Labeling Your Law Library's Blog: Lessons Learned

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By Ingrid Mattson
March 4, 2014

I recently began labeling our law library’s blog posts. If you are unfamiliar with the term “labeling,” it is simply the act of associating a word or words with each blog post to identify what the blog post is about or to help search engines find the content you have created. Some refer to the act as tagging rather than labeling. I use “label” because that is the term used in our blogging software.

Labeling is like indexing or adding subjects to a catalog record. For better or worse, while catalogers have the Library of Congress to look to for classification rules, there is no formal system for labeling blog posts. In fact, one need not label posts at all. My informal survey of the AALL Computing Services Special Interest Section’s Law Library Blogs webpage suggests many blawgers (e.g., the authors of the blogs at Jenkins Law Library and UNC’s Katherine R. Everett Law Library) have gone this route.


Stop for a minute and think, however, how difficult it might be without labels to determine how many posts your librarians have written about job search books, new additions to the collection, local crime stories, or attorney ethics. Such was the challenge our blog readers faced before my labeling project began. I cannot take credit for most of our blog’s content as I only recently began blogging here at Moritz, but it seemed a shame to let all of the excellent posts written by my predecessors languish, findable only through keyword searches. This is not to suggest keyword search functionality in blogs is not adequate; I simply think indexing your blog for readers gives them another way to think about and find the content you have labored to create.

And so my project began. I immediately felt like the Mr. Bean of bloggers. Ineptitude dominated my early attempts, so I thought I’d share what I learned in hopes that you’ll avoid similar strife. 

Lesson One: Process Matters

If you have scores of unlabeled posts, take time to read as many as possible before you begin. Avoid the approach of reading one post, labeling it, reading a second post, labeling it, reading a third post, and so on without a relatively comprehensive understanding of what you are organizing. This blasé approach often resulted in my discovery of a new label I should have used all along, adding more time to the labeling project.

For example, I came across a post, "Why Do We Raise Our Right Hand When Testifying in Court?" and I realized no existing label really fit it. I settled on the label “history” (which I’d used in other posts), and I decided to add the label “trial practice,” reasoning that this label would likely be used in relation to many other posts. Because I’d already labeled 100 posts before I devised the label “trial practice,” I had to go back through the 100 posts to add the label “trial practice” to 10 posts. The agony!

Consider creating an extensive set of labels you may need before you begin, then work from the existing set of labels and add new ones truly on an as-needed basis. This approach will also work if you have a regular rotation of new bloggers (as is the case at Gallagher Law Library) or if you anticipate new hires or guests will contribute posts. See below for an example of Gallagher blogs’ labels.



  

If you are “lucky” enough to start from scratch with a blog, it helps to have a sufficient number of posts to allow you to see patterns in the type of content you are organizing. For example, if you only have 10 posts, you could conceivably have 10 labels—one for each post if the posts are sufficiently different from each other. That approach is almost as useful for readers as the no-label approach. Sometimes sorting 25 items is easier than sorting three. If you can wait to begin adding labels until you have two or three dozen posts, I recommend it. In the alternative, you could choose an existing classification scheme (like one created by a similarly situated law library for its own blog) and build on that. 

The Cleveland Law Library Weblog and Dewey B Strategic both have an extensive list of labels to consider. The Dewey B Strategic label system (see below) is particularly interesting as it identifies how many posts have been written about each topic. 




Lesson Two: Don’t Forget the Basics


Steve Matthews recommends a number of key points to consider in the article “Tag, You’re It! Best Practices for Tagging on the Web.” In another “do as I say, not as I did” moment, read Matthews’ article before you begin adding labels. Following are my two favorite tips.

First and foremost, be consistent. For example, avoid labeling some posts with the term “website” (singular) and other posts with the term “websites” (plural) if they are intended to identify the same types of content. We use Blogger as our blogging platform, which helps us avoid this problem by auto-filling labels as we type them. If I begin typing w-e-b into the label box, Blogger suggests the term I have used previously as a label.



Second, consider your use of abbreviations carefully. Matthews gives the example “Law librarians, for example, might avoid the tag ‘ALA’ since, in addition to being an acronym for the American Library Association, it also represents the Association of Legal Administrators.” While I concur, I also recommend a belt-and-suspenders approach when it makes sense. For example, it might very well be appropriate to label a post with “AALL” and “American Association of Law Libraries” to reach readers who think of the organization in both ways. If you take this approach, use both labels together at all times so as not to confuse readers. On the other hand, for acronyms about which you think there will be no confusion for your readers (e.g., FTC), the acronym on its own may be fine.

Here is one tip that Matthews did not include: check your spelling and grammar. If you want to create the label “trial practice,” confirm that that is what you are creating instead of the more pastoral “trail practice.” Also, use acronyms correctly. For example, ORALL refers to the Ohio Regional Association of Law Libraries, not the Ohio Regional Association of Law Librarians.

Lesson Three: Understand Your Readers

It helps to write about things your readers are interested in—that is a given. But ask yourself what your particular readers may want to know when reading your blog. For example, we have a faculty member who recently taught a class on marijuana legislation and policy. At present, I have used the simple label “drug laws” to classify any posts about narcotics generally, though I am considering adding a label for marijuana as the topic becomes more important to the legal system and to this particular faculty member. 

Similarly, this faculty member is particularly interested in criminal sentencing law and policy; consequently, “sentencing” is one of our labels. We could have gone with the more generic “criminal law” label, but it seems our readers have a more specific interest. Thus, we are trying to help them easily find what they are looking for.

Presumably your readers are interested in the legal realm. Consider adding labels to distinguish between a general subject and that subject’s legal variant. For example, we have labels for both “Ohio” and “Ohio law.” “Ohio” covers posts like “Ohio Judges Retiring” and “Historic Ohio County Courthouses Threatened,”  while “Ohio law” covers (of course) actual Ohio laws and legal actions.



Without a doubt, your readers are interested in themselves. (Who isn’t?) If you write at a law firm, consider using the labels “associates” and “partners” when writing about news directed to those groups or about those groups. Keep in mind that this approach may reflect historic changes as associates identified by name in posts become partners. If that is a concern, add the attorneys’ names as actual labels. At present, I simply use “faculty” as a label, but that choice reflects how infrequently we write about professors by name. In the event that we do this more in the future, I would be inclined to keep the label “faculty” to see how many times we have written about faculty generally, but I would also add individual faculty names.

The labels used by the 3 Geeks and a Law Blog really reflect readers’ interests: "pricing" and "thought leadership" are two of my favorites. You might also consider broader categories, keeping your labels to a minimum as the Law Library of Congress, The Harvard Law School Library Blog, and ZiefBrief have done. For example, for the post  “Recovering from a Bad Exam Experience,” ZiefBrief uses the label “Surviving First Year” rather than the more specific “exams” or “study tips.” Whatever approach you choose, the goal is to put yourself in your readers’ shoes to figure out just what they might be looking for.




Getting the Job Done


I have labeled almost one third of our blog posts, but I feel a bit Sisyphean because my colleagues and I post three-to-five times per week. The good news is that we are labeling our posts as we go these days. Everyone is welcome to add new labels as they see fit because the posts themselves reflect our unique interests and writing styles, which in turn appeal to our diverse readers. Because without our readers, where would we be?

Ingrid Mattson (mattson.30@osu.edu) is reference librarian and adjunct professor at Moritz Law Library, Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University, Columbus.