Productivity : Spreadsheet of doom (how I do my personal tracking)

I have spreadsheets for a lot of things. (Enough that my friends tease me about them.)

The one I use most often is my personal tracking sheet. Why do I track things over time? Because it gives me a comparative sense of I’m doing.

I’ve had a rough few days, brain-wise: a grand state of exhaustion for no obvious reason and brain fog that’s making it hard to get much done. At the same time, I can look at the data and figure out if there are particular patterns.

Screenshot of tarot tracking speadsheet with statistics : text reads productivity : spreadsheet of doom

What I track right now:

Sometimes I track more, sometimes I track less. These have been pretty consistent for at least a couple of months now, sometimes much longer. (The last ones I added were sleep time and quality, which I’ve kept data on for years, but weren’t in the spreadsheet.)

  • Activity I get (and how much deliberate exercise)
  • Sleep amount and quality
  • Tarot card of the day
  • Words written
  • Productivity
  • Number of unusual days (outside my normal schedule) and days I was sick.

And then I do a summary page by week (so I can see changes over time) and by month (for larger chunks of time)

Unusual days are the number of days that were outside my ordinary schedule (so vacation, travel, etc.) and sick days are days in which I felt sick enough to not do at least some of the things I would normally do (so when I’m home sick from work, but also ‘I am getting over a horrible cold and sleeping miserably and can’t brain at all’ which took up two weeks this May. Just as a random example.)

I divide it up into different sheets: here’s what that looks like. E is exercise, T is Tarot, W is writing, S is productivity stats. Since it’s hard to show you data that isn’t very personal, here’s a list of what the sheets look like instead.

On my list to add in (probably starting in September) are astrological transits, to see if that is related to any particular pattern.

Screenshot of spreadsheet sheets (described in nearby text)

I also keep writing topic ideas and a log of things written in this sheet (since I have it open a lot and it’s easy to add things here), and then the summaries by week and month. The last sheet is data validation for the Tarot cards, and for categories for my writing topics. I prefer having that on a separate sheet for tidiness.

I used to have all the archive data on the same sheet, but found it annoying to scroll back and forth, so I separated the archival info out into its own sheet. I copy each month’s data to the archival sheet at the beginning of the new month, and update the summaries and do some additional number crunching on it. This week’s addition to that is looking at how good the day was by different categories and counting that up.

Tools I use:

Two Google Sheets spreadsheets. Why Google? So I can access them from home or work (or with some annoyances, from the iPad while travelling. Also, I like the formatting tools a lot.

One sheet has my current data (by calendar month) plus a summary. The other has archival data (previous months).

I track the information that goes into the spreadsheet in multiple apps. (The ones I use are all iOS, but equivalents exist for other phone OS)

General activity

I use Human.

This app tells me how many minutes I moved for. I add in exercise manually (since that’s usually swimming, and my phone and the pool are not friends.)

If I walk somewhere for more than 10 minutes, I manually edit the time to count that as exercise. I also have a column for activity my phone doesn’t count (mostly housecleaning, where the phone is usually on my desk while I’m doing things.)

I use my phone rather than a specific fitness gadget because the phone’s basically always on or near me, and I lost two Fitbits before I figured out that part.

Because of the chronic health issues, part of why I track activity is so that I know if I’ve had an unusually active day so I can take steps to rest, recover, and take care of myself – more activity is not necessarily better for me!

Sleep quality and amount:

I use Sleep Cycle.

This is not always the most incredibly accurate (I’ve had nights that felt pretty lousy that the stats said were pretty good, and vice versa) but it is good at catching when I actually fell asleep, and if I was up in the middle of the night and I feel like the overall trends match my experience.

It also works very reliably for me as an alarm. (I should note I’m a light sleeper, though). It can be set to wake you up in the lightest part of your sleep phase.  It will also make note of weather, heart rate (using a pulse tool with the light from your camera’s flash) and some other useful statistics.

For example, I sleep less well pretty reliably around the full moon and new moon, and sleep better between them. Perhaps more usefully my sleep quality tends to be a lot better on Friday and Saturday nights (aka the days I don’t get up early for work) which makes me more protective about scheduling them. I try to avoid scheduling things that mean I need to be up and moving at a set time (at least before about 10) now.

Tarot card:

I use the Shadowscapes deck app for my cards.

Anything that produces a card will work for this, whether that’s a deck or an app. (And if you like apps, the people who made the app for the Shadowscapes one also have a number of other decks.)

