Astrology and planning

I promised a post about astrology and planning. This is a combination of ‘why might you care’ and ‘how I do this’

Massive pendulum clock (from the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studios) with the text "Times change"

Astrology, huh? I’m a librarian, right? Supposed to be a rational person, wanting my world to be backed up by evidence. And astrology doesn’t fit into that at all, by modern scientific standards.

But part of me is fascinated by the way that astrology and astronomy were once one field. And how a lot of the essential principles – observation of patterns and testing them – stay the same. A lot of me is pretty comfortable with the idea that astrology is a good way to take a clear look at different areas of my life in a systemic way on a regular basis.

I don’t believe that’s what’s going on in the nearby universe is dictating what we do here on planet Earth. But I do believe that there are cycles in humanity (and that some of those match in interesting ways with planetary cycles). And I definitely believe that looking at the patterns over time helps me figure out what’s going in my life, and how I feel about that.

How do I use astrology?

(By which I mean, how do I use it in my productivity and planning.)

1) This year, some information is on my One Spreadsheet To Rule Them All (as I mentioned last post, I have known for a while that the lunar cycle has some impact on my sleep, but I’m curious about any other patterns, and that means collecting data.

2) Astrological events go into my to-do app (Todoist) so that they pop up on the appropriate day. On the average day there are anywhere from 3-10 different events (because I have a steady popup for the outer planets).

3) This year, I’m also adding a paper planner (in my case, Benebell Wen’s Metaphysician’s Planner for some specific things.

Spreadsheet

I’ve talked about the spreadsheet before, but I’ve made a couple of updates in the last fortnight.

I mentioned that I have a section for perceived experience of the day – for me, this is roughly ‘airy stuff’, ‘fire stuff’, ‘water stuff’ and ‘earth stuff’ or focus, energy, joy, and embodiment. Each gets a number on a five point scale, and higher averages give me another point on my point totals on the day too. This should help me track days that have less focus or the days I just can’t get stuff going or cope with having a physical body well. Then I have the moon phase, done with emoji symbols so it shows the state of the moon. (I use the fairly traditional method of having the full and new moon each last for three days, the actual date and the day on either side.)

The next set of columns are taken from Benebell Wen’s planner, specifically the monthly ephemeris. Each day has a notation for what the inner planets are doing (for astrology purposes, that’s the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.) Each has a column, in which the sign is represented by a two letter abbreviation (because getting astrological symbols into Google Sheets won’t work for what I want.)

Each of those signs is then automatically colour coded so I can see if it’s an air, fire, water, or earth sign (the background colour) and also cardinal, fixed, or mutable (by the colour of the text: cardinal is white, fixed is black, and mutable is gray.) This makes it really easy to see at a glance if there’s a lot going on in a particular sign, or if a lot of signs are in a particular element.

Retrogrades are noted by a black border and bold text, so they stand out a bit.

The next columns on the summary page list how many ritual things I did (zero to .. well, however many.)

Then there’s my regular morning practice of listening to a song from a playlist and drawing a Tarot card. The Tarot column also colour codes based on the suit (Majors are purple.)

Mansions of the moon are still pretty new to me (they’re a form of lunar astrology that was heavily used in the early medieaval period, and particularly in Arabic sources, and not so much after that.) Each of them is associated with particular actions to do or avoid. The Lunarium site will let you get calendars of when they fall (along with lunar days, sign of the moon, and so on).

Because I’m still learning them (and okay, there’s 28 of them, I probably won’t remember all their meanings for a long time to come!) there’s a note on each numbered cell with a summary of what that mansion focuses on (and the traditional name and image associated with each one.)

These can be used to plan magical work (especially in coordination with other timing approaches, like the day of the week or moon sign). Each also has an elemental association (and colour code).

If the mansion changes while I’m likely to be awake, I note the time of change, and the next sign. (If I’m likely to be asleep, I don’t bother.) In Google Sheets (which is what I use so my spreadsheet is available by web everywhere), you can copy the notes in.

Why are these all on the spreadsheeet? Because the spreadsheet is the easiest place to see (and track) the basic overlaps of what’s going on on a given day. I have it open every day (often all the time or multiple points during the day) and the info on it is persistent (unlike my todo list, where things disappear as I check them off.)

To do app

I put specific day information (and repeating days, like a retrograde or outer planet signs) into my ToDoist. I have a project specifically for astrology information (with several sub projects just so I can keep things straight.) These include:

Lunar: New and full moons, with questions from Briana Saussy’s AstroRx for the year. I mark the beginning of the entry with the emoji for the moon phase.

Zodiac: For each zodiac sign, marked with the sun (for the sun being in that sign). I put additional notes in the comment field (these are long, so I don’t want them taking up tons of space on my list all the time, but I do want them handy for review.)

Specific days: (marked with different emoji depending on what’s going on). Solar eclipse days and their questions from Bri’s guide, as well as particular conjunctions of note.

I also add entries each week based on Austin Coppock’s daily almanac (being a Patreon supporter gets you a file at the beginning of the zodiac sign for the coming month). I really like his day by day breakdown, but entering them every week (on Sunday for me, when I usually have a bit of time in the morning) works better for me than doing a whole month at once, and gives me a head’s up for anything coming that week I should be aware of.

Each day has the signs for the moon (one or two, depending on transits) so I can see at a glance where they are, and also this forces me to learn the symbols more reliably. (I’m in that place where I do actually know them, but I feel like I don’t quite.)

Longer periods: Long transits, retrogrades, etc. (I also put in a note to plan for Mercury retrograde a week ahead of time. Since I was putting them in anyway.)

All four of these get gathered up by a filter (I call it ‘planets’) that will pull all of the astrological data for the day, so I can read through it and get it out of the way of the rest of my to do list early on. I also have one called “upcoming astrology” which covers the next seven days so I can look ahead easily without hunting for things.

Planner

So the final question is ‘what goes in the planner’ and ‘why did I get one’. This is the piece I want to work out this year. Benebell Wen’s planner has a great deal of additional material, and I’m waiting on the print copy (via Lulu)

My plan is to write in the astrological information more specific to me on there, and then us it to keep ongoing notes over the year. I have been exploring keeping some of those notes in a Traveller’s Journal set up, and while I like the physical aspect of that a lot, I found that there was a lot of overlap (or I had to spend a chunk of time on a daily basis updating, in ways that were hard to fit into my schedule.)

So instead, I think I’ll be aiming at looking at different aspects and writing a few notes as I go. And I want to use it to track some future planning. (I anticipate getting some pretty washi tape to mark off dates for some long-term projects, but I haven’t figured out exactly what yet.)

What’s the goal here?

Worth coming back to – my goals here have three parts. I need a system that keeps track of what I need to do (and when – and some of my tasks are ‘in six months, come back to look at this thing’). That’s Todoist, for me. I want to learn more about astrology, so weaving the information in day by day will be a help.

If all of this seems overwhelming, I recommend Bri’s Planning by Starlight, which starts out with some really simple places to begin.

Finally, I want a place to keep track of notes and day to day patterns that are more qualitative (quantitative goes in the spreadsheet…) and the written planner will do that.

Resources

Both of these are great resources – go as deep into them as you feel comfortable with.

Yearly cycles

One thing I’m thinking a lot about right now are yearly cycles.

In my religious practice, Samhain (October 31st) is the end of the old year, and nominally the beginning of the new year. But it is also the beginning of a fallow period when we rest and take stock of what’s going on in our lives. For me, this is coming out this year in figuring out my new tracking system and spreadsheet for next year (which I am actually planning on starting on Yule (December 21 this year) rather than January 1st.

