Many internets

I’ve been thinking recently about how we often think we’re having the same experiences – online, in research, in other ways we learn.

There are many internets out there. We may be using the same tools, but we can use them in such phenomenally different ways.

A few examples:

Apple uses her account as a public or semi-public place to share things she cares about (or finds useful or beautiful or intriguing). She has a wideranging list of people who can see and comment on her posts, but she knows many of them casually (through friends of friends, former places she’s worked, etc.), and many of them don’t know (at least without checking her info) what she does for a living or even where she lives.

Borage uses theirs only to keep in touch with a couple of trusted friends. They might use privacy tools so only those people can see their content. Or they may just use a tool that’s only by invitation. (Such as a Slack or Discord channel that’s set up that way.)

Carrot may have an account he uses to access specific groups (like for a class or community online) or manage invitations, but he never posts anything to his personal feed at all.

Dandelion wants a really social experience – tagging friends to let them know there’s a post that will interest them, or share photos. It’s really important for them to stay connected to people from all the different parts of their life, where they grew up, their school, their past jobs. Sure, some of those people have very different opinions sometimes, but that’s good for learning, right?

Elder‘s known Dandelion since high school, more than a decade now, and she loves seeing what Dandelion is up to (the stories and photos are great). But she’s had problems with a stalker, and worries about them finding her through other people’s posts. She definitely doesn’t want to be tagged.

Fern struggles with being online a lot. He knows that he’ll get lost in a maze of links, and not get much done on the projects he cares about. He worries about missing out, and when he checks in on the site (and his friends) he’s convinced he’s not seeing everything his friends do, that they’re commenting on. Some of that doesn’t matter, but what about the important parts?

Gardenia only accesses the site from her mobile device. Most of it works fine, but she finds it hard to navigate older conversations, or pick up in the middle of something that’s been going on for a while. (She misses the days of email lists, when you knew where you left off.)

Heath knows Dandelion from their first job together. Dandelion’s posts are fine, but the comments are a different story – there can be aggressive, bigotted, dismissive comments that are about things Heath cares about a lot. Some of them are about groups Heath is a part of (and that Elder knows about). Others are about things Heath hasn’t shared with Elder.

Heath worries about pulling back from Dandelion will mean losing contact with other people they know through the same places as Dandelion. But every time Heath opens their feed in that platform, they never know what might hit them in the face.

And all of these people might actually be using the same platform or tool – just in very different ways.

What does this mean?

Well, it means that the tools and features that work for one person may not matter to someone else. Sometimes it’s just that a feature doesn’t do much for someone’s use – some people don’t post a lot of photos, but the fact others can post them isn’t a big bother. Some features are more complicated, though.

If you can tag people in a photo, what happens if a person doesn’t want to be tagged? Sometimes that’s not just because of a stalking situation. It can be because they have a public-facing job (more than one public school teacher has been fired from a job for a photo at a party where there is entirely legal adult drinking.)

There may be issues with privacy. People with chronic health issues may not want their employers (current or potential future ones) to find that information online. People who are part of non-visible minority communities (like religion or interests) may not want to make some things available where others who know them from other parts of their life (again, work…) can find it. Even just connecting to people they know through those interests and communities can make the interest a lot more obvious. (This is called social mapping.)

And sometimes it’s just exhausting. A diverse reading community is great in some ways, but without methods (both technical and social) for dealing with unacceptable posts, some people are going to end up feeling whacked on the head by awful things on a regular basis.

Design

A lot of how we use a particular tool is influenced by the design. Some social media spaces are designed to favour lots of short quick comments, but are very hard to navigate to find longer thoughtful commentary. (And often, you have to know it’s there before you have a chance of finding it.)

Facebook, for example, is notorious for favouring posts with a lot of interaction (which means longer posts that fewer people respond to drop out of sight faster), and even for posts with a lot of interaction, their algorithms decide what you get shown.

Compare that with a site like Dreamwidth (or using an RSS reader) where you get all the posts you have said you want to read that you have permission to read, in reverse chronological order unless someone has made deliberate decisions otherwise.

Culture

Then there’s the other thing, which is cultural. People on the internet develop habits and senses of etiquette that often derive from the previous tools they’ve been using, mixed with the spaces they’re in, and what makes sense for those spaces. People or communities with a different background may find a lot of approaches baffling for other communities.