I track what cards I get over time, and find the summary of what cards came up interesting. My weekly summary does a simple count by type (Major Arcana, Swords, Wands, Cups, Pentacles), though I’ve got a more thorough card counting sheet I’ll talk about in a minute.

The Tarot card stats look like this (this screenshot has all my daily cards from January 1, 2017 until June 30, 2017. I actually find it fascinating that the suits come out almost even over time. And yet, over six months, there are some cards I’ve never pulled for a daily, and a number I’ve pulled five or six times.)

I’ll be talking about how to set up a spreadsheet like this in my next post.

Screenshot of Tarot card statistics : described later in text

Productivity:

I use Todoist, as described in the previous blog post. I then count up the number of each size of tasks, and add it to the spreadsheet.

This is just a quick slash and tally on a scrap of paper: since I divide my tasks up by size, I write K (for knut), S (for sickle) and G (for galleon) across one side, the dates down the left, and just count and tally, then add them all up. It goes very quickly for me.

Putting the task count in a spreadsheet lets me measure how productive a week was (overall) against other weeks, and figure out if there’s something that’s messing me up.

Words written:

Counted in whatever app I’m writing in (or copy and paste into a thing that will tell me) and put in the appropriate column.

I track both number of words, and number of days I wrote that week or month. My current goal is to write at least 5 days a week, and I’ve got half a dozen projects, so there’s a column for each general project. Over time, that helps me see where I’ve been doing more writing or less.

 

Fun with spreadsheets

Of course, these techniques can be applied to a lot of other topics – one of the things I learned about spreadsheets is that a lot of people use them only in the ways they’ve come across before. I hope seeing some other examples and hearing about some additional things they can do help.

Come back on Saturday for how I set up the Tarot spreadsheet!

Baffled but want a spreadsheet set up for your own personal goals? That’s the kind of thing I’d love to help with as a consulting project. (Spreadsheets like the one described above are probably under an hour’s work on my end, especially if you can explain clearly what you’re hoping for.) Get in touch from that page if you’d like to talk about the options.

Productivity : Todoist in action

One of the productivity apps I rely on most heavily is Todoist. So many things go in there, and I can use it to help me figure out what to do with my day. I talked a bit about the tools I use in my last post, but figured Todoist deserves some specific examples.

My job and my personal energy levels both mean I end up moving stuff around on my to-do list a lot. I need a system that’s okay with that, and that lets me move things (both within a given day, and between days) easily, while also accommodating a lot of “I want to do this sometime in the future, but not any time soon” goals.)

That’s a big part of why I like Todoist – it lets me rearrange without fear of losing things.

It can be really hard to figure out how to use a tool without seeing it in action. So I thought I’d give you a practical example of what this looks like for me.  The three days I include here are actually a great example. I hit “Wow, I can’t even things” rather early on Saturday, had an unexpected not-quite-nap on Sunday, and my work days always involve a certain amount of rearrangement based on what questions we actually get.

One accessibility note : I’m including a number of text-heavy images here, but I’ll explaining what’s in the screenshots in the surrounding text.

Image has screenshot of a project list along with the text "Productivity. Todoist in Action. Jenett Silver : seekknowledgefindwisdom.com

Background and layout

First, I should note that I have Todoist Premium (which costs about $30 for a year). I find the additional tagging options and filtering useful, but the thing that makes me sign up to pay them every year is the ability to link emails from Gmail as a task. Your needs may be different!

Projects and how I divide them

I divide my broad project list up into broad categories based on the planets (via their general astrological associations, and adding in the Earth for ‘I live on this planet in a physical body’ tasks.) I’ve tried different categories over the years, started with these around January, and have really been liking them. They help me keep an eye on balancing different kinds of things in my life.

Here’s what that looks like.

Screen shot of project list - described in text.

The colours are chosen based on options in the app and colours associated with those planets, with enough visual distinction to be able to pull out different options. The parentheticals are quick reminders to me of what goes where.

