.: bloggers on blogging --> jessamyn west
Bloggers on Blogging, July 2005
Jessamyn, 36, has a Masters degree in Librarianship from the University of Washington, and a BA in Writing and Linguistics from Hampshire College. She grew up in rural Massachusetts, spent a decade in Seattle in the 90's, and now lives in rural Vermont. She's a second generation technology worker — her father was a technologist at Data General. Currently, Jessamyn is an Americorps volunteer doing community technology work "teaching email to older folks". Her next job will be with the State Library of South Australia. She is the co-editor of the book Revolting Librarians, and she serves on the ALA Council (governing body for the American Library Association). She lives in Bethel, Vermont.
What is the first weblog you read?
Cosmodrome. It was lovely and green. It stopped publishing sometime in 1999, I think.
What about that blog appealed to you?
It had nice colors. It had short sentences and it pointed out places on the web I hadn't known about, with consistently good advice. I don't know if the guy who runs the URL now is the same guy, I suspect so.
Do you consider Abada Abada to be a weblog or a journal? What is the difference?
I don't know. When I started it, it was clearly a journal because there wasn't really such thing as a weblog. It really varies back and forth between being mostly about me and what I'm up to and then being links to other web stuff and political issues. Usually when I'm in a city — like when I lived in Seattle — the site becomes bloggish and when I'm in Vermont, where fewer of the things I experience are linkable to web content, it gets more introspective and personal. I don't differentiate between the two terms too much, but in my lexicon blogs link to other content as their more primary purpose in an "oh look what I found" way and journals are more of a "here's what I did today" exercise. However, when so many people's offline and online lives overlap nearly completely, the two tend to resemble each other more than they diverge.
Which tools do you use? Why?
Librarian.net: Wordpress. I used to use Movable Type but for whatever reason the combination of it + my server was way too slow. Wordpress is okay, not perfect, but it means I don't have to make the RSS feed by hand.
Abada Abada: by hand. I write it in BBEdit, and I write the RSS feed in BBEdit. I know this is sort of crazy but I like knowing how to do all the stuff by hand and the ISP that I've had for the last decade doesn't have Wordpress ability yet. It's less than perfect, but it's also not that hard. I find that learning about technology via interaction with text is a good way for me to learn. I know CSS pretty well as a result of having to fine-tune it over and over again.
What would your ideal blogging tool do, that available ones don't offer?
At this point it seems like it's my own fault that I haven't learned enough programming to work with the tools I already have. WordPress does 85% of what I want, I'd just like to streamline it some, not make it so self-referential (do I really need to load the WordPress blog every time I go to my main page on WordPress, no I do not), have some better search functions. Plugins handle some of that and I should be able to teach myself the rest. WordPress is not currently simple to upgrade if you've made modifications to the core code, I also can't install it at my main ISP which means I have to look at either switching ISPs or switching CMSes.
The longest running content manager I've used is just a text editor and an ftp program. It just works.
Is there anything you wish you had time to do with your sites?
Make them 100% standards compliant and accessible. While I value accessibility a lot, sometimes I'm in a rush and I cheat on labeling acronyms and other stuff that I'd like to do better on. I'd like to tag and update all my archives. I'd like to index everything. I'd like to be able to have enough time to let people comment. I'd like to put everything on one server together where all my content could live happily forever after.
I'd like to build twenty more sites with exceptional functionality and purpose that would help people interact with the world of information, but I try to keep a level head about these things and try to do what I am doing well. It's easy to overreach in the online world and then realize that it's a lovely day outside and you're sitting hunched over your computer. I'm very cognizant of that and it's my response to the "why aren't you doing more?" inquiries that I sometimes get.
Enough time to let people comment?
Moderation time. I enjoy commenting on other people's blogs, and I'd love to get more direct feedback on the things that I say on mine — plus it's a great way to meet people — but when I did have comments on my DNC blog, it took as much time to read and respond to them as it did to maintain the whole rest of the blog. The technical stuff is all pretty straightforward for me; if I want to do it, I can learn how.
How many hours online do you spend a day?
It's hard to quantify, there's always a computer on if I'm home and I'll pop in on it or sometimes I'll be working on projects on it. The short answer is "a lot" but rarely more than an hour or two at a stretch.
How much time each day do you spend actually working on your sites? (Surfing, writing, emailing, doing what?)
