To the Researchmobile! : Identity theft

So, here I was, planning to do another installment in the Personal Libraries series. And then last Friday happened.

To be precise, I got a call from our head of HR, saying she’d gotten an unemployment request from me, and thought I should know about that. Someone had gotten hold of my social security number and name and used it to file a fraudulent claim.

So, for today’s post, here’s a guide to what I did to check that I was doing all the necessary things.

Quick! Research Needed! (gold exclamation point on a dark background)

Background is useful

One thing that makes for really excellent research is having something of a background in the topic.

Obviously, we’re not going to be experts in all the things, all the time – no one can do that. But we can help ourselves out by taking in a steady stream of information that makes it easy to get ourselves up to speed on specifics quickly if we have to.

For me, this means reading or skimming a couple of general purpose sources of news and information. I subscribe to online editions of two newspapers and support one of my local NPR stations (and they send a summary of current major stories daily), plus I read several general purpose sites that cover a wide range of topics (Metafilter, in my case), plus a couple of general financial and lifehack sites.

I specifically wasn’t trying to build expert knowledge in what to do if I got hit with identity theft (because the specifics on what to do change periodically, as services and government resources change), but all of this meant I was well aware it happens sometimes, that it’s not always easy to figure out where the breech happened, and that there are in fact steps in what to do about it.

That meant that when I got that call from HR, I didn’t have a tidy list of what to do. But I knew they were out there, that ‘identity theft’ was the term I wanted to work with, and that I’d just need a little time to do those searches and check my information.

Oh, and a bit of background:

If you’re outside the US and trying to figure out what this means: in the United States, the social security number is the closest thing we have to a personal identification number.

It’s technically only supposed to be asked for in a limited number of situations (like taxes, or some kinds of financial accounts) but it’s often asked for in a bunch of other places – everything from college applications to rental applications to medical records.

This makes it rather easy to abuse, unfortunately.

(For those curious about the history of the number designations, here’s a page from the Social Security Administration.)

Habits are also useful

Fortunately, I already have a routine for keeping an eye on financial accounts (more on that in a few steps).

So I knew right where everything was for the different accounts, and could check quickly to see that there were no unexpected charges, and that no one had opened up accounts in my name recently.

First steps

The first step here is to take a deep breath. Panicking isn’t going to make this go better, and it won’t solve the problem (no matter how tempting it is.)

I was at work when I got that call. I did a little quick searching that made it clear that yes, I was going to want to make half a dozen phone calls, and a couple of them probably needed to be during business hours, which helped.

I’d been out sick for two days on Wednesday and Thursday, and had already been considering going home early, so I arranged to do that (because making the calls from home would be a lot easier.) Fortunately, I’d already done the things that I really needed to be in the office to do.

The drive home was fast (no traffic!) but it gave me about fifteen minutes to process through things and sort out what I wanted to do in my head, so it would be easier to take steps in a useful order when I got home.

Initial searches

I started by doing a search on “identity theft social security number” because that was the thing I knew had been compromised – and it’s a slightly different kind of issue than someone who potentially has your credit card info.

I browsed through the results, looking for highly reliable sources – for example, there’s this PDF guide direct from the Social Security Administration. I also found less official guides like this one, that still had a useful set of tasks and suggestions.

I focused on recent pages, written in the last year, since advice changes as people try new scams, and technology has new options. I also looked at my state attorney general’s site for information.

(If you search in Google, you can use the “Tools” option and select “Past year” instead of “Any time” in the option that will pop up below the main search tabs.)

I didn’t take the advice from any one source (even the Social Security folks!) Instead, I looked at about 20 sources and combined them into a list of things to do. (That’s also why I’m not giving you a ton of links here: the best resources will change over time.)

Here comes the spreadsheet

You knew there was going to be one, right, if you’ve been reading this blog.

I set up a spreadsheet with multiple sheets in it.

The first sheet has conversations I’ve had or steps I’ve taken (like online reports). It has columns for date, time, who I talked to, what the general topic was, how (phone, online, etc.), and then notes for the conversation and any follow up I need to do or pay attention to.

The second sheet has links of things I still need to do.

The third sheet has specific contact information for people I may need to get in touch with again, so I don’t have to hunt up the numbers or web addresses.

What did I do?

1) Put a fraud alert on my credit account.

This is a 90-day alert, and if you call one of the three agencies in the United States, they will pass the alert on to the other two. The call was entirely automated and very straightforward for being an automated call.

I got a reference number and asked for my rights to come in the mail, rather than hearing them over the phone, so I’ll have a confirmation of what they are. It’s possible to extend these alerts or put a credit freeze on for longer, but it’s easier to do that once I have a completed police report.

2) Put in a police report with my local police department

This produces a temporary report (the instructions say very clearly not to use the confirmation number until they’ve followed up) but a police report opens up some additional options for later (and if there ever is a problem down the road, being able to demonstrate that I reported it is helpful.)

My police department has an online form that you fill in, or I could have called the non-emergency line. This was the second step because I wanted to be able to say I’d made the report to any later calls.

3) Called the Massachusetts Unemployment Fraud line.

I found them by looking at the Unemployment Office site. Since this is the place where the actual identity theft happened, it was high on the list. I spoke to a really pleasant man who was glad to confirm they’d already flagged it as a problem in their system, and that the address they had wasn’t the one I gave them.

The big issue is that if I ever do need to file for unemployment in Massachusetts, as long as that claim is on file, I’ll need to have additional identification and documentation. (This means that police report is important! But also things like a photocopy of my ID, and current mail to demonstrate my address, etc.)

4) My bank

I bank with a small local independent bank who have the best customer service (Thanks, Leader Bank!)

I got a real person right away, no phone tree, and he was great about checking and making notes in my file that if there are any inquiries about my account, to ask for an agreed on passcode, or call me for verification.

5) Credit cards

I didn’t put a freeze on my credit accounts just yet (it will take a little more paperwork and I want to have the police report to reference before I do).

I did turn on alerts on all of them to let me know if there are more than very minimal charges on any of them. I already check my accounts manually twice a week. (I will be bumping that to three times a week.)

6) Reporting to the FTC

Many of my sources (including the SSA) encouraged me to report it to the FTC’s Identity Theft site. They ask you a series of questions about what happened and advise what steps you should take. You can also get a confirmation number saying you filed a report with them, which helps demonstrate that you took action on the problem.

7) Social Security Administration

I was able to lock access to my account online but will need to do a more elaborate process to sort out some of it. Again, some of that will be much easier with the police report.

Things I need to do in the future

Once I have the police report, then I’ll do additional paperwork for a credit freeze and to clear up documentation with the social security offices.

It’ll be important to keep that documentation somewhere easy to access if I need it (i.e. all in one place) so that if I do need it, I can grab it quickly. I’ve been a little unhappy with my current ‘important papers’ filing for a while, so this is a good time to rework that system into something a bit easier to use.

I live by myself, so one of the things I’m thinking about here is if something happens where friends need to help me with filing for disability or other benefits, what I need to document now to make that easier. My ideal is to be able to identify a folder that has a summary of everything.