  • Sun (work) : Subprojects for ongoing reference questions I’m working on, reviewing and improving library practices, projects I want to keep in mind, meetings, ideas for the future, and regular tasks like timesheet approvals.
  • Mercury (writing) : Broken into specific writing projects. Each specific topic I want to write gets a task.
  • Venus (relationships) : Also tasks related to the arts that don’t fit other places.
  • Earth (practical) : I live on the earth with a physical body. Household and health tasks go here.
  • Moon (priestess) : Priestess and religious tasks, including planning and doing rituals.
  • Mars (active) : Goals I want to make extra sure I get done (often reorganisation and other home tasks that aren’t routine.)
  • Jupiter (expansion) : Things I’m learning, also my research consulting business.
  • Saturn (structure) : Tasks about getting things done (sorting files, reviewing tasks, managing schedule) but also where I put tasks that are about limits or foundations.
  • Uranus (groups) : Group activities and projects, volunteering, staffing on an online community tasks.
  • Neptune (someday) : Things I want to do sometime, but not any time soon.
  • Pluto (finances) : Reminder to update my budget app, mail my rent check, pay credit card bills, etc. Also tasks about long-term legacy (so, will, intellectual property notes, etc.)

In some cases, I just have a general reminder I want to work on that thing, and add a task related to it when I decide to work on it.

For example, for fiction writing, I add a task of “Write some fiction” on days when that’s the thing I want to write, rather than have a lot of tasks saying “write some more on this fiction project”. For articles for Seeking, I want to remember the specific topic I wanted to write about, so it gets a task. (I keep some additional notes for these in Trello, too.)

My Venus project list often doesn’t have a lot on it (or Saturn) : those tend to be things I put on at short notice and then check off, based on other events. I’ve got a regular monthly dinner with friends (and their kids), and then other things that get scheduled on a week to week basis.

Tags

While my system is roughly based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done, (more about that in a future post), I don’t actually use context as tags. I found it didn’t work well for me to keep up with them, and the project classifications and task notes give me a pretty good idea what’s involved. (I do usually tag errands.)

I use a very rough system of magnitude of task. Because it amuses me (and works better in my brain), I use the exceedingly non-decimal money system from the Harry Potter books: knuts, sickles, and galleons. (17 knuts to a sickle, and 29 sickles to a galleon.) In practice, knut tasks take me less than a minute or two, sickle tasks take me 5-15 minutes, and galleon tasks are about an hour.

I track how many of each I complete each day, and on a reasonably productive day, I average 4-5 galleons, 2-7 sickles, and a handful of knuts. My spreadsheet calculates tasks at 20 knuts to the sickle, and 10 sickles to the galleon, because I often don’t break out sickle tasks as much as I probably should, so a given task is probably 2-3 sickles.

I also have some tags for other things: focus (things that require focus to do), next (so I can pull a list of the next projects I want to work on easily), ongoing (things that I do a little bit over time), and waiting (if I’m waiting for a response from someone.)

What those task lists look like in practice

One of the things that’s hard about talking about to-do lists is figuring out how they work out in practice, so I thought having a couple of sample days would be really helpful. You’ll get both a sample of what my task lists look like for three days (Saturday, Sunday, and Monday) and also an outline of what I did when.

You’ll notice there are some things I don’t put onto my task lists.

  • Medication reminders (three times a day in 2 hour windows – I use a separate app)
  • Reading RSS feeds and other online content (I do that anyway, in an order that works for me.)
  • Watching things while doing other tasks and chatting online (again, I do that anyway.)

As you’ll see Monday, I do put swimming on my task list once I’ve done it, but that’s to help me track a “I did a thing that took a chunk of time and energy” so I can factor it into my stats for the day.

Saturday : tasks

Screenshot of my task list, starting on Saturday morning. Described in text

Here’s what my task list looked like Saturday morning. I usually do grocery shopping either Saturday or Sunday morning, depending on the rest of my weekend. I needed to write a post for this blog. I had an acupuncture appointment.

I had a couple of project tasks I wanted to do (putting notes in my astrology study file for Leo: I didn’t finish with the new moon in Leo last week, and the thing with a little email icon is an email for me to review that’s related) and prepping an outline for the free class I’m working on in detail.

I also have three tasks with upcoming dates. Two of the ones on this list are astrological: reminders of current retrogrades, with questions from Briana Saussy’s AstroRx 2017 resource. Last January I put them in, and they pop up on my todo list (long-term ones on weekends, when I can think a little more, lunar cycles on the days they happen) when appropriate. I also did a year’s Tarot reading with a reader, Theresa Reed, last year for my birthday, and put the card of the month and her summary into my todos.

My acupuncturist is a friend and husband of one of my college friends, and they live about 40 minutes drive from me. So it’s a hike to get up there – why I’m glad he’ll do an appointment on Saturday – but it’s also a mix of social time and treatment time. Here’s what my list looked like when I got back, and checked some things off, and added one (remembering I kept meaning to deposit a check via phone.)

Screenshot of my task list, Saturday afternoon. Described in text.