The sites are just little bursts of time here and there. My personal blog takes more time since I spend more time writing, editing photos and picking links, maybe an hour at a time and I update a few times a week. Librarian.net is just when I find something. A post can take from a minute to 45 depending on what the issue is and how many different sources I have to work with. Email is the big part of librarian.net. A lot of people write me, some with reference questions, some with "love your site!" some asking where they should go to library school. I try to write back to the people with answerable questions but it's a lot of work. I could easily write and respond to email all day long if I set my mind to it.
When do you blog?
Today I've spent no time blogging, an hour or so on email, similar amount of time reading RSS feeds and a similar amount of time learning about proxy servers so I can figure out how to circumvent the filtering I have to deal with because I work at a school, for example. I never do one thing at a time, so some of this is simultaneous. It's getting to the point where it's like asking "how much time do you spend reading?" since you read books, but also magazines, cereal boxes, instruction manuals, your email etc. Information overlaps.
I usually blog when I have some free time in the evening, though with Librarian.net it's more often when something happens, when I notice it via RSS or someone pings me. I get information from RSS, from other people via IM or in person, at the library that I do my technology teaching at, and from links people send me. Recently I was at the American Library Association conference and I'd try to update when something big happened, or someone else wrote about something big that was happening. There were two official blogs at the conference in addition to a lot of other bloggers of various stripes so it was really fun to see the conference both first hand and also second hand through people writing about it, almost in real time.
I found, though, similar to when I was at the Democratic National Convention, it's almost impossible for me to both be an observer/participant at an event, and be reading what other observer/participants are writing about. Now that there are many bloggers at ALA, I have to make choices about how much to write about what I'm doing and seeing, and how much to read about what others are doing and seeing. It's really an embarrasment of riches, and a preferable problem to have than an absolute dearth of other perspectives being available, but I'm still finding my sea legs in terms of learning how to manage it.
How does your day job affect your weblog?
“ In general I have a hacker ethic regarding my work: I don't really want my job to be neatly divisible from my life. The concepts and ideas that I bring to both are the same. ”
I have a blog for my day job that I use to show people about the web, how to create things on the web, and put up a schedule of my classes. At my last job I mostly separated the two though occasionally I'd come across something at work that would fit into librarian.net and I'd put it there. When I started my job it was clear that at least the library director knew I had a blog and had read it, so I tried hard to keep the two separate.
Otherwise the obvious answer is that having a day job reduces the amount of time that I can mess with my website, the blog parts and the other parts. Right now I'm trying to learn more about php, and I like having big blocks of time to geek out and mess with code. Sometimes work interferes with that. However, since I'm teaching technology, very very basic technology, I find that it helps me keep my chops up, re-explaining some things over and over again.
In general I have a hacker ethic regarding my work: I don't really want my job to be neatly divisible from my life. The concepts and ideas that I bring to both are the same. As a result, it can be tough to fit into a workplace where everyone else has a bright line job/work division in terms of dress, attitude, ethics and service mentality. Library work is close to ideal, but where I live the library/technology thing is still straightening itself out. As a result, the blog/work thing is still a bit choppy, though it works much better at my current job than my last one.
What is Librarian.net's Technorati rank and traffic?
Librarian.net hovers around 1000 rank-wise on Technorati and vacillates up or down by about 10-15 on any given day. Pageviews are between 11,000 and 15,000 per day with about 25-30% of that just being people/sites requesting the RSS feed.
What is Abada Abada's Technorati rank and traffic?
Abada Abada is in the 7,500 rank range with around 2,800 page views per day. Since it's more of a personal blog, this number stays pretty much constant unless I get linked by someone with way more traffic than me. Only about 5-7% of this is RSS traffic which I'm sure has something to do with the fact that it's handcoded, untagged and difficult to permalink to.
How do you choose items to link?
I get stuff in a few different ways. People send me link recommendations through email, I read about them via RSS and I have one older librarian friend who sends me print material in the mail and I often find something linkworthy in the pile of papers. It's a bit mercurial in that some days I'm just in an online mood and I'll be reading and linking to a lot of stuff, sometimes I'm offline for days.