Let’s start with an easy one. Once up on a time, most email clients were designed so that you would quote the message you’d gotten, and then reply to each section you had a comment about (it might be a line, it might be a paragraph, occasionally more.) Then Microsoft Outlook and a few other software tools changed to place the cursor at the top of the reply (before any of the quoted text) and it trained multiple generations of people new to email that you replied by putting the new stuff at the top of the message.

(This produces very long chains of emails, where the old version just included the stuff that was directly relevant, so it was also a response to increasing bandwidth and download speeds. Text is very small, comparatively, but really long email chains took a long time back in the dawn of dialup.)

Different groups using the same social media tools develop their own customs. In some places, tagging is absolute – on Tumblr it might be a way to express your own commentary on the post without cluttering up the post. On Facebook it might be a way to include people in the conversation who are relevant.

But people from other Internet spaces (whose main use has been in other spaces on the same platform) might feel that adding long strings of tags is baffling and confusing, or that tagging people is inviting them to join the conversation, and maybe they want to talk about a situation without necessarily engaging directly with that person.

(There are obviously complexities to talking about people where they aren’t aware of it, but that’s an etiquette and communication issue as well as an internet culture one. And there are plenty of legitimate situations where one might want to talk about an issue to sort out pieces of it. though ideally not in public!)

Different social communities also have different approaches to things like anon memes, snarky commentary, newbies to the community space, and how to communicate about people who have been difficult (or abusive) members of the community in the past.

None of these are simple to sort out – and often, the different uses can be rather opaque to people not in those particular communities or familiar with at least some of the history. That doesn’t mean those experiences aren’t real. It does mean that if you’re entering a different topic space, or community, you probably want to take some time to figure out how to work.

Back in the days when forums and email lists abounded, I used to recommend reading for two weeks (or reading back over two weeks of posts) before posting much. It wouldn’t avoid every problem, but two weeks is often enough to get a sense of active participants, the topics that come up all the time, and usually how the community deals with an annoying or challenging conversation or two.

On modern social media, that can be a lot harder to do (see also sites and platforms that make it hard to even figure out what the last two weeks of posts were or what’s new.)

Whatever method you choose, simply remembering that there are many internets, and they overlap and interconnect in complex ways will stand you in excellent stead. If something seems a bit weird, take a step back, and ask if there might be a reason you’re not aware of. (And then ask yourself what you want to do with that.)

Books

A hidden bookcase opens out, revealing a room behind. The bookshelves are full of leather-bound books.The question of getting rid of books is a very delicate one.

If you’ve been on certain parts of the Internet recently, you may have noticed backlash against Marie Kondo. (People argue she said you should get rid of all your books. She’s said she keeps about 30, but other numbers are totally fine, as long as they’re evoking joy for you.)

Now, I just moved apartments. Moving books is not a joy, even if the books themselves are. Even if you have movers. My books are now all on shelves again, and in the process I found four boxes full of books that really could find other homes now. So it’s time for me to talk again about keeping books, not keeping books, and some ways to think about that might be helpful.

Some things about me

Since I graduated from college in 1998 and moved into my first apartment, I have moved 8 times. Three of those moves have been long distance (Massachusetts to Minnesota, Minnesota to Maine, Maine to Massachusetts). The others have been within the same town or metro region.

I also like books. I like the physical objects. I like the information that’s in them. I have some tastes in reading (and in research) that aren’t easily supported by almost any libraries.

And I am still pretty much at ‘do I need this exact physical book’ these days. Because moving books is a pain.

That means that any book I hang on to for an extended period has to earn its keep somehow.

Know thyself

(said the oracle at Delphi, and many other people since.)

That means the self you are now (or at least recently, the last year or three). Not the self you were when you were five. Or the self you were ten years ago. Or the self you might in ten years. A little bit of reflection can help you figure out what books are really bringing you joy.

Here’s what I know about myself right now.

I’m living in a new space. The old place, I spent 95% of my time in the bedroom. My computer is still in my bedroom, but my living room is a lovely size and gets gorgeous light (even in a rather barren sort of January where it’s all leaves and bare branches). It’s a space I’d like to spend more time in regularly, not just when I have friends over. (And in the summer, it’s got an air conditioner.)

