Work essential or extra workload? The value of creating a personal professional web presence

This afternoon my Centre for Social Informatics colleague and PhD student Marina Milosheva and I are running a session on the value to academics of creating a personal professional web presence. This is one of a series of researcher development events offered through Edinburgh Napier University’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise unit. Our colleague Dr Sophie Morris is the organiser.

During the session Marina and I will be explaining why we think it worthwhile to run our own independent web sites at https://marinamilphd.org and http://hazelhall.org, even though the University provides us with automatically-generated individual web pages at https://www.napier.ac.uk/people/marina-milosheva and https://www.napier.ac.uk/people/hazel-hall. I’ll be speaking from the perspective of a senior academic, and Marina as an early career researcher.

The purpose of this blog post is add some narrative to my slides for the session. These are available on SlideShare and below (including the mistake about the timings on Slide 4 – whoops!)

The origins of my WordPress blog at http://hazelhall.org can be traced back over quarter of a century to the start of the dot.com boom. At that time my husband’s colleagues at Sun Microsystems in the US were trying to tempt the pair of us to move to Silicon Valley. Had they been successful, my husband would have been based in Sun offices at Mountain View, and I would have undertaken a PhD at University of California, Berkeley School of Information, most likely under the supervision of Dr Michael Buckland.  Ultimately, however, the mission of the Sun colleagues failed – mainly because we couldn’t contemplate life without BBC radio, pavements for outdoor running, and the variety of British weather.

Navigating business information sourcesEven though we didn’t move to the US, my husband spent several months in California in the 1990s, and I joined him there on a few occasions. My longest period there was in summer 1995, when I also completed a research project on the contributions of corporate libraries to intranet development in tech firms. It was then that I saw individuals skilled in HTML, who were creating and hosting their own personal web pages on corporate systems. This was a new shiny thing, and I wanted one! (As an aside, one of the companies that I visited in summer 1995 was Yahoo! At the time the company’s 12 employees operated out of a portakabin in a tiny business part in Mountain View.)

When I returned to my lecturer post at Queen Margaret College (as was) after this trip, I undertook a 2-day HTML training course at Heriot-Watt University. This equipped me to set up some very basic web pages for teaching in general.  Later I used these pages to support my Business Information Sources module with direct reference to Navigating business information sources, the book that I published with Maria Burke in 1998.

I developed these resources further when I moved to Napier University in 1999. As well as providing lecture notes and links to my PowerPoint presentations online, I also posted information for people find out more about my work, notably my CV and a publications list with links to full text files hosted on the same server as my web pages.

By the mid-2000s individual schools at Napier started to develop their own web presences, and we were encouraged to use WebCT as a virtual learning environment. I continued to maintain my own (plain but functional) web pages in parallel with these.

The advent of social media from around 2008 onwards offered new opportunities for presenting information online, as I discovered in some contract research that I completed with colleagues at TFPL that summer. My first opportunity to test these out came one year later when I set up an online presence for a new body that I led from 2009: the Library and Information Science Research Coalition. It was in this period that I saw the value of combining a web site with a blog, with outward links to resources on other platforms (e.g SlideShare) and the use of Twitter to direct traffic to its content. I also became used to having a platform from which I could relay relevant news to an appreciative audience.

The Library and Information Science Research Coalition was a three project that ended in 2012. Following its conclusion I really missed blogging. I also realised that I needed to do something to update and tidy my own web presence. By this time it was split across plain pages on a departmental server that was frequently threatened with retirement, and the University web site. The day that Peter Cruickshank asked me ‘Why do your web pages look like they were created in the 1990s?’ was the same day that I resolved to create http://hazelhall.org. Although the first post to the blog is dated September 13th 2012, it didn’t go live until the first week of January 2013 (as was the case for all the other posts until that of 21st December 2012). The reason for this was that I wanted to launch my blog with some existing content. I also needed time to set everything up, and this didn’t materialise until I took a week of extra annual leave over the Christmas/New Year vacation in 2012/13.

Of course, some people wondered why I bothered to do this at all, especially in my own personal holiday time – and they still do. What’s wrong with the online presence that already exists for me on the Edinburgh Napier University web pages? Why duplicate this content? And shouldn’t my teaching materials be accessible only to Napier staff and students? My response to these questions are as follows:

  • I want to present my information my way. For example, I present my research outputs by format on my own web site, and – where possible – I also provide additional links, e.g. to published versions of papers, to presentations held on my SlideShare account.   The University web pages do not allow for this.
  • My module-specific teaching materials are now all within the University system. However, I want to provide access to my popular hand-outs on writing, dissertations and references from my own web site. My web stats show that these are heavily used, and I think that some people would be rather cross if I removed them. For example, my handout on the rules and conventions of academic writing was downloaded 25,806 times in 2020 (so over the course of the two hour training session it will likely be downloaded six times).
  • I want to make my external presentations available in ‘real time’ so that on the day that I deliver a presentation, people can read about it (as you are doing now, if you are viewing this blog post on 10th March 2021).
  • I want a dynamic online presence: this is much more easily achieved through an updated blog than it is on a largely static web site.
  • I want to promote my work, and that of my colleagues. I can do so by writing blog posts as news items.
  • I want to keep track of my online presence. I do so here from the page that lists my profiles on other platforms. (I also link my profiles on other platforms back to my own web site to save on having to keep these all up to date.)
  • I want to maintain reference materials for enquiries from external contacts. For example: if I am asked to provide biographical information for a conference, I can refer the person who makes this request to my CV and my About page; if I receive a speculative enquiry about PhD study with me at Napier, I can direct the candidate to my PhD applications page and the links on there to the University’s application system.
  • I want to maintain reference materials for myself, for example: there is a list of the blogs of my research group colleagues on my Centre for Social Informatics page; I also use my web site as a place to store useful links (especially those that seem to wander).
  • I want my online presence to be portable. This means that if I change job, I can take the content with me.
  • I want people to be able to find me. Having your own web presence makes you visible and contactable (provided that you keep a contacts page like mine). This raises the chances of your being invited to join in external work activities.
  • I have also found that my blog has provided a place for me to make announcements and reflect. This was really useful in 2018 when I wanted people to know that I would be away from work for cancer treatment, and I have written two blog posts (so far) about my experience of the pandemic: one on 30th April 2020, and the other on 3rd August 2020 (and I may write another…)

Most of the work on this web site is completed in my own time (including this blog post, composed on a non-working day for me) so it is extra workload. However, I enjoy writing and believe that the effort is worth the reward. It’s difficult for me to imagine not regularly updating this web site, so for me a personal professional web presence is also a work essential.

If you are interested in Marina’s take on this topic as an early career researcher, her slides are also available. Update 18th March 2021: Marina has blogged a review of this training event at on her own blog.

Why blog as a PhD student/ECR?

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