Thursday, November 16, 2006

Observations on how NLB's Book Blog (High Browse Online) has evolved

I cannot claim that High Browse Online (HBonline), the NLB's book blog, was my original idea. Looking back at my blog archives, I found this comment from Preetam, who suggested that the NLB could start a "common book-blog". That comment was made back in September 2004 (btw, I started blogging in June 2004). Eventually, High Browse Online was born, sometime in Oct/ Nov 2005.

Parenting and Guerrilla Warfare
What I can say without embarrassment is that I was one of its "parents". Not a single-parent though. There were others, like colleagues in the editorial team and the tech-guys/ gals who worked silently behind the scenes. Also not forgetting those who simply supported the idea. Having people who believed in what was being pushed for (when there were uncertainties behind the project) was crucial. It might be overly dramatic but let's just say there were skirmishes that had to be fought (by myself and others), which sometimes involved guerrilla tactics, LOL.

Art of Administration Vs Art of Blogging
I was very hands-on with HBonline when it first started. Few of my colleagues in the HBonline editorial team had blogging experience (or maybe they didn't dare admit they were bloggers, heh). Being fast learners, they quickly got the hang of formating and handling the blog software and were able to take over the administration of the blog within weeks. I was content to watch how the team handled the posts.

However, what took longer was to establish an appropriate tone and writing style for the blog -- the HBonline "Voice", if you will. We lacked one at the start. The writing style was still very impersonalised. This fact was quickly picked up by TinkerTailor and Kevin (see their comments here and here).

Training Vs Innate Qualities of staff
The editorial team members recognised that on their own as well. Beginning of this year, some of them opted to attend courses like "Writing for the Web" so that they can brush up on their skills. As I compare the newer posts with earlier ones, I think the training has helped somewhat in improving the writing styles but a more objective assessment would be by others (so I'd appreciate if you let me know).

Also, my observation is that training can only help to some extent. It seems the better posts are by those (librarians) who already have a flair for what I call "Blog Banter". Take a look at the comments here as an example. So maybe for libraries considering a book blog, you might want to pick librarians who are already chatty, and with an "Extroverted Online Personality" (i.e. you can be an introvert in real-life but an extrovert online).

Page Views, Hits and Comments
At the onset, Page Views and Page Hits were not the primary objective for HBonline and we knew it wouldn't be easy to get readers to post comments. For one, HBonline was considered a niche blog -- limited to books and impossible to cater to all reading preferences. Two, we knew that having a love of reading does not automatically mean you'd be inclined to share your thoughts. But having said that, I still harboured hopes that HBonline would be a runaway success in the Singapore Blogosphere, where more bloggers would be talking about it, if not posting comments or contributing alerts or posts. That didn't really happen.

Incentives & Community Contributions
Things improved a little when HBonline offered a Monthly Voucher Giveaway for book review submissions. From that low-key promotion, we received unsolicited contributions to HBonline.

Looking at the published submissions, the number of contributors numbered less than five a month, but I'm not complaining. That's five more than when we first started. And from what I observe, some of them are beginning to be regular contributors -- like "L Goh" (contributions here, here and here), Thomas Salim (who has his own blog) and someone called "Little Blue Herring" (see HBonline search results).

Aside: I'm really curious who's Little Blue Herring (LBH). Hmm... "Herring", and "Blue"... someone from NLB? heh heh. Not that it matters. It's the submission that counts. Like this one titled "On Writing In English" (which was a longer response to comments in this post).

Where comments and discussions in HBonline are concerned, efforts by my colleague who manages the Heartlands Bookclub have also paid off, as seen by posts like this, this and this one.

Community Partners
HBonline doesn't have an apparent blog-roll, but it's really hidden under the Book Blog Partners category. HBonline's first book blog partner was from overseas. Another partnership to highlight would be the one with Singapore Entrepreneurs. I was delighted when Bernard (who maintains SG Entrepreneurs blog) helped with this author interview. The story was that when the interview came up, there wasn't a librarian who was familiar with the topic of marketing and available to do the interview. Good thing Bernard stepped forward to help.

In my opinion, that was an excellent example of community partnership. The library will always have limited capabilities and resources so we shouldn't be afraid of seeking help from the community.

But I think more can be done to create more regular linkages/ cross-postings to the partners. I'll have to discuss this with the HBonline colleagues. Maybe we should start a section for blog-roll even, just to link to individual bloggers we like, nevermind if they don't always blog about books.

It's only the beginning...
Finally, I discovered this post where I asked "Are librarians ready for blogs". Of particular interest was this comment from Shel, where he asked "What if (librarians) blogged for their library passions and got into conversations, debates, arguments with readers over the books themselves. What would that do for reading, and using libraries?"

My response mentioned some possible outcomes like librarians being "more visible & accessible to readers", creating a "better user experience for existing library users", and that the librarian and the books stood a good chance of "being Googled" by non-library users, who subsequently might be persuaded to use the library after reading the blog.

So far, the part about librarians "being Googled" (i.e. appearing in search engine results) is apparent. For instance, search for "Lee Ping Librarian" or any of the HBonline editors' names. That's one part of being "visible".

As to whether HBonline has created a better user experience for current library users or encourage non-users to become library users, that might be too early to tell. Perhaps it requires us defining what is a "better user experience" or even what is "usage".

HBonline is about a year old. This may sound sappy but like any parent, I'm hopeful and anxious and this "baby" would continue to grow and mature and "do well" in future. Not so much for its own sake though. It's for the library customer's benefit and I feel that ultimately impacts on the continued presence of libraries and librarians.

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  1. Anonymous7:17 am

    Can I share a point of view, since I graduated from my first degree last December?

    I noticed that everyone want to be part of the web development, even they are not technically training in. The word is web 2.0.

    "I am investing myself in web 2.0, but when come to the technical part ..."

    Everyone will run away. When it works, they will be your bestfriend. Life never to be fair.

  2. Anonymous11:50 am

    Good bye secret identity. Heh.

    = = =
    I like your point about the seemingly low numbers of submission despite the incentive of the Monthly Voucher Giveaway. It just proves that the incentive is not attractive enough. It is not effective.

    On the other hand, it should be seen positively that the (regular) contributors send their reviews not because of the incentive but because they have this need to share a wonderful book that they just read. I know I am not alone in having this thought. L & LBH, do correct me if I'm wrong.

    = = =
    ...we knew it wouldn't be easy to get readers to post comments.

    Personally I guess the followings might prove to be rather discouraging.

    Quoted from High Browse Online - comments section:

    (If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.) - call it (a)

    and this

    # NLB reserves the exclusive right to edit, alter and make the final decision on all the comments posted herein. - (b)
    # NLB does not undertake to post all / any of the comments at all. - (c)
    # NLB disclaims all legal liabilities for all / any comments posted, which is authored by the user - (d)

    What if the highlighted in bold above--especially (a), (b), and (c)--were to be removed from the site? Will we see more influx of comments? Will we see more exchange of opinions or discussion about the book reviewed?

    (a) - may be a turn off for new posters.

    (b) - they may think "Why should I comment if it's just going to be edited later?" (Note: I know this does not happen la. I posted a few comments already there without any alteration by the site owner).

    (c) - almost like the above "Why should I comment if it's not going to be posted at all?"

    I personally find (d) adequate and good enough to protect NLB from any legal problems.


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