Most of my general reading is now on ebook. (Not only are they easy to move, but I can carry 800 books plus a bunch of fanfic in my pocket. As someone who reads fast, used to have to pack suitcases for trips that were half books and half clothes to have anywhere near enough to read, and who loves never having to do the “Will I run out of book while out of the house? What should I bring with me, no that’s a pain to carry, what else?” maths anymore, ebooks are great.

But I still get certain subsets of topics in print.

In the old apartment, I had a bathtub (the new place only has a shower. It is hard to read in the shower. The books get soaked.) So the stack of books I kept for purposes of reading in the bathtub is no longer necessary. And some copies really were falling to pieces and can now be replaced by ebooks when I want to read them again.

What books do I want in print?

Your list will be different from my list. I want to be really clear about that up front. Keep as many books as are meaningful or make you happy.

That said, here’s how I make the decisions currently.

1) Is this a book I want to share with other people?

I get most of my Pagan books in print, because I want to be able to pull them out and share with people (students of witchcraft and coven or group members). That’s hard to do with an ebook. Many of these are not necessarily books I read back to front, but they’re books I want to keep for reference for one reason or another.

2) Is this a book that makes more sense in print?

Cookbooks and herbalism books are much better in print, for me – they’re easier to browse and rummage through for the specific information I want. I’ve also got a few old collect books (mostly my Arthurian Legends materials) that would be expensive to replace in other formats, and where the linear nature of the print book is actually really appealing to me.

3) Sentimental value

I have a place on my shelves for books that are sentimental choices for me. A selection of my father’s books (he wrote over 30), a few particularly favourite editions of children’s books. But this move, I finally got rid of many of the British School stories I grew up on, keeping just a representative sampling of a few of my particular favourites.

4) Can I get this from other sources?

One of the challenges for my Pagan materials is that while many of them are available through various sources (currently in print or used), most of the ones I care about aren’t available through the library system.

This is because of the way libraries order books, and which review sources they mostly rely on, and the fact almost no public library is going to have really extensive resources in a specialised topic (just like they probably don’t have every book ever about really specialised fiber arts skills.)

Because the answer to ‘can I get this if I need it’ is trickier, that’s the other reason I’m more inclined to keep the Pagan materials..

How do these items relate?

My last question comes back to something we talked about repeatedly in one of my Master’s of Library and information Science classes, the one on collection development. Roughly speaking, collection development (aka collection management) is about how you decide what books you add to the collection, what books you replace in the collection (if/when they get worn out or go missing) and what books you eventually remove from the collection.

(When I am being flip, I sometimes refer to it as “buying books with other people’s money” which is also true, but most collections are not just books!)

The thing that stuck with me, however, was our professor talking about the idea of books being in relationship to each other as what makes the collection. Even in libraries with similar demographics and collections, different libraries will develop different feels based on hundreds or thousands of choices over time. That’s a fascinating and wonderful thing when it works well.

A public library has a responsibility to recognise and offer materials for the entire public they serve, and school and academic libraries need to first and foremost support the course-related projects and the needs of their students related to learning. (And special libraries – that is, libriares that aren’t one of those three – need to support the needs of their users for the reason the library exists.)

But when we’re talking about our personal libraries, we can and should make choices that make those libraries ours. Not the books we ought to read because they got good reviews, or the books we meant to read five years ago, or the book that a well-meaning relative who remembered we like books but not which books gave us.

Make your collection the books that make you light up and grin, or sit down on the floor and browse. The ones that make you want to engage with them in some way, whether that’s curling up with them or ranting about them to your best friend. And that’s where Marie Kondo’s ‘spark joy’ comes in. Keep the books you care about, whatever that means to you. If you don’t have a connection to it you want to keep, then think about finding it a new home.

How else does this apply?

I am very close to dumping all my saved Instapaper bookmarks and Pinboard bookmarks into an export file, and starting fresh, on the theory that if I really need something I can rummage in the export file. Very very close. Also clearing out and archiving some of my ebooks.

I’ve seen people talk about KonMaring their open tabs. (Do they really want to read the thing that’s been sitting there for a week? Or is it open because they feel they ought to read it?