Did I actually do all those things? No, I did not. I started feeling out of it around 4:30, and didn’t get a lot else done, though I did add another task (making turkey burgers, which go in the freezer so I can eat them later).

This was a 4 galleon, 2 sickle, 3 knut day. The galleon tasks were reviewing my task list, grocery shopping, acupuncture, and writing that blog post.

Saturday : what happened when

  • 7:45am: Wake up. Putter. Read a bit.
  • 9 : Grocery shopping.
  • 10 : Write a blog post and do the image for it.
  • 11:15 : Get in the car, drive north for acupuncturist and friendly chat.
  • 12:15 pm : Acupuncture and social time.
  • 1:45 : Drive home.
  • 2:30 : Get home, minor puttering, have a bath.
  • 3:30 : Settle into computer, figure out what I should do next. Stare at things on the computer in a not very productive manner. Add “Make turkey burgers” to my task list, since I should do that either today or tomorrow. Eventually decide to make them now.
  • 4:15 : Finish making the turkey burgers. Sit down again. Fiddle with depositing check. Putter online (reading stuff in my RSS reader).
  • And then I hit ‘unable to do more things’ and puttered all evening. (And caught up on my RSS feeds.)
  • 10pm : went to sleep

Sunday

Here’s my list for Sunday, as it was when I started the morning.

You’ll notice that there one repeating task (my standard ‘prep things for the work day tomorrow’ task that reminds me of the specific things I usually need to think about doing.) There are the Leo note tasks I didn’t get done on Saturday. There are some routine tasks I need to do (laundry, prepping lunches for the work week.)

I woke up feeling sort of lousy, with a headache that got worse during the morning, and pretty much decided it was not a good day for an organisational task like sorting through old mail and catalogs, nor was it a great day to work on a complex resource guide, like the visual impairment and ritual access one I want to write as a sample for Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom.

Screenshot of todo list for Sunday, as it was in the morning.

It was actually a day where I got a lot of tasks done – this comes out to 6 galleons, 8 sickles, and 5 knuts. And that’s not counting a nap! It’s a long enough list I can’t actually get a useful screencap in one shot. I’m sort of startled by this, because the day definitely didn’t start out feeling productive. This is why a task list and tracking help me so much.

Sunday: What I actually did when

  • 6:30am : Wake up. (Thanks, cat.) Puttering and reading in a not-very-awake way.
  • 9 : Put laundry in, read RSS feeds.
  • 9:30 : Put laundry in the dryer, have a bath to short circuit allergy issues, have breakfast, sort my download folder and add some new music to iTunes.
  • 10:20 : Get clothing out of the dryer. More puttering trying to get my brain to go so I can do other things. Take an ibprofen for headache.
  • 11 : Work on putting notes into my astrology research (that’d be the two Leo related tasks)
  • Noon : Have lunch. Still have headache. This is annoying.
  • 12:30 pm : Pause to lie down for a bit and see if I can make the headache go away. (There was some quality supervision by the cat in this time.) Never quite nap, but lie there and read and doze.
  • 4 : Sit up again. Work on the product design outline. Finish it around 5pm.
  • 5  : Combine things into a black bean and corn salad for lunch at work this week. Eat dinner.
  • 6 : Fill my meds containers for the week, discover that the formulation of the supplement I take for migraines has changed, do a bit of spot research to see if there’s likely to be a problem with the new thing in it, determine probably not, order the new formulation, and make a note to check with my doctor at my appointment later this month. Do other small tasks (charging and swapping out podcasts on my swimming MP3 player, packing my swim bag for tomorrow.
  • 7 : Break down my astrology study project into actual well-defined tasks.
  • 8 : Work on this post, as part of my ‘write 500 words today’ project. (It was actually more like 1000.)
  • 9 : Take notes on the astrology chapters
  • 9:30 : Play silly Flash games on the computer, prepare for bed.
  • 10pm : Go to bed.

Monday:

Here’s my list of tasks before I leave the house on Monday. It’s got five coming dates, two work tasks, part of my astrology study, a reminder to work on this blog post, and a reminder to do some sorting of links in my Pinboard account.

That doesn’t seem like a lot of work tasks, does it? That’s because I mostly set my work tasks once I’m actually at work, unless there’s something that’s carrying over from a previous work day, because my day is highly dependent on what questions people have asked, and we get most questions in email.

In this case, I know in advance I have some guides to review for our museum since we’re updating the formatting, and our archivist did some updates but wanted another pair of eyes.

