Julian Harrison is the curator of pre-1600 manuscripts and books at the British Library; he also helps to manage the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog. In this talk for The Social Scholar seminar Julian explains what the British Library has gained from blogging and asks everyone to consider why it might be important for them to do the same.
Why should you blog? This was the specific question we were trying to answer in the inaugural Social Scholar seminar. It’s been said many times, by many people that blogs are a distraction. Writing and managing blogs takes up too much time, time better spent elsewhere. It’s been said that they are nothing more than publicity stunts and advertising activities, not worthwhile chores for academics, archivists, of postgraduate students. It’s also argued that blogs are superficial, too short to get in depth into a subject and required to be punchy, exciting and lightweight. All of this is true of course, but it is equally untrue as well. Blogs are all of these things to some people, and none of these things to others.
Julian Harrison is certainly an advocate for blogs and social media in general. He believes that blogs provide an ideal forum for sharing ideas, information, and research. He doesn’t for an instant suggest that they should replace other forms of academic writing; that’s not their niche. What blogs can do is provide a forum for talking about research or artefacts that can be potentially accessed by millions of people. Most blogs will never be read by that many people of course, but the possibility is there to reach an audience much wider than the one a researcher will often write for, and can reach them quicker and faster than ever before.
What are blogs useful for?
During his presentation Julian asked the audience what was the largest amount any of them had spent on a book? £50? £70? £100? There was one person in the audience that ticked all those boxes (and went higher) but most could only
tick option one at best. The British Library recently spent £9 million on a book. Obviously this wasn’t any ordinary book – it was a book contained in the earliest known bookbinding still to exist and survive in Western Europe. It was also an important book in terms of its’ content. The St Cuthbert Gospel was named for its namesake in Lindisfarne and designed as a high quality book as a means of promoting both church and saint.
Julian then talked about white gloves. Watch almost any television documentary filmed at the British Library or The National Archives and everyone will be handling manuscripts in white gloves. Julian described them as the tools of the trade – the distinguishing mark of an archivist, just like the uniform of a police officer, or the red briefcase of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. But in this case it’s all a lie. The British Library and The National Archives don’t want people handling their manuscripts in gloves as this tends to cause more damage than bare hands. It’s all for show.
The Medieval Manuscripts blog showcased both the purchase of St Cuthbert’s Gospel and tackled the issue of white gloves. Now, whenever a member of the public asks them why they don’t use gloves, the library can point them in the direction of the blog. If asked why the library would spend so much money on one single item, they can again direct people to the blog, where the importance of St Cuthbert’s Gospel is explained in an informal and friendly way. Blogs can therefore act as an arena for sharing research and activities undertaken by an organisation and save time on answering often-asked questions. It helps to demystify the profession and provide a friendly, human face to an otherwise austere organisation.
In the case of the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog such posts have proven successful. When it was first created Julian expected that they would only need to post once a week and not worry too much about promoting it. But that didn’t get them very far. Now they post more regularly asking the various staff members to contribute, and promote it via Twitter. In this case this approach has worked. In 2010 the blog received 14,000 views; this year (so far) it has received 50,600 views. Breaking down those statistics a little more Julian noted that visitors came from 189 different countries with only a third from the UK. The US is their largest visitor.
Keeping an eye on statistics is therefore important. By realising that the blog received more visitors from the US then the UK or elsewhere they started to schedule posts for release around midnight (UK time). They found that the post would receive traction on Twitter in the US, so that by the time morning came around in the UK there was already discussion and debate about the blog post there to greet UK and European visitors.
Seven rules of blogging?
Julian ended his talk with his seven rules of blogging and by describing two particular posts that received and continue to receive notice. The first of these was an April Fools’ joke, in which the pre-1600 manuscripts team forged a manuscript image of a Unicron being roosted claiming it had been taken from a medieval cookbook. The blog post is one of their more successful posts and managed to get the blog noticed and show that the British Library can have a sense of humour. The second post was thought by many visitors also to be a hoax, but this one was very real. It asked why there were so many marginal images on medieval manuscripts showing a battle between a Knight and a Snail. This was real research but it was again, also fun and interesting. It got the blog noticed and gave visitors, including academics amongst them, something interesting to discuss and possibly investigate further. Not all posts need be like this, Julian admitted, but the occasional ‘fun’ post helps to get people reading the blog, and after all that’s what we all want in the end; for people to read what we are saying, to think about it, and to discuss it, perhaps even to take things further.
Blogs are all about sharing research, ideas, or items of interest amongst peers and those that might take an interest. They help to promote the organisation and the research, and they provide a human voice.
The St Cuthbert Gospel blog post
The Unicron Cookbook blog post
For a full archive of the tweets and presentation/discussion from this seminar please have a look at our blog post: The Social Scholar Archive: The Twitter feed from “The Anti-Social Scholar (and how not to become one)”. The video is available from the SAS website, YouTube, and iTunes.
The second Social Scholar seminar is just around the corner and you are warmly invited to join us. Mark Carrigan will be talking at the Social Scholar in room 246, Senate House (University of London) at 1pm-2pm on Wednesday 13 November 2013. The seminar is free and open to all with coffee & tea provided. Please feel free to join us. We will also be tweeting from the session on @SASNews using the hashtag #socialscholar.
To learn more about the public events held by the School of Advanced Study and our other activities please go to our website SAS.ac.uk.