Reference questions: why I love being a librarian

I adore the puzzle of helping someone find information that makes their life better. Also great is the chance to help someone learn skills that mean they can do it themselves. If that’s the thing that’s helpful. (Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes people just want the information, because they’re overwhelmed with other things in their life. It’s part of my job to figure that out, or figure out how to ask in a way that works out.)

Here’s how I got there.

Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom: Research help for esoteric and eclectic topics. Consulting, courses, resource blog. Jenett Silver : http://seekknowledgefindwisdom.com

I’ve had two conversations this week about how much I love my day job.

(One with my mother, who’s back in my area helping a friend, and one with my boss, because it was my annual review today).

The reasons I love my day job are also the reasons I started Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom.

My last library job, I didn’t get a lot of chances to answer reference questions – I was usually on shifts where we just didn’t get as many. I was also doing other library tasks that meant I got fewer through class liaison relationships or other interactions.

(Reference is the library term for “People ask us questions and we find sources that answer their question or get them information they need for their research.”)

I’d done a lot of it at my first library job, in a high school library. I helped people find books to read. I understood them balancing high-achieving academic expectations (and parents) and a need to do something else with their brains sometimes. (Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.)

I knew they had a lot riding on some projects and research – and more than that, they were great kids who cared about doing the project well, not just getting a good grade. And sometimes, there were kids who needed a place to spend some time that wasn’t with a teacher who’d grade them or a coach with expectations. Just librarians who’d say hi, and maybe suggest a book.

My current job reminded me how much I’d missed it. Immediately. 

I overlapped with my predecessor for a couple of weeks (she was retiring) so she could get me up to speed. The second day, she threw me an interesting and complicated research question to track down. It was a question about the sculptor of a particular famous bust (well, for values of famous: it was really well known in the 1800s, much less so now) and whether there were other copies, and what else we knew about it.

It was hard to figure out what to look for, about a topic I hadn’t done a lot with. Once I dug up some of the answers (which included asking her what info we already had about it, in filing cabinets I had only just learned about), I got to answer the question.

I had to figure out how to write the response, to hit the line between friendly and not too informal, to write like the skilled professional I am, but not be stuffy. A big part of being a reference librarian is figuring out how to present the information sometimes.

It took me a lot longer than it’d take me today.

For all that was overwhelming, I loved it. I knew then that this job was going to be hard work to learn all the subject material about the main topics we focus on that was new to me . But it was going to be so much fun.

I was right. 

I get to do things like that a lot. Pretty much every day, I get to answer a question from someone where I know it’s going to make their life better or mean something to them. I know how rare that is, too, so I really appreciate it.

A bunch of the questions I get are easier than that first one.

Do we have this book? Can we get this article? Can we help with this common question? What’re the recommended books about this topic we get all the time? (We have a list. And sometimes a handout.) Someone’s just discovered a famous person associated with our school, and has questions. (Enthusiastic fourth-graders – or high schoolers – are the best.)

Some questions are a little tedious to track down, a lot of searching through lists or being systematic about where we look for obscure things.

But some questions, we’re the only people who stand a chance of answering them. Or we’re the best chance. (There are other institutions that deal with our topic, but not that many, and most of them don’t have full-time reference help. At best, there’s someone doing it along with a couple of other roles.)

Those questions, I go home feeling great when I find an answer. Or even if I know we’ve looked everywhere and come up blank.

There are lots of other great reference librarians out there.

I know some of them. I know there’s a lot more.

But I’ve been around the Pagan community for a long time (and around the SF community, and around academics, and…) And I know that there aren’t enough. That people get frustrated or overwhelmed. Some people have had lousy experience with judgy library staff, or people who told them there was only one way to do research, and that way didn’t work for hem.

Then there’s the fact that the kinds of research skills that many of us learned in school don’t always work for things like religious or spiritual research – some tools work, but others need some adjustment or people need some additional ways to apply them or evaluate what they find.

