requires daily or at the very least weekly attention - people won't click on a blog that rarely gets updated (though to some extent that can be mitigated by making the blog available as an RSS feed). Somebody has to keep supplying content.
One way to do that is to require several library staff members to contribute regularly to the project. MADReads (mentioned above) and Memphis Reads <http://memphisreads.blogspot.com/> are among the team blogs in which a number of distinct librarian voices are heard recommending both books and library services for readers.
Finally, a blog is a place where your community can talk back to you, because blog software automatically permits comments. The fact is, people don't like top-down communication: we all want to talk back. Allow your users to contribute to the site, and you'll have a nice informal feedback mechanism to find out what your users think about your existing services, website, collections, and recommendations, and what they'd like to see added or changed.
If you're not yet a blogging library, take a look at how these and other libraries are doing it - the Blog without a Library Wiki maintains a lengthy set of links to all types of libraries that maintain blogs at <http://www.blogwithoutalibrary.net/links/index.php?title=Welcome_to_the_Blogging_Libraries_Wiki>. I'll bet you'll see a model that appeals to you, or inspires an even better idea for your own library.
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All too often, especially in larger settings, bureaucracy creates tidy little job descriptions into which staff are jailed. What this mathematically driven system does not take into account is that human beings are complex creatures with more than one ability. A person may be a whiz at answering reference questions, but what if they can also sew a very convincing Sponge Bob costume? Will the Youth Services Department go without this asset because costuming is not in the job description for reference? Maybe your cataloguer is expert at Microsoft Access. Will he/she be allowed to work on a database for the Circulation people, or will it be more important to protect one's turf?
Our library looks expensive because we have a cataloger doing an RA newsletter, a reference clerk writing music, and circulation clerks putting up displays. Does this make our organizational chart a little fuzzy? Maybe. Welcome to the human race. And I dare you to find a bored KPL staffer!
Steve Bertrand, Assistant Director, Kankakee Public Library, on the library's blog She Said/He Said, Nov. 15 2006, http://lions-online-shesaidhesaid.blogspot.com/2006/11/talent-20.html
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