I generally focus on three main areas: libraries, technology and politics and the more intersection there is, the better. The one rule which I almost never break is that it has to be library related. There are a few pet topics I have like the USA PATRIOT Act, The American Library Association, digital rights management, and the digital divide and I try to stay on top of those issues on my blog, otherwise I'll often just find one topic in one of my usual places and then read up on it and build a longer post out of a submitted link or a link on someone else's blog.
I also read a lot of content that's not traditionally linked to — Congressional Research Service reports, studies about technology usage, other big meaty pdfs — and I try to bring those more to the forefront and summarize, maybe encourage other people to take a look at them.
How long does it take you to write an link entry? Do you spend time editing link entries?
Now that I have a CMS I spend a little more time doing revisions but short entries are just 5-10 minute endeavors. I'll do longer philosophical posts but they are the exception. They're definitely more heavily edited, have more pullquotes and take longer but still it's a 15-20 minute commitment. Where I really get bogged down is writing about topics that I know will be controversial — if I have something negative to say that I think will have repercussions — I try to choose my words very carefully since once something's up, unless I've made a factual error or a typo, I don't go back and edit.
How do you choose items to write longer articles about?
Often my interest will be piqued by someone else saying something on another blog and I'll have a response. Often there is some new trendy topic and I want to chime in with my own position especially if it's not just saying "Hey look at this" but rather "You know, we should think about this and how it affects the profession" So, for example, when the Broadcast Flag was being debated, a lot of librarians didn't know what it was and why it affected libraries, despite the fact that the American Library Association was a co-challenger to the order, along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That's good information for librarians to know, but it doesn't come down the normal blog channels
I rarely write more than a few paragraphs, even on topics I'm passionate about, but I will revisit topics frequently and post follow-ups if I think they're worthy of continued attention.
Is there a certain type of entry, or a certain kind of day that is most satisfying for you?
I feel that when I can synthesize a bunch of things that I've been reading on a topic into one nice short essay explaining it, when I've really been able to take random facts and turn them into real knowledge, that makes me happy. Also, nice mentions of things I've said by people whose opinions I respect is always a good thing to read. There's a sense in which, on a good day, you create an entry that you like and set it free into the blogosphere and hope that it takes root. If you come back and other people are riffing off of your ideas, that's a really satisfying feeling.
Have you ever burnt out? How did you handle it?
Not really. Sometimes I have to deal with something stressful, like when someone attacks me or my site in a public fashion and I have to grapple with it via only the online world and that gets frustrating. However, I do all of this stuff because I enjoy it, so at the point it becomes non-enjoyable, I just stop doing it for a while. I took a month off for the Virgo Month of Leisure and just sent postcards to a friend who put them online. This happened to be September, 2001, which was a crazy time to be taking a month off.
How many weblogs do you follow? How do you find new ones?
I keep an upper ceiling of about 100 in my rss reader and then have half as many on the "no RSS" list that I check less frequently. Often new blogs are recommended to me by other sites, but more often than not I'll meet someone, usually a librarian, who has a personal site and I'll add it. Except for social justice/work/news sites, I generally only read blogs by people I know. When I'm writing talks about blogs or RSS I'll also go trolling for new ones just to try to give some blogs by other than the usual suspects a chance to shine.
“ It’s pretty important for me to read other people who can speak intelligently, more than it is for me to read people who I agree with. ”
What catches your attention in a weblog?
Consistency of design and message, readbility both in how it looks (though RSS handles some of that) but also in how it's written. Who is writing it is pretty important. I don't read many blogs that happen to be by librarians that aren't about library things, and I don't read any personal blogs by people I don't know personally (except Rafe Colburn who is an odd exception to this rule). Tone matters to me and I rarely read blogs that are just people slagging on other people, or have a lot of histrionics about whatever big issue is happening. It's a fine line between talking about a complicated political issue and trashing people who are on the opposite side of the issue, but it's pretty important for me to read other people who can speak intelligently, more than it is for me to read people who I agree with.
- I don't read blogs with ads, with very few exceptions.
- I don't read blogs that only offer excerpts in RSS feeds, with very few exceptions.
- I don't read blogs about shopping, gadgets, or gear fetishizing.
- I try to read blogs by people who have unique-ish perspectives, if I can find them, and in the library world I like to read sites maintained by practitioners rather than philosophers, even if they break some of the rules above.