Massive pendulum clock (from the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studios) with the text "Times change"

Tools

Tools should work for us, not against us, so I did a lot of thinking this fall about what I wanted to pay attention to in the coming year – what kind of data I wanted to collect.

To Do Lists

In terms of my todo lists, I’m keeping to much the same model as the past year, using Todoist with projects divided by planetary influence (in practice, this means I have a lot in Sun (professional life), Moon (religious life, including my coven work), Mercury (writing), and much less in Venus (arts, pleasures, relationships – including friendships, mostly because those things show up when I have something planned and don’t linger on the list for long), and Mars (things that are actively and aggressively getting worked on. I tend to use it for lists to help me structure vacations and immediate projects.)

Ongoing items

One thing I do is that I put astrological data into my to-do list for particular days. I’m going to come back to this part in a future post, because I’m waiting on a planner that will be part of the process.

Spreadsheet

I keep a rather obsessive and thorough spreadsheet that tracks a lot of daily items – this lets me see shifts in patterns. To pick a really easy and obvious one this year, I started using a CPAP machine at the beginning of October. Almost immediately, I realised I was walking 20-30 more minutes on the average work day than I had before, almost entirely without noticing I was doing it. That’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t spot without the spreadsheet.

Two different conversations got me interested in looking at whether some astrological information had any bearing on things (and I know from my sleep tracking app, Sleep Cycle, that my sleep tends to be worse around the new moon, and dip around the full moon too.)

So, this year’s spreadsheet is set up to help me figure out that data.

Here’s a shot of the summary spreadsheet for next year. I have some totally fake data in the first couple of lines to help me figure out some of the scoring.

Screenshot of spreadsheet for 2019 - described in following text.

From left to right, here’s what there is (you’ll note this begins on December 21st, the winter solstice):

  • Month
  • Day of month
  • Total score for the day (based on some complex calculations)
  • A score for how I perceive my focus, energy, joy, and embodiment are (roughly, ‘air things, fire things, water things, earth things’ if you want to put it that way.) This is a qualitative estimate, not based on actual data, but I want to see if there are patterns in how I feel.
  • Whether I did any specific ritual acts that day (listed in detail on a separate sheet)
  • The zodiac signs for the sun, phase of the moon, and sign the moon is in.
  • My song of the day and Tarot card of the day.
  • The mansion of the moon (see the note below.)
  • How many words I wrote that day
  • Task totals – these include tasks off my todo list (grouped by knut, sickle, and galleon as last year, so basically tiny, smallish, and large, where tiny is ‘I read a reminder’, smallish is ‘5 minutes to the length of writing an email that isn’t too complicated’, and large is ‘one to two hours of focused attention’.
  • Activity: total amount of movement and a separate number for deliberate exercise and/or walking outside of my usual daily routine.
  • Sleep time, quality, and my AHI for the CPAP machine (which is roughly ‘how many apnea incidents per hour.)
  • Brief astrology notes.
  • Columns to note sickness or unusual days. (Basically other things that might affect my stats.)

The top of the sheet lists how many of each kind of day based on point totals. (I think I’ve got this better calibrated for 2019: in 2018, there tended to be narrow clustering in just two maine categories, which is not as helpful. I may continue to play with the spread once I get more data in.)

What are mansions of the moon? They’re a rather old approach to astrology, and I’ve been learning about them. Specifically, this has the mansion the moon starts in, when it moves, and where it ends, since often they change mid-day. (If they change before 7am or after 10pm – otherwise known as when I am probably asleep – I don’t bother noting the time of change.

Big changes from last year:

Instead of managing each month on the main spreadsheet and then moving the previous month to a separate archive sheet, I’m keeping everything in one sheet, for easier and better statistical data over time. Instead, I split up the month and day into separate fields, so that I can filter out past months easily if I want to.

I’ve added some statistical periods. In 2018, I tracked weekly and monthly patterns (this lets me see if chronic health stuff is sneaking up on me.)

In 2019, I have a long cycle tracking sheet: 

  • Lunar month
  • Sabbat to Sabbat cycle (about 6 weeks, but varies)
  • Calendar months

I also have a shorter cycle tracking sheet. This covers moon phases, rather than weeks. 3 days of the new moon, the waxing moon (about 10-11 days), the 3 days of the full moon, then the waning moon (also 10-11 days). This is slightly more fuss to set up, but I just need to set up one set of calculations at a time. These are now based on averages rather than sums, to accommodate the varying number of days.

With all of these, I’m really curious to see if there are patterns of focus and energy that shift over these periods, or things like my writing wordcount, or other things of the kind. Plus the sleep I’ve already mentioned!

Revisions to activity and ritual sheets

This year I’ve set it up so that physical activity and writing get automatically added to the totals, rather than the somewhat erratic inclusion I managed in 2018.

For activity, I have a sheet that tracks activity, sleep, and errands (with selection of options). Last year I was tracking medical appointments in a similar way, and found it helpful to see patterns. Each of these automatically adds a large activity point, plus there’s a calculation for points based on how much physical movement and exercise I did. (One point for exercise greater than 25 minutes, half an additional point over an hour of general movement, and another half point for over 2 hours.) I get points for hitting my targets for amount and quality of sleep, too.

For tasks, I am now separately tracking things done at work vs other tasks (they each get a set of three columns). I have a column to add additional tasks for amount of writing (500 words of writing is half a large task, in terms of points. I normally do 1500-1700 words of writing in an hour of actual time spent writing. Which is not the same as “I am technically writing, but right now I am poking at a forum post or looking something up”).

The activity points from the previous paragraph get added in here. The goal is to get a reasonable total for “How much stuff of all kinds did I do today.” Editing, for the record, gets tracked separately as a task.

My writing sheet is much the same as last year: columns for the major types of projects, so I can see totals by project, plus some space to show me high and low wordcount days, how many days I broke 1000 words, etc. Points for tasks are assigned based on number of words, and that is now all auto-calculated.

For spiritual work, I track my song and Tarot card of the day, and then add points based on what kind of ritual work I did, so I can see how that balances out over time.

In this case, I assign points based on length and duration: a short ritual (like the weekly series I’m doing) is 1 point, a more involved ritual might be 2 or 3, a standard class with my witchy students is 1 point (but prepping the class notes and sending out the post-class notes are both other tasks, tracked on the task sheet.  An hour working on study at home is 1 point, etc. This allows me to accommodate stuff that’s more magically or energetically involved, while having a default that’s fairly low-key.

Then I have logs for writing (what did I write, how many words on that), a reading log (what did I read when, and the genre, and format), and a ritual log (a brief note of what I did when, and any notes about it). More formal ritual notes go elsewhere, this is just so I have an easy record of timing/exertion.

The next sheets are my long and short cycle statistics (already described).

Finally, I have a page of statistics, that will tell me how many times I have pulled particular Tarot cards (both by card and by group – so I can see how many of each suit, how many aces, as well), songs, read different genres, and so forth. I use the lists there to create data validation for different fields (so typos don’t mess up my statistics.)

This all seems a little ridiculous, but I really do find the data helpful to me in managing long-term chronic health things, noticing drops in what I’m getting done before they start to be a significant problem, and in balancing out what I’m doing.

Updating

One really good question is how long it takes me to enter things.

  • Sleep and exercise I track on apps, and I enter the data somewhere between daily and every four to five days. Basically when I am at a computer with web access and have five minutes I don’t want to do something else with.
  • I log writing and ritual as I go, because otherwise I forget the details and they’re a pain to reconstruct later.
  • I track most tasks in a to-do app (ToDoist) and add them up every couple of days. This is the one I’d like to work on better habits for, because doing a batch of four or five days gets tedious. The actual counting doesn’t take very much time at all, because it’s usually obvious to me what I’m doing. Doing this also forces me to keep better stats for what I’m doing for work (and as a librarian, having stats makes it easier to talk to my boss about my workload and capacity for other projects.)