Frankly, many of the things we learned about research in school don’t always work for medical or legal or business or internet privacy and security information, either, but that’s a whole other post. Or series of posts.

Not everyone’s got a great librarian handy where they live. (Or maybe you do, but you can’t always get to the library. Or you’ve got questions about topics you don’t want to bring up at your public library, for various reasons.)

I want to give you options. 

I love what I do. I love finding information for people. And not just finding information, but figuring out which sources are more available, or better for a particular goal. I think every bit of information is giving people that much more choice, that much more freedom. It’s not my job to tell you what to do. It’s my job to help you figure out the possibilities.

And that’s why I started Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom. Reference help for esoteric and eclectic topics. It’s up to you whether that’s some Pagan or magical technique or concept or historical tidbit, or something for a fiction book you’re writing, or trying to figure out the best way to do research on a topic you want to learn about.

If I and my skills can help, I’d love the chance.

Organising a personal library: 5 ideas from Ranganathan, applied

Organising a personal library is hard. Even for librarians.

I moved here a bit over two years ago, but with one thing and another, I was busy in ways that made it hard to sort out my personal library for a long time. Since December, I’ve spent part of two vacation weeks sorting out my books, including the second week of July.

I’m delighted to say they’re all on shelves now in some semblance of order that pleases me, and entered into LibraryThing. I’ve got a bit more work to do, but I’m now at a stage where I can work on it in much smaller pieces that fit into my day to day life.

One of the things I was thinking about while I was doing this was S.R. Ranganathan, who in 1931 wrote the Five Laws of Library Science. These are like ‘laws of physics’ not ‘laws of the United States’, which is to say they’re concepts for understanding how things work or should work, so we can create practical models that work with our physical and intellectual world, not against it.

All of which makes me want to talk about organising a personal library, and how this librarian does it.

Card catalog drawers with different drawers of slightly different woods. Text reads: Personal Library: 5 ideas from Ranganathan, applied

 

Ragnathan’s Laws

One reason these are so popular is that they are stated very simply. (Though they have a lot of room for nuance and discussion.) Here they are:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his / her book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

So how do those apply to a personal library? How I apply them may be different than how you apply them, but here’s some food for thought.

1) Books are for use.

When applied to institutions, the idea behind this law is that books should be available. Ranganathan was familiar with libraries where books were chained up, could be used only after extensive application processes, or only by people who could provide certain kinds of references. That’s a very different model than most public libraries in the United States in the 21st century.

For personal libraries, I think this is a great place to apply the core Marie Kondo question – does this thing bring you joy? Is it actively useful? Or are you keeping it for other reasons?

I don’t think people should get rid of books if they don’t want to (minus actual health and safety or practical reasons like moving or moving into a much smaller apartment) but it’s definitely good to think about why we’re holding on to physical objects.

My personal library these days is about 400 print books, and over 600 ebooks. (I got rid of a lot of print when I moved from Minneapolis to Maine, for reasons that are obvious if you think about moving print books.) These days, I mostly read print in the bathtub – I’ll come back to that – and ebooks everywhere else.

Here’s what I chose to keep in print:

Books with specific sentimental value. Not just ‘a friend gave this to me’ but things where the book itself has a lot of specific resonance. 1066 and All That which I remember reading with my father. Books he wrote.

Books I want potentially want to lend (or at least let someone look through). Lending ebooks doesn’t really work (both logistically and legally). This means most of my Pagan books are in print format.

Books where the print format works better for me. A large book of illustrated stories about the constellations. Cookbooks. Herbalism books.

Books without an ebook version. For obvious reasons, since this is the only way to have that book.

Books that had an ebook version, I made notes about, and have been slowly adding titles back to my collection as my budget allows if I want to replace a copy. There are places I made exceptions (I have a complete set of Dorothy L. Sayers novels in print, because my brain wants to read them in print.)