That said, I can be captivated by good design, clear writing and good authoritative links to places I don't otherwise go, or wouldn't think to go.
Why don't you read blogs with ads?
A few reasons.
1. I'm lucky enough that a lot of the sites I read anyhow just plain don't have them. When they do, they're often fairly innocuous Google ads which I still dislike but can usually get around.
2. I question the objectivity of advertiser-supported content. I'm aware that for many people, bringing in money to support their hosting fees, or sending traffic to worthwhile causes is a totally worthwhile venture, but I don't like being marketed to when I am really trying to just read a personal account of something. RSS has really been a savior in that regard. When I was at the DNC there was a definite subtext with some of the bloggers saying that going to the DNC was going to do wonders for their ad sales, or talking about how much money their ads brought in, and it was the first time I'd really thought about blogging in big-money terms. Lately some of the librarian bloggers have been getting paid gigs blogging for for-profit sites and while I'm excited to see them getting exposure, I have mixed feelings about how this could potentially affect their objectivity or even the perception of their objectivity. Since there is a lot of vendor interaction in the library world, there is definitely a benefit to companies who get favorable blog press.
I'm lucky enough to have free hosting for librarian.net so I don't think too much about how I could parlay what I have into cash, but it goes back to what I was saying about popularity: you start selling ads, then you think about how to make more people look at them because that will increase your income. I think that's a cycle I don't want to personally get into.
3. Design. I've got a short list of sites I read outside of my RSS reader and ones that have graphic ads often poorly integrate them into the overall site design and so they look blinky and awkward and brassy and I dislike them.
What is your attitude about online popularity? Is that something you think about?
“ It’s easy to drive up traffic in ways that may look good numbers-wise but don’t result in any more mindshare. ”
Well, it's nice to be popular, of course, but my sites have always been sort of niche-y which makes it easier to not spend time comparing yourself to other people. I've gotten a lot of work and career opportunities partly as a result of my blog — and the enhanced access to my ideas that it allows for — and so I can't just discount my online presence as something that doesn't matter. However, if I don't keep doing things and learning things in the offline world — in libraries, in rural Vermont, in my travels — I won't have anything interesting to say. There's always a balance between trying to stay on top of your game online — reading the blogs that other people are reading, for example, so you know what they are talking about, keeping up on RSS feeds, writing back to emails people send you — and being able to bring fresh content to your site which in my world means spending some serious time offline.
I think some people look at popularity as a zero-sum game where if you're popular someone else isn't and I don't think thats strictly true. I know I get more eyeballs than other newer bloggers and I always try to pass those eyeballs along and highlight good content other people might not have seen. If those blogs become more popular, that's an overall good for the profession, not a negative for me.
On my personal site, the only reason I get as many hits as I do is because the site has a high rank on Google when you search for the word "naked" which is sort of blind luck combined with my site having been around a while. Similarly, it's easy to drive up traffic in ways that may look good numbers-wise but don't result in any more mindshare. I don't sell ads, and I'm not looking to promote anything but the site itself — the occasional side job is a nice perq but really not my central focus — so while there's a certain cachet to being the #1 hit on Google for the word librarian, that and a buck will get me a cup of coffee at the gas station. It's not like I walk into a library and people say "Oh, it's her!" People in the offline world — which is all of my neighbors — mostly know me as that fuzzy-haired girl who knows about computers.
Whose writing do you particularly admire?
I like people who have a straightforward writing style but can still express complex ideas. So in the online world I try to read Cory Doctorow's talks when he puts them online. I like the clean style of the Living on Less blog. I used to read Dave Grenier's Retrogression which is sadly not online anymore. I also like writing that is a bit more esoteric like geegaw.com, whatever's on ftrain.com, and any time Judith puts something online it's a delight.
In the world of ink and paper, I'm pretty much all over the place. I can fall head over heels for a particular writer and then read something I don't like and just say "Eh." from then on. Some of those writers, who I had a change of heart on: Tom Robbins, Neal Stephenson, J.M. Coetzee and Caleb Carr.
In the past I've loved: John Crowley, Angela Carter, Richard Powers, the other Jessamyn West, Donald Barthelme, Bill Bryson, Steven Millhauser, Primo Levi, Arturo Perez-Reverte, Connie Willis, Richard Brautigan, Matt Ruff, Mark Kurlansky, Carson McCullers and Shirley Jackson.