Setting up the sheet has been done in bits and pieces over the last couple of weeks. I usually set something up, test it, and this year I’ve done a bunch of sample data to figure out how to recalibrate the point system that measures the overall nature of the day, basing my lowest range on the bare minimum points for a day, and adjusting it proportionately.

I should finish by noting the points are fairly arbitrary (they’re designed to be roughly equal chunks depending on area of life: body and activity (i.e. sleep and movement), perceived state of being, tasks, with a few extras around the edges for other things. What I mostly want to do is to be able to compare good days to not so good days, and have a general sense of how many not-so-good days I have.

(In 2017, when I started doing this, about one day in five came out as a not so good day. That is really tremendously helpful data for adjusting medical treatments, and for being able to plan ahead. Planning for one day in five to be sort of lousy means I should adjust my expectations on how much I get done.)

Making space

One of the things I think about a lot is how to leave space in my planning – both time for recovery and time for the unexpected to pop up.

A few years ago, I read the book Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom DeMarco.. It talks about the importance of leaving space for the unexpected, and for rest and recovery. A lot of productivity tools focus (rather a lot) on getting more and more and more done, without thinking about quality, creative thought, or long-term space for things to grow in their own time.

So, today, I want to talk a little about four kinds of space.

Massive pendulum clock (from the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studios) with the text "Times change"

Space for questions

I’m a librarian, so my job is made up of long-term projects (things that take weeks or months or even years to accomplish), and also of questions people ask me, which come in unpredictable numbers. Oh, there are some common things: we get many fewer questions in August (when few staff are on our campus) or over the winter holidays, and we get many more at the start of the school year, or when student projects gear up.

So a librarian needs to plan enough time to manage the immediate questions (and leave space to answer them) as well a way to make regular progress on the long-term plans.

I can come into work, and one day have five complicated questions that all need time and attention, or I can come in and have nothing waiting for me (and maybe one or two brief questions during the day). So I need to be able to be flexible. Normally, I come in, deal with whatever reference questions have come in, and then work on the longer-term projects in the late morning and afternoon, but it all depends on meetings and other events. An excellent process for managing tasks to do is essential for me!

Planning

I’ve done my share of event planning over the years, especially in the Pagan and science-fiction communities, and one of the key things I learned is that at about 2 weeks out from the event, some weird thing is going to come up that is going to swallow up time and energy in your planning committee. Chances are good it will be sort of ridiculous. By which I mean, a thing that is not actually essential for the success of the event, but about which enough people have strong feelings that if it isn’t resolved, a noticeable number of people will be upset, cranky, or sulky.

The way I see it, there are two basic responses to this kind of pattern. You can bull through it, and deal with the cranky and sulky. Or you can go “Ok, there’ll be a Thing here, I don’t know what it is yet, but I will factor time for dealing with the Thing into my calendar as we get to that point. If we turn out not to need it, then yay, I get my time back.”

(I learned this after an event where I ended up spending a day and a half driving to different office supply stores to get whiteboards of a certain size. I’d planned some time for the unexpected for that event, but not that! After that event, I adjusted how much time I set aside just in case.)

If you’re doing things more than once, pay attention to the timing and the ebb and flow. I’ve been doing a lot of writing, and I’ve learned that in the third month of a three month writing cycle (when I’m wrapping things up), my word count is significantly higher than the first two months.

I’ve also learned that I tend to procrastinate more in the second month on getting words done (the first month, it’s new and exciting. The last month, I know where I’m ending up, and it’s rolling downhill.) Knowing those things helps me plan a bit better. Maybe I can change my tendencies there (that would be better!) but if I can’t, I can at least arrange my life so there’s a bit more writing time in the third month to finish on my self-imposed deadline.

Glitches in timing

We’re just past the Samhain season, and for me (and a number of other Pagans I know), there is a tendency toward time-slippage at certain times of year, including this one. You know that thing where you sit down, and you look up and it’s three hours later? Or you work and work and work on something, and only fifteen minutes have gone by?

I know that happens to me more at this time of year (my perception of time is usually pretty reliable, but for a month or so, it gets wonky.) Again, I could try and ignore it, or I could go “Ok, this is a thing that happens fairly reliably.” and make some different choices about it. For me, that means being extra careful when scheduling things for that month, and making sure not to overload my to-do list, so I can have time for the slippage without the added stress of not getting important things done. Depending on the tasks for the day I may also be a bit more aggressive about using alarms or automated reminders to help me keep track of time.

Space for the unknown

Last but not least, there is the critical need for space to let your mind wander. Many of us get our best ideas in the shower, or while commuting, or other times when we are doing a necessary physical task and our mind is unoccupied. What happens, then, if we make more space for that in our lives?

Hopefully, we end up with many more creative ideas in our heads! There are so many opportunities here if we just leave ourselves a little space.

For me, this means that I plan on a certain amount of productivity in a given day (usually 3 or 4 big tasks at work that take an hour or more), 5 to 10 smaller ones (sending emails, doing things that take 15-30 minutes), an hour of something at home that’s useful but not demanding (blog maintenance, updating things, taking notes) and an hour or so of writing. If I have extra things (a doctor’s appointment, an oil change, etc.) I know I need to adjust my expectations about what else I’ll get done so I can get enough rest and enough space for me to think and be creative.

Writing tools

In honour of NaNoWriMo starting tomorrow, here’s a post on how I get writing done.

Skills and tools : Glasses and pen resting on sheets of printed music

What is NaNo?

If you’re not familiar with NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month, where an awful lot of people commit to writing 50,000 words (in classic form, of a novel or other fictional work. But there are lots of Nano Rebels, too.) There are write-in events in many locations, and lots of other ways to connect. I’ve done things for Nanos before, but I think I have a really good shot at winning (that is, getting to 50K) this year.

(Learn more here.)

My writing

Since last Nanowrimo, I have been alternating between a fiction project and various shorter forms of non-fiction (blog posts here, posts for Seeking, etc.) I keep a daily spreadsheet for a lot of things, including my daily wordcount, and I average about 1000 words a day (give or take a couple of hundred), though I have some days with only a few hundred, and a few days where I do three thousand or more. (I can’t keep that up for very long, though!)

When: I do my writing in the evenings. I come home from work (a pretty standard day job, though I start work at 7:30am and end at 4, getting home between 4:30 and 5.) I make dinner, putter around online, and then sometime between 8 and 9, I settle in and write for an hour.

If something’s being really demanding in my head, wanting to get own on the page, I sometimes write for half an hour over lunch, but that’s pretty rare.

How: Like a lot of writers, I have some little rituals that help. I usually have something to drink (seltzer water or herbal tea). I have a series of playlists in Spotify for different moods that don’t have words (try mining other people’s playlists for ideas – lots of movie soundtracks work. Try searching for RPG (role playing game) playlists: there are a bunch out there for different moods or energy levels (fight scenes vs. resting, etc.)

Tools

I’m currently doing most of my initial drafting on a site called 4thewords.com which is a gamification tool for writers. You write a certain number of words in a certain time frame to defeat monsters and complete quests. (And they do special quest series for Nanowrimo and a couple of other events during the year!) There’s a small fee to support the site, $4 a month (with some options for winning additional time in some ways.)

Turns out, I am in fact a sucker for completely quests to get nifty clothes for my avatar. It’s also handy to have a (sometimes very rough) draft somewhere web accessible.

