Blogomania!

Blogomania!
Every day 12,000 new blogs are created. Here's how you can get in on the action.
By Eric Oatman -- School Library Journal, 08/01/2005

Also in this article:
A Library Blog Sampler
Does Your Library Blog?
“Do you blog?”

That's a question educators are hearing frequently these days, and more and more are responding with an enthusiastic “yes!” The reason? Teachers have discovered that technologies like weblogs—Web sites that are a snap to update—can be powerful teaching tools. And librarians are gearing up to help them.

The educational community's infatuation with blogging isn't an isolated phenomenon. It's part of a quiet revolution in the way people relate to one another online. Around the world, millions of people are creating online communities among people of like interests. And they are doing it with a passion so intense that the term “blogomania” has been invented to describe it.

Statistics compiled by the Pew Internet and American Life Project show how deeply blogging has become embedded in our culture. Last February, about 67 percent of all Americans—135 million people—used the Internet. About 31 million of those Internet users, or 23 percent, said they had read someone else's blog; and about 12.2 million, or nine percent, had created one. That's a lot of bloggers, and their numbers have grown astronomically over the past few years.

Why have millions of Americans ventured into the blogosphere, the planetary community of bloggers? Primarily because blogging—adding entries to an online journal or commenting on them—is fun, empowering, inexpensive, and practically effortless. Individual entries, called posts in bloggerese, are generally short—easy to write, quick to read. They pop up on the monitor in reverse chronological order, giving you the choice of passing over earlier arrivals. Every post is automatically date- and time-stamped. Hyperlinks (there's usually at least one in each post) let you access items the writer refers to with a click of the mouse. But to millions, the best thing about blogs isn't the ease of use. What counts to them is the opportunity to contribute two cents to the public discourse, even if the discourse is gossip.

“Kids are looking for opportunities for self-expression and to find their own identities,” says Peter Grunwald of Bethesda, MD, who has studied the ways young people use Web sites, iPods, online photo banks, and other means of managing information. “It's part of a broader trend in which kids are taking control of the media they use,” Grunwald says. “More and more are becoming producers of information rather than passive consumers of it.”

The implications of that role-reversal for education are huge. Teachers have been devising ways to treat learners as producers rather than products for a long while. The difference is that, today, many of these teachers are getting an assist from blogs.

Blogs—digital paper, someone has called them—enable librarians and teachers to initiate online conversations with their students, prompting thoughtful comments about current events, science experiments, field trips, and math problems. Many teachers use blogs to display course notes, showcase student writing, distribute assignments, and provide homework help. Blogs on the Web site of the Magnolia Elementary School in Joppa, MD, highlight fifth-grade writers and kindergarteners' artwork. Fourth graders studying Maryland history have built a compendium of fascinating facts about their state on their blog. The school's math specialist has built a blog “for students and teachers to think, write, and read about (and hopefully eventually discuss) math skills and instruction.”

The ability of blogs to bind people together has caught the attention of many school administrators. Visit the Web site of the Buckman Arts Magnet Elementary School in Portland, OR, and you will discover a bevy of community-building blogs. Among them are notes to parents about classroom activities, meals, and vacations; a letter from the principal; a newsletter for parents by parents; and photo galleries of school events. The library's blog provides an introduction to its services, book recommendations, links to a database on the “Musician of the Week” (Bach has reigned all summer), archived posts reaching back to January 2003, and even a request for donations.

One of the most remarkable school library sites is Patrick Delaney's “Li-Blog-ary” at San Francisco's Galileo Academy of Science and Technology. The Li-Blog-ary is the synapse of a schoolwide community of bloggers. Drop-down menus offer instant access to research sites and specialized search engines and to blogs maintained by student organizations, parents, staff members, and teachers. “Blogging from a school library,” Delaney explains, “implies multiple blogs in a school, centered around the sort of professional and curriculum development that librarians have the potential for.” A library blog that isn't the “keystone of a school blog community,” he insists, “doesn't make much sense.”

Delaney is a “blogevangelist.” He is on a mission to help his colleagues use technology to enrich their teaching and, ultimately, their lives. “Too many librarians isolate themselves from teachers by trying to run their libraries in traditional ways,” says this 18-year veteran of San Francisco schools. “A librarian can actually help teachers feel less isolated. And tech tools—blogs, Instant Messenger, learning management systems, RSS—make connections to teachers easier.” RSS is a format created by Netscape that enables bloggers to have blogs and news organized and downloaded to them automatically.

The great promise of blogs, Delaney concludes, is that “they break down the isolating walls of classrooms and media centers. They relatively effortlessly allow connection to a wider world of resources, librarians, teachers, and lots of other professionals and community members.”

