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The Collation

When Blog History Meets Book History

[Editor’s Note: The Collation began on August 18, 2011. In honor of the 10th anniversary/birthday of this blog, we invited the blog’s founder, Sarah Werner, to write the post for today.]

When I was starting my transformation from a theater scholar to a book historian around 2006, the world of social media, as we now call it, was not only a source of community and information about the field, but a view into the evolving world of media technologies that seemed directly connected to shifting world of early modern media technologies. Was the amazing thing about the spread of the printing press in the West its ability to allow for stop-press changes, altering the text even as it was being printed? The debate in the mid-2000s around newsmedia altering online articles without acknowledgment shared that magic and the dissimulations around textual dissemination. Was the power of the press that it allowed a greater range of people to claim it for their own, dramatically increasing the range of texts and perspectives in circulation? The rise of blogging was both heralded and then decried as supplementing and displacing the authority of mainstream media.

So as a book historian and a bibliographer and the founder of this blog, what do I see when I look back at the launch of The Collation in 2011?

Blogs now have become such a part of our media landscape that they are both omnipresent and old-fashioned. But in 2010, when I first proposed creating this space, blogs were still new as an academic tool for sharing research, and even newer as a tool that institutions saw as useful, rather than something individuals used to share their lives and thoughts. In August of 2008, a group of early bloggers hosted a “boot camp” at RBMS, the annual conference for rare books and manuscript librarians, in order to encourage their colleagues to start up their own library blogs. And of course they set up a blog as part of the workshop, giving us a nice window back on those early years. Take a gander at the nice blogroll they have!

List of special collections blogs from the RBMS Blog Boot Camp Seminar (list reformatted for easier viewing).

Listed are 31 blogs, mostly from US universities and public libraries, that were sharing information about the items in their collections. I’m not sure if that feels like a high or low number, to be honest, but it’s certainly low compared to the 109 currently active blogs listed in the Special Collections + Social Media Wiki.

The real question, perhaps, is not comparing how many blogs were around then and how many are now, but to ask how many blogs that were around then are still around now. And that’s a bit trickier to calculate. We could just click on the links in the RBMS Blog Boot Camp blogroll and see how many resolve—that is, lead to an active site. If that’s our standard, then we’ve got 11 links that don’t resolve at all or that lead to error messages, so that’s not too bad, frankly. But let’s look at the 20 blogs that do resolve.

Of those, 6 are blogs that are clearly still current. Now that seems bad, but here’s where it’s important to remember the infrastructure of blogging around 2008. A lot of the blogs listed were running on what were then more or less popular blog-hosting platforms: the majority on Blogger, but some hosted on WordPress, and a lone Typepad user. In other words, library blogs weren’t being hosted on their own servers or even under their own domain names. In fact, the only reason that The Collation was hosted by the Folger on its servers is that the IT person responsible for tasks like that was open to having it on Folger servers; the issues of tech maintenance and security are no small concerns, and it’s understandable why in the early years, institutions were wary of taking that on for this new experiment. But in the last handful of years, as more libraries have more robust digital infrastructures, more libraries have migrated their blogs to self-hosted instances. (That is, The Collation runs on the WordPress platform, but the software driving the platform resides on hosted servers controlled by the Folger, rather than directly on WordPress’s servers.)

So all the blogs in the roll that resolve but then appear to end sometime between 2014 and 2019? Some of those might have truly stopped. But others rolled over to a new platform and a new address and are continuing there. The problem is that very few offer any indication of where their new home might be. A couple offer manual redirects: “We’re now at this other site; click this link and find us there!” But without a manual or automatic redirect to a current site, how are you to find it? Some of the blogs that ended up in a 404 error message (“page not found”) were publications that I know have continued, and I could quickly confirm that with a search. And if I was really driven by a need to know how many of the original 31 blogs from that 2008 blogroll were still active, I could search all of them, or try to cross reference the blogroll with the wiki.

But really my interest is in the ways in which the technologies we have all been using have lifespans and that the issues of digital preservation for our own publications are as much of an impact on the work of future historians, bookish or otherwise, on the scholarly and other practices of our period. It’s easy to say that the digital is fleeting and this is what happens when we switch to media to digital platforms instead of paper ones. But paper is fleeting, too. Think of all the indulgences and theater bills and almanacs and school books that we know existed but that have left no traces for us to study. I do think that most libraries are aware of the need to preserve their own records, including digital ones, and I know that some of these blogs have been preserved through Archive-It, for example, or through other methods. My point is less on whether libraries are doing the work of digital preservation and more that we, scholars and readers, don’t always know to look for things in those archival spots or don’t have ready access to it.

The Collation‘s page on Archive-It. Archiving digital materials is as important as archiving physical materials—but sometimes trickier.

But I don’t want to overlook the fact that blogs end. Individual blogs, institutional blogs—they come to a stop regularly and for many different reasons. A project ends, or interest shifts to a new topic, or you just run out of things to say or the time to say them. And that is the biggest shift from the early years of blogging to the current state. Early on, creating and running a blog was often something that an individual librarian decided to take on in addition to their other roles. But creating a successful institutional blog is a lot of labor and that labor needs to be compensated if it is to continue. We have social media departments now that handle everything from blogs to Twitter to Instagram to TikTok. That is a blessing and a curse, because the need for an institutional imprimatur—official permission to publish—means an additional layer of work, one that has led to the demise of at least one blog on that blogroll when its creator chose to shut down in the face of onerous new reporting requirements. But on the other hand, official sanction can also be a support when writing about difficult subjects or facing unhappy readers.

That The Collation has lasted a decade, with over 660 posts, is testament to both the institutional support of the Folger and the eagerness of staff and researchers to write for it. We still live in a scholarly media ecosphere that rewards some types of publication over others, and blogging might feel an ephemeral way to talk about the materials that excite us. But the immediacy of digital publishing lends it the same power that even clandestine presses have: the ability to share information quickly and—for at least a while—to return to it easily. So here’s to the future historians who come across our ephemera and glimpse the richness of our conversations. May they find their work as curious and rewarding as we do when studying printed ephemera.