When I finish a fiction section or longer non-fiction (usually a chapter), it goes into Scrivener (an app beloved by many writers, that lets you manipulate sections and has a number of additional handy tools) where I can more easily do additional editing.

For shorter things (like blog posts), it goes into Ulysses, a writing app that has a convenient posting tool from right inside the app.

Then I make notes about how many words I wrote in my spreadsheet. I have one sheet that is a log of what I wrote (how many words, what it was in general terms – so “BookTitle – 35” for chapter 35 of that particular book. or “Seeking – cost” for a reminder of the topic. Then I have another sheet that calculates by type of writing, so I can see the different projects over the course of the month. (At the end of the month, this gets transferred to a yearly archive spreadsheet, so I can look at long-term stats if I want to.)

You’ll want different tools, quite possibly, but I’ve discovered this combination works well for me, and keeps me chugging along with good productivity.

Inexpensive information sources

I was talking to someone last weekend about Pagan topics, and money’s tight for her (like it is for a lot of people), so we got to talking a bit about the usefulness of the library.

Which leads me to wanting to talk about some tips for getting books inexpensively in general.

Skills and tools : Glasses and pen resting on sheets of printed music

​The library

Let’s start with the most obvious – libraries exist to share materials so we don’t all have to buy our own. This is a win for basically everyone involved. (Even for authors. If their work is popular, the library will probably buy more copies. A copy in the library means many more people may explore their work, and eventually start buying it.)

There are some complexities, though.

1) Library purchasing practices

Libraries do buy books on a huge range of topics (unless they’re a specialised library). However, many libraries rely on a fairly limited set of sources to figure out what they’re going to buy. Large library systems may have a structure to how items are selected (some libraries routinely order a certain number of copies of books in particular categories, like award winners or new books by a list of much-loved authors.) In many cases, libraries look at a number of review publications (designed for librarians) and make selections from that.

That is a great start, but there are a lot of limitations to it. One big one (for Pagans and other people with esoteric interests – and I’m using that word both in the magical and occult sense, and in the sense of ‘interests that are uncommon and not widely shared’) is that those review publications don’t include a wide range of books in the relevant field.

In a previous library job we got Booklist, one of the major publications for library reviews, and there’d be a handful of books a year on explicitly Pagan, magical, or divinatory topics that got reviewed. There’d be other relevant titles (myths, herbs, history, and so on.) There’s only so much room in the publication, after all. Mostly those would be books from mainstream publishing houses that publish an occasional Pagan title, and a select few from the bigger metaphysical and magical publishers like Llewellyn or Weiser.

2) Publishing methods

Libraries buy most of their books from traditional publishers. While there’s been a big rise in the number of self-published books (and I’m gearing up to do some of that!) it’s been a big challenge for libraries. That’s because the quality is so incredibly varied, and because people doing independent publishing methods often aren’t aware of what information libraries used to make their decisions, or what they need to consider adding.

(Take a look at the copyright page of a traditionally published book, and you’ll see a lot of information that looks a bit incomprehensible, but has cataloging information for libraries. When a book doesn’t have that, someone has to create it for the library to use, and that takes staff time and therefore money. When the publisher provides it, the library still has to do some steps, but most of the time-consuming part is already done, and they just have to make the changes for their particular standards.)

It’s also just plain hard for libraries to find out about small press or indie published books. It can take really significant time to search sites, figure out what formats are available, and so on. (And quality for format of printed books can also be poor, and not hold up to circulation.)

Because of this, many libraries have limited selections of indie books. Sometimes their collection development policy will be available online and explain how they handle this (for example, they may collect books from local authors, or set in or about the local area, but not others.)

3) Library networks and interlibrary loan

Getting books via the library network is often what happens with esoteric books (more specialised topics, in less active demand). You may need to plan ahead a bit, but if some library in the system has it, you can get it fairly quickly, check it out as many times as your library lets you renew it, and enjoy!

4) Requesting books

One great way to get books into public libraries is to see if the library has an option for requesting titles. You enter the information about the book (title, author, publisher) and usually there’s a way to comment on why you think it’s of interest. There’s usually a box where you can sign up to be the first person to check it out if the library buys the title.

Libraries review these requests, and if there’s money in the budget and the book seems like a good fit for the collection, they may well buy it. Picking books that have really solid reviews will help a lot.

A word about libraries and privacy

Privacy when using the library is a key part of library ethics, and librarians and library staff shouldn’t be sharing what you’ve checked out unless required to by law (which in many libraries involves a subpoena). Many libraries actually delete loan records once the item is returned specifically so they can’t be forced to share that information.

That said, if you use a local library where the staff know you, they can’t erase the part of their brain that’s about you checking out books on a particular topic. Library ethics says they shouldn’t talk about it, but sometimes people do gossip. If you have concerns about privacy, consider getting your esoteric topic books at a different library, or even a different library network.

Used books

If you’re trying to save money, used books are a great way to go. Amazon has extensive listings for used books, and ABE Books is now a subsidiary company of Amazon, but has independent listings. There are other used book seller online tools.

In general, for online sellers, look for ones who have a good rating (I look for 95% or better satisfaction), and whose shipping prices are reasonable. (A lot of places price the book very cheaply, but make it up in shipping charges. If the book is cheap enough, that’s not a big deal, but it can make it harder to make comparisons.)

Another option is to find a used bookstore – if you find a store that has the kinds of books you’re generally interested in, the owner or staff may be willing to keep a wish list for you, or to help you search for particular titles.

Some Pagan, esoteric, or metaphysical stores have used book sections, or Pagan community groups may have periodic book sales or other chances to swap materials.

If you get to know people in the community, you may also hear about chances to pick up books inexpensively – sometimes if people are moving, or their focus has shifted, they’ll be glad to part with books to someone who will appreciate them.

You can also occasionally find great things at library book sales. (Often these books are donations, not books from the library collection that have been withdrawn.)

Ebooks

If you can read ebooks, they can sometimes be very affordable options. I subscribe to a couple of announcement lists for ebooks on sale, and have a running list of titles that I’m interested in.

This is harder to do specifically with esoteric books (though if you have favourite authors, it can be worth getting on their newsletter or email announcement list) but for history, cookbooks, and some types of wellness or lifestyle books, it can be a great way to pick up books you’re interested in at a steep discount.

(It can also be hard on your bank account, so be cautious here!)

What not to do

If money’s tight, it can be easy to be tempted by pirated copies – PDFs of books that sometimes get circulated in various ways. There’s a couple of reasons not to do this.

First, it can destroy the market for an author’s future work getting published. (Which, if you like their work, is something you probably care about.) It can also damage the ability of publishers to put out new works. (Especially smaller publishers – and basically, every esoteric or magical book publisher is a small publisher, just for different definitions of small.)

Publishers rely on data about what’s selling (and how) to make decisions not just about an author’s books, but about other books on similar topics or similar approaches.

Second, it can open your computer up to viruses, malware, and other bad things. Not worth it!

And finally but most importantly, it’s just wrong. Authors work hard on their books. They may choose to share some material for free, but that choice needs to be up to them. They can benefit from library sales or giveaways, or other ways of sharing books that put them out in the world cheaply, without the utterly destructive effects of pirated books.

For the same reasons, don’t take copies from libraries and not bring them back. Libraries have limited resources, and in many cases, they can’t afford to replace copies that go missing (or not quickly). Bring your books back. If you’ve honestly lost a copy and can’t find it, talk to the library staff: they can suggest the best options.

In case of emergency: finding information in a crisis

Finding out what’s going on in an emergency can be complicated. Figuring out what to believe is even more so.

Quick! Research Needed!

