Be the change you want to see on the web

I almost entitled this post “If you blog it, they will come.” But ultimately, I decided against it, because let’s face it, it’s a logical fallacy. Just because you write something, that doesn’t guarantee that anyone will ever actually read it.

Ah, but on the flip side, if you don’t write it, I can guarantee that nobody will read what you had to say about it (whatever “it” is).

I’ll come back to this in a minute, but first, a little background…

As you have probably noticed (if you subscribe to this blog or are my friend on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, where these entries are auto-added to my feed), I’ve been posting a lot of “Bio Sketch” entries lately.

These are the Biographical Sketch sections of archival manuscript finding aids I have written over the past few years. And, not to toot my own horn too much, but I worked really hard on them. Sure, some of the people, like Col. Robert Patterson or Benjamin Van Cleve, are really well-known and were easy to research. And some of them weren’t, like David W. Schaeffer or Thomas Dover. Most were somewhere along the middle of the difficult-easy research continuum. And then there was the added facet of all the cool stuff I learned about Person X while processing their manuscripts, so of course I wanted to add some of those details in as well…so I did.

When I was researching these people, of course I looked in all the usual “scholarly” resources I could think of: the manuscripts themselves (of course!), the local history books at my fingertips, city directories, Ancestry.com, article databases, WorldCat, finding aid repository databases, etc.

But when I felt like I was hitting a wall, I did what pretty much everyone does these days: I hit up Google search. And I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Now, obviously, you have to take things you find “online” with a grain of salt and make sure you judge them critically before accepting that information at face value. But you never know what might come up on your search results that is either (A) a perfectly reputable source of information that just happens to actually exist on the web (yay!) or (B) a snippet of information that comes from a questionable source but now that you have that clue you can easily verify it using a reputable source (e.g., found the person’s elusive death date in a genealogy forum, so now you have a date to search for a newspaper obituary).

In many cases, I did not have a whole lot of luck with finding substantial, useful, trustworthy sources of information readily available on the Internet. And I have a master’s degrees in history and library science, so I am pretty good at sleuthing these things out. Many people might not have been as patient in their attempts as I was (and even so, I still often came up empty-handed).

After I finish writing the Biographical Sketch and the rest of the finding aid, I place a printed copy at the reference desk, have a catalog record (which is also added to WorldCat) made for the collection (albeit with a much shorter bio sketch), and add the finding aid to the OhioLINK Finding Aid Repository.

And in most cases, until lately, I had thought, Okay, that’s that.

Sometimes the collection listings in WorldCat, the OPAC, or the OhioLINK database seem to come up in search results.

But, I had noticed, while I was doing my Google searches, that sometimes, if I had written a blog post (usually earlier in the process, while arranging and describing the materials) about the person in question, I often got references to my own blog when “Googling” for that person (e.g., Thomas Lowe).

So then I thought, Why not post the Biographical Sketches to my blog also? The blog is highly ranked on Google (if you search for something relevant), and after all, I did all this work — why shouldn’t other people (online) benefit from what I’ve already done?

I got my supervisor’s approval for posting the Bio Sketches. (I did write them — and I’m only posting the ones I wrote, nobody else’s — but since it was part of my job and a document I wrote for the Library, I thought it might be weird to post the text word-for-word without some kind of approval.) He thought it was a great idea. As a matter of fact, he had some people he wanted to show the Howard Forrer Peirce sketch to, so that’s why that one was posted first.

[The library archives does not have a blog; if it did, these obviously would have been better suited to the institution’s blog, not mine.]

And here’s where I return to the title of this blog post. We’ve all heard, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” What does that mean? If you see something you wish was different, and there’s something you can do about it, you should do it, right?

Well, every time I conducted a depressingly semi-fruitless Google search for one of the awesome individuals I was researching for a collection, I would think to myself, “These people rock; how is there just nothing about them online?”