Your decisions might be different! That’s to be expected, because I bet you use your books differently than I do.

One other part of books being for use for me is that I’m hard on the physical objects. (With a few exceptions of rare and hard to replace books that have particular value – I’ve got a first printing of the Charles Vess Book of Ballads, for example – that link describes the second printing.)

I read in the bath. I read while I’m eating. I dogear pages. (Only in my own books, all of these.) I want the books to be something I use, not something I worry about damaging. I take reasonable precautions, of course, and sometimes I have to replace a physical copy. But normally it’s the content I care about deeply, and the physical item is the way to get that.

2) Every reader their book.

In large libraries, this rule guides librarians to look at the entire community they serve when deciding what books to focus on. (Since basically no library can buy – or house – everything. It’s also a rule about not judging people by what they want to read.

Back around the turn of the 20th century, there was a significant movement in public libraries in the United States to have libraries focus on morally uplifting literature – things that would ‘improve’ the reader. If you’ve walked into a public library recently, you’ll see that’s not true these days. But librarians still argue about how much libraries should focus on books versus movies and dvds. If they should be collecting video games. If certain genres (romance, or genres tightly associated with particular communities, like urban fiction) should be part of the collection.

Individual different libraries come to different decisions about these things, and how they do that is a topic for other posts.

For me, it means that I think about what books fill out my collection. What does this book bring me that isn’t already here? “Something amusing to occupy me that’s similar to other things I’ve liked before” is a perfectly fine reason.

Knowing how a book I’m considering relates to what I already have and don’t have yet helps me make better choices. (And since I’ve always read more than my budget entirely supports, this is important!)

3) Every book its reader.

This is the flip side of the second law. This means that every book that someone wants to read has a place in the library, even if a relatively small number of people want to read it.

For me, this is a reminder in my personal library that it’s my personal library. The books that are there make sense to me, for reasons I don’t have to defend. (Though I do choose to keep my main LibraryThing account private for a variety of reasons.)

In a world where there’s often a lot of performative norming, especially on social media, this is a pretty powerful concept.

We’ve probably all seen the discussions where people are shamed because they’re reading something from a problematic author, or not just reading things from authors valued particularly by that community or group, right? And how poisonous that can get sometimes?

I definitely believe in thinking about what I’m reading and why I’m reading it. But I think that is – has to be – my own call.

Sometimes I find myself doing what I’ve come to call processing reading, where I find myself reading certain kinds of stories, for an extended period of time, as I try to work through particular emotions or reactions or situations. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious why I’m stuck on a thing, but sometimes it isn’t. (And often, during my witchcraft training, this would happen and it would take me months to figure out what my subconscious was working on!)

Letting other people control what goes into my head has never worked well for me. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Especially for something as personal as reading.

4) Save the time of the reader.

Applied to larger libraries, this has to do with things like signs and catalogs and information about how to find books.

In my personal library, I come back to “When I want to find this book, where am I going to look for it?”

I normally group my physical books by genre and subgenre because those are the things I’m most likely to remember about a book or want to look for a book by. Here’s some examples of my current shelving:

  • Stars : astronomy and astrology, because I have some books that are about both.
  • Ritual technology : magical and ritual techniques – though not ‘how to write a ritual itself’
  • Rituals : which is the shelf for collections of ritual works, and larger ritual structure discussion.
  • Fantasy – historical : my classification for fantasy in mostly historical settings.
  • Anthologies : because they tend to be cross-genre but I’ll remember that it’s an anthology.
  • Embodied life : books about being in a physical body, with all its quirks. (Cleaning, health, exercise, etc.)

In my current shelving, I also thought about making sure the books I’m likely to want to grab most easily are convenient for that – my cooking books are in the shelf nearest the kitchen (on the other side of the wall in the living room), and in my bedroom the physical copies I keep but don’t read often are in the bit of shelving that I have to move something to get to.

5) The library is a growing organism.

