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Archive for the ‘New Professionals’ Category

Blogging: the three main options and platforms for hosting a blog

17 Jun

The issue of where to host a blog is fairly complicated for people new to the medium – particularly the differences between wordpress.org and wordpress.com. I often have to write a condensed version of the advice below in emails to people as follow-ups to blogging workshops, so I thought I’d put it all in one blog post in case others find it useful too.

CC Image by Orin Zebest – click to view original on Flickr

Why does the platform matter?

Every blogging option comes with its own advantages and drawbacks. On a basic level they run on a sliding scale from quick, logistically easy, and ugly / annoying to use at one end, to more complicated, faffy, and nice to look at / simple to use at the other. Often the more basic solution starts off okay and then becomes problematic later on, but you can migrate blogs to new platforms without too much fuss, so if you set up a wordpress.com blog on a whim and it turned into something significant and valuable, so now you want to upgrade to wordpress.org to get rid the weight-loss ads which have started appearing on your posts, then fear not, you can do exactly that.

All blogging platforms have some things in common. They all have a basic word processor interface for typing in posts, they all give you stats on how many people are reading your posts, they all give you ready-made options to help readers subscribe to, search, and share what you’re blogging. All allow you to pay for a URL and so call your site the slightly more credible-looking yourname.com rather than yourname.wordpress.com or similar.

You could show all of them to someone in the year 2000 and their jaw would drop open at the sheer POWER and SIMPLICITY of what you can do in 2014 FOR FREE and with no knowledge of code / building websites. They’re ace. They’re an opportunity.

I have not included Typepad in this list because it’s a paid for service – it’s very good but, having tried it out, I don’t believe it represents the kind of step up from the free options below which would warrant a monthly cash investment.

Blogger

Blogger.com is a Google product. It is sometimes frustrating and pernickety to use, and is the least aesthetically pleasing option. It looks dated, both to the author and the reader. However, it is free – and at the time of writing, you get no adverts on your blog posts unless you choose to put them there yourself.

Setting up a Blogger account is the most straightforward – if you have a Google account, you effectively have a Blogger account whether you’ve made use of it or not. Just go to blogger.com, log-in, and click create blog (further instructions here). I use Blogger to power my Library Marketing Toolkit website – I chose it because it is free, doesn’t require the logistical hassle of self-hosting, and won’t display unwanted ads. It took ages of tinkering to make the site look relatively nice though, and it still looks pretty 90s.

A blogger.com site

A blogger.com site

Blogger is quickish, powerful and a relatively straightforward way to build a website – you don’t HAVE to use it as a blog, even. 10 years ago this would be the greatest most useful thing ever – it’s only because there are easier and more attractive options now that we don’t now celebrate its glory.

I recommend Blogger to people who are dipping their toe into blogging but aren’t yet sure it’ll be a major part of their professional lives, and who need the credibility that comes with not having ads. If you don’t mind the potential ads on your posts, then option two, wordpress.com, is a better bet.

WordPress.com

WordPress.com is, like Blogger, free and easy to use. WordPress hosts the blog for you, so there’s no need to self-host the website. Compared to Blogger, it is basically easier to use, less frustrating, more flexible, more fresh and modern and nice looking, and great.

The only major downside is that after a certain popularity threshold (I’m afraid I’ve not been able to pin down exactly where this threshold is) you get ads on your posts, which you can’t control or turn off. As I say, if this isn’t a problem for you, go for this option, it’s great. A second more minor downside compared to Blogger: at the moment you can’t use Google analytics with it, and there are occasional issues around embedding dynamic content.

I used wordpress.com to power the Buy India a Library site – it was ridiculously simple to create that, literally in less than an hour, and without needing any knowledge of HTML etc. I also used it for my band’s website, below – again, this took a tiny amount of time considering it looks nice and works well.

Website created in under an hour using wordpress.com

Website created in under an hour using wordpress.com

WordPress.org

In many ways wordpress.org is the gold standard option – it affords the most flexibility and the most control. You can set your site up any way you like using a greater number of free themes, or by paying for a ‘premium’ theme, or by designing your own – this thewikiman site is a wordpress.org blog, with a theme I created, writing the HTML.

Two other things there are much more of with wordpress.org than with .com or Blogger are analytics – you can get hugely detailed statistics about who is visiting your site, for how long, when they’re from, what makes them leave and so on- and plugins, which is to say the little widgets which appear in the column down the right-hand side. Whether it’s Twitter and Facebook sharing buttons, or embedding a Twitter feed or YouTube account, or being able to print these posts to PDF, or displaying the most commented upon posts – all of these are plugins which I didn’t create myself, but which already existed and I just applied them to this blog. And you never get ads, or indeed anything, placed on your blog, which you don’t put there yourself.

