Looking Ahead to Research : part 4

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

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

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

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

Rocks at the edge of the sea, at twilight.

Goal 1: Learn more about astrology

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

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

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

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

What do I already know about the subject?

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

What are my limitations and resources?

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

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

Framing my goal

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

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

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

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

Goal 2: Recipes and food

Food is hard, sometimes.

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

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

Do I have a specific question to answer?

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

What do I already know?

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

What are my resources and limitations?

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

(Also, so many recipe bookmarks.)

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

Framing my goal

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

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

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

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


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

Looking ahead to research: part 3

Making a plan for larger projects

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

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

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


What do you want to accomplish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have a deadline?

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

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

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

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

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

Are there subgoals in your project?

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

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

Are there resources that might help?

There are so many options here. Start a list.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final part

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

One spreadsheet to rule them all : tracking 2018

Why track things like this?

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

Why another post?

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

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

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

Green leaves curling up around the word "productivity"

What changed in 2018?

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

How was my day?

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

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

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

More writing

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

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

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

More reading

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

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

Mid-length goals

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

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

Use it for other useful data

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

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

Reference lists, like my cataloging terms for LibraryThing.

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

What I don’t track

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


Seven point system, with some possible adjustments.

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Screenshot of summary page: described in text.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goals : Sheet for the mid-term planning.

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

Topics : Parking place for possible blog posts.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Data validation

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

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

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


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

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

Looking ahead to research : part 2

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

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

Which makes planning rather tricky.

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

Looking ahead to research : seekknowledgefindwisdom.com

Things to think about

Speed of access

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

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

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

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

Getting materials

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grouping similar tasks

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

Similarly, you can

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

Special situations

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

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

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

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

Tools to help

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking ahead to research : part 1 : asking questions

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

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

What’s long term?

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

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

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

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

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

Ask yourself questions

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

Here’s mine:

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

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

What time and energy do you have?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What resources do you need?

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

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

Part 2

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

Productivity roundup

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

Productivity Alchemy

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

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

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

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

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

Looking for a planner?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My tracking for 2018

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

Summary :

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

Embodied life:

Physical things, or relating to my physical body.

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

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


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


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

Type of day:

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

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


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

Additional sheets

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

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

Visiting archives and special collections

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

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

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

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

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

1) Get An Overview

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

When are they open?

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

Do you need to make an appointment?

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

Do you need to request items in advance?

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

What do you need to bring with you?

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

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

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

What might be really helpful?

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

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

Some examples of different sites

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

2) Plan Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Read Information Carefully

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

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

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

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

4) Respect the Schedule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5) Understand Why Policies Exist

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

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

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

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

Interlibrary Loan

Here’s an amazing tool you may not know about (lots of people don’t.)

If your library doesn’t have something, there’s a decent chance they have a way to get it from other libraries that do. There are some things this doesn’t work for, and I’ll talk about that in a minute.

Books. Articles. Sometimes multimedia things.

So, how does that work?

Research: Interlibrary loan (image of books on shelves with hanging lights.)

Local library consortia

These days, many public libraries in individual towns or cities are part of larger groups of libraries, like a regional library network, system, or consortium.

These libraries have agreed to make it easier to share resources. Generally, in a library network, you can:

  • Check out books from any library in the network.
  • Return books to any library in the network.
  • Use electronic resources at any library in the network.
  • Request books from other libraries in the network to be picked up at your local library (or whatever library in the network is most convenient for you.)

As you can imagine, this can be really handy. It allows libraries to run as independent entities, with their own unique personalities and focus, but also have access to a wider range of material.

Do libraries buy differently because of this?

Often, yes, but in a good way.

For example, maybe in a network of 30 libraries, they might buy 15 copies of a given title between them – and that’s what they need. If each library had to buy their own for the people in their town to use, there are 15 other books those libraries couldn’t buy.

(The actual math is a lot more complicated, of course, but you get the idea: it works really really well for items that get some use, but are not immensely popular.)

How do you search for items?

