Bonnie Shucha is Head of Reference, University of Wisconsin Law Library
Editor’s Note: In April, 2007 this article by Bonnie Shucha received the AALL-SIS Outstanding Article Award.
Although the legal and library literature is filled with information about the theoretical pros and cons of blog publishing, little has been written about actual blogging experiences. Who is blogging? What are they blogging about? Who reads blogs? What technologies are being used? Have blogs been successful? What lessons can be shared? These are the questions explored in this article. Through this study, potential bloggers will better evaluate whether this technology is right for them and veterans will gain insight into their own blogging experience in comparison to their peers.
In the area of Reference, Research, and Client Services, the American Association of Law Libraries has designated the following competencies for law librarians:
3.1 Provides skilled and customized reference services on legal and relevant non-legal topics
3.2 Evaluates the quality, authenticity, accuracy, and cost of traditional and electronic sources, and conveys the importance of these to the client
3.3 Assists clients with legal research using both print and electronic resources
3.4 Assists non-lawyers in accessing the law…
3.5 Aggregates content from a variety of sources and synthesizes information to create customized products for clients
3.6 Creates research and bibliographic tools (handouts, aids, pathfinders, bibliographies) on legal and related topics
3.7 Monitors trends in specific areas of the law
With these competencies, AALL has identified the skills that “define the profession of law librarianship and its value to the legal field.” Using these skills to providing valuable reference, research, and client services is an essential part of what we do as law librarians. Any technology that can assist us in these endeavors is welcome. One that is relatively inexpensive and easy-to-learn is especially desirable.
Fortunately, many law librarians have discovered such a technology: the blog. There is a tremendous amount of legal information being distributed via blogs. By reading blogs, law librarians garner useful information to share with patrons and clients. A growing number of law librarians have also realized the technology’s potential for communicating with patrons, clients, and colleagues. Publishing a blog is an excellent way for law librarians to share our expertise of legal materials, offer educated evaluations of sources, and inform our readers of new trends and resources. Because posts are archived and often searchable, law library blogs also serve as lasting pathfinders to legal and related topics.
Although the legal and library literature is filled with information about the theoretical pros and cons of blog publishing, little has been written about actual blogging experiences. Who is blogging? What are they blogging about? Who reads blogs? What technologies are being used? Have blogs been successful? What lessons can be shared? These are the questions explored in this article. Through this study, potential bloggers will better evaluate whether this technology is right for them and veterans will gain insight into their own blogging experience in comparison to their peers?
In the fall of 2005, I conducted a survey of law library bloggers to gain insight into the questions posed above. Law library blogs were defined as those affiliated with a law library, a law library association, and / or written by a law librarian.
I asked a total of twenty-four questions which focused on the following areas:
- Characteristics of the blogger(s)
- Motivations for blogging
- Blog audience
- Technologies used
- Bloggers’ opinions about their experience
I. About Law Library Bloggers
Prior to this survey, there were fifty-four known law library blogs. Each blogger received an invitation via email to participate in the survey. Announcements were also posted on both the Law-lib and Teknoids listservs, as well as the CS-SIS Blawgs Committee blog. A total of fifty-one responses were received upon closure of the survey in September 2005. This number included responses from several previously unknown law library bloggers. There are currently 105 known law library blogs.
Survey data reveals that most law library blogs, 70.5%, are affiliated with a library, a law library association, or some other organization. Of those affiliated with a library, 39.2% are associated with academic law libraries, 13.7% with firm/corporation law libraries, and 5.9% with state, court, or county law libraries.
A number of survey respondents noted that affiliated blogs have been an excellent vehicle for sharing information about the library and its resources: “The blog is the most expedient way of communicating with faculty and keeping them abreast of library activities as well as new resources, internet sites and legal news.”
Others noted that the library blog helped bring a personal face to the library and create a connection with their users. According to one individual, the blog even “helped keep students on our side in the aftermath of a fire.”