How many hours a (day or week, whichever is more appropriate) do you spend on offline reading?
I try to get in a book a week, more or less. When things are really under my control I like to get up in the morning and read before I really get out of bed. When I travel I like to read on the bus/train/plane/bus stop and it's one of the little joys of traveling since where I live in Central Vermont there aren't opportunities for reading while moving; I've never been much of a book-on-tape person.
How many hours a week do you spend on other offline media?
I read the local papers here because it's the only way you can figure out what is going on in town on the weekends: where the cribbage festival and bingo games are; what is playing at the drive-in; who's having a yard sale or a band concert. The main paper we have covers about 5-7 towns and has a section for each town including a social column which is all about who visited so-and-so, who was out of town, etc. I find it delightful, it's not just replicating all the wire stories and big topic news that you see elsewhere, it really complements other news sources and personalizes a lot of our local news.
Then again, I'm sort of a hippie who considers time spent by the river to be "offline media" as well. You can rarely read the paper or watch TV to see how the garden is growing or how the fish are running, even less so now than maybe you used to.
How does offline input contribute to your blogging? To your other writing?
I'm pretty likely to learn something that I think other people would like to know about and be frustrated because I can't find a good web cite for it. I stick post-its in the books I read to remind myself to maybe jot down something on librarian.net for it. A lot of my offline life informs my online life, they're the same thing, pretty much.
Why do you blog?
Originally I did it because it was a way to avoid sending update emails to my list of friends when something in my life changed. It was also a tool for me to have an excuse to keep a hand in web design when I wasn't doing it for paid work. Over time it's evolved into a way for me to keep a hand in the library community even when I'm not working in a library. I like passing on information, and this is one of the most effective ways I can think of to do that.
What are your hobbies?
This summer I've been swimming. I like writing and receiving postcards. I take lots of pictures. I've got a coin collection in a box that I take out and play with. I keep in touch with a lot of people so I'm not sure if correspondence is a hobby but it sure takes up a lot of my time. I've got a boyfriend in law school and so current events wonkery (C-Span, reading a ton of newspapers) is part of my life in a big way. I read voraciously, travel as much as I can, and have gotten more involved in paying attention to the birds around here since I've actually been living in one place for a few years now.
How has your weblog changed your life?
It allowed those ideas to propagate and put people with similar (or sometimes totally different) ideas in contact with me. I've gotten jobs, traveled to other countries, given talks, written articles and edited books mainly because of the exposure I've gotten because of my blog. Of course, it's entirely possible that some of this would have come about anyhow, since I'm a relentless zealot about my ideas, but having a blog, or a web site generally, really was a catalyst for a lot of the things that I've done professionally over the past 6-8 years.
With regard to blogging, what was your most memorable moment?
Getting wider media exposure is always memorable. Getting invited to go to the DNC and then showing up and having most of the people there know each other (or at least know of each other) was a real eye opener. I won a best personal website award from the Seattle Weekly in 1997, after I'd had a bloggish page for only about six months. I met people as the result of that exposure that I'm still friends with, sort of neat.
What are three blogs you think deserve wider recognition, and why?
My friends Peter and Maryellen run an organic farm and CSA in Peacham Vermont with their daughter Waverly. I think people think that rural and online don't go together well. They have a blog full of fresh vegetables.
Living on Less, which I mentioned earlier, discusses life on a seriously limited budget as well as the political/economic climate in the US that makes that often more difficult. We're not talking "can't afford the newest iPod" here. The writing is good, the topics interest me and I think the perspectives are underrepresented online.
Diglet and FreeGovInfo are both blogs that are discussing the future of information. Diglet is about digital libraries and Freegovinfo is about our access to government information. As more and more content goes online, people who don't have online access or don't have a good understanding of online metaphor and structure are going to have a more and more difficult time accessing information if we don't think proactively about how to make this information truly accessible.
What is the most telling thing about you?
I think if you lose your temper, you've lost the fight, which makes me work hard for some sort of harmony in most of my dealings. At the same time, I don't shy away from conflict per se which, as I get older, seems to set me more and more apart from other people in my profession.
Mac or PC?
Both, mostly Mac.
Would you read your site?
Yes, I do. It's always funny to do a search on Google for some obscure thing and realize I wrote about it seven years ago.
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