Library networks will usually make it pretty obvious on their website and catalog pages (in my local consortium, you actually do the catalog search on the consortium site, rather than the individual library sites, but other library systems have you do the search on the specific library’s site.)

Try a search out at that link, and if you click through to a specific book, you’ll see that it tells you which libraries own copies, and which of those copies is available (or how long the hold queue is.)

Where do you get the books?

If you request books that come from a different library, you can request they go to a specific location (maybe a library in the network is close to your work, or whatever), and then you pick them up from the library’s hold shelf.

A hold shelf might be behind the library desk, or there might be shelves with paper bookmarks indicating which books are yours. (For privacy reasons, this should be thing that isn’t personally identifying like your name, so people can’t just browse the shelves and go “Oh, Mary’s checking out a lot of books about cancer/divorce/other topics.” Lots of libraries use a portion of your library card number.)

How long does it take to get items from a different library?

That depends on your network, but since the libraries in the network are usually pretty close to each other physically, items usually show up in a couple of days. Many consortia have vans that go from location to location, unloading the items for that library and collecting items going to other places.

These delivery and sorting systems usually don’t run on weekends (or maybe only on Saturday) so requests that include a weekend take a bit longer.

State networks

Many states have a larger network of libraries, that function like a larger network. They don’t have the same efficiency of delivery as local library networks (and they’re covering a much larger geographic area) so they are usually a bit slower.

Usually in this case, you will need to check a separate catalog than your usual catalog. In Massachusetts, this is the Commonwealth Catalog.

These state-wide systems vary widely, because states vary widely in how well supported their library services are on a state level (let your state representatives know how you feel about this!)

Are there limits on what you can get?

In most case, there are greater restrictions on how you use items through this service.

Common restrictions include:

  • Limit on the number of items you can have out.
  • Limit on the number of active requests.
  • Limit on how long you can keep them (some systems won’t allow renewals at all, in others you have some limited options for renewal.)
  • Some formats may not be available (especially multimedia things like DVDs or audio books on disc)
  • Items in high demand may not be available. Different systems define this in a variety of ways.
  • Recently released items may not be available. (Sometimes this depends a lot on demand.)

What else should I know?

Fines or other outstanding issues with your account may also limit your options. (If paying your fines is a hardship, talk to the library they’re at: many libraries have fine waiver months or other programs that reduce or eliminate the fine in some situations.

Libraries also have policies about how to deal with items you’re sure you returned but they don’t have checked in that can result in the fine being removed from your record.

Many libraries also make exceptions for unusual circumstances like you being sure you’ve returned something, fines due to hospitalisation or housing insecurity, or other challenging life events.

Interlibrary loan

Interlibrary loan (usually called ILL) is one more step out from that. It is used for books and items you can’t get through other area networks, and it’s commonly the system used for copies of articles (such as from academic journals or other publications.)

In both cases, you’ll need to ask your local library how to get access to these materials. They may have a specific form for you to fill out or can help you get access in other ways.

(For example, many people who live, work, or go to school in Massachusetts can get access to the electronic databases that the Boston Public Library subscribes to, so you wouldn’t need ILL to get access to materials you could get through there.)

What if I want an article?

Articles are a sort of special situation. You can use ILL to get access to articles. If the article is available somewhere in a database, it will usually come pretty quickly, normally as a PDF, in your email.

(Though again, the people processing these usually work Monday to Friday, so it may take a bit longer over holidays or weekends. Or if you want something more obscure or that fewer libraries have access to.)

Sometimes the article may be missing some images or figures, depending on how the original item was digitized. If this is the case, and they’re essential to why you wanted the article, let the library you got it through know: there may be some options.

This isn’t meant to duplicate a subscription to the journal, so if you want lots of articles from the same journal within a few years of each other, your library may tell you that you need to figure out some other way to access them (like a research trip to a library that has that journal so you can look at things directly.)

This is usually less of an issue for older materials (older than about 5 years), and the library you’re working with may have good suggestions about the best way you can move forward.