Several law library associations, such as American Association of Law Libraries and its chapters and special interest sections, have also created blogs. They made up 3.9% of survey respondents. Via a blog, an association can “quickly disseminate information about our organization and to also post items of interest to our community,” according to the Dallas Association of Law Librarians (DALL). Some librarians believe that blogs are especially well suited for associations whose members only meet a handful of times each year. “Why wait 3 months to catch up with LLNE?” asks the subtitle of the Law Librarians of New England blog.
Almost a third of law library blogs, 29.4%, are unaffiliated with any library or association. By remaining independent, bloggers may experience greater freedom to speak frankly. Some bloggers prefer to remain anonymous, including the survey respondent who worried that going public “would cause me professional damage.” Another warned that “you have to be wary of potentially offending your employer or a potential employer.”
Other bloggers have identified themselves but have chosen to remain independent of their library or other organization. In this way, a blogger might also claim complete ownership of the content presented in the blog, especially if maintained on his or her own time.
Although law library bloggers are active around the globe, survey results reveal that the highest concentrations appear in the Middle Atlantic and Midwest. Each of these areas comprised 25.5% of survey respondents. New England claimed the next highest concentration of bloggers with 11.8%. Tied with 7.8% each are the South, Southwest, and West regions of the United States.
There are also a number of law library bloggers outside of the U.S. Canadian law library bloggers represented 5.9% of survey respondents. An additional 7.8% were located in other areas around the globe.
C. Number of Authors
Over half of all law library blogs, 56.9%, are authored by a single individual. Likely, this person is an “early adopter”: one who sees the potential in a new technology and is willing to risk trying it. As more librarians come to recognize the value of this technology, they may also wish to get involved, whether by starting a new blog, or, if their library or association already has a blog, by contributing to it.
Co-authored blogs vary in number of contributors with 19.6% having less than five authors and 15.6% with between six and thirteen authors. Team blogs can support a much larger number of contributors, however. One respondent, or 1.9%, indicated that there were sixty co-authors for his/her blog.
Several respondents noted that their blogs have been “hard to maintain in the face of other work needs.” This is what makes team blogs so attractive. Theoretically, responsibility to post to the blog is equally shared. In reality, however, respondents shared that other team members did not contribute as much as planned.
D. Bloggers’ Position
Authorship of law library blogs varies among job position, including library directors, librarians and support staff, faculty, attorneys, judges, and others. Not surprisingly, the largest group is librarians who contribute to 82.4% of law library blogs. Library directors post to 31.4%, while support staff contribute to 17.6% of blogs.
Interestingly, a number of contributors to law library blogs are not members of the law library staff. Attorneys, faculty, and judges have posted to 7.8% of law library blogs. Others, including law school students, contributed to 11.8%.
In determining who contributes to the blog, job position may be less important than other factors, including acceptance of the technology, desire to write, and time to contribute to the blog.
E. Posting Frequency
One issue that every blogger must consider is how often to post. This varies among law library bloggers. A large number of bloggers surveyed, 37.3%, post to their blogs every weekday and many post on weekends as well. Others post with less frequency, either every few days, weekly, monthly, or some where in between. All law library bloggers surveyed posted at least monthly.
It appears that there is no ideal frequency for posting to law library blogs. Some bloggers are very prolific, such as the librarian who set up a news clipping blog for a project “to keep team members aware of developments on a daily basis.”
Others blog much less often. For example, some librarians have employed blogging technology to replace weekly or monthly newsletters. One survey respondent noted that this change resulted in a more manageable work flow for the library staff. “Instead of having to spend a large block of time every two weeks to update the newsletter, we can take a few minutes here and there throughout each week to add new posts to the blog. This has been a great benefit.”
Although different, both of these librarians settled upon frequencies that suited their workloads and met the needs of their patrons. Achieving this balance can be difficult, as expressed by one librarian who shared that it is hard “to find enough time to post really worthwhile information” and worries “about disappointing readers if I don’t post.”
II. Bloggers’ Motivations
Honoring the commitment to post at a consistent or advertised frequency is one way to develop a devoted readership. Sharing interesting, useful information is another. “A commitment to consistently adding useful and interesting content can go a long way,” advises one law library blogger.
