22:3 (2007:09) 22nd Conference (2007): Strategy Session: Column People

August 31, 2007 at 12:53 pm | Posted in Conference Reports, Strategy Sessions | Leave a comment


Column People: What’s their Future in a World of Blogs? The Role of Columnists in Academic Journals
Allan Scherlen, Collection Development Librarian, Appalachian State University and a columnist for Serials Review; Bob Nardini, Head Bibliographer, Coutts Information Services and a columnist for Against the Grain
Reported by Stephen Headley

After presenting some discussion questions for the session, Scherlen opened the session by asking the audience if they were currently blogging or at least regularly read blogs. A sizable portion of the audience responded that they were involved with blogs. He then asked how many people followed one or more columns. Fewer people responded to that question.

Scherlen laid a foundation for comparing and contrasting columns and blogs and for discussing the intersection and mutual influence of the two forms by defining them and outlining their histories. The majority of columns generally share a number of features including: written with a “single voice, topic focused, periodic, editorial filter, writer hired or selected, and part of a larger publication.” He noted the variants, such as travel, gossip and book review columns. Scherlen outlined the long history of columns, which can be traced back at least to periodical commentaries from the early 1700s.

He then offered two definitions of blogs from recent writings on the subject. One of these was from Mark Tremayne’s Blogging, Citizenship and the Future of Media. It stated, “Blogs are distinguished from other websites in their dynamism, reverse chronological presentation and dominant use of the first person.” He then shared studies of blog users which found that, of the more than 80 million blogs, most were by single authors and contained personal information about them. A brief history of blogs was provided, starting with 1997 when the term “weblog” was coined, through the development of political blogs, to May 2007 when it was estimated that there are more than 81 million blogs.

 A comparison of blogs versus columns was presented next.  Scherlen listed the following similarities, noting that there are many exceptions to these general distinctions: they both have a personal voice with an opinion or analysis; both can have “substantial readership”; and either can be well written and considered “good journalism.” The differences were more numerous. Blogs generally are more informal, “diary-like,” and can have miscellaneous related content, whereas columns are usually topic focused. They have frequent updates and accumulate posts, whereas columns are periodic and less frequent and consist of “single stand-alone piece(s).” The author of a blog can be anyone who can write whatever they please as compared to a columnist who is hired or selected and whose work must pass through an “editorial filter.” Many blogs contain links to their archives or other blogs, whereas columns do not usually have links to archives or other columns. Most blogs have a way to include readers’ comments and are open access, while traditional columns do not provide a direct way to submit readers’ input and many have “subscription barriers.”

Scherlen concluded his part of the presentation by posing the question, “Are the boundaries between traditional publishing and new online expression blurring?” He contends that blogs are having a significant impact on mainstream media. More and more users are questioning mainstream media while blogs are receiving increased credibility. At the same time, mainstream media are taking on features of blogs and embracing them in some way. For example, having links that ask for readers’ comments, hiring bloggers, and having their own journalists create their own blogs. Columnists are increasingly recognizing that their readers are aware of major blogs and are actually citing those blogs.

Nardini opened his part of the session by stating that bloggers and their readers comprise a “subculture,” while columns and even prominent columnists do not. He followed with his differences between blogs and columns. Bloggers do not have the structure and pressure that columnists have and columnists do not have the independence of bloggers. He said that blogs have more of a “sense of community” for readers because of their personal content. As an example, he offered that many librarians’ blogs seek to break the stereotype of the uptight, shushing librarian. On the other hand, columnists and their readers do not have any kind of interaction. Furthermore, columnists are more traditional than bloggers, “ketchup not salsa.”  Nardini added that columnists offered a point of view, a certain attitude, and distinctive individual styles more readily than blogs, which show a certain sameness in attitude and style. He illustrated his points by referring to the recent death of famous columnist Molly Ivins. He talked about his admiration for her work and the reverence for her that was displayed upon her death.

Following Nardini’s presentation, Scherlen and Nardini posed some questions for the audience to think about and respond to.  Is there room for both columnists and bloggers in the media and publishing world? Are there any reviewing or indexing sources for blogs? Should librarians be leading people through the blogosphere? Several people from the audience defended the content of blogs and their quality. Others cited the convenience and easy access of blogs as reasons for why they read them.


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