Brown Bag Blogs Part 1

What's a blog/what's blogging?

Blogs are lightweight Web publications that typically display new stories ("posts") in reverse chronological order (that is, newest first). That's it. Everything else is variations on that simple theme, although the variations can be extreme.

What's RSS and why should I care?

Really Simple Syndication. There are other spelled-out versions. If you hear of "Atom," it's like RSS but different.

You should care because RSS turns blogs and other sites into "push" mechanisms--called "feeds." Instead of visiting each site every so often to see what's new, new items from each site are pushed somewhere so that you can check lots of sites at once. That's called aggregation, and although it's not the only way to use RSS by any means, it's probably the most common.

Bloglines is the most widely-used aggregator, although it's also a blog hosting service and blog search engine. I'll talk a little about how I use Bloglines. You can get a feed from almost any blog (there are exceptions) and from thousands of other places--weather sites, stock-tracking sites, what have you. A growing number of libraries have RSS feeds for their new book lists or program announcements.

Aren't blogs just online diaries?

Maybe in the beginning, and many still are--perhaps most, if you define "diary" broadly enough. Blogs these days can be almost anything that's suited to the reverse-chronological style--and that covers a lot of ground. Pundits run blogs. So do writers, newspapers, companies, charities, groups of people with a common interest…

How many blogs are there?

Nobody knows for sure, but it's definitely in the tens of millions. By one estimate, at least a hundred million blogs have been created.

Technorati (one of several blog indexing and tracking services) was tracking 27.2 million blogs as of February 6, 2006, (28.4 million as of February 21) and says the number of blogs tracked doubles about every 5.5 months. But fewer than half of those blogs have new posts after the first three months (13.7 million), and only about 10% (2.7 million) are being updated at least once a week. (These figures come from this blog posting.)

Pubsub (another blog indexing and tracking service) tracked 24,350,105 total sources including 11,618,966 active sources as of February 21.

So let's say there are around 11 to 15 million "active" blogs.

Millions of blogs are phonies--spam blogs created in efforts to manipulate search engine rankings. Millions more are one-shots, created in blogging classes and the like, where one post went up--and usually no more than a few more before the blogger lost interest. It only takes a couple of minutes to start a blog, so it's not surprising there are so many abandoned ones.

Nonetheless, blogging is active. Bloglines indexed 1,179,230,421 stories as of February 21. Technorati tracks about 1.2 million new posts each day.

Notes on some blogging variations and numbers

Most blogs have single authors. Some have a group of contributors. I don't know of any that have open contributions, but I haven't looked.

Most blogs consist of relatively brief stories added reasonably frequently, with most stories including one or more links to other websites. But that statement is almost meaningless…and RSS makes it even more meaningless. When I did a modest investigation of the biblioblogosphere last summer--that is, blogs created by library people-- the median length of posts over a three-month period was just 188 words, but four blogs averaged more than 400 words per post (excluding one special case), including my own. One new library blogger, Elyssa Kroski at Infotangle, appears to be posting one full-fledged article (endnotes and all) per month, so far averaging 3,000 words per post.

Most blogs are public, but that's not mandatory. LiveJournal supports a form of blogging with restricted access if users choose, and there's reason to believe that a growing number of intranets--internal networks within companies and associations--use blogs. Still, all estimates of blog numbers are for public blogs.

Most blogs allow comments, and the comments can add enormously to the blogs. Very few widely-read blogs allow uncontrolled comments because of "spamment"--spam comments, submitted to manipulate search engine results. Some bloggers moderate all comments (approving them before they appear). Many moderate first-time comments and those containing X number of links (or containing certain trigger words). Many use "capcha" routines [I'll describe]. Most require legitimate email addresses and forbid anonymous comments. Quite a few blogs just don't allow comments any more.

Most blogs are done for the fun of it, to make points, or to communicate--but some are sponsored, some make money through ads, and some have paid bloggers.

Blogs can be done using a free blog hosting/software service such as Blogger (Blogspot) or Bloglines, on websites using free blogging software such as WordPress, or on websites using paid software. A few bloggers "roll their own," coding their own sites, but that's unusual.

Most blogs automatically create archives of posts that roll off the home page (typically a limit of 10 posts), organizing archives into months that appear on a sidebar. There may also be a calendar for each month showing days on which posts appeared. Many blogs have categories of posts as a sidebar. Many allow searching of all the posts. Many use tagging.

Some blogs have "blogrolls"--links to other blogs that the blogger likes. A recent variation on that theme is to link to a public BlogLines subscription list; for example, "blogs I read" is one of the "Places" in a sidebar on my blog. Approach that particular list with care--it's very long, because I track a lot of the biblioblogosphere for my own writing.