A. Marketing and Outreach
One of the survey questions asked respondents to identify the reasons that they contributed to the blog. The number one response was to market the library. Over half of bloggers affiliated with a law library, 64.7%, indicated that they used their blogs as vehicles to distribute news about their library and its resources. “It is the single most important advertising tool we have for the effort and money spent,” notes one law librarian.
The second highest response was outreach to the legal community. Some shared that their blogs have allowed them to reach patrons whom they might not otherwise reach. For example, a court librarian shared that his blog “allows people access to court info who don’t visit our library.”
Many respondents were pleased at the reception that their blogs had received. “I have received e-mails from my attorneys telling me that they wouldn’t have known about useful cases if they hadn’t seen my blog.” Another shared that “a greater number of people than expected read it,” including “some distinguished members of the legal and library professions.”
B. Knowledge Management
Using blogs as knowledge management tools also emerged as a theme. “It keeps all important links in one place,” shared one librarian. “It archives information so that it can be easily found again in one place.” 33.3% of law library bloggers responded that they blogged to keep a list of links to things they have read.
Blogs are also well suited to managing knowledge in a group environment. About a quarter of law library bloggers, 25.5%, responded that they blog to share information with library staff. According to one librarian, the blog “keeps track of important information that staff would otherwise have to hunt through their accumulated email to review.”
C. Professional Reputation
More than a quarter, 29.4%, of survey respondents recognized that blogging can boost one’s professional reputation. Although none indicated that this was their primary motivation for blogging, several noted that it was a tangible, often surprising side benefit. According to one librarian, “I largely started this just to discover what blogging was about, and it brought a lot with it I did not expect: a higher personal profile, great self-confidence in my expertise, speaking opportunities, writing opportunities, and a reputation as an expert of sorts. I have also been invited to collaborate in projects of which otherwise I have not been a part. It has been a wild ride, and I am doing my best to leverage what I have gained to keep it going.”
A handful of librarians also suggested that blogging brings a higher profile to the law librarian profession generally. “Our profession can get great value from blogging,” believes one respondent. “Publishing is power, but the only way to embrace the power is to get involved.”
It seems that others agree. Each year, Dennis Kennedy, in his well-known legal blog, denniskennedy.com, chooses the Best of Legal Blogging Awards. In 2005, law librarian blogs were selected as the Best Legal Blog Category. “I stand in awe of the job that law librarian bloggers as a group are doing,” wrote Kennedy. “Across the board, these blogs have developed into strong information resources, often with links to primary source information that I’m not sure how I would find otherwise.”
III. Blog Audience
One key concern for law library bloggers is audience. As with any other Web site, knowing your readers is essential to designing and writing a useful blog. Law students, for example, have very different needs and access to different resources than partners at a law firm. Therefore, the tone a blogger uses, the topics she addresses, and the resources she recommends are often tailored to a specific user group.
A. Public or Private
Whether to restrict the blog to specific users or make it publicly available is a decision that every blogger must make. Among survey respondents, 21.6% restrict their blogs to a specific group of users. Many of these private blogs are housed on an organization’s firewall protected Intranet while others opt for the “security through obscurity” method of simply not advertising a public URL. Most law library blogs, however, are publicly available. 78.4% of respondents indicated that their blogs are available to anyone who cares to view them.
B. Intended Audience
“It is important to have an understanding of the primary audience,” writes one survey respondent. Which audience, however, varies among law library bloggers. The largest primary intended audience category appears to be the blogger’s parent organization. Survey data reveals that 33.3% of blogs are designed for readers within a blogger’s own firm, school, or court. “Our lawyers and library staff comment frequently on content that has been helpful to them,” writes one firm librarian. “As soon as they find it useful in some way, they’re hooked,” advises another
Some law librarians target specific subgroups within their organizations, such as practice areas or project teams. In one such blog, a librarian shared that she posts news clippings to keep team members aware of developments on a daily basis. The blog is also shared with new members as they join the project, enabling them to review what has been reported to date.