Sometimes having many tabs open is legitimate. Sometimes it’s about being stalled on doing anything with any of them. That’s not a great feeling for most of us, right? So maybe we can try having less of that feeling. Does that feel better?

I think being openminded about it, and taking time to look at what works for you now – not the you of five years ago, or the you five years in the future.

Obviously, some things will have long-term consequences, but in other cases, it can help to realise we don’t need to hold onto the physical book to remember it fondly, or take away the pieces that were useful.

Ongoing learning

I’m writing this just after New Year’s, which is a time when a lot of people start to think about improving themselves or learning something new (along with wanting to pick up new habits). So for today, I want to talk about how I structure ongoing learning, and some things that help.

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

Professional development

A lot of my approach to this is shaped by my professional education. I’m a librarian, and I’ve worked both in K-12 schools and in a university (as well as my current place). In both those environments (as well as librarianship in general), it’s expected that part of your job is to continue learning – it’s often an expected part of the discussion at your annual reviews!

There are different ways to do this. They can include:

  • Membership in professional organizations.
  • Attending conferences, workshops, or other educational events (often organised by those professional organizations).
  • Reading blogs or other informal writing from others in the field.
  • Reading formal articles or research from others in the field.
  • Finding spaces to talk to others in the field, both formally and informally. (Sometimes at conferences, sometimes online.)

As a librarian, I currently have a membership in the appropriate professional organisation (at my current job, that’s the Special Libraries Association). I read the email digests as they come in, and an email list for people in an associated field. (Historical information in that field is relevant to me, and sometime I can sometimes help with, but 90% of the content isn’t relevant to what I do.)

I hang out in an internet space with other librarians (from all kinds of libraries) and often pick up really cool resources there. I keep an eye out for useful articles (both formal and informal) and I read a bunch of librarian blogs (and newsletters.)

I don’t go to as many conferences as I used to, because they’re less relevant for my current job but I do get to see people in our specific (very specific) field occasionally and I’ve collaborated on some projects in the past.

Witchy things

So how does that transfer into my witchy life? Right now, I…

Take in a variety of sources

Specifically blogs and newsletters (and listen to a few podcasts) by people with a variety of backgrounds and interests.

One part of this is exploring my own interests – for example, right now, I’m reading a range of astrology blogs because one of the things I’m focusing on learning is astrology, and it’s useful to see how different people approach the same basic information.

But I also make a point of including a range of resources for other reasons – I want to be aware of current issues, conversations, and general trends in the community around me. I don’t think that’s essential for a solitary practitioner, but I think some sense of broader awareness is important for anyone who’s teaching or presenting material to a larger audience. (And I do both: I have current students working toward possible initiation and I write for Seeking, as well as my own forum posts.)

Read books.

This is, of course, a classic option – and these days there are more and more books about specific topics within Paganism, witchcraft, magic, and ritual coming out every day. (My book budget – both time and money -can’t keep up with all the things I want to read!)

Think about what you’ve got time for in your life

And how you learn best. Some topics you really do need to have material in front of you. (For example, it’s hard to keep an entire astrology chart in your head. Some parts of astrology lend themselves to podcasts, but others, like chart interpretation, you probably want a book or online site.) When do you have time for learning? If you have young kids at home, podcasts or videos may be hard to get time for – but if you’ve got a long commute, a podcast might be just the thing.

Take advantage of online workshops and courses.

Of course, you have to find ones that have worthwhile material, but they’re out there. Ask around among people you know, or look for detailed reviews or comments. A lot of the more reputable options will give you some good ways to understand the material and how they teach (such as a sample intro lesson, an active blog with a fair bit of content, and/or detailed descriptions and examples of what’s in the course material.)

Courses can run from a week or so, to a month or six weeks, to a year. Obviously, longer courses tend to cost more. (Shorter courses or online workshops can be a good way to check out a teacher you’re interested in taking something longer from, though! And a lot of reputable teachers will make it easy for you to figure out if there’s a decent fit.)

My usual plan with courses (or anything more than the cost of a regular book) is to think carefully in advance about what I’m hoping to get out of it. What is being offered? How does that fit in with my goals? That’s even more true if there’s a significant commitment of time and/or money.

Build networks of people with related interests.