A day in the life of a librarian (October 2017)

Welcome to a periodic installment of ‘day in the life’ because I figure it might be interesting to see what this looks like for a librarian. This was not quite a typical day, but it gives a good range of the kinds of things I do.

(I’m not being very specific about the content of some of the things I’m working on, both because of patron privacy and because it’d fairly quickly directly identify where I work: instead, I’m talking about the kinds of questions and projects in more general terms.)

Image: A wooded path with autumn leaves, trees arching overhead. Text reads: Librarians: Day in the life (October 2017)

A not quite typical Friday

5:15am :

Get up, do minor morning computer things, put on swimsuit and nicer work clothes on top. Make sure to pack jewelry and a nicer hair thing. (Normally, I am a knit top, knit skirt, and hair in a braid person, but we have international visitors today.)

6:00am :

Leave my apartment, drive to the fitness club where I swim. Swim from 6:25 to 7, shower, change, drive to work.

7:35 am :

Get into the library. Our library and archives assistant is working in the archives this morning (so she can be up in the library this afternoon) so I turn on the lights, unlock the stacks, and pull the cart of materials for our visiting researcher out into my office.

For the next hour, I eat breakfast, work through my email, review some pages on the intranet that we need to tidy up, and read web pages about the people who are visiting this afternoon, so I can have a better sense of their possible questions. Forward one question to other people in our institution who can probably identify the thing being asked about much more quickly.

We’re light on questions today – only the one so far. Some days, I come in to find three or four waiting.

8:45 am:

Quick bathroom break, set up our webcam for monitoring our researcher and wait for her to show up at the front desk.

We have a very small staff (me, our archivist, and a shared assistant) and visiting researchers work at a desk in my office. It’s common for archives to have limits on how materials are handled (that’s another post!), and for people using materials to be observed the entire time.

Our IT folks helped us figure out a webcam option (pointed at the work table researchers use, but we can’t see things on their screen or notes, just that they’re not mishandling materials), which means I can take a quick break (bathroom, to help someone else, etc.) with a little advance warning now.

However, there are some other limitations: there’s some kinds of work I have a much harder time doing or focusing on, and I can’t do things involving extended phone calls or going back and forth to the stacks. And I can’t have music on, and there are definitely some tasks I find easier or more pleasant with music or a podcast.

This researcher has been here for two days already, so we don’t need to cover any of the basics like how things work.

9:00 am:

Waiting for researcher to appear. Get a reply to the ‘track down this particular thing’ with a list of other people to ask, send the question off to them. Answer another email re: the library newsletter. Open most recent newsletter so I can set up this month’s version (it goes out the last week of the month.)

My researcher days involve a certain amount of ‘can’t start more complex task because I am waiting for them to show up/come back from lunch, and don’t want to get into the middle of something’

9:35 : Go to plug in my phone for music, researcher arrives. Get her settled.

9:50 am:

Get a call from our front desk: there is a walk-in visitor who’d like to visit the library. Get assistant to Skype in from downstairs to keep an eye on researcher.

It turns out to be a book jobber who buys books from various sources including library discards and resells on Amazon/eBay (she is here with a friend doing something at our institution.) We discard very few books, but I give her a chance to look at our free shelf.

10:15 am:

Get back to my desk to actually do things. Take a while to settle down again. Answer an email about shifting one of our general email addresses over to Gmail (we are at the tail end of shifting from Outlook to Gmail: I am delighted by the switch, but will be glad when everything’s in one system.)

Get an answer back about the thing this morning, remove stuff not to be shared with person who asked (a “The person who developed this is very elderly, you might be able to reach her at this email” which is the kind of thing we don’t pass on to researchers unless actually necessary.)

11:15 am:

Work on newsletter. Pause to make an accessible version of a handout I want to include in the newsletter.

The newsletter is a simple Word doc that goes up in our staff intranet. There’s a section about something the Research Library offers (this month, I’m talking about getting research articles), an Archives thing (usually a recently digitised collection) and then information about the month’s book display and a list (with some brief annotations) of new titles in the library.