Along the way, I also read a bunch of advice – for example, I may get scam calls with threats if I don’t make payments, pretending to be from the IRS, etc. The sites I looked at had advice on ignoring those and explained how the IRS actually contacts you.

I’ll also just need to keep an eye out for weird stuff, in case something else crops up. Some of the things I found suggest people try the unemployment scam first and then move on to other things if it works. On the other hand, this might not be the only person who has my information, depending on how they got it, so it could be an issue for credit, leases, etc.

Personal library: What do you need?

What’s in your library? And maybe more to the point, what are you going to add to your library in the future? How do you use it?

These are all questions that can help you figure out how to manage your personal library more effectively. Today’s post is going to look at them in more detail.

A hidden bookcase opens out, revealing a room behind. The bookshelves are full of leather-bound books.

Why think about this?

Library schools talk about how a library should learn about and provide resources that fit the community it serves – but each community is different. So we take courses, as librarians, about how to do that better. One common course is called something like Collection Development or Collection Management, which is a rather boring label that is really about something much more interesting.

My Collection Management professor was fantastic (thanks, Dr. Lesniaski!) and I still think about what I learned in that class multiple times a week, more than a decade later.

One of the things he focused on was the idea that what makes a library more than a random collection of items is that it’s built on relationships – and specifically, the relationship between a given item, the other items in the collection, and the people who use it.

That’s a concept that applies well to personal libraries, though it’s obviously a lot simpler when you’re only thinking about a small number of people who use the collection.

When I’m looking at my own collection, it helps me ask questions and make choices (and it also helps me figure out what things I maybe want to focus on adding next, or what things I could find new homes for.)

What do you have?

It’s good to start with a few questions that have to do with your physical reality. By that, I mean both the physical objects, and how you access the digital ones.

1) What kind of items do you have?

Some people want all the print. Some people have switched to ebooks but have some print items. Some people buy CDs or vinyl or DVDs. Others have moved entirely to digital formats.

Different kinds of items need different kinds of management, so having a list of what broad categories of things you’ve got is really helpful as you start thinking about how to manage it.

This is also a good time to think about content – what kinds of books and items are you wanting to keep. Are you pretty sure you’re going to want to keep them long-term, or are they things you may read and then be done with? Most people have some of both.

Do you have books you keep for sentimental reasons? A lot of booklovers do. On the other hand, they can be tricky to manage: sometimes they take up lots of space or are in poor physical condition (enough that they’re hard to read – or if you have allergies or insect issues, they may really not help.) That can lead to some hard choices. The first step for all of these questions is being aware what you have.

2) Is that possibly going to change?

What you have right now is probably working okay for you – but maybe you know things are going to change for you. (Or maybe you’re really not happy with what you’re doing and this is why you’re reading a series about personal libraries.)

Maybe you’re shifting into more digital stuff because you’re traveling for work a lot, or have a baby (and you can read on a digital device more easily than holding a book open while feeding them.)

Maybe your physical surroundings are going to change – if you’re planning a big cross-country move, or are looking at downsizing the space you live, or taking on roommates, your physical collection can be taking up a lot of space, and you may want to make sure you really do want to keep all of that (or move it).

Of course, it goes the other way – maybe you’ve finally had time to refinish the attic library space in the house you bought a few years ago, and your books can come out of boxes and live on shelves. (Like friends I know. So envious of that space.)

3) How do you feel about how things are working right now?

Maybe you feel pretty good about it, but you’d like better ways to manage some things. Or a way to put things on shelves in a way that makes sense to you.

Or maybe you feel overwhelmed by it – you don’t know where things are, you feel like there are some things you’re never going to use, but you don’t know how to sort through them.

You don’t need to figure out the answers immediately, but knowing how you feel about this, in general, will help you make better-informed choices.

4) Do you lend things to other people? Or borrow them?

Some people do and some don’t.

If you do lend things, you probably want some method of keeping track of that (if for no other reason than knowing that you can’t find that thing because someone else has it right now.)

If you regularly borrow things (from the library, from other people) you might want to set aside a shelf to keep them on, so you know where they are and can return them easily.

5) Do you have any specific storage needs?

Often, this can be very driven by the physical space we’re in. I’ve had more than one apartment where I had really limited space where shelving could fit. My current apartment is more reasonable, but it was a good reason to keep my shelving needs as minimal as I could for a good 10 years of my life.

If you have mobility or other health issues that mean bending over or working with materials near the floor can be a problem, maybe you don’t want to use shelving close to the floor. In my current set up, the books I use least live down there.

6) Where will items be used?

Sometimes this is obvious – the cookbooks are probably going to be more use close to the kitchen then up in the attic, and the books about crafting or art might live well near the art supplies.

Sometimes it’s a lot less obvious, in which case you can start thinking about other questions, like how much space different areas have, and can you shelve a complete set of books about this thing there, or do they have to go in this other location if they’re going to all be together.

7) Do you expect to add new titles? Where?

Why does this matter? Shelving! If you keep adding more print titles or other physical media, you need somewhere to put them.

If you know you’re going to keep adding physical objects, you probably want to plan that into your shelving – both in terms of having space to put things and in terms of how you arrange what you have right now. Digital items, obviously, don’t have the same kind of impact.

What I do

(This is not what you should do. This is what works for me right now, and is an example of how to think about different pieces.)

I currently have three sets of those 4×4 square shelves from Ikea – they’re a little weird for shelving books (they’re deep) but they work great for mixed materials. Also, the cat loves taking over the top of one of them to look down at me from a high place. I have two in my bedroom space, and one in the living room.

One and a half of them have print books, the other one and a half have bins for clothes, space for jewelry, and various other items. Two squares have sheet music. Some of the books (mostly the mass market paperbacks) are double stacked.

As someone who’s Pagan, my Pagan books live in the bedroom, because it means there’s less chance of odd conversation if someone comes in to do work in other spaces in the apartment. It hasn’t been a huge problem for me, but I know of people where it can be. Family who don’t approve, or friends of friends, that kind of thing. In my case, it also means they’re handy to where I actually do ritual stuff.

The cookbooks are right next to the kitchen, and my herbalism books. I also decided, in general, to put the non-fiction out there, and the fiction is on the shelves in the bedroom.

The ebooks are managed in Calibre (more about that in an upcoming post).

All my books are catalogued in LibraryThing (more about that, too), and I have separate collections for print and ebooks, so I can tell immediately where things are.

At this point, I add new print books only occasionally (maybe a dozen or two a year, in a variety of areas) and I continue to buy some titles in ebook I have in print, so I’m still sometimes freeing up shelf space.

Next time

I’ll be talking about one of the most emotionally complex questions for people who love books – letting them go from our collections. (And yet, why that can be a really good idea.)

Personal libraries: Background

I think about personal libraries a lot. The questions about a personal library obviously are somewhat similar to a library than many people use (how do we know what we have, how do we store it in a way that makes sense, how do we find things on the shelf).

And yet they’re totally different in others, because the choices we make don’t have to work for lots of unknown people.

So, over the course of a few posts, I’m going to talk about:

  • What my personal library’s like
  • Some things I’d like to improve
  • Useful tips for getting a handle on your library

And I’m sure more as I start writing and realise there’s this thing I want to talk about.