Like the Web itself, blogs are a relatively new technology. According to Dave Winer, editor of Scripting News, the oldest continuously published blog, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, created the first blog in 1992 when he built the first Web page. In 1997, the year these online journals were named weblogs, only about two dozen existed. One of them was Jenny Levine's Site du Jour, launched in 1995 and considered the first library blog. Today, Levine, a library Internet specialist in suburban Chicago, manages the Shifted Librarian. The goal of this entertaining blog is to alert librarians to all the neat devices that Levine believes are making libraries portable.

It's easy to see why blogs were slow to catch on. Anyone who wanted to set up a blog in the '90s needed to be fluent in HTML, the language used to structure text and multimedia documents. Bloggers also had to know how to insert hyperlinks into the text. It took the 1999 release of Pyra and a few other easy-to-use, Web-based software programs to democratize the activity. Pyra, now called Blogger, is a free blogging tool owned by Google. Editors can park their blogs on Blogger's server and access them from any computer.

How should a non-blogging media specialist launch her library into the blogosphere? “Start small,” says Delaney. “One blog. If a teacher wants to do his or her usual lesson in the library, put that lesson on the Web. See what happens next. Subscribe to other librarian blogs and occasionally read what they produce. Hook up with your local National Writing Project site or a local tech-integration advocacy group like California's Computer Using Educators.”

Delaney followed his own advice at Galileo. “I used the original library blog to demonstrate to interested teachers how easy it could be to use the Web,” he says. “They took off on their own. Early adopters brought others in. The more adventurous pushed things a bit and asked to have students publish.”

Will Richardson, a former English teacher and a prominent blogevangelist, oversees instructional technology at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, NJ. “At first,” he suggests, “start a blog and use it to just talk about what's going on in the library. For example, you could start your own interactive Amazon site. Invite people to review books and rate them and start conversations around books.”

Opening up blogs for comments is a sore point in many school districts. “We're not comfortable in schools with putting information up there for people to interact with,” Richardson says. “We're afraid of getting inappropriate comments, flaming, and so forth. I would argue that it's our job to teach kids how to do that, because at home they see all sorts of things we have no control of. I hear stories all the time: 'You were reading my site? How did you find my site?' Well, it's on the Internet, dummy. They don't understand that what they're doing when they blog is really creating an online portfolio. They're leaving a Web trail.”

“Kids define privacy as anywhere their parents and teachers are not,” says Frances Jacobson Harris, a librarian at the University Laboratory High School in Urbana, IL. “They used to put things like their pictures and addresses and names in their blogs. But I think they're getting better at not doing that.” Many librarians use a unit Harris created to teach students the etiquette and ethics of blogging.

“When you begin, tread gently,” advises Alice Yucht, a veteran educator and blogger who teaches online courses in librarianship to Rutgers University graduate students in New Jersey. “A blog is a wonderful tool for marketing and communication. But it's not for everybody. I would recommend it to those people who think they would like to try a new way of marketing their library services.”

Yucht cautions people new to blogs to be clear about what they want to use them for. “Being a frustrated writer is not a reason to have a blog,” she says. “Who's your audience? If you're going to have a blog for a school, you should set up in advance some very clear guidelines for yourself. Remember that a blog is a public publication.”

Harlene Rosenberg supervises the instructional materials center and its many blogs at Richardson's school in Flemington, NJ. “Blogs are a really nice way of getting information out in a very easy way,” she says. “Three of us do it together. Each of us has a section that we are in charge of.” Rosenberg updates the daily announcements; an assistant refreshes the Book Nook, a collection of teacher recommendations, books of the week, and descriptions of new acquisitions; and another assistant takes care of the rest. “The bottom line,” says Rosenberg, “If I can do it, anyone can do it.”

The number of K–12 teachers who blog is probably in the thousands. The number of school librarians who blog is in the hundreds. Lack of time seems to be the major deterrent. “It's hard to find someone in a school library who's tethered to her computer,” says Margaret Lincoln, the librarian at Lakeview High School in Battle Creek, MI. “Many of us are chief cooks and bottle washers. We're doing it all.”

“I started a blog and couldn't keep it up,” admits Joyce Kasman Valenza, the librarian at the Springfield Township High School Library in Erdenheim, PA. Valenza, who created a virtual library on her school's Web site, writes about technology for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Delaney, for one, isn't troubled by the shortage of librarian bloggers. But he is a bit perplexed. “It's actually kind of surprising that there aren't more librarians already on board the train,” he says. “But it's a local, moving slowly, making lots of stops, with multiple delays along the line. No need to panic.”

“We educators are just slow to the party,” says Richardson. “All these technologies have been overwhelming journalism and politics. Blogging has been changing all areas, and it can't help but change education.”

Librarians will have a major impact on any transformation, Delaney believes. “Blogs are not the solution to improvements in education,” he says. “Teachers are. If blogs and RSS and podcasting [audio-blogging over iPods and PCs] and videoconferencing and learning management systems help teachers to do better work, then librarians are well positioned to help teachers use them.”

But first librarians will have to be able to say “yes” to the question, “do you blog?”

Author Information
Eric Oatman is a news and features editor at SLJ.

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