There is only one downside: HASSLE. It is a hassle to use wordpress.org because it is ‘self-hosted’. So while Blogger and WordPress.com blogs sit on the blogger.com and wordpress.com sites without you having to do anything, you need a host server for a wordpress.org blog, onto which you have to install wordpress software. It is possible to find free hosting, but it will put so many limitations on its not worth having – so that means paying for hosting, and paying for the domain name. In my case it’s £96 per year for the hosting, and £20 for the domain name. I used to have a cheaper hosting package, but I used up all the bandwidth before the end of each month (due to the amount of people visiting this site) so had to upgrade – although now I hardly blog anymore, I should probably look at going back to a cheaper package.

WordPress recommends these hosting companies, but personally I recommend Clook very highly indeed. Great service, good prices, wordpress.org can be installed automatically without any technical know-how, and the tech support is completely fabulous. I once tweeted in passing about how my blog was down due to server maintenance, and Clook saw the tweet, looked into it, saw there was a problem with my blog specifically, fixed it, and THEN tweeted me back to say it was sorted! All without asking me any questions or telling me to stand by while they investigated; I hadn’t even logged a request with technical support online or actually solicited their assistance. They’re ace.

The other hassle is maintenance. WordPress.com blogs get everything taken care of by WordPress – the .org version you have to upkeep yourself, installing updates (which is a simple, automatic process) of both the software itself and your plugins.

In my view all of this is worth it for this, my main site – but not for any other projects I’m involved with thus far. If you don’t mind the fact that you have to be more proactive in set-up and maintenance, and can afford hosting, it’s the best option by far, in my view.

How this blog-post looks in edit view -  a wordpress.org site

How this blog-post looks in edit view – a wordpress.org site

(Bonus option: Tumblr)

Tumblr began as a short-form blogging platform, somewhere between a traditional blog and the instant communication of Twitter. People can use it however they want, but personally I think you need to be on Tumblr for a reason - it’s not a direct equivalent to the options listed above, but something a little different. (The BL’s mechanical curator is my favourite reason for a tumblr so far…)

Tumblr is a self-contained community in the way the others are not. There is a ready-made group of people for you to join in with, and by far the fastest growing group of users – because it massively popular with a younger demographic, Tumblr continues to grow incredibly rapidly. But you need a Tumblr account to comment on a Tumblr post, so it’s not the ideal medium for reaching and interacting with as wide a group of people as possible. By all means set up a Tumblr if you have something offbeat which suits the ‘brief and often’ nature of the medium, but if you’re setting up, for example, an academic blog, I would recommend choosing wordpress or blogger.

So! There you go. I hope someone finds this helpful. Any questions, leave me a comment.

Good luck.

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Is the Library degree the best use of your resources? Imagine what else you could do with that time and money

12 Feb

Edit:  Despite my clarifications, people are still misinterpreting my original post as a proposed ‘solution’ to the problem of the Library degree, so I’ve rewritten this to stop that happening.

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To embark upon a Library Masters in 2014 is a huge undertaking. Assuming you do it part-time, whilst working to support yourself, you’ll spend between ten and eighteen thousand pounds over two years, along with, at a conservative estimate, 1500 hours of your time.[1]

The question is, does the Library degree really represent the best use of this investment?

What if you were to spend the same amount of time and money on a self-structured curriculum of study, events, conferences, training, and building an online portfolio, whilst continuing to work in an information role. Would you not emerge as a more rounded, knowledgeable, and relevant information professional?

I think you would. If someone were to try it, the results would certainly be interesting. This is not, however, a solution to the problem.

The problem with the Library degree

I have many issues with the MA/Msc in Library & Information Management (or similar) as it currently stands, in the UK. For the record, I completed mine, via distance learning, in 2009. It was fine, I didn’t hate it, it wasn’t a bad degree in any way. My views on the degree are based on my own experience, and based on talking to others – I realise they may not be universal complaints. But here are the main ones anyway:

1)    Much of the content of the courses does not seem relevant to actually being an information professional

2)    There is one degree that is supposed to cover, in one year of full-time study, all aspects and types of librarianship, including public, academic and special librarianship (not to mention the myriad other potential careers under the information umbrella). As far as I can tell these disciplines are very different from each other

3)    Many of the courses contain modules they contained 10 years ago, despite the information world having undergone seismic shift in that time. Anything you learn on a library degree is likely to be out of date in two to five years anyway