A hidden bookcase opens out, revealing a room behind. The bookshelves are full of leather-bound books.

My personal library

So, one thing you should know is that I read a lot – on average over 100 books a year.

I am weirdly superstitious about talking about specific lists of what I’ve read in any detail (I feel like this gives a very intimate look into the inside of my head and steals my soul) but it’s usually about equal parts fiction and non-fiction, with a side of Pagan-specific material.

The fiction’s mostly a mix of fantasy and mystery, with a dash of romance. The non-fiction is mostly popular non-fiction. I’m fond of books that talk about a single subject (microhistories) or dive into a given place or time or situation.

The second thing you should know is that I’ve done three long-distance moves in my adult life. Books are annoying to move long-distances, and also heavy.

I’d already begun to move to ebooks when I did the second of those moves.

For one thing, I read really fast. It used to be that on any trip, my bag would need to be half books, to keep up with my reading speed. This was both heavy and awkward. And there was always the question of “I’m going to this thing, and I might be waiting for half an hour. Will I run out of book?”

These days, I have six hundred books that sit on my phone, and I can swap what I’m reading on the fly. I usually have a print book around too (in case of technology issues, for reading in baths, etc.) but it’s one per trip instead of half a dozen or more.

I do most of my reading on screen now. I still love a physical book, but my actual practical set up means I mostly read them in the bathtub or at work (where we use print heavily, but also digitized versions)

A little history

When I did the move from Minnesota to Maine in 2011, I looked at my print books and thought about what I really wanted to move. (Especially when I wasn’t sure what my apartment was going to be like for shelving: I rented it sight unseen.)

I made the decision to move things in a few categories:

  • Pagan books (for reasons explained in a moment)
  • Books where the physical object had meaning, not just the text.
  • Books I reread regularly not yet available in ebook versions
  • Books that would not be readily available (either via the public library or used book sources) if I decided I wanted them again.

I got rid of almost everything else. I got down to about 220 print books, if I remember right – a dozen boxes sent media mail across the country.

I kept the Pagan books for two reasons. One is that I wanted to have copies I could open up while working with someone, and let them look at. (With some friends, I’m willing to lend, too.)

The other was that replacing that part of my library would be very challenging – many of the books don’t have electronic versions, or they’d be unsatisfactory since it would be a pain to look at diagrams or illustrations of particular aspects or charts. So, print it is.

(I have bought some since in electronic version for various reasons, but not many.)

The truth is, there’s a lot of books where laying hands on them again later has not been all that hard. I’ve had a couple of regrets of things that went to used bookstores, but only one or two.

In a lot of ways, I found it freeing – books are tremendous things, but they can carry a lot of weight in our head. The weight of memories, the weight of expectations, the weight of emotions.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is set that free, and let it transform into something else.

If you want to try this yourself, there’s a low-risk way to do it. Look at your shelves, with the guidelines that I’ll be talking about in the next parts of this series, and put books you’re not sure about in a separate box, somewhere that you can get to but that isn’t right on your shelves or the easiest to get to.

See if you get things out of that box in six months. Or a year. If not, maybe that’s a book that could find a new home.

Coming next

Future parts of this series will talk about:

  • Building a library as a collection
  • Dealing with works we’re sentimental about.
  • Organising books on shelves – theory and practice
  • Simple cataloging approaches

Looking Ahead to Research : part 4

Welcome to my last part of planning research. I’ve talked about breaking down projects into smaller pieces, but it’s often really helpful to have some examples, and that’s where this post comes in.

I’ve talked in the previous parts about asking questions about what you want to do and how you’ll know when you’re done. Here, I’m going to write out some of my answers for two projects, so you can see how that works.

You’ll want different questions for different kinds of goals, but here’s a list to get you started.

  1. Is there a specific thing I’m trying to answer?
  2. What do I want to do with the information when I’ve got it? Am I going to use it myself? Share it? Develop it further in another project?
  3. What do I already know about this topic or thing?
  4. What resources do I have access to? Do I have any particular limitations I should be thinking about (like needing specific materials or having language limitations)?

Rocks at the edge of the sea, at twilight.

Goal 1: Learn more about astrology

One of my ongoing goals is to learn more about astrology. It’s part of a larger and longer goal to dive more into the myths and stories and connections about planets and stars and constellations, and how the macrocosm and the world we live in interact.

(But that’s a huge project, so I’m starting with the astrology part.)

Do I have a specific question I’m trying to answer?

No, this is a project that’s about larger-scale mastery of knowledge.

What do I already know about the subject?

I’ve been generally familiar with astrology (especially in its applications for religious witchcraft and related magical work) for years now, and I’m also somewhat familiar with broad changes in the topic over time. I’ve read several introductory books, and I’ve been reading about a dozen blogs and other regular sources about it for the past six months or so.

What are my limitations and resources?

Time! Always time. This is a project that will do better if I spend time with it regularly (like reading blog posts, or learning about particular current aspects), so I should make time for it at least every few days, as well as longer stretches for deeper reading.

For resources, I feel pretty happy with the current books and materials I have, but I need to start by sitting down and reading them in more detail and working from there. I’m sure I’ll find more things as I keep reading, but I don’t feel like I’m really missing major resources right now.

Framing my goal

I would like to get myself to a point where I can read detailed analysis and understand it, or look at the current chart for the sky and understand some ways to approach patterns that are highlighted.

I’d also like to build up a particular understanding of the planets, in an astrological / mythic sense. I’ve had an increasing interest in building some regular practices around this, but I need to learn more to make some things click into place for me.

By Samhain, I’d like to have worked my way through the three or four books I want to read, the detailed analysis of my chart I got last year, and establish a regular habit of checking in on current transits and possible effects. By then, I’d also like to develop some regular spiritual practices that build on astrology.

To make progress on this, I should spend 10-15 minutes more days than not, plus find time for an hour or two each weekend, and for reading things in amongst my other reading time.

Goal 2: Recipes and food

Food is hard, sometimes.

I’ve got some specific medical things that both mean I need to eat sensibly and regularly, and that I’m sometimes too tired to cook, or that something that was food last week totally doesn’t look like it this week.

I’d like to figure out better solutions for this, especially things that require shelf stable ingredients (or freezer ones) or things I always have and minimal prep, as well as meals that work well for me that are slightly more effort. Currently my recipe notes are all over the place, a bunch of them are heavily aspirational (lovely idea, but realistically, I’m not going to make that thing that takes 10 steps very often)

Do I have a specific question to answer?

I’d like to come up with a set of recipes or foods that make reasonable meals (by my definitions) with some seasonal variations.

What do I already know?

I have some foods that work pretty reliably for me, and ditto some recipes. My notes on this are scattered around, and it’s hard to see patterns.

What are my resources and limitations?

There’s a lot of help out there! I know where some communities are that talk about the combination of things I’m trying to solve, there’s a few books that are useful, and some other resources I’ve got bookmarked.

(Also, so many recipe bookmarks.)

One of my big limitations is time – both in the sense of time to work on this in a structured way, and in the sense that there are a limited number of meals in the week to experiment with.