I’ve been thinking about that this week because the gas line explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley (north of Boston) and the communities of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover were right near me. (I’ve spent a lot of time in the latter two places earlier in my life, and I have friends living in one of those towns. I live closer to Boston.)

If you’re in the middle of a crisis, and you need information, here’s the key things you need to know (there’s explanation further down the page.)

Key tips

1) Texts (and sometimes emails) get through when other kinds of information won’t. Try those if you’re having problems with other options.

Text is tiny, in computer terms. Images, webpages, voice connections, all take up a lot more data.

2) Figure out who will be in charge of the problem.

Look at their sites and social media accounts for information and pointers. If it’s a natural disaster, that might mean state and federal emergency management. If the problem is in a town or city, look for the local government accounts and pages. You may want to check the relevant police departments.

3) Pick a couple of reliable sources for information.

Good choices include major local news stations (If you don’t know what to pick I recommend the local public radio station in the US.) Big main station, though, somewhere that’s got enough local staff to send people out on the scene and do deeper investigation.

You may also want to check out official sources like the town or city government page, the town or city Twitter feed or other social media pages, and relevant police departments or emergency management resources.

4) See if you can get a friend who’s in a different physical location to help with information.

They’ll have access to more resources, and less trouble getting them to load (or they can more easily look for options.)

5) Be conscious of battery and signal issues.

Limit use if you’re not sure how you’re going to recharge. Get yourself somewhere safe, let people know you’re safe, and then use it only for critical information.

Things you can do before a crisis hits:

1) Have a go bag.

There are lots of great resources out there for what to pack, so let me address the information front. Consider:

  • A battery or method of recharging electronic devices. Charging plugs are also a great idea. (If you have one for travel, have it live in your go bag when you’re not using it for that.)
  • Key information (phone numbers, addresses, basic directions) in case you can’t use your devices. Include a couple of people not in your local area who are likely to pick up or answer.
  • Index cards or a notebook (and a pen) for making notes about what you need, what’s happening, or information you’re told.
  • If you might need to evacuate, add some form of identification. If you don’t want to bring a passport or birth certificate, consider high quality photocopies.

2) Know where pet carriers and related equipment are.

Some evacuation shelters will take pets, other places will make arrangements for animal shelters or vets to help. Whatever the solution, if you need to get your pet out, you need a way to do that safely. That might mean a carrier, a sturdy leash and harness, or something else. Make sure to have some pet food you can pack and rotate in your go bag or with the carrier.

3) Think about places you could go.

If there’s a hurricane or a blizzard, your entire area is probably going to have problems – in that case you either need to make a significant evacuation, or you need to stay put. (Depending on the situation.)

But in other cases, getting a town or two away may be enough. Do you have friends nearby you could stay with in a pinch? Or who would at least let you regroup there and figure out the next options? Talk to people, make a note, so that if there’s a situation, you don’t have to decide who you call first.

4) Identify good sources of news in advance. Write them down if you need to.

You don’t need to listen to the news every day, or watch it, but have a sense of what the most reliable and helpful stations are that you can get easily. That way, if there’s an issue, you have a place to start.

I suggest the local public radio or TV stations (in Boston, these are WGBH and WBUR) because they tend to be right on top of regional news, but have the resources of a national news organization if it’s a really big crisis (including journalists who focus on particular areas).

Another good option is the local paper of record: the main paper for a region, where legal notices have to be posted.

5) Know how to use key features of your technology.

Even if you don’t text or email regularly from your phone, know where your text app is, or your email app.

When signal strength is low, or bandwidth is in high demand, plain text messages will get through when webpages, voice, or video might not. Give yourself options.

6) Ask friends or family in other parts of the country to be a point of contact.

Do you have a friend who lives across the country? Would they be willing to help with information (or be a contact point) for a regional emergency? Often, people well outside the immediate area will have a much easier time getting information and maintaining connectivity. If you check in them, and others in your family check in there, they can pass along information.

Why does this matter? In some kinds of emergencies, telecommunications tools may go down. Cell towers might be destroyed, local routing equipment might fail. Even if the physical technology is in one piece, lots of people trying to make calls or find information can flood the connection and make it hard to get messages through. A friend who can do more complex web searches or figure out the best sources of information can be priceless.

During a crisis

1) Get somewhere safe.

First step.

2) Figure out what’s going on.

Check those sources I talked about: major news stations in your area, local police or fire departments, or emergency management.

At the moment, Twitter is often the best source for quick urgent messages (check local police departments, fire departments, or town/city official accounts), but check city or town government pages. Facebook and many websites may be very sluggish to respond (lots of images and other higher-size content), and many of them have lousy search tools.

If you need to use a site that isn’t loading for you, see if you can get to a mobile version.

3) Get in touch with a friend or friends outside the area.

Let them know you’re okay, ask if they can help you get the info you need.

4) Once you have more information, figure out what your next steps are.

This is going to depend a whole lot on the specific situation, so I can’t suggest practical details. However, you may want to consider:

  • Can you recharge your phone? If not, turn it off or put it in low-power mode and turn off all but the most essential functions. Check once an hour, or every two hours, then stop using it again.
  • Do you urgently need medications or medical help (or will you, if the crisis continues for any length of time?) That’s a good time to let emergency services know about the specifics if that’s possible.
  • Do you have pets who need care? Reach out to get help for them.

At this point, you can focus your research and resources on figuring out the specific stuff you need, and who can help you with that. If you’re not sure (and you’re able to reach one), local libraries will likely be glad to help you figure out the good information options and help you connect with services.

Managing online spaces for yourself

I’ve heard or been around several conversations recently about people thinking about their interactions with the Internet, and what it meant for them.

Skills and tools : Glasses and pen resting on sheets of printed music

Let me start by saying that I am one of those people whose friends are in the computer. Oh, I’ve met a fair number of them, the ones I’m closer to, by now (or we met somewhere in person, and continued the conversation online).

But as someone with chronic health issues that include fatigue and stamina issues, if I didn’t have the Internet, my social interactions would be down to people I see at work (and with one exception, there’s a whole set of things I don’t talk about with people there: my religious life, my health, my writing project – most things that matter to me outside of work.)

I’d see one of my college friends and her husband and family once a month (they live a mile from me: we have a monthly dinner scheduled so we actually see each other.) I’d see the other local college friend and her family maybe every six weeks, depending. And that’d be about it, maybe once or twice a year travelling to see other people.

That’s not a great life. It’s certainly not the one I want to be living.

Because of the Internet, I chat with both of them (and a bunch of other people) pretty much every day on a private MUCK 1. I post on forums, and dabble in Twitter, and I’ve been learning more about Discord. I poke my head in at Facebook for a couple of closed groups relating to my interests. (This is the one I’d gladly give up if I could access them some other way.) I find interesting links and things to read (and sometimes comment on) on MetaFilter. I have an account on Dreamwidth where a lot of my personal day to day notekeeping goes, and I run my own blogs (this one and others.) I read a few Tumblrs. There’s a weird little librarian microblogging site I hang out on. You get the idea.

I learned about all but one major news event on the internet since at least 2001.

(The one exception was the 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis in the summer of 2007. I was sitting at a computer in my grad school library computer lab – I’d moved a few weeks ago and didn’t have internet at home yet. Someone came in with the news right before it turned up online.)

And once I learn about a thing, there’s a host of sources for me to get more information or perspective or meaningful connection, if I put my mind to it.

Some of those places work better for me than others, of course, but they all make a difference in my life.

