J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Lessons from “Blogging History”

Our “Blogging History” panel at this March’s O.A.H. convention attracted a patient audience of about fifty—or, as one participant suggested, more than any panel at the convention that didn’t have the word “sex” in its title.

Here are some lessons I picked up from my fellow panelists.

1) Larry Cebula at Northwest History: Historians’ blogs have tended to have a predictable life cycle. They start out discussing history and history-writing, shift (especially in 2008) into arguing politics, and end up focusing on the blogger’s personal life.

Why had Boston 1775 lasted nearly three years without drifting into that cycle? Perhaps because of my escape valve.

Larry shared one post from his blog about nineteenth-century facial hair. The contrast with today might have been starker if the audience hadn’t been looking at three panelists with goatees and one with sideburns.

2) Mary Schaff at the Washington State Library: If people at an institution, particularly a government institution, want to create a blog to communicate to the public, it’s more efficient to ask for forgiveness after launching than to ask for permission beforehand. Going the formal route can lead into the hell of mission-statement committees.

Unfortunately, the Washington State Library blog ended in May because it was taking too much staff time. But other organizations have seen the value of the blogging model—i.e., a website anyone can update without having to go through a sixteen-year-old webmaster.

3) William Turkel at Digital History Hacks: Blogging about ways that historians can create more useful searches for data and documentation? That’s productive and rewarding. Creating search techniques simply in order to have something to put on the blog? Time to call it a day. But his blog posts are still up.

4) Ari Kelman and Eric Rauchway at The Edge of the American West: One key to a successful group blog is a shared ethos of not stepping on—i.e., posting shortly after—someone else’s post. Plus, American men can still find really sharp three-piece suits.

For more of what I learned from visiting Seattle, please see the escape valve. This panel was the idea of Larry Cebula, and I’m grateful to him and moderator Bill Youngs for getting me out to Seattle and showing me a good time while I was there.

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