12:00 pm:

Have lunch with colleagues and researcher (outside on a picnic bench: we are making the most of the last of the decent weather.)

12:30 pm:

Back at my desk, doing a few small things before my 1:00 meeting.

1:00 pm:

Meeting and tour of campus with two people (the CEO and an architect) from overseas who are doing a tour of schools and organisations like ours around the world to see best practices for specific kinds of design. They were fantastic.

(Also fantastic: the foundation that gave them a multi-million dollar grant on the condition they did such a tour. Very smart. They were learning a lot from seeing how different places did things and what was working for them best.)

3:30 pm:

Dash back from the tour just in time to let my assistant go for the weekend (since she’d been the staff member in charge of our researcher.) Grab a bottle of fizzy water because that was a lot of walking. Catch up on email that came in while I was gone, try to finish the newsletter except for pulling the new books.

3:55 pm:

Discuss interesting reference puzzle with archivist. Put interesting puzzle on to-do list for Monday, because the amount I will get done before leaving is approximately 3 minutes and a lot of frustration. See researcher back out to the main door, do a few tiny things.

(As a note, the research on Monday involved about 90 minutes of diving into the actual process by which people made sculptures in the 1840s. Who knew?! We’ve got useful answers now, though.)

4:15 pm:

Head home, via my local pharmacy for a flu shot. Get back home around 5:30 (due to the flu shot: I normally get home around 5.) Make dinner, fall over, do brainless things for the rest of the evening.

What is remembered lives: research connecting someone to their ancestors

Last spring, I did a presentation at Paganicon about research relating to ancestor work.

My full notes from that presentation (including slides) are up on my Seeking site, but I thought Samhain (at least where I am) was a good time to talk a little more about some aspects of things I brought up there.

Image saying "Research: what is remembered, lives" with a photograph of pomegranates, one whole, one sliced in half.

I’m focusing here on the complexities of history, and will come back and do an article series on academia and its research goals sometime later, but if you’re curious about that, go look at the notes from the presentation.

Why do we care?

One really good question with any research project (or really any project) is figuring out why we’re putting time into this thing, and what we hope to get out of it.

For some people, ancestor work is part of their religious practice (or at least possibly part of their religious practice). Sometimes that’s about blood relationships or relatives we knew directly.

For some of us, it can be about more distant relationships, or interests or skills we have in common, or about individuals we want to connect with for other reasons. For example, I honour a historical figure – Hypatia of Alexandria – as an ancestor of profession, in work that’s about intellectual curiousity and learning.

(This can also be a really good solution if you’d like to do ancestor work, but the ancestors whose names and identities you know are not necessarily people you’d like to interact with more, for a variety of reasons.)

Sometimes, historical research is also important for understanding the history of ideas.  My good friend, Kiya Nicoll, has been doing a lot of research about this recently as it relates to the soup that makes up the Pagan socio-cultural movement, and you can read more on her website and here’s a graphic that gives an idea how complicated some of the relationships are (you’ll want to zoom in) and one more specifically about religious witchcraft. Note that this is very much a work in progress, so things are still being edited.

So many kinds of history

One of the things that fascinates me about historical research is that there are so many more goals and desires in it and ways to approach it than just ‘write a an academic paper’. (Frankly, I think that’s often one of the least interesting ones.)

I like to say that research is a conversation with the world and with time. There are some fixed points we know about (when we know a specific thing happened, or someone did something) but there’s a lot of space around that for things that are much more varied and complex.

My history has popular non-fiction in it. It has musicals. (Hello, Hamilton) It has historical fiction, and historical mysteries, and fantasy novels modelled on historical events. It has reconstructions of food and drink and clothing. It has walking tours and public history events and podcasts and websites. It has rituals and meditations and trancework. It has family photographs and stories from the community, customs and memories.