For example, in the cases of Samuel Forrer, who had the longest, most intimate association with the Miami-Erie Canal of anyone ever, or his grandson Howard Forrer Peirce, who, in the words of my boss, was practically a “rockstar” in Dayton, inasmuch as you could be a rockstar playing wicked Classical on the piano in the 1890s, I found this lack of Internet presence particularly unjust.

So I fixed it.

I’m posting my Biographical Sketches here on the blog, along with footnotes/bibliography (yay! sources that can be verified!), a sprinkling of photos and illustrations (also from our collections, posted on Flickr – which also gets great Google ranking) to add visual interest, and a note at the end of each one referencing the original manuscript collection and saying, “Contact me or the library for more information.”

And now, when you Google for “Samuel Forrer”, you get this. Red dots indicate something I posted online. (I’m not entirely sure why the bio sketch for his wife comes up before his does, but still.)

Google search for Samuel Forrer

Google search for Samuel Forrer

That’s Page 1 of the Google hits, by the way, and notice the first two hits: me. I did that. That really makes me smile.😀

And for “Howard Forrer Peirce” (no I did not mean “Howard Forrer Pierce,” thankyouverymuch), you get this. (Again, not sure why his mom is listed first, but nevertheless.)

Google search for Howard Forrer Peirce

Google search for Howard Forrer Peirce

Again, that’s Page 1 of Google hits. Out of 10 hits on the first page, all but 1 of them (the daytonhistorybooks one) is either something I posted about HFP or a link/reference to something I posted about HFP.

And even for “Col. Robert Patterson,” my items are not quite as high (since there is more “out there” about Patterson), but still have two hits on Page 1:

Google search for Col. Robert Patterson

Google search for Col. Robert Patterson

(And might I add that, less than two weeks after posting that photo and bio sketch for Col. Robert Patterson, I already had someone email me to inquire about him, specifically after seeing the photo/blog.)

Like I said, I’m not trying to toot my own horn (even though I know it probably sounds like I am!), but I’m just ecstatic that these things are “out there” and people will have an easier time finding them now. Because while all those other cataloging and finding aids are certainly important, as are reference archivists and librarians, we need to just accept the fact that, at some point or other, almost very researcher is going to “Google it”. (The casual researchers will probably do that first; the really serious ones might not want to admit it, but at some point in their process, they will probably do it, too.)

Now, I’m certainly not trying to charge archivists with taking on extra research projects and filling any and every void they find on the Internet in a particular subject area — although if you have time and resources to do that, go for it! But I’m just suggesting that, if you already have a lot of content that could easily (and legally) be translated to the web, why not share it?

And you don’t necessarily have to share your entire biographical sketch like I did. I could have made a simple statement about each person’s identity, significance, and then given the information about the manuscript collection and the contact info. It still would have been picked up by Google. I just figured, the more content I posted, the more likely that it would be found and utilized.

Archives are for use. And if people can’t find it, they can’t use it. So why not share some tasty nuggets of real content “online,” a sometimes-nebulous place where those who need/want it can find it quickly and easily? And by extension, they will find…you…and your archives…and the rest of your super-cool stuff.

Make sure that whatever you share, you do so in a way that it can be regularly and adequately crawled by search engines, such as Google; otherwise, you’re wasting your time, if nobody can find the stuff even after it’s online.

I’ve had good luck with this WordPress blog (after I turned on the “let search engines crawl my blog” setting as well as submitted the URL to the search engines directly) and Flickr (no extra steps were required on my part except for the photos to be public). Depending on how “important” the subject is, you might even consider adding/editing a Wikipedia page — and list your repository’s collection as a source, of course! — but that is another story altogether.

So next time you’re working on a collection that’s awesome (aren’t they all?) and you realize the subject has no web presence, consider giving them one.

I haven’t even told you about all the reference questions this blog has generated, but trust me: as an outreach tool, it’s working.

2 responses to “Be the change you want to see on the web

  1. I have had a bibliography sitting around in a filing cabinet for a few years. This week I posted it on a genealogy forum and in the same week I got a telephone call from a woman saying that she would like more on the subject. Win!

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