Some law librarians have designed blogs around specific law school courses or practice areas. Often it is the students that contribute content to the blog while the librarian serves as editor or advisor. “Students get research and writing experience” and it is “generally good PR for the school,” notes one respondent about the experience. However, another warns that “projects that rely on students. . . are fraught with ups and downs.”
According to survey respondents, the second largest primary intended audience category, 19.6%, is legal practitioners. Of these, half were targeted toward practitioners in the blogger’s own geographic area and the other half were targeted toward legal practitioners worldwide. ” ‘Build it and they will come’ … even lawyers,” advises a librarian, “provided you make sure that they are able to find it easy and useful the VERY FIRST time they access it. That, with lawyers, appears to be CRITICAL.”
A number of respondents commented that blogs are an ideal method of staying connected with other library professionals. Several shared that blogging “increased my interactions with other librarians in the area,” and succeeded in “getting librarians involved in discussion.” Another noted that “it’s an excellent way to keep current on some aspects of law librarianship.”
Finally, there are a handful of law library blogs, 9.8%, which are targeted toward the general public. One librarian noted that the media, in particular, are “really tuned into blogs. Many library issues can be heard, and re-publication opportunities will become possible, IF we give these issues attention via our blogs.”
C. Reaching the Audience
An important concern for many bloggers and potential bloggers is whether their efforts will be rewarded with readers. If you build it, will they come?
In the survey, respondents were asked to estimate how many people read their blog on a given day. Answers varied, ranging from 1 to over 200 readers daily. Roughly half of librarians surveyed, 45.4%, felt that their blog their blog attracted between 1 to 25 people each day. 27.3% believed that 26-100 readers visited their blog on a daily basis. In the 100-200 people category, were 18.2% of law library blogs. A handful, 9.1%, attract over 200 readers daily. One of these reaches as many as 74,000 people every day.
The decision whether to publicize their blog and, if so, how to do it, also varied among law library bloggers surveyed. As noted above, a number of librarians use their blog as a knowledge management tool. Attracting wide readership is not the primary purpose of these blogs and, therefore, publicity is unnecessary. “My blog is a personal KM tool. . . I don’t mind if anyone else reads it so readership is not a factor in ‘success’ though it would be nice.” Other bloggers, too, “have taken the let people find me approach. . .”
Those who have publicized their blogs have done so in numerous ways. One popular method was to secure a link to the blog on the law library, association, or parent organization’s Web site. Librarians also registered their blogs with other sites, such as search engines and blog directories. Some even set the library blog as the homepage for the library and firm computers. “It’s the first thing they see in the morning when they turn their computers on,” wrote one librarian.
Because networking is very strong in the blogosphere, it is quite common for bloggers to post links to one another. Therefore, many librarians noted that they simply asked another more established blogger to link to them. Another common method was to post an announcement about the blog to an appropriate listserv.
Some librarians felt that contributing an article about the blog in a newsletter or local publication was also a valuable promotional tool. Many wrote such articles themselves for library, association, or organization newsletters. Some also submitted press releases to local news media and bar associations.
Making direct contact with desired readers was a technique employed by several bloggers. This was done by mentioning the blog in personal correspondence, one-on-one conversations, reference desk interactions, and group presentations. “When the blog was ‘released’ firm-wide, I spent the first week demonstrating it and answering questions in our boardroom,” recalled one respondent. “I then followed up with individual lawyers to make sure they were getting ‘the swing of it.’ “
Several librarians extended their marketing efforts into the print medium by creating posters, bookmarks, and business cards promoting their blogs. These items were displayed and distributed in the library and in conversations with or presentations to potential readers. Providing marketing pieces that people can take away from the library may remind them to investigate the blog at a later time.
IV. Blogging Technologies
Technology, of course, also plays a significant role in a law library blog. Bloggers have a wide range of technology choices, from the blogging platform used, to the availability of subscription services. The choice of tools he uses and the inclusion or omission of certain features can affect experience the experience of a blog reader. Therefore, its important to have an understanding of these technologies and how they are employed by other law library bloggers.