Framing my goal

Over the next three to six months (so by the end of June or so), I’d like to come up with a list of foods for different meals and circumstances (i.e. lunch at work has different options than lunch at home) so that I can look at a list and make choices.

I’m still thinking about what format I want that information in – whether that’s a ring of index cards, or something on the computer, or something else. But I clearly need a more useful format.

I’ll know I’ve finished this project when I’ve got a process that works well for me, and a range of foods to draw on that fit my specific needs.

To make progress on this, I probably need a chunk of time to get my notes in order, and I may need to play with some different ways to organise what I’m doing.

Conclusion

I’ve got one more kind of project (research for an ongoing writing project) to talk about, but the more I write this post, the more it’s clear that should be its own thing. I hope this gives you some ideas on how to break down the project a bit.

Looking ahead to research: part 3

Making a plan for larger projects

Here we are at part three of making a plan for larger projects. How do we break down a big project into something more manageable, when we’re not quite sure what we’re going to be finding once we start?

This post talks about five questions you can ask yourself. The final part of this series, next week, will talk about a couple of examples.

Looking ahead to research : view of rocks looking out toward a twilight ocean.

Questions

What do you want to accomplish?

Different kinds of goals have different outcomes. The kinds of information that will help you most if you’re designing a ritual may be quite different than those that help for non-fiction writing, fiction writing, or designing a divination tool.

One way to start is to figure out what your end result looks like or will be used for. That will help guide some of your questions and resources.

Another part is figuring out what you’re hoping to answer or learn about. Here are some possibilities (and there are many more I’m not listing…)

  • Answering a specific question (How did they do that thing, why does it work like that, how did something develop?)
  • Looking for a new direction for your path (much more open ended)
  • Finding resources that are like ones you’ve found and liked.
  • Beginning to learn about a new topic.
  • Deepening your understanding of a topic where you know some of the basics.
  • Connecting with people who have a lot more experience in that thing (experts, leaders in the community, people with specialised skills.)

Each of these will have different ways you might want to go about it.

These questions can also help you begin to figure out how much time this might take – or how deeply you want to get into a question.

For example, you might be writing a ritual that includes a deity or story you’re not as familiar with. Different people will have different feelings about how much research is needed, but there’s often a way to create a meaningful and respectful ritual that works with resources many people can access relatively easily (public in-depth info) and with 5-10 hours of focused work (plus some additional time for thinking about it, maybe, while you’re doing other things.)

And yet, someone else might decide that they really want to dive deeply into that same deity or stories, and that be a much more involved process requiring translation of texts, learning how to make sense of particular styles of art or styles of writing, and much more.

Here’s a way to try framing your goal: I want to understand X so that I can Y. (Examples below.) Try replacing ‘understand’ with ‘learn’ or ‘explore’ if that helps.

Do you have a deadline?

One really pragmatic question is ‘when do you need this by’? Some questions have harder limits than others.

If you are doing research to write a ritual, you need to have the information before the ritual and probably not the day before, either! You’ll want time to create the ritual and get the things you might need or want for it! Usually you’ll want to be done with your research at least 2-3 weeks in advance if not more.)

Other projects might take months or years or even decades! (Serious long-term study of Tarot or runes or astrology, for example – any complex system with many moving pieces, materials in multiple languages and from multiple cultures, and with many layers, is going to take you a while to get a grip on.)

With these huge projects, you should be realistic that they’re huge, and also figure out a way to break down the huge project into small pieces, so that you can feel like you’re making progress.

A good framing for your goal is: In the next X months, I want to Y. (Where Y is related to your specific research goal.) p

Are there subgoals in your project?

Often, once we understand our actual desire (what we want to do this research or learning for) it gets easier to break it down.

Maybe there are stages in our project – we have a thing we need or want to do first, and then continue later. Maybe our project is very big, but it’s clear we probably want to start with an overview of the topic in some way. Maybe we can do part of it on our own, but then we’ll likely want to find a way to get deeper and draw on other people’s expertise, like a course or talking to someone who knows that thing much better.

Are there resources that might help?

There are so many options here. Start a list.

It doesn’t need to have answers on it. It can have things like “Something that explains what this thing is” or “A book that gives me a general overview of what was going on here that century.”

(In my day job, I have had several questions come up in the past few months that deal with different parts of India, and while I can pick up specifics from a variety of sources, I have added a couple of books that give an overview of Indian history or a good look at current social issues there to my to-be-read list. Figuring out that would be helpful was one step, finding the books is a second, and reading them is a third, and it’s okay to pause on any step if you need to.)

Similarly, you might identify skills that would be helpful. These can be partial skills, not becoming expert.

For example, maybe becoming just a little bit better at some research skills will open a lot more doors for you (like learning what academic writing focuses on, how to make the most out of articles, or how to find academic sources.)

Maybe it’s learning a little bit of a language – Duolingo can be great for giving you an idea how the language works, some key vocabulary, even if you never remotely become fluent. And if nothing else, it may make it easier to understand how names or some customs work in that language or culture.

(I might or might not be working through sentences in Welsh and can say that I am a dragon and I like leeks, at the moment. Though I had to check and see if I like leeks plural, or if I’ve learned the singular yet.)

Final part

In the final part of this series, I’ll look at some different kinds of projects, and how I break them down.

One spreadsheet to rule them all : tracking 2018

Why track things like this?

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I kept a somewhat absurd spreadsheet in 2017, and updated it for 2018. (2017 part 1 here, part 2 over here, and initial 2018 thoughts here.)

Why another post?

I had a question from someone wanting to know if I could share in more detail (so here’s a sample you can copy and save as a Google Sheets file – it has a week of data in it so you can see how it works.) Also a few improvements in layout.

I’ve made a few advances in layout since I wrote the most recent of those posts, so here’s a more complete explanation. (I am still using the same tracking apps as in the first part of the 2017 posts, so I’m not duplicating that info here.)

In addition, I had some thoughts (useful to me, and maybe others) about how to give incentive to the things I want to do more of.

Green leaves curling up around the word "productivity"

What changed in 2018?

Going into 2018, I thought about what I wanted to track better, or make more of a priority.

How was my day?

In 2017, I was tracking on a 4 point scale to get a rough idea of my day. In some ways, this was very helpful – I learned that about one day in 4 or 5 is a not good day for me (I feel lousy, don’t get much done, can’t focus) which is very helpful to know in terms of long-term planning. (It also suggested that I should be more consistent about sleep in a couple of specific ways.)

But four points isn’t very nuanced. I wanted a system that gave me more nuance, and maybe more incentive for doing more of the things I wanted more of in my life. So this year’s is seven, with some variations possible.

(I should note that I expect it to be very rare to get only 1 or 2 points.)

More writing

I joined two online writing communities, with two different commitments. I was already tracking what I was writing, but one of the communities I signed up with a habit pledge (number of days writing) and the other is words.

My words goal is actually well under what I did last year, but the number of days is a significant stretch. (Last year, I wrote on about 150 days, and I’m aiming for 240. That’s a big jump.) Last year, I had a lot of days in which I didn’t write, and then would do 1500 or 2000 words at once. This year, I’m experimenting with more consistency but maybe hitting smaller totals each day.