I also use the Internet to make me much better at my job, much better as a priestess and witch, much better as a writer and communicator of things in my head. I read widely, I use tools on the internet to help me find high quality pieces I wouldn’t come across any other way. (Oh, my parents got some of the same things out of reading three Sunday newspapers plus the weekday ones, but that also has some complications…)

I have a couple of theories about why people struggle with online spaces, based on way too many years using them (I effectively started in 1994, when I got to college. That was the year after the Endless September when it was still exciting that your web page background was something other than pale gray.)

But I also have some tools that help me make the experience more of what I want, and less of what big social media companies think I should want (or trolls, or any other group or individual that thinks they know what I want more than I do.)

1) Aim for the spaces that give you the most control.

There’s a reason I do a lot of my actual talking about things on Dreamwidth, where there are public posts, but also locked ones, so that you don’t have to worry about the Internet descending on your head without warning. Where you can talk to people who have context about your life and choices, or you can link to other posts that do if you want or need.

The sites that want to control what you see, arrange it, those get a lot harder to manage. It’s harder for you to pace yourself with content you’re less able to deal with.

If the conversation is public (or even friends-of-friends permissions), you never know when you’re going to get suddenly tangled in a conversation that got really weird in no time flat. Or worse, if you’re going to hit something horribly hurtful, destructive, or worse.

(And basically any site that relies on an algorithm for display, there are tons of things you’re not seeing that you have no idea you’re missing. I hate that part.)

So I spend the majority of my time and energy in sites where I have control (Dreamwidth), or sites where there’s thoughtful and consistent (and fairly transparent) moderation (Metafilter, the Pagan forum I’m staff on)

In the other places, I do things to help me control the firehose. I use Facebook almost exclusively for the groups. I have them pinned, I go read the things once or twice a day, and I go away. Most of the time I don’t even look at my main feed. (Fortunately, most of my close friends use Facebook solely to post adorable pictures of their children for grandparents or similar things, and our actual content-heavy conversation happens elsewhere.)

I use Tweetdeck and Twitter lists to manage what I’m reading. In Tweetdeck, I have a column each for a couple of close friends who are more active on Twitter than anywhere else, then ones for the people I read most often, librarians, writing, my elected politicans (it’s a handy way to get at all of their statements on things). Oh, and my allergist, who announces office closings there. Again, I check in once or twice a day, comment, share things occasionally.

And I read the handful of Tumblr accounts I really want to follow not through my dashboard, but by reading them in my RSS reader.

2) Decide what you want to get out of a given space.

Oh, you can change your mind, later. And it often takes a bit to figure out how using a given space works best for you. (Some spaces, by design, encourage longer or deeper conversations. Others cater to short quips and make it easier for trolling, nastiness, or misunderstandings to happen. Not just by how they handle abuse and harassment, but just in the kind of discussions they favour and discourage.)

When I’ve talked to people who want to change their social media lives, I ask what they’re looking for. To connect with friends? Figure out where that’s going to happen, and then figure out how to make the space work for you. Maybe that’s Facebook with some lists you set up with close attention to who can see what. Maybe that’s a private Twitter account. Maybe that’s deciding to swap emails regularly with one friend to keep in touch because your habits don’t overlap.

Maybe it’s finding topic-focused discussion spaces. Forums are less familiar to many people than they used to be, but they’re still there. More people are exploring using social media as a way to point at blogs and other spaces they control again, rather than having everything be on social media sites. Maybe it’s using a specific tool but in a really limited way, for a particular purpose.

I learned a long time ago that people will use a given technology in vastly different ways – and much of the time, that’s fine. Do the thing you need, not the thing the site tells you you need.

(The one downside is that if the site doesn’t care about your use, you may find relevant features dropped or changed, sometimes without much notice.)

3) Look for spaces that are well managed and give you tools.

If you’re on a site without active moderation, learn the tools the site gives you to mute, block, ban, or otherwise remove people from your bits of the space. Don’t feel bad about using those tools on accounts that are not interacting in good faith with you. That can be spam, or it can be those people who think linking to a 45 minute video to make their point is (I ranted a bit about this in a post from last year).

If a site doesn’t let you have reasonable control over your own experience, reconsider whether you want to be there.

If the site does have reasonably active moderation, like many forums or Discord channels do, take time to read the rules. (They may not remove problem comments or users immediately, but have a process to do so that’s reasonably up front).

This will tell you not only what the rules are, but what the site values. A place that makes it clear they value discussion and debate (but spells out what that means) is different than a place that says “Be nice to each other.” (Nice is notoriously difficult to define. It’s one of my signs of a site or resource that hasn’t had to deal with many challenges and that might not handle future ones well.)

4) Put the things you value where they’re easy to get to.

(And put the other stuff somewhere else…)

This is probably key to my management of my online time and space. I put the places I want to spend the most time in my main toolbar. (In order, my current lineup is Gmail, Todoist, Feedly (my RSS reader), Dreamwidth, the Cauldron (the Pagan forum I’m staff on), YNAB (my budget site), and then there are folders for everything else. I have half a dozen forums I check at varying degrees of frequency, and a dozen or two more I poke my head into occasionally.

I deliberately don’t have bookmarks for Tweetdeck (for Twitter) or Facebook: I want those to be things I deliberately decide to enter (even if it’s just typing the first few letters in the location bar and hitting the auto complete.)

Oh, and you won’t see news sites in there. I get news in my email from several different sources, and I’ll go check news stories when there’s a big specific story, but again, I don’t want it to be a thing I’m mindlessly clicking into. In my email, they get filtered into a specific label (not my inbox), and I skim through them and open the stories I’m interested in a couple of times a day. When there are big stories, I go looking for more information from multiple sources.

In my RSS reader, I have things grouped by topic. Really busy sites (like Metafilter) get their own section, so I can quickly skim, open the posts I’m interested in, and mark the others read. I can read things about libraries, or about Paganism, or divination, or a range of other topics, and easily leave other things for later.

I don’t keep social media apps on my phone (I do have an ebook reader app) and I keep interactive ones several screens back, and the things that I use for my own tracking/information on the first couple.

I don’t personally have a lot of issues with the constant refresh loop once I do the above, but I’ve used various of the extensions to block or limit time on sites that weren’t a great choice as needed, until I could sort out longer term habits that were better for me.

5) Re-evaluate regularly.

It’s okay to take breaks. It’s okay to change things up. Letting the people you’re close to on a specific tool know is handy, if you can manage it. (I worry about people when I realise I haven’t seen them around for a bit, and many of us may not have other forms of contact or not be sure it’s okay to ask.)

But it’s fine to change up what you’re doing. Maybe you’re a person where disconnecting or taking a social media break, or a break from a specific site is really helpful for you. Maybe you don’t know and you want to find out. Maybe you figure out you need to handle it differently. (Because you’ve changed, or learned something new about what you prefer, or the site has changed.) Maybe it’s that the world is pretty awful in a lot of ways right now, and you need to take out some of the places that spills over relentlessly onto you.

That said, there are so many different ways to connect online – so thinking about what ones actually work for you (or might) can help you figure out better options than just ditching them all.

1 What’s a MUCK? It’s one of a handful of similar code bases – others related ones include MUDs and MUSHes – that allow you to create text-only spaces for people to hang out and chat. You can link rooms together to create much larger spaces, describe the people and things in them, create objects that do things when you type commands. I played a number of text-based games on them in college and after, but these days we have a private one for chatting, mostly.

Big projects

You can tell I’m thinking about this one a lot, both because I’m still not talking about Zotero, and because it’s been two weeks since my last post.

(On that note, I’m going to go for a post every other week here for a while, both because I’ve got some other projects I’m working on in bits, and because I have a shorter list of things to cover here easily.)

Research tools: an astronomical device opens up like a pocket watch with many tools

I think a lot about the interaction of productivity and research, and how we structure projects, especially big long-term ones that don’t have visible end points for ages.