You don’t have to share all the same interests – just have some overlap. If you’re looking for a new resource, or checking out a possible course, or trying to figure out what material would help with a particular question, that network can be really powerful and helpful. It doesn’t need to be a big thing. Finding community spaces (online or offline, as works for you), sharing a little bit about yourself that’s relevant to that place, and offering other people ideas all help a lot.

Use the other tools at your disposal.

If your physical world options aren’t getting you traction, try asking your divination tools, focusing on what you need in meditation, or doing a ritual around finding the next step.

I have a meditation I do and have shared with people in person that is about visiting the Great Library on the astral, and wandering around looking for sources that will help with a particular need. It’s been really good for breaking through a logjam in research or in figuring out what my next step in a project is.

Other options

These are just a few of the possibilities. Don’t feel you need to try all of them – pick one or two to explore, or make a commitment to spending a little more time with the ones that you’re already enjoying. Even a little more time every week will add up over the course of the year.

Evaluating sites

For those who pay attention to certain corners of the internet, December brought another major upheaval. Beginning on December 17th, Tumblr made a major turn in how they intended to handle certain kinds of content (and among other issues, applied a computer-driven algorithm to figure out what was banned and what wasn’t. Dear Internet, our AI is not actually that good yet.)

This means it’s time for another in the periodic posts I am inclined to make about how to learn about resources.

I have been around the Internet for approaching 25 years (basically, since I got to college in the fall of 1994, so in 9 months or so, I will have a party.) It was the dawn of time, when having webpage backgrounds some colour other than pale gray was new and exciting. Since then, internet sites have risen and fallen, come and gone.

It makes a person (well, a person like me) cautious about who has that information and what they want to do with it.

A word about my experience: I’ve been on various sites as an active participant since 1999 or so (and Usenet and mailing lists before that). My primary online homes have been LiveJournal, Dreamwidth (the current), an online Pagan forum (also current), and I dabble in Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and various others as relevant . I’ve been staff on the Pagan forum for a couple of years now, and I spent 18 months (in 2003 and the first half of 2004) as a volunteer on the LiveJournal Terms of Service Team, back when online sites were still figuring out a lot about the basic categories of what users will try and do on online sites (both in the positive sense, and in the ‘what can we get away with’ sense.)

Who is the customer?

One of the first things to know about a site is who the customer is. On sites with advertising, that’s not you. That’s the people who want to sell ads. This brings a whole set of choices to a site, many of which are complex to negotiate, and often don’t come off in favour of the people who are producing content. In fact they don’t want to show ads to you – they want you to create stuff that makes people read your stuff, so they can show ads to your readers. And learn about your readers, so they can show them more ads.

Years ago, Denise Paolucci wrote a series of three posts about why monetizing social media content through advertising was doomed to failure. (Part onepart two, and part three). I thought she was right then, and I still think she’s right.

(Disclaimer and context: those three posts were made while Dreamwidth, a project and company she co-founded, were in beta development but before it was open for more than a handful of test accounts.

Dreamwidth makes its operating costs from paid accounts which come with benefits from a small percentage of users – most accounts on the service are free, and they built the budget assuming that. To be utterly clear, I give them money every six months for a premium account, and not just because I believe in feeding D’s cats.

Basically, if the site is built for investors, or using venture capital, there is a very very good chance that you (the individual user) are not the customer, you are the product. You may decide you’re okay with that, but I believe it’s important to understand what that means. And most sites in this category go out of their way not to tell you.

Experience

What kind of experience do the people running the site have? A lot of people who start sites have a surprisingly limited experience of how other people use the tools they’re using (and therefore might want to use the tools they’re creating…)

There are lot of things that come up for sites that have user-created content (as opposed to say, articles that go through editors and an editorial/publication process first. End users on sites will come up with all sorts of ways to use them, many of which the people designing the site may not have anticipated. There are a few basic categories that seem to be constant, though:

The internet is for cat pictures: roughly speaking, the longer a given site is around, the more people will want to use it for pictures of their cats, their dogs, their kids, and various other animals and beings in their life. Some of these have more privacy issues than others. A well-planned site will be thinking about how to handle this.

(Also, if you have not already read Naomi Kritzer’s award-winning Cat Pictures, Please, I recommend it.)

The internet is for porn: A special category of ‘beings’, these uses obviously bring a lot of legal issues with them, both in terms of what is legal to display, to which users, in which countries, and in terms of whether it’s okay to post things on that site.