Besides those communities, I want to track what I write to see patterns in what I’m working on (especially the fiction / non-fiction divide and how long it takes me to do things like write course materials.)

More reading

I’ve always been a big reader. My number of books has dropped off significantly since there has been a lot more content online (even through college, I was at about a book every 2 days). In 2017, I read 77 which is significantly fewer than I wanted.

I also wasn’t happy with my tracking. I was tracking in a separate wiki, and in practice I would get behind on updating (and especially the data entry part of that.) So this year, I’m trying a plain list that has author, title, genre, and then a link to more about the book.

Mid-length goals

I’ve mentioned that I was thinking a lot about this post from Shawn LeBlanc about using an 8 week cycle for projects.

I’m Pagan. And specifically, a kind of religious witch who celebrates 8 Sabbats. Four fire festivals, two solstices, two equinoxes. So, for me, it made sense to split my year into 8 (slight uneven) segments for planning over about 6-7 weeks. Each cycle, I’m going to pick 3-4 longer-term goals (which might not be complete projects) in different parts of my life.

Use it for other useful data

Since this spreadsheet is almost always open in the browser for personal stuff (email, Todoist, and then this sheet, usually), I have decided to use it for other stuff I want to keep handy.

Topics for blog posts, for example, so that whenever I think of a new one, I can stick it there and skim when I want something to write about.

Reference lists, like my cataloging terms for LibraryThing.

Knitting. (That sheet doesn’t appear here: I’m working on a project which is ‘make lots of smaller objects’ that will eventually be joined, so that tracks how many of which colour I’ve made.)

What I don’t track

I try to keep my tracking to things that I, personally, am motivated by but not obsessive about in the way that doesn’t help. I don’t track food things in general because I get into a bad place about it. If I need to do it temporarily, I use an app or use a new file. I also try not to double-track things. I’ll enter data from apps that are tracking it, but I try to only have to track it once.

Points

Seven point system, with some possible adjustments.

  • Did I get at least 30 minutes of physical activity (not exercise: this includes walking around at work, light housework, etc.)
  • Did I take my meds? (or take my meds + have a health-related appointment?)
  • Did I get both more than 7 hours sleep and more than 70% sleep quality?
  • Did I write any words?
  • Did I do more than 4 large tasks. (see below for description)
  • Did I do my daily spiritual practice? (More on that on the spirit sheet)
  • Did I do anything creative? (Writing isn’t counted here, because it gets counted elsewhere, but drawing, knitting, etc. all count. Going to a concert or theatre would too, but I don’t count routine TV/movie viewing or reading.)

Adjustments:

  • Extra point for more than 1000 words.
  • Minus one point if I have anything in the ‘sick’ column.
  • Plus one point if I declare a rest day (to encourage me to take a day easy without messing with points averages.)

Note that it’s possible to get more than 7 points (which I did January 1st.) The additional point for days I feel sick is to make sure I get a more accurate account of days when I’m not doing as well, even if I turn out to be reasonably productive.

I also hope it’s clear that I don’t expect to get all 7 points every day. Two are pretty easy for me to do (take my meds, and do the very brief spiritual practice that is what I track with ‘North Star’.) I fairly reliably don’t get the points for movement at least one day on the weekend (and sometimes that’s very deliberate, because I’ve overdone it on previous days.) I’m hoping to get the points for writing every day, but I know from experience I will have days where I don’t manage it.

I basically consider everything from 4 points and up to be a reasonable day, in terms of feeling good I did things that are priorities.

Overview

The file has a number of different sheets within it. (I’ve deleted a couple that have personal data or lists: knitting, the list of cataloging terms I use for LibraryThing, etc.)

Here’s the sheets in order, with a brief explanation. This is from the sample sheet, so I’ve removed a couple of more personal things as described above. You can click on the image to get the full size version.

Screenshot of summary page: described in text.

Summary (image above) : Overview of entire calendar month, with rating for each day. Columns where I have gotten a point are light gray. (Sleep is a little different: it shows me where I’ve hit my goal, but I only get the point if both meet my requirement.)

The type of day columns allow me to get a count of rest days, unusual days (not my usual schedule), days with errands, and days I was sick. (R, U, E, and S). And then of course notes, so I can say things like “snow day”. I’m also noting weekends this year, to see if those are a pattern.

Body : Tracks overall activity, minutes of exercise, then category. (Human is my tracker. Other activity is usually household chore stuff.)

Doing : Tracks tasks done – I track in Todoist, and use the Potterverse money system for size of task, because a completely non-metric system works better for me than dithering over the difference in size.

In practice, knut is something that I read or reviewed quickly (like reminders), sickle is a task that takes 10-15 minutes (like a straightforward reply to an email) and a galleon task is something that takes me an hour or more or involves a significant effort. (If it’s multiple hours, I count it the appropriate number of times.) They calculate a total.

Writing : The left column is the total number of words. The columns are specific projects, broadly defined. At the right, I calculate total number of days written, and have links to the communities I’m doing challenges for this year. And the average words per day so far.

Read : What books I’ve read. I’m not tracking days, but am tracking number per month, and genre. (More on data validation in the next section.)

Spirit : These are spiritual/religious things I want to keep track of doing. My actual daily practice at the moment is listening to at least one song off a playlist I set up that has about 65 songs in it. (I hit shuffle a couple of times), and the list in my working sheet pulls the titles in when I start typing them.

Ritual is to note if I did anything that was more involved ritual. Creativity is what I did that was creating something (as described above.) The next three columns are my Tarot summary column (colour coded by suit) and then the cards for the entries. The last column gives me totals for the month.

(Note that on the sample I’ve replaced the songs with ‘yes’ when I did them, and removed the actual card names from the Tarot reading column. Some things feel like oversharing.)

Week : This is the week by week summary – I use this to see if there are any broad patterns I should be aware of (big changes in activity or exercise for a not-obvious reason).

Month : Same deal, but for months. (The calculations for this are more complicated because they involve total days in the month.)

Goals : Sheet for the mid-term planning.

Written : Tracking sheet for writing details – the samples should give you an idea. (This is helpful for seeing what specifically I was working on.)

Topics : Parking place for possible blog posts.

Archive : At the end of each month, the entire month’s summary gets pasted here (use paste special -> values!) and it will do a running count of quality of day.

Cyclical planning : My math on how many days are in each cycle. Entirely ignorable (and deletable) if not applicable to you.

Goals : Template for the mid-term goals. Year goals go at the top, as I finish cycles I’ll past them in rows below.

Finally, two sheets for calculations and validation, which I’ll describe below.

Calculation

Last year, I ended up doing a lot of the calculation semi-manually (getting the totals from the individual sheets, then scribbling them on a piece of paper to transfer to the week or month.)

This year, I wanted to set it up so I could copy and paste the week and get the totals. (The month is calculated on the month summary sheet already.) This meant a bunch of careful alignment of columns.

This is why there’s a ‘days written’ column in the daily summary, when it’s not really necessary. It’s so that when I do larger totals, I have that space filled.

The books category needs to be manually entered (that’s why it’s highlighted in gray) since I need to look at the actual dates. (Writing this has made me realise I really should turn that month into a proper date. Right then!)