Task list of items from Monday before leaving for work

Here’s what the tasks I actually did look like. (Up until about 7:30pm)

They’re in order of when I checked them off (so the most recent are on the top). I forgot to add in the swimming until I was leaving (even though I swim first thing in the morning.) I don’t make that a regular task for several reasons, and put it in each time.

So, that’s 6 substantial work-related tasks (plus one I hadn’t put in yet, and one I’d forgotten to check off a while ago), swimming, five reminder notes. And then two personal projects at home, and a couple of minor home and householdy things.

How Monday went in practice:

(I should note here: I get up for work absurdly early and I am totally not a morning person by nature. But scheduling my work hours for 7:45 am to 4:15pm mean my commute is about 30-40 minutes, instead of 20+ minutes more, and I am much better about actually swimming if I do it before work. I’d much rather get up early than lose nearly an hour and gain a lot of frustration in traffic.)

  • 5:25am : Wake up, do morning necessity things, do morning-of packing stuff for work.
  • 6 : Drive to pool. Swim from 6:25 to 7. Shower and get dressed.
  • 7:30 : Arrive at work, check in with the library assistant, who was on vacation last week. Check my work email. Decide on what I’m working on this morning while we have a volunteer here. Add updating reference question statistics to my task list. (I’m way behind, which is why I’m still working on March.)
  • 8:30 : Realise that our volunteer is here Thursday (dear self, look at your work calendar). Rearrange the day a bit. Work on a “Do we have copies of this set of historical conference proceedings problem”
  • 9 : Work on email archiving project.
  • 10 : Sort the first half of March into my reference questions stats tracking.
  • 11:30 : Pause from reference stats to review museum guides and make notes.
  • 12pm : eat lunch at my desk because in the midst of the museum guides.
  • 1 : Finish the guides. Talk to my assistant. Put in a vacation day request. Skim through work mailing lists for useful bits.
  • 2 : Work on stats for the second half of March.
  • 2:30ish : Get a reference phone call that takes about 20 minutes to sort out what we can offer, and then about another 10 to write up notes for me and my assistant so we can figure out how to make it happen tomorrow. (It involves a chunk of transcription)
  • 3:30 : Finish stats for the second half of March, paste them into my stats sheet, watch my computer grind to a halt, reboot, and recover most of it.
  • 4 : Wrap up and head home.
  • 4:45 : Get home, putter, make dinner, eat dinner, putter.
  • 7:30 : Work on this post, and a few other tasks.
  • 8 : Work on the astrology notes and bookmark sorting.

No day’s quite like any other

And that’s really how it should be – I have a pretty structured life, in terms of schedule and what I do when, but there are also a lot of moving parts depending on my energy, focus, and what has priority at a particular moment.

For example, at work, reference questions get dealt with before long-term projects, most of the time.

You’ll also notice there are some fairly large gaps here where I’m not all that productive in measureable terms. And that’s okay. After extensive tracking, I’ve determined that 5-6 large tasks is a pretty good day for me most of the time (and a level of productivity I can sustain, that keeps me on top of things at work, and making steady enough progress on long-term tasks both at work and at home.)

Doing things that are useful but not immediately productive (a lot of the random online reading I do, plus self-care) also matters.

Productivity : laying out the basics

I’m a productivity geek – I love looking at different methods to get things done. This is partly because I find process geeking (figuring out how things work, and how to make them work better) fun in general, but it’s also partly because I am much happier when I keep on top of it.

My job has a number of different parts. Some of my work is reactive: I am a librarian, someone asks me a question, I answer it. (But some answers take 3 minutes and some take 3 hours, and some might turn into a 3 month project.) Some of my work is ongoing projects. Some of it is other things that come up.

And then there’s my home life – I’ve got over 300 things in various lists I’d like to write some time (those are the article length things: the book-length projects aren’t broken down that far right now.) I have ritual I want to do. I have long term research projects (and some shorter-term ones.) And I’ve got all the usual household and health appointment tasks that go with being a human with a body.

Research is about the relationship we have with information, and productivity is a subset of that.

All the task lists and todos and so on are about how we interact with our world – both our intentions and our actions. Getting a handle on them makes us better researchers – and like research, while there are some general best practices, a lot of how we work best is going to be individual.

In this post, I’m going to lay out the basics of how I do things, talk about a few other options (and why they don’t work for me, but might work for you). Someone I know is trying to figure out how to make Todoist work better for them, so my next post will be some screenshots of the specifics, both over the weekend and on Monday.