No one of those things gives the whole picture – but different parts can illustrate different things, and let us see different aspects more clearly. Sometimes it takes designing a historical dress or pair of shoes to realise what that meant about what people did in those clothes, which things were easy and which were challenging. Sometimes looking at the food customs tells us things about what abundance felt like, and the change of seasons. Sometimes fiction lets us immerse ourselves enough in the time and place to start asking different questions or explore different issues,

My day job as a librarian is about 1/3 history by our statistics, questions about the institution I work for, people associated with it, and questions from children or grandchildren of alumni – people where the stories passed down in the family aren’t available any more, and they’re curious about the family history.

Every time we get one of those, I learn something else, because even if they ask something we hear a lot, their particular question is a little different from everyone else’s. And I learn from what they bring to their questions.

Complications in history

There are so many complications in doing history. Never mind doing it well.

Missing pieces:

Most potential sources didn’t survive for us to study. Some cultures didn’t write much down or sources didn’t survive. Some kinds of material require too much time or too many resources to use. (What gets funded is often determined by other needs than doing great history.)

Example: The Etruscans didn’t leave much written material. They have some gorgeous art, but we have to guess about what some (a lot of it…) of what it means.


All people – and all sources – have biases. Some are obvious. Many aren’t. They’re still there. Biases are often present in multiple layers of history. They affect what was recorded, when, what was preserved, what gets studied.

Example: Myths being written down after an area had become Christianised: some things may get left out or changed to fit the preferences of the majority culture. Someone studying those writings may also bring their own biases about how to translate words or ideas, or what they mean. Religious topics are perhaps particularly vulnerable to this.

No ‘right’ answer:

Good research is often more about the questions than the answers. It’s also about remembering what we don’t know and can’t find out. It can be very easy to think there’s a right or wrong answer, and it’s usually not that simple.

Example: Some of history is facts (the dates of events we can document in multiple sources), but the why and details are often a lot more about interpretation.

Different priorities:

How we do history has changed over time. Previous scholars may have ignored important things or inserted biases. We have new tools, new science, and less destructive methods of investigation.

Example 1: The excavation of Troy was done in a way that we’d never do now (hopefully!) but it destroyed the probable layer that existed during what came down through myth as the Trojan War.

Example 2: Hildegard von Bingen was a 12th century abbess and nun. She wrote some amazing works of science (and is one of the earliest authors to describe both migraines and female orgasm.) For a long time her music was ignored because it wasn’t like what other people were doing. Here’s Sequentia singing O Virga Ac Diadema.

Practical limits:

Time and money are not in infinite supply! Access, funding, tools and skills available for analysis all depend on a lot of factors researchers may not be able to control. New tech tools are great, but have costs or a learning curve. Some places are heavily affected by war and civil unrest. Confidential information may exist, but not be usable.

Example: There’s a classic core work of astronomy from the 10th century that was only translated into English in the past five years – no one had put together the language skills and interest in the topic to that degree before. The work is known as the Book of the Fixed Stars in English, and you can now read a translation for free thanks to the work of Ihsan Hafez.

Legal limits

In more recent years, a lot of information may not be available (or at least not yet).

Privacy laws affect what information is available. These include things like delays in release of census data, or laws limiting how health information educational information are shared. (In the US, that’d be HIPAA and FERPA, but European privacy laws are often much more restrictive than the US.)

Stigmatized or minority communities, conditions, or backgrounds sometimes had very little information kept, or only from some points of view…

Names are challenging

Common names or name changes can make it incredibly hard to figure out relationships.

My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Smith, and her first name was pretty common when she was alive. My maternal grandfather legally changed his name five times for complicated reasons involving assimilation into his local culture and laws changing. Both of these make it really tricky to do genealogical research that goes beyond those people.

People also often write or interact under other names – and if you don’t know those names, it can be hard to track them down.

Example: We had an example at work where a researcher suddenly realised the person she was researching had used a pseudonym for some of his writing, and there was a massive trove of articles she hadn’t looked at closely yet.

Curious about historical research?

I’d be delighted to help you figure out how to attack a historical project – it’s part of my consulting services. This can be a fairly quick round of helping you figure out where to start, what resources to check first, or it could be more involved research consulting. That’s up to you!

If you’re curious, check out my consulting page, and describe what you’re interested in.