I’ve caught a couple of glitches in the calculations, so there may be more lurking. It’s sometimes hard to proof these without a certain amount of variable actual data.

I pull the month onto the calculations page since it’s sometimes handy for proofing and just as a comparison.

Data validation

This sheet does two main things. At the top, it does the actual calculations for each day’s points for the month. (Usual for checking it’s working right.) The gray columns are the ones that actually give points.

(“Both good” counts the total for sleep time and quality, and “total” gives me the point if that number is 2. “More words” is for the extra point for more than 1000 words.)

The bottom of the sheet contains data validation columns for different things. There are two benefits to this – one that you can get a drop down menu for the things that are more complex (Tarot card names, song titles) and second that you can do counts for things like Tarot suites more easily without worrying about typos.

Summary

Obviously, much of this can be edited or adapted to your needs – if you’re doing data validation, you may need to double check that the range is correct (this is on the sheet that references it).

Questions welcome, either here or through the contact form. (I’ll likely see the form a bit faster.)

Looking ahead to research : part 2

One of the complicated things about research is that you never quite know how long something is going to take you.

Oh, it’s possible to group projects into ‘probably short’ and ‘very long’, and some spaces in between. But ‘probably short’ can range from 3 minutes to a couple of hours (depending on how many Internet rabbitholes one falls down) and ‘very long’ can be 10 hours or 10 years.

Which makes planning rather tricky.

So, let’s look at some things that affect how long research might take, and then some ways to help plan. Many of them are not only individual to you as a person, but may be specific to particular projects. Unfortunately, there’s no simple solution, here!

Looking ahead to research : seekknowledgefindwisdom.com

Things to think about

Speed of access

One big factor is obviously how quickly you can access what you’re looking for. For example, reading faster obviously helps with some kinds of research, but it’s not a skill everyone has.

Some people have lives that allow them to spend regular time on research – this can save time over a long project because you spend less time remembering where you were, or what you were focusing on.

Others have jobs or commutes that let them get through a fair chunk of new information through podcasts or audiobooks, even if they have to spend some focused time on things they can’t listen to at other points.

And of course, some of this may be about other access needs. If you have a slow internet connection, or limited time to be online, some things are going to move a lot more slowly than someone who has a speedy connection or more time.

Getting materials

If you happen to be at an academic institution, you likely have very quick access to a wide range of databases and to interlibrary loan resources that can get you many articles or books very promptly (in many cases, articles will come within 24 hours, and books within a week or so). That’s true in most places even if your job doesn’t have anything to do with research.

For the many of us not there, there may still be options. You may have regional or state services that provide some of the same options. For example, if you live, work, go to school, or own property in Massachusetts, you can likely get access to the electronic resources from the Boston Public Library.

(Some states and regions and places fund their library services – especially on larger geographic levels – better than others. Sorry, I don’t run the world, or I’d make that possible a lot more places. But in a lot of place, you have to dig a little to find out about these options, and I encourage you to ask and dig a little when you get time.)

Some of these options take more time and planning than others. Electronic resources like journals are usually available when you’d like, but ebooks may be limited to one user at a time. Interlibrary loan books usually have fixed loan periods, and you need to send them back promptly.

It can take some practice to figure out how to time when an interlibrary loan arrives with having enough time from other parts of your life to work with the materials before they have to go back.

And of course, you may want to own materials, but need time to get the money in your budget to buy them, or need to wait for a copy of an older text to show up at a vaguely affordable price.

Grouping similar tasks

Some kinds of research tasks go faster if we do them all at once. For example, if you’re looking at the history of words as part of research on a topic, looking them all up at once in a really good dictionary is going to be faster than doing one, going away, doing something else, and then coming back and having to open up the dictionary (whether that’s physically or electronically), and do more searches.

Similarly, you can

What tools can be helpful? (Todo list that lets you tag by amount of time something will take or whether it can be done while you’re doing other things.)

Special situations

Not every research question has a simple solution. Sometimes you need a source that is only available a few places (or is in something like an archives or historical society collection.) Sometimes materials will be in languages you don’t read, or not available where you live.

These can be so frustrating – most people can’t go off to every corner just to read a book or find a source. And we certainly can’t be learning every language we might be curious about.

There are some solutions out there. For example, finding people who know or can access the thing you need. This can include hiring an independent researcher to go look at an item local to them, getting help from people working on similar topics, or finding people who read the language you need and figuring out a suitable arrangement for a translation or notes.

This is the hardest – and least predictable – category to solve, but fortunately, as long as you’re making some progress with your research in other ways, you can get traction here. Every time you talk about an ongoing project, you have a chance to connect with people who can help you further (or who know someone who can help.)

Tools to help

So how do you keep all of this manageable? A really good project management system and notes are a great start. One of the most frustrating parts of research projects is when you know you saw a post, or an online article, or a mention of a book, and if you could just remember what it was, it had something you needed. But now you can’t.

This is a place where tools help. Start by writing down your actual questions. For long-term projects, your questions may be fairly vague at first. If so, focus on what you know about what you want to do with the information when you find it. That will help you plan your time better.

More on that in part three, so you can see a couple of examples, but start with whatever you know right now.

  • Do you have a specific thing you’re trying to answer?
  • What do you want to do with the information when you’ve got it? (Use it somehow? Share it with others? Whatever you know is helpful.)
  • What do you already know about the subject?
  • Do you see any particular limitations you want to start thinking about early? (Needing specific materials, or languages, or sources?)

Then, as you begin to gather information, keep track of it, so that you can look at what you have and what you would like to have in one place. There are tons of different possible systems about this (and I’ll be talking about the details next post and in future posts.)

Next part: Breaking down large projects and getting a grip on how long they might take.

Looking ahead to research : part 1 : asking questions

It’s the beginning of a new (Gregorian) calendar year, and that makes it as good a time as any to think about the research projects that might be ahead in the coming months. Welcome to part one of a (probably) three part series on planning long-term research projects.

  • Part one: asking questions (this part)
  • Part two: planning the unplannable and useful tools
  • Part three: ways to break down larger projects

What’s long term?

If you’re reading this, you probably do dozens of little tiny research projects every week. Here’s a few I’ve done recently :

  • Finding a recipe for a particular thing I wanted to make.
  • Looking at what kinds of things other people track in their long-term tracking.
  • Looking up information on a book series.
  • Reading reviews of books to see which books on sale I was particularly interested in.
  • Research for the fiction project I’m working on (which involves 1920s England plus magic.)

Most of those are pretty short and sweet – I’ve got a good idea what an answer’s going to look like, even if I don’t know the details. And they mostly don’t take too long, usually well under an hour a piece.

But what happens with a longer project? For example, that fiction project is spawning a lot of little questions, but they tie into each other, and it’d make sense for me to tie it all together in a useful way, wouldn’t it?

Or what about my desire to learn astrology at a deeper level? That’s a huge goal, and it’ll take years. How do I break that down into something more manageable? (Also in this category: learning a new language, a lot of ‘write a book’ projects, or developing multiple year career goals.)

Ask yourself questions

Take a few minutes and sit down and brainstorm. Are there things you’re interested in learning about or working out this year? What are they?

