Going “Behind the Blog” with the Law Library of Congress

Dec 12, 2014
Laptop and gavel

Creative content can be found in all corners of the federal space. Recently, the Law Library of Congress blog, In Custodia Legis, and the United States Courts blog, The Third Branch News, were named to the ABA Journal “Blawg 100” out of 4,000 legal blogs eligible for selection.

We wanted insight on their blogging success, so we spoke with Andrew Weber, Legislative Information Systems Manager for the Law Library of Congress. He manages the In Custodia Legis blog, which focuses on legal history, the Congress.gov website and legal trends, as well as offering behind-the-scenes information on the world’s largest law library.

Weber works with a team of 16 active bloggers that includes international contributors from China, Eritrea, Israel, Mexico and New Zealand. Guest contributors also have an active presence, with more than 200 blog posts published by guests. The blog reached its fourth anniversary in August.

Tell us about In Custodia Legis. What is the goal of your blog, and who is your primary audience?

The goal is to open the Law Library of Congress and make it more accessible to our target audiences: Congress, which is our primary client, as well as the general public. We also target other law librarians who share information about the Law Library of Congress with their patrons.

We have a blog team meeting each month. We look at the calendar and look at historic dates and how they might be represented on the blog. Each person brings their own background, including foreign law specialists. Our writers can blog their behind-the-scenes perspective.

We started with five bloggers, and the goal was always to publish every day. For the most part, we still do that. Adding new people has made the blog more broad: it shows more facets of what the Law Library does. I also get introduced to coworkers through our interview series that I might not otherwise know so well. It’s fun for the staff.

Law can be seen as a complex topic. How do you produce content that is easy for the general public to understand?

When we have our meetings, we talk through topics. One great new addition is our Beginner’s Guide series (which can be found in the Research Guide section). It aims to be a “101” type of introduction to topics. If you are trying to learn something new, it’s a good starting reference point.

We also sometimes cover a topic that you wouldn’t typically associate with law, for example, chocolate and law. Our British law specialist compared laws on the topic of chocolate. Our person from New Zealand did a post on coming to the United States and learning about Thanksgiving. In her writing from an outsider’s perspective, I learned more about our Thanksgiving celebration and how the celebration time wasn’t really coordinated until President Lincoln organized it.

We think of the blog as a place where there is a lot of knowledge sharing, and while it is for Congress and the public, it is also a repository about our jobs. As people retire, we try to do posts with them to get some of their insights that might not otherwise be captured about our institution. We had a guest from Japan who came for several months and was shadowing our teams, and there were numerous times that I showed her blog posts. It is a nice way to have long-term, accessible information.

You work with a team of 16 regular contributors plus numerous guest bloggers. How do you manage your team?

We have a flexible publishing schedule, so if something happens, like finding out about our inclusion in the “Blawg 100,” we can work that into the schedule quickly. We pay attention to what is going in different countries, and if something is happening, we will ask someone to write a blog about it.

We also have a multi-level review process. Each blogger is responsible for publishing their own post, but before they publish, they send it out to the team and someone peer reviews it. The editor will also review it, and someone spot checks it for policy issues. We’ll also pass it by appropriate offices. If it’s on copyright, we’ll go to the copyright office.

What advice would you give to other government employees in the blogging and social media spheres?

It can be a lot of time and effort, and it can also be a lot of reward. One key [to success] is adding new people. Bringing a fresh perspective is good. We have a lot of content to write about, and it is a fun challenge to come up with a schedule each month. I think one of the nice things about what we do is that we have people from different parts of the Law Library. It is a very rich diversity: not just social media and communications, but from across the Law Library.

Do you have a favorite In Custodia Legis blog post?

The post entitled “Acid in Books.” I don’t work with books, and for me, it was fascinating to learn about the acidification process and how books are dipped in huge vats that help them last longer. This is a post that I really enjoyed because it was something I knew little about. Now I know why they apply little white dots to the spine of books. But, I could tell you about many more posts!

The ABA Journal has a voting process for including “Blawg 100” blogs in their Hall of Fame. You can view all nominees and vote for your favorites until December 19th. In Custodia Legis can be found in the Legal Research/Legal Writing category, and The Third Branch News can be found in the News/Courts category.