Defining porn is notoriously difficult: how do you create a policy that understands the difference between porn, breastfeeding, classical and fine arts, and different kinds of bodies? The current AI, for example, seems to be rather biased about skin colour, because of the material used for training. What’s the difference between drawn materials and photographs or videos? What’s different about text? (The law handles these things differently, so site policy probably needs to take all of them into account, unless a site is text only.)

The trick is that people are endlessly creative in this area, so a site needs to have a good way to think through the issues (and what’s allowed by their hosts, payment processors, and other external forces) and how they’re going to communicate that to their users and enforce whatever rules are in place.

The internet contains people. Not all of them are well-meaning. A site that isn’t thinking about the issues of harassment, stalking, privacy violations, etc. is probably not a site you want to be around much.

A thoughtful site policy will need to figure out what kinds of privacy violations they act on (is posting a legal name, address, or contact information a violation? What if it’s truly public information, widely available online? Is it okay if someone posts their own information, but not okay if there’s incitement to harass someone?) How do you give users control over who sees their comments, who can access their space or comment in it? What do you do about accounts designed to impersonate or harass someone?)

Sites make all sorts of choices about what tools and options they provide – and these lead to different options about how to deal with harassment, or even just irritation.

Periodically the Internet blows up. If a given site is setting itself up as an alternative to a particular option (filling a specific kind of niche or type of use), then they should be planning ahead for what happens if the dominant player(s) in that part of the Internet have highly public issues.

Can they take on new users? Can new users figure out how to use them? Will the servers hold up? Sites that aren’t thinking about this (even if the game plan is “We are staggering new users this way, here’s how that works…”) are going to struggle with a lot of other things.

What kind of financial planning has happened?

And how transparent is the site? Some sites start as a passion, built by one person or a few people, then slowly adding more people. They may rely heavily on volunteers (this has some complexity, but can work really well if the site understands how to support and train volunteers). Other sites start as an idea, get funded by venture capital, and can add staff quickly. Others are somewhere in between.

Total transparency isn’t necessary (or realistic) but you want a sense of how many people are working on the project, what happens if some key person isn’t available for an extended period, etc.

Here’s the thing: programmer salaries in the United States are expensive. So is health insurance. Sites often need other employees than programmers (sooner than later, anyway.) Servers and bandwidth are cheaper than they used to be, but running a large site still has significant ongoing expenses. A site that doesn’t have a good plan for meaningful ongoing funding is going to have problems.

(There are a lot of different ways to handle this, but a lot of failed sites have seriously underpriced a lifetime membership, or assumed that advertising will make up the rest, or – well, there are a bunch of failure modes. There are also some long-term successful options, and they don’t necessarily have to cost a lot of money.

Metafilter, for example, runs on a small fee for account registration, and then asking people to donate as well as some advertising shown to non-members. Dreamwidth assumes that a small percentage of people will have paid accounts, and based their pricing on that assumption, with extra fees for some fun but not essential tools like more icons.

If you can’t figure out the funding plans, that’s probably coming from you, and it’s probably based on other people benefiting from your content, possibly in ways you will not like in the long run.

What are you committing to?

There are two big risks with a site that’s badly run, and they both come down to the same thing: can you get your data and content (including connections to other people) out easily, on short notice, and without needing their services to be robust?

Sometimes badly run sites will make a policy change (usually on short notice at a horrible time for you) and you will need to decide what you’re doing about that with not a lot of time.)

That’s a really bad time to realise you have a lot of information (your writing, your art, your comments, your journals, your connections with other people) you can’t get out. It’s a good habit to figure out backup options anyway, but it’s especially important with a site that might make sudden changes or hit financial difficulties without warning. Such as sites that have been sold to new owners, or just hit prominence in the news.

(That’s the other reason to be cautious: a site having financial trouble may announce a planned shutdown, but sometimes things just disappear.)

A well-run site (that understands how the history of sites have gone) will give you ways to export your content, or make it clear what can be saved and how. They’ll be up front about portability or cross-posting or other tools (you may have to look at help information: sites with lots of features can feel overwhelming). And they’ll communicate with you when there are problems about what’s going on, in some form other than a brief error message or a purely-PR-speak statement.

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.