A few blogs have huge audiences and thousands of links from other blogs. Millions of blogs have tiny audiences and no links from other blogs. What David Sifry calls "the magic middle" (in this post) may represent the heart of active blogging: 155,000 blogs with links from 20 to 1,000 other blogs. I fall into that middle category. So does hangingtogether, RLG's closest thing to an "official" blog. So do pretty much all of the better-known blogs in the library field, although a number of fairly well-known blogs may have links from fewer  than 20 blogs. Note that link counts in web search engines, using the link: syntax, may or may not be meaningful…

Most of us don't know how many readers we have; it's hard to tell. I know I have 144 subscribers on Bloglines, but have no idea how many total indirect (RSS) readers I have. Directly, I averaged around 800 sessions per day in the first 20 days of February, with over 3,000 different visitors (that is, IP addresses), and more than 4,000 unique IP addresses in January. That surprises me, frankly. I'd still say I have "a few hundred" readers (I've used 4x the Bloglines subscriber count as a crude estimate), but it's clear that several thousand people have seen at least one post. (That's not unusual. My e-journal, Cites & Insights, appears to have 3,000 to 6,000 direct readers per issue, maybe up to 9,000 for certain hot topics, but it's been visited by more than 87,000 unique IP addresses over the past three years.)

What about the biblioblogosphere?

I have no idea how many blogs fall into this category. My best guess is in the low to medium thousands, with something over a thousand that are currently active (which I'd define as having at least one post a quarter).

There are three general subcategories: Blogs produced by libraries for library purposes, blogs produced by individual "library people," and blogs produced by groups of library people and library organizations.

Redwood City Public Library has one of the oldest library blogs. There are hundreds of others by now. An ongoing directory at blogwithoutalibrary currently shows 164 blogs at public libraries, 162 at academic libraries, 25 at school libraries, 20 used by libraries for internal purposes (but available on the web), 61 from special libraries and associations, and 15 for specific academic library initiatives--that's nearly 450 in all, and the directory is almost certainly incomplete. Note that this directory includes some of the blogs I'd class under the "groups of people and organizations" category.

Most library-related blogs probably fall into the middle category, produced by single individuals, although  a growing number, including RLG's hangingtogether and OCLC's It's all good, fall into the third.

If I have time, I'll offer a few offhand notes about why library people and groups blog--and about fame, prominence, and influence within the field.

Thanks to the It's all good folks, there have been two "blogger salons" in OCLC suites, one at the 2005 ALA Annual Conference, one last month at ALA Midwinter. Perhaps 40 bloggers got together last summer; I'd say it was 60 or 70 this time around. I've probably interacted with at least 100 to 150 library bloggers via email or comments--and meeting them in person has almost always been a pleasure.

How do you find library blogs? There are several directories, including the library blogs directory noted above. Unfortunately, the two biggest (Open Directory and Libdex) are out of date--they include lots of dead blogs and lack some of the more interesting newer ones. Still, they're good starting points. I would highly recommend LISFeeds, which is not only a list of blogs but also its own "aggregator" of sorts--but it's been broken for a while, and I don't know when it will return. I've already linked to the blogs I read, but that isn't to say I recommend them all.

Right now, the most up to date and comprehensive single directory is probably the weblogs page at LISWiki (Merrilee plans another brown bag about wikis!). It shows 380 individual and group blogs (if I counted right) plus long lists of academic blogs and relatively short lists of non-English-language blogs. I didn't know about this page until yesterday (February 22); another blogger mentioned it in a comment on the stub post that links to what was then the first draft of these notes. That's just a little example of the ways bloggers help one another to educate us all.

There are really only a few very well known library blogs, if you don't include LISNews (I don't, because it's way too complicated to be called a blog--but it's certainly worth visiting, and includes several dozen "journals" or sub-blogs). All of the very well-known library blogs are certainly worth reading, although they're not necessarily the most interesting ones around. For the record, the biggies are Jenny Levine's The Shifted Librarian, Steven M. Cohen's Library Stuff, Tara Calishain's Research Buzz, and Jessamyn West's librarian.net. If you want a longer list of 232 library-related blogs in descending order of "reach" as of last summer, you'll find a spreadsheet with links here--but note that some links may have died since the spreadsheet was prepared.

One final note: Bloggers are as given to whimsy as anyone, including library bloggers, and the form lends itself to occasional bursts of whimsy. With that note, I recommend this site--when you're at a computer with speakers or with headphones attached!

That's it for the written supplement…provided mostly so that you can follow links. Now, over to Merrilee…