A. Blogging Platforms
There are many blogging platforms available on the market today: some are free and others are costly; some are relatively easy to learn, while others are more advanced; some have hosting available and others do not. It’s important that bloggers consider their needs and research their options before selecting a platform.
Over half of all survey respondents, 60.8%, indicated that they use Blogger as their blogging platform. Because it is a free service which also offers free hosting, Blogger is an attractive platform for librarians with limited budgets or for those wishing to explore the medium. However, Blogger does not offer the degree of customization afforded by other platforms.
Other platforms used by law librarians include TypePad, MovableType, WordPress, and Radio UserLand. For a fee, these services offer a greater degree of customization to the blogger. For more information, see Time to Check: Are You Using the Right Blogging Tool? from the Online Journalism Review which summarizes the features available on major blogging platforms.
B. Subscription Options
For the reader, one of the most useful features that a blog offers is the option to receive it via subscription. Instead of visiting a blog’s Web page each day to check for new content, those who subscribe to the blog will automatically receive it as soon as it is posted. This can be a huge time saver for the reader, especially for those who monitor multiple blogs.
The primary blog subscription method is via a protocol called RSS, or Really Simple Syndication. According to survey data, almost three-quarters, or 74.5%, of law library blogs offer a RSS feed to which readers can subscribe using a RSS reader such as Bloglines. Each time a blog is updated, content is automatically delivered to the user’s RSS reader. Because multiple RSS feeds can be delivered to a single RSS reader, readers save the time that it would otherwise take to visit the Web site of each blog individually.
An RSS reader is somewhat analogous to an email application. With email, information is received in the form of an email message. The user cannot interpret that information without the aid of a reader: an email application, such as Outlook. With RSS, information is received in the form of post on a blog’s RSS feed. It also cannot be interpreted without the aid of a reader, which in this case, is a RSS reader, such as Bloglines.
Because many potential readers are not acquainted with RSS technology, many law library bloggers, 37.3%, also offer email subscriptions to their blogs via services such as FeedBlitz. By harvesting information from the blog’s RSS feed, these services automatically distribute an email message to subscribers whenever new content is posted to the blog. The blogger does not have to manually distribute messages.
V. Successfulness / Unsuccessfulness
In the survey, law library bloggers were asked to share ways in which they felt that their blog has been successful. Although this was an open-ended question, several common themes emerged. They are arranged by frequency of response received.
Successfully sharing information with patrons, including distant, unexpected, and distinguished readers
- Specific comments: “I have received e-mails from my attorneys telling me that they wouldn’t have known about useful cases if they hadn’t seen my blog”
- Archiving useful information for later use
- Specific comments: “Helps us be more efficient with reference questions re. new developments, for example new statutes or court rules.”
Increased staff communication and morale
- Specific comments: “It keeps our two offices ‘connected’ and positively impacts office morale. People feel they know each other better and that they can communicate in an office forum where their personalities shine through. . . It has resulted in some lawyers collaborating that would not have made the connection otherwise.”
Networking with law and library colleagues via blog
Blog mentioned in other blogs
- Specific comments: “I did it to share information but I feel it has helped enhance my professional reputation;” “Increased my esteem in my host institution”
Good public relations for firm/school
Usage statistics high
Creates impression of being on cutting edge
Conversely, respondents were also asked to share ways in which they felt that their blog has NOT been successful. Once again, the following common themes emerged in order of frequency of response.
Readership not as high as hoped
- Specific Comments: “Generally we have failed to make [blog name omitted] a compelling ‘must’ read”
Failure by some contributors to post to group blog
- Specific Comments: “Not everyone we’ve invited to participate does. Sometimes people forget to post to the blog instead of sending email”
Struggle to post new content
- Specific Comments: “Blog has been hard to maintain in the face of other work needs”
Technology problems, including firewall issues and limitations of blogging platforms
Lack of comments received
Struggle to make blog unique
- Specific Comments: “We are drowning in a sea of sameness – so many. . . blogs – how to do it better?”