Photo of fountain pen on a lined spiral bound notebook with a blank page. Text reads: "Productivity: laying out the basics"

A few notes about me:

I am actually a naturally organised person with good executive function. Except.

Oh, except.

In 2010, my health crashed badly, including what was eventually diagnosed as thyroid issues. That did a number on my ability to sequence tasks. It was really bad for about 6 months, and then not great for about another year. I’m now back – on reasonably good days – to about 90-95% of where I was before.

But on the bad days, when my head is all cotton wool, and I forget what I was working on if I’m interrupted even briefly? I really need the help.

I got along fine without a system until 2010, or at least anything beyond a Post-It note with a few things to do. But since then, I’ve really needed a structure where I can put things, find them again, and structure what I need to get done.

My health issues also come with exhaustion and stamina issues. I have structured my life so I can go to work (and the gym) and manage the basic household stuff and still have some energy and focus for writing and personal projects and just fun things, but I have to manage it pretty carefully or bad things happen.

In 2014-2015 (due to a shift in work location), I was having serious migraine issues – basically, six months of daily migraines. Mine aren’t so much about pain, as a lot of neurological glitchiness and that included having a horrible time getting back to tasks if interrupted, short term memory glitches, and a degree of dizziness and proprioception issues that lead to a couple of scary falls and a very limited range of cooking options for safety reasons.

In the middle of that, my job was cut, with six months notice. (Yay, union contract.) I’d already been job hunting, but I had to ramp it up very quickly, and because of where I was located at the time, basically every interview involved at least 6 hours of driving and travel, often more.

My system made it so I could juggle job interviews, tasks at work I was still doing (though thankfully some of the more difficult ones dropped off my list when they cut the job), and all the many tasks of relocation to another state, and not drop any pieces (at least not too badly.) That’s pretty impressive.

My system may well not work for you – you’re not me, your head doesn’t work like mine, chances are really good your set of tasks isn’t like mine. But I really encourage finding a system that does work for you. Chances are, sometime in your life, you’re going to need more help keeping things sorted, and having a system that works will make that so much easier.

These posts are going to talk about why I’ve chosen what I do, and some options that do different things, to help you find things that work for you.

My core tools

One of the things I think gets complicated for a lot of people with productivity is that we have different kinds of tasks and they require different kinds of tools.

Technology:

I have an iPhone (the 5SE at the moment) which is in my pocket any time I’m not at home. I don’t use audio reminders because they drive me up a wall, so my phone is always on vibrate.

I use a Windows PC at work (with limited ability to add apps or make changes, which is why I’ve favoured web tool options) and a Mac at home. I had a hard drive failure in June, and got a new computer, so I’ve been rearranging things and doing a lot of tidying and reorganising as a result.

Todoist:

Todoist is my task list, and the place I put all the things I want to remember to do. (With a couple of exceptions.) I’ll be talking about how I structure my list in upcoming posts, but here are some different kinds of tasks in my lists.

  • Specific task I need to do (answer a reference question, review a file, write a blog post)
  • Things I want to do sometime (article ideas for Seeking, long-term projects, etc.)
  • Notes about things to remember (topics to discuss in my next meeting with my boss or my assistant, or mention in our next newsletter.)
  • Reminders for things on my calendar (so I remember to do them, prep for them, and can include them in the list of things I did that day).

There are lots of other approaches to task lists – I’ll be talking about bullet journaling in another post, for example. But because a lot of my task choices depend on changing circumstances or focus and energy levels, having a system where I can adjust on the fly turns out to be critical for me.

One of the paid options I use all the time is the ability to mark an email in Gmail as a Todoist task: it creates a task with a link to the email so I can click on it, open it, and answer it easily.  My basic sorting is an approach I’ve been using since January of 2017, which is based on the astrological associations of the planets. That’ll be getting its own post!

(Sometimes I intend to work on a project in the afternoon, and get a new reference question that’s going to take time. Sometimes I get home, and writing coherently is just not on the table.)

Calendar:

I use Google Calendar for personal things. Scheduled appointments live on my main calendar.

Here’s the thing, though – I often don’t remember to check it, and after missing an early morning appointment for a blood draw, I started putting appointments in Todoist for the day before, so I can remember to arrange my day for them better.

(I’ve set up Todoist to automatically pull new appointments on my calendar into a task.)

Plan:

I’ve been trying to figure out how to arrange my day better (as part of an ongoing project to make better progress on long-term projects). In the past week or two, I’ve started using a service called Plan to do this – it lets you drag and drop tasks onto a schedule so I can figure out how I’m going to put work on a larger project in my day, or balance out different kinds of things I need to get done.