Here’s mine:

  • Astrology (with the goal of getting a good grasp on the basic concepts).
  • Building a repertoire of recipes and foods I can put together to meet my specific needs (living alone, and with some specific medical issues.)
  • The fiction writing mentioned above, and tracking it in a more useful way for future projects.

I’ll probably come up with more, but that’s a good start. If you don’t have any right now, think about how you could keep track of eventual projects, as you go along. (I have a space in my todo list projects where I make notes like that.)

What time and energy do you have?

Questions only you can answer! One of the things that’s been a sticking point for me is that my work eats a lot of my brain, so I get home from work and am not up for more intellectually demanding work. (Sometimes I am. Often I’m not.)

There’s also a time limit. I get home from work around 5pm and go to bed at 10pm (and really, it should be more like 9 or 9:30.) I have to eat dinner, do at least some household tasks, and also do other things that matter to me but aren’t research or writing.

In practice, I have about 2 hours of time I could possibly use at most. And lots of things can affect even that time – I was taking a significantly time consuming online class last spring, for example. Errands or appointments eat into that time.

I have more time on weekends, obviously, but that depends on other commitments, what they are, and whether I end up sleeping in or napping to catch up on sleep.

I bet you have your own restrictions. Whatever they are, think about where you have a little space, and where you don’t, and where you might, if you moved things around a little.

If you poke at your life for a bit, you may find different things.

  • Maybe there’s a chunk of time you can repurpose.
  • Maybe you really do need to focus on things that can be broken down into smaller chunks.
  • Maybe you need to focus on learning and research you can do while commuting, or exercise, or while you’re doing something else you have to get done too.
  • Maybe you schedule research days once a month or a quarter, and do your big projects then.
  • Maybe there’s some other solution I haven’t thought of here.

Realistically, maybe big research isn’t a thing you can do a lot of right now. Which is not much fun, if you’ve got big projects in your head, but sometimes it’s the truth.

(When might it be particularly true? Any time you’ve already got big changes going on – buying a house, having a child, starting or finishing formal education, making big career changes or moves, starting or finishing religious training, dealing with complex health challenges. If you notice, a bunch of those come with non-optional research demands in various ways, and definitely make demands on your time and energy all over the place in both expected and unexpected ways.)

What resources do you need?

The other big thing that can limit our research is access to resources. There are a lot more things available than you may realise, with a bit of time and patience (for example, you can often get books or articles from interlibrary loan that aren’t available in your own library, or are very expensive to buy.)

Figuring out what materials or skills or tools you need can be a great way to make use of smaller chunks of time before you have a longer chunk to dive into a big project. Finding articles, books, resources can be done in smaller pieces many times. You may find you need an overview of something before you can really use it for research. This is part of why thinking about your bigger projects in advance is so helpful.

Part 2

In part 2, we’ll be talking about how to plan for the unplannable (how do you figure out how much time or resources a big topic will need?) and about some resources to help you organise your research.

Productivity roundup

It’s the time of year when people start thinking about being organized next year, isn’t it? Here’s a roundup of thoughts about productivity. Here’s a recommendation for the productivity geeks out there, a few thoughts on planners, and my spreadsheet for 2018.

Productivity Alchemy

If you do podcasts at all, and you haven’t dipped into Productivity Alchemy, I highly recommend it.

It’s done by Ursula Vernon (writer and artist – her stuff is fabulous!) and her husband Kevin Sonney (programmer, for his day job), and together they have been exploring all sorts of different productivity approaches, tools, and techniques.

The podcasts are a great mix of Ursula and Kevin talking, Ursula as Wombat Test Subject for trying out different techniques (or refusing to try some out, as the case may be), Kevin interviewing other people about what works for them, letters from listeners, and other tidbits of their lives. They are funny, thoughtful, and interesting.

One thing I particularly like is the focus on talking to people who have a wide range of different kinds of needs and goals – the interviews include a lot of people doing arts or freelance work, as well as people with demanding office-based jobs.

They’re also great about including people who’ve got chronic health or mental health issues that make figuring out what to do or getting it done more challenging. So much productivity geekery focuses on doing more, more, more, that it’s really refreshing to have people focusing on ‘how do I get the necessary stuff done so I can do more of the things I really enjoy or want to do or feed my soul.”

Looking for a planner?

Episode 23 of Productivity Alchemy reviewed several planners (links are in their show notes, even if you don’t want to listen to the show.)

The Simple Dollar had a nice roundup of twelve planners with info on what they focus on that included a few I hadn’t seen before. (Also, in rummaging around later links in this post, I found my way to Rachael’s 52 Planners in 52 weeks series, which highlights some other approaches.)

I’ve also been thinking a lot about this post from Shawn LeBlanc, about working on projects in an eight week cycle: six weeks of focused work, a week to wrap up loose ends, and a week off. Specifically (being me, and with my religious life running on a Sabbat cycle), I am thinking about how to apply that.

(In my case, it would not be for work projects, because this model is not a great fit for librarianship or other jobs that are reactive to questions, and also because I don’t have final control of a lot of long-term project choices.)

I’m finding the Momentum Planner’s approach (which I discovered from the Simple Dollar roundup) might be a way to bring this together, and let me do some longer term planning. They have free versions you can check out over here, and you can buy a full year’s version with additional tools for $12.

If you’re the kind of person who really wants to build your own, I came across Agendio. That looks very promising for people like me who need some things in a planner, but not, for example, a major task list or daily schedule. I’m eyeing this as a thing to build, but haven’t tried it yet. Also very customisable in terms of colours and fonts.

Also in the mix for my personal planning is Briana Saussy’s Book of Hours, “a planner for sacred artists” that includes astrological information, brief but illuminating questions for particular events. You can get the questions and brief date info from her 2018 Astro Rx page, but the planner is gorgeous.

I put the questions for last year into Todoist, where all my actual tasks live, and I’m looking forward to taking a little more time this year to sit down and actually write.

My tracking for 2018

I’ve been working on updating my tracking spreadsheet for 2018, and it’s got some new categories, and a new layout.

Summary :

The first sheet pulls in the month’s data from all the other tracking sheets, and gives me a score for the day (out of 7, but it’s technically possible to get a total of 9 points). This helps me see if I have a run of especially good days or especially bad days, so I can make some corrections.

Embodied life:

Physical things, or relating to my physical body.

  • Physical activity
  • Exercise
  • Upkeep (did I take all my meds? Or was it a day I had a health-related appointment?)
  • Sleep time
  • Sleep quality

Several of these are tracked with apps (Human for activity, Sleep Cycle for sleep) as before. I get a point for at least 30 minutes of activity, and having more than 7 hours and 70% sleep quality. Also a point for doing whatever the necessary upkeep stuff is.

Doing:

  • How many words did I write? I get a point for any words, and an additional point for more than 1000, because I would like to do a lot more focused writing this year.
  • Tasks (total number of tasks, using my calculations for small/medium/large). I get a point for doing the equivalent of at least 3 large tasks.

Spirit:

  • Daily spiritual practice : space for me to track what it was, and I get a point if there’s anything in that space.
  • Did I do a creative/artistic/crafting thing today? What was it. (I get a point if there’s anything entered.)
  • Tarot card of the day.

