Articles in Vol. XXV, No. 3
From the sorting table to the web: The NPAP research data portal for ceramics
AutoCAD® and the Resurrection of an Old Excavation
Electronic Publication — Addendum III
The Blog in Academic Settings
The Redford Conference in Archaeology
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The Blog in Academic Settings
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Attempting to review the website of the Penn Museum (formerly the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology), I spent considerable time examining the blog that is available through the website. That, in turn, made me think more broadly about blogs, starting with the one at the Penn Museum, and diverted me from the original intent of a website review (which is being prepared).
The Penn Museum blog is a mine of information, but, like so many blogs, it can sometimes provide an excuse for posting on disparate subjects in total randomness. Posts on the Penn Museum blog are generally exhaustive, well documented and richly illustrated, but topics range from excavation reports, short articles on individual exhibits (mostly done as a running series of one-object-each-day during 2012), museum news, research news and a few reports on looting across the world. The variability of topics in these posts is unavoidable unless a thematic blog (i.e. one blog about one topic) is run with strictness. The Penn Museum blog is thus a fairly typical example of the blog as catch-all, the blog as a kind of blanket recipient of whatever happens to strike the fancy of the contributors.
Here, as for any one person or one museum, or even one institute, the blog format is proving, in my opinion, less than ideal. This is due to the difficulty of maintaining a focus on a single topic or at least a restricted group of topics. I run a blog, and I have enough experience to know that I must keep within a few chosen categories and make them easily accessible independently. A blog post can also become an excuse to publish quickly some information instead of updating a more relevant page of a website.
The Penn Museum provides the reader with a search form to enable searching the blog. There is a long list of search categories, followed by tags and RSS links for all posts and all comments, but the tags are inefficient and simply cannot make up for the randomness of the blog's content. They are not author-chosen keywords, which might be useful, but automatically-generated tags consisting of the commonest words, lists that change in time. They are intended to group posts and generate categories when these cannot be determined in advance, and instead they consistently prove the randomness of the posts and only clutter access to them. The very same problem can be seen in the blog of another leading museum, the British Museum; so this problem is not specific to one museum blog.
Using such automatic text mining tools with an unstructured blog is not helpful. Using it with an academic or educational website is even worse. The result here is that the hot topics of the day are Penn Museum and archaeology. My aim here is not to criticise the Penn Museum blog but to ask a broader question. In academic areas, how useful is the blog? We are only talking about blogs that publish original contents here. Scholars need to access lots of such original content, but anything that makes it difficult to find the information is not welcome. Blogs often prosper as instant publishing systems for ideas and comments that are time-sensitive, i.e., they can make an impact now and are unlikely to be read after a relatively short time. If original material is published, however, access to any post must be as quick as possible, and as the Penn Museum blog shows with its many but inefficient ways to access it, once the information moves down from the first page it is difficult to find.
Further questions come to mind. How confined must a blog's subject matter be to make it useful? How much oversight is required? There is no denying that in my experience blogs that report on a single project are the most successful. The fewer the authors for each category, the more consistent it will be. Even so, however, blogs prompt many useless posts, and they are often filled with personal opinions or simply day-to-day life. Trying to follow such blogs may prompt questions about their intended readership, but after the project or field work is completed, usually a month or two, there is simply no point in attempting to read all that has been written. Authors should return to the useful posts and attempt to adapt them into proper articles. Publishing full articles (longer essays or preliminary reports) in blog posts still does not work for the lack of an index; blogs by their nature are open-ended.
Finally I have to ask what kinds of rules or limits on use should be applied, and how they should be enforced. The idea of sharing ideas and information in a relatively informal setting is so attractive that many of us, myself included, have found the format useful, but it seems time to reconsider the limits on this format's utility and to think more carefully about its use. As widespread and easy to use as blogs may be, I do not see a role for them in publishing scholarly work, and they do not fare much better even in engaging the public. The critical point to remember here is that blogs are meant to be a channel to spread ideas and comments very fast, but also only for a short time. They have been replaced mostly by social media feeds for the general public, but these are even less suited for academic communication. Blogs have retained their fascination among scholars largely because the longer posts typical of these authors fit badly in the social media formats. Yet, this is not a good reason to continue using them. Are they necessary complements to websites, worth the time spent in writing them, or just a fashion already fading out? Do they matter at all? Are these blogs influencing anyone? These are uncomfortable questions to ask after having spent many hours myself writing posts, but clarity in defining the audience and deciding what kinds of posts are more appropriate is required to ensure that the time spent on them is well spent. Otherwise we are just wasting our (and our readers’) time.
-- Andrea Vianello
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