Lack of support from parent institution
Lack of notice outside law librarian community
Despite problems and disappointments experienced by law library bloggers, on the whole most were quite pleased with their experience. Note, for example, the tongue-in-cheek response of one law librarian on how his blog has not been successful: “No groundswell of people commenting on my items or clicking like mad on my AdSense ad or emailing me with job offers and Tonight Show guest shots. No federal appointment or state cabinet positions offered. No gorgeous love interests located. No free money being mailed in or donated, nor any large advertiser bidding up the space or domain name for purchase. No one announced that I have been added to their will. Other than that it is terrifically successful.”
When asked to rate the successfulness of their blog on a scale of one to five, with one being very unsuccessful and five being very successful, almost two-thirds of respondents, 62.7%, awarded a rating of 3 or higher. One third, or 33.3%, felt that it was too soon to tell because their blogs were relatively new. Only 4% considered their blogs to be unsuccessful.
In the course of two short years, over one hundred law library blogs have been born into the blogosphere. Despite the popularity of this technology, however, little information has been gathered about the practices of law library bloggers. In this article, I have attempted to share their experiences and advice so that we may learn from the best practices of one another.
In closing, a few words of advice from a survey respondent:
“A Message to Those Who are Thinking About Starting a Blog:
I think it’s important to enter blogging with a full sense of why you are doing it. . . It doesn’t matter if you need to change the format of your blog 100 times. It doesn’t matter if you quit your blog a few days, weeks or months after you begin it. It doesn’t matter if no one ever reads your blog. What does matter is that you enjoy it.” 
 American Association of Law Libraries, Executive Board, Competencies of Law Librarianship (March 2001), http://www.aallnet.org/prodev/competencies.asp.
 Each respondent was instructed to complete a separate survey for each blog to which they contributed. If there were multiple authors for the blog, only one person was asked to complete the survey.
 An archive of the Law-lib listserv is available at http://lawlibrary.ucdavis.edu/LAWLIB/lawlib.html.
 As of July 2006. For a current list of law library blogs, see http://library.law.wisc.edu/wisblawg/blogslistpublic.htm.
 2005-2006 DALL EXECUTIVE BOARD, DALL BLOG POLICIES (September 2005), http://www.dallnet.org/SimpleBlog/policies.asp.
 LLNE News, http://llne.blogspot.com/ (last visited Feb. 9, 2006).
 The raw survey data indicates that only 43.1% of respondents used their blogs as marketing tools to distribute news about their library and its resources. However, since 3.9% of law library bloggers surveyed are affiliated with a law library association and 29.4% are completely unaffiliated, presumably these respondents did not select this select this response. Subtracting out these individuals yields a higher percentage, 64.7%, of bloggers affiliated with a law library that are using blogs as tools to market their library and its resources.
 Dennis Kennedy, Dennis Kennedy’s 2005 Best of Legal Blogging Awards (the Blawggies), DennisKennedy.com, December 22, 2005, http://www.denniskennedy.com/archives/2005_12.html#a000959.
A law library blog was also selected for an award in another category: the Stark County Law Library Blog (http://temp.starklawlibrary.org/blog/) was chosen as the Best Legal Blog Digest.
 Although other librarian professionals were not one of the primary audience options on the survey, comments revealed that many law library bloggers do write for their library colleagues. Presumably, these blogs also make up a portion of the 29.4% of blogs in the “other” category.
 Susannah Gardner, Time to Check: Are You Using the Right Blogging Tool? Online Journalism Review (posted Jul. 7, 2005), http://www.ojr.org/ojr/stories/050714gardner/.
 RSS readers are also known as RSS aggregators, news readers, and news aggregators. Bloglines, http://www.bloglines.com/, is one of the more popular RSS readers.
 For additional information on the similarities and differences between RSS readers and email applications, see Bonnie Shucha, RSS: It’s About Time, Connecting… December 2005, at 8, at http://www.aallnet.org/sis/cssis/newsletter/2005/December05.pdf#page=8.
 Although there are other RSS to email subscription services, FeedBlitz, http://www.feedblitz.com/, is one of the most popular.
 For a listing of these blogs, see http://library.law.wisc.edu/wisblawg/blogslistpublic.htm.