4)    Having completed a Masters in another discipline prior to getting my Library one, I did not find the latter to be postgraduate in nature. It was just like a very short undergraduate course

5)    The piece of paper at the end – the degree certificate which allows you to apply for higher graded jobs for which a qualification is an ‘essential’ on the person spec – seems far more important than what you learn on the course itself

6)    The difference between a ‘qualified’ librarian and an ‘unqualified’ one is very rarely the qualification. It’s more often that the unqualified librarian’s circumstances are such that they have been unable to do the degree, rather than that they are in any way a lesser librarian

7)    The process by which CILIP accredits degrees and the institutions which offer them does not seem to be in any way rigorous, based on the experiences of colleagues who have attended certain institutions…

8)    To add insult to the injury of the points above, there are many more qualified librarians than there are posts for qualified librarians – meaning that in my own institution alone there are several very talented new professionals who have gone to the time and expense of getting the degree, but who are nevertheless in the same roles they were in whilst they studied

Most importantly, the degree is so expensive that it is actively excluding people from good jobs – we are putting a financial price on progress in our profession, and for what? A degree that isn’t particularly relevant or, in some cases, even particularly enjoyable to complete. I don’t think it’s acceptable that we’re all of us complicit in such a flawed system. Employers, students, CILIP, people like me who recognised the issues but did the Masters anyway just to get the piece of paper – we’re all part of the problem with the Library degree.

If you are going to create a professional environment in which a ten thousand pound degree is necessary to earn more than £25,000 a year, then the degree itself needs to be a LOT more meaningful than it is at present.

What do we do about it?

If it were up to me, I’d do two things:

A) re-design the Masters to be a Problem Based Learning (PBL) degree, which would allow a much closer connection between study and the reality of library work, and

B) issue some kind of nation-wide edict forcing all hiring library managers to give proper value to the second half of the sentence ‘Library qualification or equivalent experience’ which appears on so many job specs.

There are actually a pleasingly high number of hiring managers who do ‘B’ already, although it’s not that wide-spread. But ‘A’ is a lot trickier.

I am writing (or was writing – we’ll get there eventually!) an article with Alan Carbery about rethinking the degree as PBL. I find PBL incredibly difficult to explain succinctly – basically it’s student centered learning, that is used in a lot of Medical Schools around the UK (including the one in my own institution). It’s really very different from the traditional HE pedagogy. Here’s an excerpt from what the BMJ has to say about it (read the whole page here)

In problem based learning (PBL) students use “triggers” from the problem case or scenario to define their own learning objectives. Subsequently they do independent, self directed study before returning to the group to discuss and refine their acquired knowledge. Thus, PBL is not about problem solving per se, but rather it uses appropriate problems to increase knowledge and understanding. The process is clearly defined, and the several variations that exist all follow a similar series of steps.

It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does. Students absolutely love it. At my University it is also used, with great success, by the Law School, and it is their approach specifically that I’d like to see emulated with libraries. Here’s what the Law School has to say about it:

You and your colleagues decide how your firm operates and determine how to divide up the work.  Through the process you will build working relationships with each other and learn how to deliver on your responsibilities.

For each case you will identify the legal principles involved in the problem and unravel the legal and contextual issues that lie at the heart of it, which will typically involve more than one area of law. All of the problems will be simulated real-life examples brought to you by virtual clients.

In many situations you will have to interact with other student firms, sometimes working alongside them, sometimes in opposition.

For me this notion of operating in firms with real-life examples is key. Based on UCAS applications etc the Law School tailors each firm to suit the personalities and talents of the people involved.

Imagine arriving at Library School and being divided up into Libraries, and then given real-life, pertinent, and up to date examples of problems Libraries face. You’d work cooperatively with your peers (and in the era of constant-contact media, Google hangouts etc, distance-learning shouldn’t prohibit this) and deal with things which you really will have to deal with when working in a qualified library post. Issues around web-design and social media, around marketing and communications, around copyright, data protection and FOI, around managing budgets in difficult economic circumstances, around whatever is relevant and important, year on year. It’s not just that it allows Library Schools to cover contemporary issues, it’s the manner in which it is taught, which seems to relate more directly to the real world. Here’s another quote, from the Law School’s guide to students on their use of PBL:

The key role of the problem is to trigger your awareness that these issues exist, and create an interest in them by highlighting their real-world ramifications. Once this has happened, the problem then gives you a context which you can use to identify exactly what you need to learn in order to understand the problem and address the issues which it raises.