Type of day:

This year, I’m adding a set of three columns. One for a rest day (if I decide I need a day to recover.) I get an extra point for any day designated as a rest day. (This is meant to make up for losing points on the ‘tasks accomplished’ because I want to encourage myself to rest when I need it.)

It also has space for unusual days (like travel, or other times my usual routine is knocked around) or if I’m sick. For the latter, I put in what kind of sick it is, so I can see any patterns. I lose a point for sick days, because even if I actually manage to get things done, they are not great days.

Summary

At the bottom, a set of 7 rows counts up the number of days with each set of point totals. Now that I’ve added in two points for things I should be able to do almost any day (the basic daily practice and taking my meds), it’ll be interesting to see how the adjustments go.

Additional sheets

I have summary sheets by week and by month (to help me see larger patterns), a sheet to track what I’ve written, a sheet where I store things I want to write about (since this spreadsheet is often open and handy).

And then the two I mention above, for tracking goals, and looking at them across seasonal blocks of time.

Visiting archives and special collections

Maybe you have a piece of research that’s taking you to visit archives, special collections, or to a research library or historical society. While all these spaces are a little different from each other, they have some things in common.

All of these kinds collections focus not only on answering questions today, but making sure unique materials are preserved for the future. This means they have very different policies about how materials can be used and handled than a public library, school library, or academic library does. It is common for archives and special collections (or any other rare or unique materials) to have limits on how they’re used.

Common restrictions include having a staff member present and observing at all times, having a limited number of items on your work desk at once (often one book, manuscript box, or item at time), and requirements for handling items to avoid damage. These involve things like washing your hands thoroughly before handling materials, only using pencils on your worktable, or whether laptops or cameras can be used.

(Oh, and one factoid. You may think you need cotton gloves, but many collections no longer use them, at least for books and print items – they can cause damage in their own ways. Collections will let you know what they prefer.)

Libraries: Visiting archives and special collections (image of old fashioned bookshelves and old books)

1) Get An Overview

If you think you might like to visit a special collection, learn more about it. Chances are good there’s some information on a website that will give you an overview. This will often tell you important things like:

When are they open?

For special collections, this may only be weekdays during business hours, or maybe some Saturday hours. They may open late or close mid-afternoon (see #4 for why)

Do you need to make an appointment?

For many smaller organizations, you’ll need to make an appointment in advance so that staff are available.

Do you need to request items in advance?

Many archives have some items in off-site or otherwise less-accessible storage. They may need additional time to get these items ready for you. (More in #2, Plan Ahead)

What do you need to bring with you?

You may need to present a form of government identification to verify your identity, or be able to bring a camera or laptop, but different collections have different policies. Some collections may require additional documentation.

What are you not allowed to bring into the work space?

It’s common to ban large bags, pens, and any food or drink. There are usually storage options for coats, bags, and other necessary items, but you’ll want to plan ahead for them. These rules are usually to help protect items.

What might be really helpful?

Many collections now allow photography for personal use (usually this means no flashes or fancy equipment, and sometimes you’ll need to include a little card in the photo with the collection’s information.) This can be tremendously helpful if you’re working with a lot of material, but don’t want to transcribe it all while you’re there: you can take a good photo and work on it later, taking as much time as you want.

Check the collection’s policies carefully to figure out what’s okay. In some cases, photos may be okay some of the time, but not others.

Some examples of different sites

Want to see what that looks like in reality? Here are some different larger collections.

2) Plan Ahead

Sometimes you can visit without an appointment, but in many cases you’ll need to plan ahead in order to visit (or to access at least some materials.)

This is for two big reasons. The first is to make sure material is available that you’re interested in.

Some materials may be stored off-site for preservation reasons, and they may need a day or two to move the items to the reading space. Other materials may not be fully processed, and staff will have to check them for any issues before you can use them. Checking them involves looking for any preservation issues that would affect handling the items, and to check if there are confidential items in the collection (like student or medical information, which is sometimes the case in director’s files at a school)

The other big reason has to do with staffing, which I’ll talk about more in #4, Respect the Schedule.

Either way, you may want or need to figure out exactly what materials you’re interested in. This will help you plan your time, and make requests in advance as needed. In many cases, people who work in special collections will ask you a bit about your project. This is because they may know of additional resources that may not be obvious from the catalog or finding aids.

The other benefit of letting the staff know about your interests is that they can sometimes say “Oh, you don’t need to visit us for that, it’s digitised.” That means you can spend your visit focusing on other items or questions. (Sometimes, you may not need to make a visit in person at all!)

3) Read Information Carefully

If you need to schedule a visit in advance, there may be more information for you.

Larger organisations will probably have all of this available online (though it might be on multiple pages.)

We don’t have it online because we want to be able to talk about specifics of someone’s requests. Instead we send out a document which explains some of our less common policies (like needing to be escorted anywhere in the building), describes exactly what you can bring and can’t bring, and has some additional helpful information about food, parking, and transit options.

We encourage people to read this carefully, but not everyone does. That’s frustrating for us, frustrating for them, and no good for anyone. If they get here and are surprised we have really limited food options on campus, well, we tried our best to tell them!

4) Respect the Schedule

Do your best to arrive on time, and to wrap up your own work at the indicated closing time (or for any necessary break times).

As I mentioned above, most collections of unique materials require that a staff member be present at all times, for preservation and security reasons. The items need to be securely stored at other times, and it takes time to set all of that up, and to put it away at the end of the day.

In larger libraries and historical societies, there are staff members who focus on supervising the reading room. In smaller collections, one person is probably wearing quite a few hats.

In my library, researchers work at a large table in my office. This makes it awkward for someone else to supervise them, and it means I can’t schedule meetings, conference calls, or a number of other parts of my job while we have a researcher visiting. I can’t even take a bathroom break or duck into the stacks to get books for someone else’s question without a colleague covering for a couple of minutes!

So, we arrange our researcher visits so we have an hour in the morning to triage any new questions, and half an hour at the end so we can put things away and finish up other things. Some days I need every minute of that time.

It doesn’t help if a researcher runs late, either – I don’t want to get into the middle of something complicated if I’m going to have to stop for 15+ minutes to get them settled. And if they want to change their schedule, there’s a cascading challenge of meetings and plans I arranged around their original schedule, or other projects we’re working on.

Long story short, I really appreciate the researchers who clearly communicate their schedules, and who let us know if their plans change as soon as possible. I don’t want to force people into a rigid schedule (and sometimes things really do come up) but a little communication goes a long way to making the rest of my commitments work better.

5) Understand Why Policies Exist

A lot of archives and special collections policies may not make a lot of sense to you. But there’s probably a good reason they’re there.

If you have questions about a policy (especially if you have an accessibility need or something else like that), please ask about it as much in advance as you can.

Some policies are more flexible than others. (At least if you ask with more than a couple of days advance notice.) For example, we are strict about how materials are handled, and we can’t make exceptions for policies of our building (like all visitors being escorted).

But we can be more flexible with the schedule if our own calendars allow, especially if they give us a bit of warning. If someone’s tight on time, we may be able to digitize some items on request. We’re glad to help people refine their requests.