birth of the death reference desk

Death Reference Desk

A few months ago, once fellow Minneapolitan John Troyer, now a professor of death and dying practices at the University of Bath, England, approached me with a vision. Well, it was more like a statement: “We need a blog.” He and his colleague Kim Anderson, a public librarian in Portland, Oregon, were in the habit of swapping death-related news stories via email, sometimes posting them on Facebook. Ever the helpful information consumer and conduit, I too occasionally passed along to John death links I knew would be of interest–think less shock schlock morbidity than the culturally nuanced and historically intriguing bits of death and dying lore and lunacy.

John and Kim wanted an online space where they could share ideas and information with a wider audience. Recognized for my web prowess (and later, praised for the happy surprise of actually being able to turn a fuzzy idea into a solid, slick reality), I was courted to build and contribute to such a joint-venture website with the promise of zero dollars and uncertain outcomes all around. Ain’t that the way of it? But I loved the idea and signed on. After countless hours of WordPress hacking, tracking down permanent WorldCat URLs and trying to determine the best way to organize a collection that doesn’t yet exist, the Death Reference Desk was born.

The blog portion of DRD focuses on death and dying in the news. Topics range from death industry trends, new discoveries in anthropology and the effect of social networking on mourning and memorializing, to name a few. We also function as an email-the-librarians reference desk for death and dying subjects. We’ve only had a couple questions so far, so it’s hard to predict the range of questions we’ll receive and the magnitude of research required; we don’t track down obituaries nor do in-depth research, but we are more than happy to help with search advice and places to get started. DRD also has search term tips and a few research guides, and we hope to add more in the future.

I also maintain a DeathRef Twitter account; the lastest tweet appears on the homepage, with tweets announcing new DeathRef content or linking to articles that lack sufficient weight to warrant their own posts. While (*ahem,* in my humble opinion) Twitter is the most annoyingly hyped and often pointlessly appropriated web doodad of the year, for DRD it has proven surprisingly effective for identifying and making connections with unexpected audiences, namely, genealogists and obituary enthusiasts.

So far the Death Reference Desk journey has been a challenging and gratifying experience for me as a web designer, librarian and writer. I approached it first as a project manager, defining and predicting what we wanted to achieve and how to get there, including our purpose and possible trajectory, scope, audience and value (…both to others and ourselvesI plainly admit I hoped to improve my web skills and expand my portfolio, which I’ve definitely achieved).

Melding knowledge of blog management with information organization, I attempted to translate subject classification and indexing theory and best practices to the category and tag functions of a blog. This has been no easy feat, especially with multiple contributors adding content and metadata and not knowing what our “collection” might ultimately contain. As such, categories and tags shift and evolve. The tag “crime” has become its own category, “Death + Crime.” Given thus-far limited content, the categories “Death + Art” and “Death + Architecture” should perhaps be combined. I scowl nonstop at having both a “Monuments + Memorials” category plus a “memorializing” tag, but I’m not sure what to do about it yet, and so it remains, redundant and confusing.

Naturally, my aim is to make navigation and drill-down terms as logical and useful as possible from a user’s perspective. But it’s also difficult to know how exactly a visitor will and wants to use the site, and I fear usability studies at this point would be, to put it lightly, exceptionally silly. DRD, while interesting to others for its content, has been especially interesting to me as a vehicle by which to explore professional issues, but that doesn’t mean it always requires professional insight and application, nor that such things are feasible. Sad that it matters, but true, I can expend only so much effort while not getting paid, plus I am probably the only person in the whole WWW who cares whether our small-fry blog makes total sense all of the time.

Nevertheless, I am having a blast with it, and what I’ve been learning falls well beyond information organization and design. In addition to that and the requisite web-hashing, I view and work on DRD in terms of its branding, marketing, promotion and outreach (I’m considering delving into and answering relevant Yahoo! Answers and WikiAnswers questions); its editorial policy and the various means of locating and developing relevant, engaging content (thank you, RSS alert services!); researching and creating an appropriate privacy policy and disclaimer; and my personal quest to swallow my disgust and experiment with the grossness of online advertising.

Though I’ve maintained personal websites for nearly a decade, I’ve never considered myself a blogger, in fact, I’ve resented the term. I see blogging as quick and dirty–not necessarily thoughtless but with certainly less mental and emotional investment than the creative nonfiction of my prior web engagements. But whaddya know: finding, writing about and sharing things that I find interesting for people who will also find them interesting is fun as well as deeply satisfying–not to mention a pretty darn librarian thing to do.

The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive. While it’s impossible to predict its long-term sustainability, I’m definitely enjoying it right nowfor what it is, and in imagining what it might become and how to make it happen.

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