I’m working on one of those at work (our catalogue upgrade). We’re nearly done with one stage of it (I have to write a lot of documentation next week!) But after we take it public, we’ll have other things to work on, which will take a year or more to finish.

And this new research project is another. I have ideas about how to go about it, but I also have a lot of ‘I can try that, and if it doesn’t work, here are five other ideas’. Because for it to work for me, I need to have something that’s sustainable in my current schedule. Being able to do something once isn’t the same as being able to do it across a lot of different kinds of content.

That’s very different compared to some of the other things I do, where I might spend an hour or two answering a reference question, but then I’m done and move onto something else. Or write a blog post, then I’m done with that one. Or even a longer writing project, because 60,000 words is a couple of months work for me, not years. (I’m pretty regularly averaging over 30K a month, right now. )

Breaking down a big project

The classic advice is, of course, that when you have a really big project, you break it down into smaller pieces that are more manageable.

This is not bad advice, but it presumes that you have the skills to break down a big thing into smaller things (not everyone does!) and it also assumes some degree of knowledge about what the pieces are (which may be utterly mysterious or overwhelming when you have a big idea.)

Sometimes I’ve gotten around the boulders in this one by focusing on what I need to do first, to get started. Often once I’ve done one or two things, how to break things down further gets more obvious.

For our big catalogue project, I broke it down into specific things we needed before we could launch it. As we worked through training in the new system, we have kept adding to the list (as we learn more about what’s possible.)

In this big research project, one step is clearly “Figure out some starting sources” whether that’s for modern material about plants or stones, or whether it’s about looking at historical sources. I’m working my way through looking at lists, bookmarking sources or information about sources, and generally gathering a dozen or so places to start.

Preparation time

One thing I think people don’t talk enough about is the time it takes for you to get set up to do a thing. Some kinds of work, you can just sit down and do them, without needing lots of references or things set up a certain way. Other tasks take time to set up.

Take the catalogue editing at work. Right now I’m doing transferring a set of informational notes. That requires a search of the existing cross-reference information, and a second window (in a second browser, so I don’t upset the first search) to add the revised items into. At work, I have a dual screen setup (so amazing for productivity!) and setting up all those searches does take a few minutes. So it’s not something I start if I only have five or ten minutes.

In my personal research projects, taking out the books, opening the files, and getting things set up can take me a few minutes (I don’t have a lot of book storage near my computer, or this might be easier.) So, figuring out when I have enough time to work on that (and put things away) sometimes means it’s not the right project for a particular bit of time.

Batching time

Some things work better when you get into a rhythm of doing them, and you can do a bunch of similar tasks in a row. For example, I find it easier to make graphics for blog posts several at a time, if I know what I want. I already have the application open, I can duplicate things quickly, and save them. It’s much faster than doing that several different times.

I can do the same thing with some kinds of writing. Some things flow naturally from one to the other. When I was job hunting, writing cover letters for similar kinds of jobs were often much easier to batch. I was thinking about highlighting similar skills or answering specific questions common to one kind of library job and less relevant to others. (For example, skills working with the public are different than technical skills.)

The question of energy and focus

One of the biggest things for me is that I can handle different kinds of projects at different times. I have a horrible time doing in depth editing of writing after work (when I’ve already had a full day) so I need to make sure to block off time for that on weekends (or vacations). On the other hand, if I start early enough in the evening, I can easily put out 1500 or 2000 words between getting home from work and bedtime. Often, I can manage to do that and also do another task that takes some focus, but not a lot, like getting my next newsletter set up, or notes out from the most recent witchy class, or whatever else I’m working on.

I don’t quite know where that’s going to be for the big new project yet. My guess is that I’ll break it down so that some parts (looking at sources and setting up notes) will be a thing I do after work, but that I’ll need more focus for other parts of the writing, the synthesis.

Time for things to cook

I’m a big believer in there being time for things to cook or gel in my head. That means I often start thinking about a thing days or even weeks before I do substantial work on it. (This is working really well with my current fiction project, where I’m thinking ahead to the next piece while writing the current one. Then I finish the current one, do a quick outline for the next one, and think ahead to the one after that.) It means that a lot of my writing time is just about getting words down, which is often much faster with all that preparation.

None of these ideas is novel or unique, but I hope laying out some examples gives some ideas on how to apply a different approach to a big project you may be a bit stuck on.

Mechanics of a project

My new project seems an excellent time to walk through a way to think about a large long-term research project (it’s always nice to have a handy example!)

Tea ball with a mix of herbs and dried flowers, cracked slightly open.

Step one: What am I trying to do here?

I described a lot of this in my previous post, but I want to turn out articles that take on the core theories behind what a given plant was used for, and provide more information about them, in a way that allows people to figure out where the information comes from.

(As I said, there’s nothing wrong with intuitive response – but it helps a lot to know what’s underlying it. A lot of our intuition is built on our experiences and the connections we’ve made between our experiences, so knowing what’s influencing that is pretty helpful.)

It’s also really helpful to know where a particular idea comes from if you need to make an adjustment. For example, if you need to substitute a herb you’d use for a spell (you can’t get it, or you’re allergic to it, or some other reason), wouldn’t you rather have a detailed idea of what people think about the alternatives? Too often, people put a whole lot of things together, while forgetting that ‘herb that does passionate lust’ is possibly a different flavour (magically speaking, and possibly also physically) from one that is known for helping build a long-lasting committed relationship.

Why do I want to know about the source?

I don’t believe that older sources are better. A quick look at medical history suggests why learning things is so powerful and important! But I do think knowing where our ideas and information comes from is very helpful, in figuring out what it means to us.

I want to look at the sources to figure out where they came from, and to begin to understand the other associations. One common one from the Middle Ages is the question of why certain figures (Mary is a common one here) are so commonly shown in certain colours.

In Mary’s case, it’s a particular shade of blue. She’s painted in that shade, because it was an incredibly rare and expensive colour to make at the time. So the same way you might put gold leaf on the most important pieces of art, you painted that shade of blue to demonstrate how something in the picture was important or central or most honoured.

In this day of other options for colours, maybe that reason for choosing blue is less relevant than the fact that we know psychologically it is calming, or that it echoes water, or some other reason. (Probably, given colour symbology, multiple different reasons.)

Step two: What do I need?

I need some sources. My idea, to start with, is to pick a number of well-known plants and culinary herbs, things that are widely used and pretty widely documented. (There are whole books devoted to roses, for example!)

And then check out those items in a selection of well-known sources.

This means I need to collect those sources, which will fall roughly into three groups:

Early sources

By which I mean mostly Classical sources – Greeks, Romans, and maybe some Medieval and Renaissance texts. These are things that largely predate our understanding of modern medicinal uses. (In other words, some of their medicinal uses worked, but they might have the wrong idea about why. In other cases, the suggested things and their uses are just bizzare. Want more about this? Listen to just about any episode of the podcast Sawbones…)

Early modern sources

In the 17th to 19th centuries, you start getting a more systematic review of medicinal uses – but of course, you see less discussion of magical uses. However, many of the herbals of this time included folklore and stories. A great example here is Nicholas Culpepper, whose Complete Herbal is a classic in the field. This exists as an ebook on Project Gutenberg, which has the advantage of being searchable.

Modern sources

There are of course dozens, hundreds, of modern resources out there about these topics, from a variety of different perspectives (medicinal herbalism, magical herbalism, religious and magical sources, folklore collections, and many many more.) Making sense of them is baffling.