This last law is about remembering the world changes, and we should adapt with it. In libraries, the approaches (and books, and materials) that were great 20 years ago are no longer sufficient. We’ve got new technology, different needs, communities the libraries in are changing.

In my personal library, it’s a reminder that this book that was hugely meaningful ten years and two moves ago might not be a thing I need to hang onto forever. It’s a reminder that a book that I love can have some serious flaws (and that means some things about whether I should recommend it to others). It means I should look at what I’m doing periodically with my books (and other sources of information) and make sure that’s still working for me.

And on a practical level, it means I should think about how much space I have for shelving, and what I’m going to do about that. In my current apartment, I have a bit of expansion space, possibly, but in other places shelf space has been so limited that I definitely had to watch how many print books I brought home. Some people have a “One book in, I have to get rid of another.” (Yet another reason I love ebooks.)

What does it all mean?

There are hundreds of different ways to look at organising a personal library, whether we’re talking about print books, or ebooks, or videos, or bookmarks, or podcasts, or any of the many other possible formats. Having a guide like Ranganathan’s laws helps me remember what really matters most when I’m making decisions.

It’s not a quick and simple checklist (I’m working on one to help people with these questions!) On the other hand, five rules are pretty easy to pin up and put somewhere obvious.

How do you apply these concepts in your own library? Leave a comment, use my contact form, suggest what you do on Twitter.

Transcribing magical texts (and an intro to digital archives)

Image of a large old-fashioned library of dark wood with a high arched ceiling. Text on image reads: "going digital : transcribing archival materials"

Transcribing magical texts

If you’re me, about half a dozen people mentioned an article from Atlas Obscura about a project transcribing magical texts for the Newberry Library in Chicago. (And then most of them followed it up with this being how movie plots get started and/or Buffy the Vampire Slayer references. I find the predictability of my people very reassuring, honestly.)

The project is interesting in itself (and the Esoteric Archives project it links to has a ton of historical materials about magic and related topics.)

But above and beyond the content, I’m always delighted to see interesting catchy articles that talk about the amazing things going on in archives these days.

Bonus tip: Atlas Obscura is a long-running website that highlights quirky or interesting history. They started as a tiny little two person blog back when, but in the past year or so they’ve started doing longer detailed pieces, many of which are fantastic intros to new resources and hidden gems.

A brief pause for a technical note

Here is where I should note that I’m a librarian, not an archivist: there’s overlap between the two, and we share the same professional degree. But the trained archivists I work with have a whole lot of training on topics like preservation, and digitization, and how you label archives materials that I don’t have.

That said, I work really closely with our archivist, and I’m very grateful she exists, because she knows all this important stuff I don’t know. (And she’s glad I exist, because mostly she’d rather work with the materials than answer reference questions, and I consider reference questions the most fun thing ever, even the ones I’ve basically answered a dozen times before.)

Here’s what I didn’t really know before I got my current job two years ago, and started working a lot more closely with an archivist:

  1. There are all sorts of tools for making materials available. Ok, I knew this part. Just not the rest of the details.
  2. Some of them are things you might use as an individual (like Flickr) but there are other tools that make digitizing entire books feasible in a very short period of time, compared to what it used to be (scanning or photographing each page.)
  3. The Internet Archive (and some other places, but many archives use the Internet Archive for a variety of reasons) makes it easy to upload entire books (that we can do this with, so things out of copyright and/or things an institution can give permission to make available.)
  4. For books with print text, they also do optical character recognition on the test, producing a machine-readable and machine-searchable copy of the text. This text isn’t perfect, but it works pretty well for many common uses.

To give you a sense of what this means, my predecessor had a painstakingly indexed list of all student names mentioned in our annual reports. Done by hand, over months, and it only has the students, so finding information about teachers or staff or other kinds of people associated with the school was overwhelming to search.