This is the newest addition, but so far I’m liking it a lot.

At work:

We’re currently using Outlook, but we’re about to transition to Gmail and the associated apps.

Since a lot of my reference work comes in by email (about 75% of it), I’m really excited about being able to add these tasks to Todoist without having to do a manual quick entry and then have to go find the email.

Tools for drafts, notes, and bookmarks:

Notes that just have to live on my computer at home (and not be accessed while I’m at work) are currently in Bear, which is a beautifully designed note app for Mac OS (it has iOS versions and syncing for a small monthly fee: I haven’t done that yet because I haven’t needed it.)

Large writing projects are in Scrivener, and that will let me sync portions to SimpleNote, so I use SimpleNote’s web access for other drafts and pieces I’m working on.

Bookmarks are in Pinboard, and my books are in Calibre (ebooks) and LibraryThing (catalog that includes the print books). I’m currently in the process of cleaning up all three of those.

I’m also using a bullet journal specifically for religious tracking and some kinds of notes.

More about all of these in future posts!

A few specific apps and a spreadsheet

I have a few things I don’t track in Todoist, and I also keep a spreadsheet of info I want to track over time. (And yes, there will be more about the spreadsheet, too.)

Here’s the quick rundown:

  • Medication reminders: I use an iOS app called Round that I really like. It lets you do multiple reminders, and will remind you over a period of time (hours, if you like) in a way that works really well for me. Also lets you track things you take as needed and build a record.
  • Pedometer : I use Human. I use it not for “I should walk more” as much as “I did a lot yesterday, there’s a reason I feel ouchy today”.  I’ve tried clip on options, but found having something on my phone that I have with me all the time works better.
  • Sleep : I use SleepCycle which will wake you up at a better point in your sleep cycle, but also tracks basic sleep data. I use it as a rough guide.

Those are my tools

Future posts will go into most of these in more detail – Todoist is first up on the list, for Tuesday.

If there’s something you’d particularly like to hear about, let me know!

Tacit knowledge : 5 things to start with

One of the hard things about talking about research (and especially research outside of structured academic work) is figuring out where to start. Figuring out where to start is difficult for a number of reasons, but one of the big ones has to do with what is sometimes called tacit knowledge. Those are the things that are obvious to you once you know about them – but utterly mystifying to people who don’t have experience with it.

Tacit knowledge isn’t just a thing for researchers or students or teachers! It’s also an issue for things like cooking or knitting or picking up any new hobby or craft. It’s true for many jobs.

And it’s true for Pagans – think about all the parts of going to a public ritual. Where is it? What do you bring? What should you expect? What’s polite? What’s rude? What do you do if you feel uncomfortable? What is it okay to ask about? Will anyone ask you to do something you really don’t want to do? And then, depending on the ritual, there may be a whole lot of assumed tacit knowledge about things like quarters and elements and the nature of deity and the theory of magic going on.

Clearly, tacit knowledge is something that deserves some quality time on this blog. This post is an introduction to the topic, and I’ll circle back to more specifics in future posts.

The photo for this post is a photo I took at the Greenwich Observatory on a trip to London in 2015. It’s a pocket astronomical device that does about half a dozen things, and is the size of a pocket watch when it’s closed. To use it, you need a tremendous amount of knowledge about the different tools it includes, and how to interpret the markings and settings, most of which are quite tiny – more reminders than information.

Photo of an astronomical pocket device: astrolabe, sextant, and other tools.

What is tacit knowledge?

Tacit knowledge is often defined as “the kind of knowledge that is difficult to transfer by writing it down or verbalising it.

Tacit knowledge is often about having experience with a thing, and trying it out for ourselves and figuring out how it works. (Guidance can help, but a lot of tacit knowledge things, we need to have that hands on experience before they make sense and stick.)

Librarians talk a lot about this kind of thing, because it affects how we teach people how to find and evaluate information. Information literacy skills rely on a lot of tacit knowledge – and to make things more complicated, what that knowledge is changes, sometimes very rapidly.

In the Pagan community, we often talk about religious mysteries, which are definitely a related idea.

In future posts, I’m going to be talking about different pieces in more detail, but here I want to lay out a few broad categories and give you things to think about.

  • Structure
  • Contextual cues
  • Expected audience
  • Citations and references
  • Location and orientation

If you’d like to read more, I got started thinking about this again by coming across Barbara Fister’s 2013 post about tacit knowledge in my saved bookmarks. Threshold concepts are a related approach, and here’s a good brief handout in PDF (aimed at librarians, so there’s a bit of jargon) designed for a webinar on the topic.