Obviously, I’m not going to read every modern source – my time, my library, my available ability to hold things in my head won’t allow it. But I can look at a few of the most widely referenced ones, and look at what they talk about, and try and track down stories. For example, Scott Cunningham’s Complete Book of Magical Herbs doesn’t have citations, but I can use it to help me look at stories to trace backwards. I won’t be able to figure out sources for all of them, but I can do some.

Step three: Make a plan

Identify some widely referenced sources, and see what a handful say about each plant, and then follow stories from there. For example, Culpepper, talking about saffron, says: “It is an herb of the Sun, and under the Lion, and therefore you need not demand a reason why it strengthens the heart so exceedingly.” From there, one can follow some notes about where it comes from, how one recognises a plant suitable for use, and so on.

I full expect that sometimes later research will turn up new information or new sources to explore. But one of the things I want to do with this project is model how a long-term project can go, how there often is a spiralling pattern to the work, where you come back to things over time as you’ve learned more or have a new way to connect them.

Mixed with the plants and stones, I also want to highlight useful books, or at least books that are relevant to the project, putting them into context of why they were writtten, what kinds of information they’re interesting and useful for. High on my list is Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Palette which is a fabulous look at stories and information about colour.

Challenges of research

Wrapping up this post, I want to talk about a few challenges of research.

The biggest one, I suspect, is going to be variations in names. In books written before we had species names for plants, they can get referred to in a wide range of ways. Sometimes the names are consistent through the centuries, but often they’re not. I’ll have to do some digging and hunting to figure out what the references might be in many cases.

The other big challenge I’ve discussed above: so many sources, so little time. The only way to do this is to do things in a manageable chunk, and remind myself (and everyone reading) that I can and will come back.

New research project

So, I’d planned for this post to be an introduction to Zotero, as an example of how to use a citation management tool.

But then i was talking to a visiting friend about a project I’ve been kicking around for a while, and got some great ideas on how to approach it. So instead, we’re going to have a post explaining the project, and then I’ll be using it as part of an example of setting up Zotero, since it’s a great fit for that.

Tea ball with a mix of herbs and dried flowers, cracked slightly open.

What’s the project?

If you’re familiar with the Pagan or magical communities, you’ve probably come across the term ‘correspondences’ before. Basically, it’s a concept that relates to certain theories about how magic works (or might work), that different plants, animals, stones, foods, and other materials have properties that are associated with particular energies, deities, other non-physical beings.

The idea is that you can use these items in your magic, to help you with a specific goal. You might use a particular herb for love, a given stone for clarity of communication, a specific colour for getting other people to take you seriously. (Some of these are magic. Some of them are psychology. Often the line betweeen the two is surprisingly narrow.)

Where do correspondences come from?

Here’s the thing. A lot of times, people will quote things in books about what is associated with what – and there’s no source and no explanation.

This drives me up a wall. I have absolutely no objection to someone saying “This is my intuition and experience, it’s not based on anything else.” I am all for people doing what works for them. But that’s different than saying “Traditionally, this is used for X.” Who says? Where did they say it? Was it just them, or is that a pretty common thing, not all based on the same source?

This is a huge problem – and a huge project. The possible sources for this kind of information, even if we’re just focusing on Western Europe, and in about the last millenia, span at least a dozen languages, many different places, and a huge range of possible names for things. (Since the nomenclature we use in modern science is pretty modern, all things considered.)

I’ve been thinking about the problem for a while, and I want to try tackling it. Whatever I do won’t be comprehensive – there’s no way I can promise that. I don’t read enough languages, I have other things in my life besides this project, and I want to try and keep both my research and the actual output somewhat manageable.

The suggestion I got

My friend suggested it’d be a great project for a Patreon. I haven’t set one up yet! I want to work on a couple of example essays, first, so I can get a sense of how many I am likely to produce in a given month and how to structure the articles usefully. It is a project I want to tackle for my own reasons, and sharing it with others would be wonderful.

How might this work?

As you might remember, one of my pieces of advice for any significant research is figuring out how you know when you’ve found what you’re looking for or gotten as much as you can for your goal. Here’s the time to do that.

What do I need for this project?

I’d like to create a summary article for a lot of different items (herbs, stones, plus probably some on different animals, colours, and other things) that talks about the basic physical reality of the thing (where does it come from, does it have any medicinal properties or is it used for art or food?) and then that discusses some of the major stories and associations, plus where they may come from.

Realistically speaking, I’m quite sure this will be relatively easy for some items, and terribly difficult for others. I may start on one and get stuck pretty fast! Or I may find pieces that I can’t sort out, given my available time and resources. I expect I’ll be able to track down sources for some of the stories and correspondences, and not for others.

I also expect there will be revisions over time – because as I look for other items, I’ll come across different things, or stories, or places where someone translated the name of the plant a different way, and a connection becomes apparent. Or perhaps I’ll be able to make special trips to look at rare manuscripts (I do live in the Boston area, and we have lots of libraries with great rare book collections!) Or I’ll find more books and articles that give me more details.

How big a project is this?

Well, it’s huge. But there are two ways to limit it. One is about how I go about the project, and the other is by scope of what I’m going to research.

It would be tempting to go about this project by finding a given source that has information – the writings of Pliny the Elder, or various naturalists who collected folklore about the plants they described, or early grimoires – and index what they have to say. While that might be useful, it is also exactly the kind of project that can bog down very easily, or feel overwhelming very quickly. Also, it’s a kind of research I can do, but often don’t find particularly fun.

So let’s go with the other approach, which is to start with a particular item – a given herb or stone or other thing that has correspondences – and look at a reasonable selection of material that might have things about it, do a range of searches on the open web and in some databases like JSTOR, and rummage for what I can find, tracing sources back where I can to something that is close to the starting point. Pull them together, when I’ve got a satisfying amount, and then move on to the next one.

The other way to limit the scope is to look at what items I’m taking on. Realistically, my language skills are a mcuch better fit for things derived from from Western Europe than other places. (I read and write modern English, but can also take a reasonable stab at Middle English, French, Attic Greek, and a bit of German and Latin. Certainly enough to poke at things with translation tools and get a sense.) I have a lot less of a chance for things that started out in Arabic, or in Chinese or Japanese, or dozens of other languages.

The other part of this, of course, is in what I use. I live in a global community, and have access to herbs and spices from around the globe. But at the same time, my actual magical practice is rooted partly in Western Europe, and partly in where I live (New England), and my research is going to focus first on the things used in those places. Again, I may very well expand in some cases, but I know there are huge swaths of magical and ritual practice that use things I’ve never explored. I’d rather leave research on them to people who have those skills and experiences.

What about the practical aspects of this?

My idea is that I’d post one or two articles every month (probably: see above about testing how long it takes me to produce something useful first.) I suspect I’ll focus heavily on stones and herbs, but I may include other kinds of things from time to time (colours, animals, other kinds of plants, foods).

I want to produce something that is useful to me, to my covenmates. But I also want to produce something that’s useful to other people, because if I’m going to do the work, it makes sense to share it.

My current plan is to make Patreon posts, and periodically (every six months or year, depending on how many I’m turning out and how long they are) collect the articles into something available in other formats. Some of the research will involve getting more books: the Patreon money will go toward buying those books, and also (if there’s money for this) throwing money at some things that save me time so I can spend more of it on the project.

What does this mean for you?

If you’re interested in this, I will put the most frequent updates in my newsletter – sign up, and get a complete list of what I’ve written recently, plus other links I’ve found intriguing in the past fortnight. But I’ll post an announcement here and a few other places when I get things up and running.

If you have thoughts or ideas (or suggestions for a particular set of correspondences for me to tackle first), I’d love to hear about that, too. The easiest way is through my contact form.