I can, with about 15 mouseclicks and keystrokes, load a volume of our annual reports, search across multiple years for a given name, and then click to the places where it’s been found. It takes maybe two minutes, depending on how quickly pages load.

Handwriting is hard.

Here’s the thing. Computers are pretty good at figuring out printed text. But they’re really lousy at handwriting. Especially any handwriting that is at all quirky. (Like your average Renaissance manuscript.)

That means that for handwritten manuscripts, you can make the images available fairly easily, but that’s not always a lot of help to researchers – it can be very time consuming to figure out what’s there (and if it’s worth the effort to spend more time on it), and of course, not everyone has the skills to read various forms of handwriting. (The term for this is paleography, and it’s something historians often learn as part of their degree and education.)

Also, some of these people had truly horrendous handwriting for their time period.

(At work we have a 20th century collection that includes handwritten notes from someone associated with a major historical figure whose handwriting has baffled at least half a dozen researchers. We currently have a couple of volunteers who are the world’s experts in deciphering this particular person’s handwriting, and we’re really sure the transcriptions they’re working on are going to reveal new and interesting information people do actually care about. Plus a lot of other random things like what the dogs and garden were up to – we’re mostly not transcribing those.)

Finally, of course, untranscribed or undescribed images aren’t accessible. They’re not available to people with visual impairments, and they can be tremendously hard to access for people with learning differences like dyslexia. Or just plain people who struggle with other people’s handwriting.

Want to transcribe things?

There’s probably a project out there for you. If you don’t want to transcribe these magical manuscripts, check out the Smithsonian Digital Volunteer program (which has people transcribing field notes, manuscripts, and related topics) or the National Archives Citizen Archivist project (documents in the US national archives collections) or there’s a long list from the Folger Library of other projects over here.

What’s particularly cool about this is that you don’t need to be anywhere near the collection, and you can do as much or as little as you like. You usually don’t get to choose your topic, but if you’ve got a particular passion (and can commit a bit of time) try contacting an archive that deals with your topic and asking if they need help. They may not have a snazzy online set up to do it yet, but they might be delighted to send you images and ask for a text transcription.

A long-extinct plant

Basket of carrots, radishes and a lonely bulb of fennel at a market. Text on image reads: Searching, finding a mysterious plant

Today’s resource

I’m a big fan of the Search/Research blog, by Dan Russell for improving my search skills. (He works at Google, but this is a side project).

He posts challenges with a question (and people reply in the comments with thoughts) and then a week or so later, he posts the results, so you can see how he did something and learn a bit along the way.

He just tackled a favourite topic of mine, a long-extinct plant that, as he says was “something so valuable that it was depicted on ancient coins as an emblem of wealth.”

I knew immediately what he was talking about (this is a thing that happens to me a lot: I am a magpie of random bits of knowledge) which is one way to figure out an answer but I loved seeing how people sorted out searching for this.

Here’s his original challenge post, and here’s the answer with additional search tips.

Additional observations

He mentions that “Roman extinct plant” doesn’t pull up the list of People Also Ask for him, but it did for me when I tried it just now. Nice example of either how the filter bubble affects things, or the effect of people searching on this topic as a result of his posts. Hard to tell which!

Screenshot depicting results for a search "Roman extinct plant" as described in surrounding text.

Unreliable narrators:

I also really love Dan calling out that historical sources aren’t always reliable. Especially about medicine. Or science. Or, come to that, a number of other topics.

Pliny the Elder is a great example: he did a lot of writing about things that are useful because they survived when other historical medical and natural history writing didn’t. But he’s not the most reliable source for actual useful information.

If you want to know more about Pliny, the podcast Sawbones did an episode all about Pliny in 2016. He keeps coming up in their discussions of medical history, again, because a lot of his material survived when other people’s didn’t. They provide tons of reasons his medical advice is not something you should be following.

PS

The image for this post has one lonely fennel bulb, which is in the same family as Silphium. I thought that rather appropriate.