1) Structure

Two classic examples for tacit knowledge are understanding how a book works and how a print newspaper works.

For books, it’s how to use the table of contents, index, and references or bibliography to find information in the book or elsewhere that talks about what we’re interested in. For print newspapers, it’s things like how placement on the page or within the section indicates different things, what cues indicate something is an editorial or opinion, and much more.

On the web, we can look at things like how a page or site is structured, if there’s advertising (and what that indicates), whether there’s information about authorship or source, and how to find it if there is. On social media, it can involve understanding how posts get shared, memes get started, and things can change context over time.

2) Contextual cues

A lot of our society is designed to give us cues about how to do things or how seriously to take them. But we’re often not very consciously aware that that’s going on. Design choices can encourage us to use one door or path over another (or to buy one brand or type of product over another).

Many of us have a sense that Comic Sans is not a font choice with much gravitas, or that lots of blinking images across our screens may be someone trying to catch our attention with flash rather than substance. But we may not realise why we read those things that way.

There are also things that we learn by being in a space for a while. People who are active users of Tumblr or Twitter or Facebook will become familiar with the customs there (or at least in the circles they spend time with there) about how to tag things, what kinds of tags are considered useful or acceptable in that set of people, what customs are around things like warning for possibly upsetting content.

People online also signal things in other ways. The theme or account name we use on a blog or service. The avatars or icons or profile photos we choose. The email addresses we share in public. (An email with a legal name is different from WitchyChick333 is different from a magical name.) What sites are linked to (or not linked to). The terms different groups use for the same thing. Which hashtags or other tags get used. Which don’t.

3) Expected audience

One of the most complicated things about information is realising that different audiences sometimes matter a lot. It’s extremely hard to write material that is accessible to someone new to a subject, and to someone who knows a fair bit about it.

Aiming for a middle path, or including supplemental explanations can still leave lots of people out. (And that’s before we get into actual accessibility issues, which are many and also important!)

One of the things I see a lot in the Pagan community is a thing of not understanding how academic writing works – who academics are mostly writing for, what their goals are, how topics of research might be picked, and how work fits into an existing conversation in a particular field (or interdisciplinary conversation.) This all adds up to a lot of assumed tacit knowledge.

Likewise, the way we write for people in the Pagan community (and especially for people in our particular path, or at least general focus) is often a lot different than the way we’d explain things to a family member or non-Pagan friend. This can sometimes make it very hard to share information in an order that makes sense, or it can mean we need to circle back several times to explain things as people get comfortable with earlier topics.

This kind of thing is why time often helps – if you get introduced to a new concept, and then see it in action a couple of times, then talk about it again, you’ll often make more sense of it.

4) Citations and references

Citations are a whole bog of tacit knowledge of their own. Why do we have them? Why do they matter? How do we handle them?

They’re especially boggy when we talk about informal references – the kind of thing we do in a casual conversation, or an online social media space, where we’re often not going to trot out “Oh, this is on page 64 of The Best Book About Dinosaurs” and the full publisher and author information.

And yet, these things are very obscure unless you know how they work. What are all those things? How do you sort out abbreviations? Why do the different pieces make a difference?

(And that’s before we get into the sources themselves, and how we identify a scam journal or publisher, or someone who’s hiding their actual goals for some reason.)

5) Location and orientation

Most people know that there are methods to how libraries put things on shelves. However, many people don’t know (and why would you) where those systems come from, or why it’s hard to change terms, or what’s involved in doing so. Or they don’t realise that the two major systems in use in a lot of the English speaking world (Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress) both have their origins in a very Christian-centric and fairly colonialist worldview, and how that affects how subjects were set up.

The subject term “Wicca” is actually a really interesting case study here, and will be getting its own post and other materials in the future.

When I’m talking about orientation here, it’s also about how we move through information. Many people also don’t know all the different things your public library might be able to do for you, or what some options are if you move beyond what your public library can do. The same goes for online searches: there are a lot of things we can find with search engines, but what about the things the search engines don’t see? Or don’t show us? Poking at the tacit knowledge issues here can bring us huge benefits.

Conclusion

As you can see, these are all very large topics, and I’ve covered them only in the most general terms here, to give you an idea of what we’re going to dig at in future. If you’ve got a particular topic you’d like to see sooner than later, drop me a note on the contact form or in the comments.

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.