This, to me, sounds like the kind of approach which has the potential to produce Library Masters graduates who are significantly more qualified, aware, relevant and prepared, for the real-life world of libraries. In fact it’s a bit like what we all do with our CPD anyhow.

Clearly this would be a massive shift in how things are done. Any library school attempting to implement this would have to completely scrap the existing degree and build a new one from the ground up. But I’d argue that needs to happen anyway; perhaps a new teaching method would add much needed impetus and inspiration.

I’d be interested if anyone reading this who is familiar with PBL, or with teaching on current Masters courses, has a view on this! Is it the kind of thing we could realistically do?



[1] You are notionally expected to spend 100 hours of study per 10 credits on the Masters – assuming you do the dissertation as well, there are 180 credits in the degree, so the total figure is 1,800 hours. I don’t believe anyone has ever spent 225 full 8-hour days studying for a Library Masters, so I reduced it to 1,500 hours, although that still seems fairly fanciful.

 

 

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Building your professional reputation. Library adventures in Cape Town part 1

11 Dec

In October I was invited to South Africa to speak at LIASA 2013, the 15th annual Library and Information Association of South Africa conference. It was in the fabulous City of Cape Town and it was incredible; I just haven’t had a chance to put my thoughts down in a blogpost until now. But I know not everyone is particularly interested in a ‘here’s what I did’ type post so I’ve put that separately in Part 2. There’s also a Part 3 to follow about the differences between UK conferences and international ones.

I was asked to do three things at the conference – a marketing workshop (half a day on strategic marketing and half a day on emerging technologies), a session for the Higher Education Library Interest Group on induction / orientation here at the University of York Library (the presentation is here, although it doesn’t make much sense without me talking over the top, I’m afraid), and a talk aimed primarily at new professionals on building your reputation and professional brand. It’s a tiresomely controversial subject, this; what it comes down to for me is that people fairly new to the profession can sometimes worry about being some sort of super librarian and DOING ALL THE THINGS, but actually you don’t have to be like this at all. You just have to get involved with the areas of librarianship which correspond to your goals in the profession. So the talk was about that, and about different ways to be part of the wider community.

Below is the talk: it consists of my slides, the audio of the talk (recorded from my iphone in my jacket pocket!) and a couple of pictures to look at while I talk about some things I wasn’t intending to talk about, at the very start.

It was fun doing this talk, it was different to the normal things I do. The room was bigger – this is the first time, outside of the webinar environment, that I’d talked to several hundred people at once. Speaking to a room that size is very different to speaking to 30 people – my usual very conversational presentation style wouldn’t have worked. Presenting is a bit like drawing a picture in that the further away the audience, the broader the strokes needed for the picture; the detail gets lost.

The atmosphere was different in SA that from conferences I’ve presented at in the UK, too – people were laid back, ready to laugh. I was one of only three international speakers so everyone was very welcoming. And also, this talk is a version of something I’d originally delivered at a New Professionals Day back in 2012 which was designed primarily to address an anxiety about branding I’d heard many new professionals express – an anxiety which, having arrived in South Africa and been at the conference for a couple of days already, I’d found to be largely absent! So I felt a bit like my talk didn’t match my slides – certainly I was trying to manipulate the slides to tell a slightly different, more widely applicable story, as I went along. But anyway I really enjoyed it and I’ve had some genuinely touching feedback about people feeling inspired.

Parts 2 and 3 to follow!

 

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10 reasons why YOU specifically should apply for the SLA ECCA prize

10 Dec

Hey you, yes you! You may not think you are eligible for the Special Library Assocation’s Early Career Conference Award, but there’s a good chance you are. You may not think the SLA is relevant to you because you don’t work in a ‘special’ library, but it IS, trust me.

Winning the ECCA award could change your whole outlook. It could be incredibly beneficial. Here are 10 reasons to apply:

  1. You don’t have to be THAT early in your career – it’s within 5 years of obtaining your Masters. So in other words, I could apply! (Former winners can’t actually apply but the point being, I qualified in 2009 so I am eligible in that sense.)
  2. It’s probably the best single prize it is possible to win in librarianship. To quote SLA-Europe’s website: “Each Award is worth about $4000. It covers the full cost of Conference registration, hotel lodging, economy return airfare to Vancouver, and meals and appropriate incidental expenses.” I mean, come on! I should just copy and paste that for the remaining 8 things. It’s a ludicrously good prize by any measure.
  3. Whatever your sector, the SLA has relevance to you. The SLA isn’t all about special libraries. There is, of course, a lot of good content (both in the conference and the organisation more generally) if you’re a legal, health, business or pharma librarian – but a huge percentage of members are from the academic library world, for example. There’s public librarians too. But the information you can glean from the talks will apply to any sector – it’s just really high quality speakers talking about really relevant things.
  4. The SLA Conference is completely and utterly brilliant. It is SUCH a good event. I have only been once, but by all accounts it’s amazing every year. I am going in 2014, I have FORCED myself to find a way back* because it was the single greatest experience of my professional career. It’s on an epic scale but it’s focused – you come away inspired, no longer gripped by whatever existential crisis is wasting our time in the profession, buzzing with ideas, and equipped to be a better information professional.
  5. The SLA Conference is made more brilliant by experiencing it with the other ECCA winners. There will be 3 winners this year, from different divisions. The three of you will form a little gang and roam around Vancouver together and it is SO much richer for that. I won’t labour this point because people told me about it before I went and I didn’t really appreciate what they were going on about until it happened – but basically you make friendships and you have this great communal experience in a sort of ECCA bubble and it’s ace. Also, everyone is incredibly friendly and welcoming to the ECCAs.
  6. There is a very flat hierarchy at the conference. There aren’t cliques of senior people and junior people. Everyone mixes with everyone, everyone has time for everyone else. It’s a great opportunity to actually exchange ideas with very high-up people and be treated as an equal. You are, as Penny Andrews put it, valued. She also points out something I’ve mentioned a lot – the LMD (Leadership and Management Division) is NOT just for senior people, it’s for people who want to become or learn from leaders and managers.
  7. You get to travel and interact with the international community. Every time I’ve had the chance to go abroad I’ve found the international perspective on libraries and our profession invaluable. And you get to hear amazing speakers like Stephen Abrams and Mary Ellen Bates who rarely come to England (and then chat with them afterwards – see number 6, above).
  8. You will become an SLA member if you aren’t already. Becoming part of SLA is awesome. Everyone I know who is a member values it enormously. I’ve written before about how being part of the SLA gives you confidence. There are plenty of relevant events in the UK too. Also, you tend to go on to get involved with the SLA in some capacity or other – for example Sam Wiggins who won an ECCA the same year as me is the Chair of SLA-Europe next year, I’ve served on the main SLA Online Advisory Council and as an ECCA judge – the list is endless really. The ECCA is just the beginning.
  9. There is a serious emphasis on fun. The SLA take the profession seriously but they take their fun seriously too. There are events and parties every night, there is a ludicrous amount of booze, and you have to really go out of your way to actually pay for anything. The conference never really stops the whole time you’re there. It’s intense, overwhelming, but, as Simon said, you still feel like you’re buzzing a month later.
  10. If you win the ECCA, then on June 11th 2014, you’ll be on a plane back home, a more knowledgeable, creative, inspired, happy, confident and future-ready information professional.  It really is that good.
    .

Notice that none of the above are ‘it’s good for your CV’. Of course, it IS good for your CV, to win a prestigious international prize. But it’s really not the winning itself which matters, it’s what you get from it – and you get so much from it, that the CV is just an afterthought.

Finally a couple of quick tips for your application (speaking as a former judge):

  • You will be representing SLA-Europe as an award winner. Remember that – it’s not just about all the amazing things you’ve done in your career so far, it’s about actually being in Vancouver as a sort of ambassador for the division.
  • On a related note, your letter of recommendation matters too. The judges want to know what your referee things about you – they also want to know what they think about you winning this prize and going to Vancouver, interacting, networking, learning and so on.
  • Part 2 of the application – “What specific benefits and knowledge do you hope to gain from attending the 2014 SLA Conference and working with SLA Europe and your chosen SLA Division in the future?” – is important. There are a LOT of very good applications for these awards, so it’s really nice for the judges to be able to filter out a whole bunch and put them on the pile marked ‘apparently just fancies winning an award / going on a free trip abroad’. You need to talk about the relationship you are entering into with the SLA and how that will develop over time.
  • If you’ve applied before and not won, don’t let that put you off. I didn’t get it the first time I tried, I know other winners who were second time lucky.
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If you have any questions, leave them in a comment and I’ll endeavour to answer them. Basically I can’t recommend applying for this highly enough – it will make your life awesome if you win.

Finally, you can read my own reflections on the 2011 ECCA experience on SLA-Europe’s blog, and embedded below is the video I made at the conference. GOOD LUCK!

 

(Here’s that application link, one more time.)

 

*It’s amazing how many ECCA’s find a way back. Many have gone most years since they won. Despite the massive logistical effort it constitutes, and having to find ways of paying for it, it’s so completely amazing that you find a way back.

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