Personal libraries : putting books on shelves

Of course, once you’ve got some idea of what things you have, you probably need to figure out how to store them.

As with the other sections here, there’s no one right answer. Your space, your preferences, what you want easy access to, are all going to affect how to shelve things.

I do have some tips for sorting it out.

A hidden bookcase opens out, revealing a room behind. The bookshelves are full of leather-bound books.

Where will you use things?

This is the obvious sort of question – it probably makes sense to shelve cookbooks near your kitchen, crafting books near where you do crafts, children’s books where you read to your children (or they read to themselves), and so on.

You may not have perfect space to do all of that, but starting with the books that are most rooted in a particular task will get you started.

Plan for expansion

When you’re laying out shelving, think about where in your collection you may want to add more items in the future.

If you’re shifting over more items to ebooks, maybe you’re going to buy physical copies more heavily in some areas. (Books you want to lend people, or have in print, or books that don’t have electronic versions), and other areas of your collection won’t need much expansion space.

Consider building a virtual collection list first

You may find it easier to create a digital list of what you have first (or, well, I suppose you could also do a big stack of index cards.)

This will let you get a count of different types of books, and also a better sense of what you have. It’s also often a task that can be broken down into small manageable pieces more easily than actually moving everything around.

Tip: I found it easiest to work by taking a photo on my phone of 8-10 books (stack, as they would be on the shelf or flat, whatever fit in the camera frame readably.) I’d take a string of photos, then go enter them comfortably at my computer.

LibraryThing and some other catalog tools have scanning options, as well.

What groups matter to you?

We’ve talked already about books you may use in a specific place, but this is the time when you split things up.

Some people shelve their collections by author, A to Z, regardless of topic. Some people shelve by size, or colour, or other factors.

Some people shelve by type of book – topic or genre. This is what I do: all my modern fantasy books are in one place, all my mysteries together, all the non-fiction history together. (I group by subgenre, because when I am standing there going ‘what do I want to read’ my answer is usually a subgenre: “I’m in the mood for a historical mystery.” and when it isn’t, it’s a specific book, and it’s easy to find it on the genre shelving.

One shelf has my astronomy and astrology and stories about constellations and planets. Other people might entirely separate these three. Another shelf has what I refer to as ‘ritual technology’ – material on how to do things in magical or religious ritual, relevant to my religious witchcraft practice.

Your groups are almost certainly different, but find what works for you.

Expect the process to take a while.

I mean both that it will take some time to sort out, and that you’re probably going to end up doing more than one iteration of how things are laid out.

Chances are pretty good you’ll discover something in the first round that makes sense in your head, and not so much when you actually try it. (This happens no matter how sensible your planning process is, I think.)

Move things around virtually first

When I was setting up my bookshelves in my current apartment, I first put everything into LibraryThing.

Once I had that, I added tags to group them by, and figured out about how many books I had in each of the major tags. I set up a spreadsheet where I could list all of the possible topics, and then another sheet where I had a list of major subjects down the side, and then boxes along the horizontal for each possible shelving space.

I counted how many books would fit comfortably on each possible shelf, and then moved things around until I got shelf counts that made sense for me.

Move things around physically

For physical books and other items, there’s no denying you will eventually need to move things around physically.

I tend to strongly prefer to do this kind of thing by setting aside time to do it over the course of a week or so (maybe in segments, depending on your space) with some room to leave things in stacks on the floor temporarily while I’m arranging things.

Your stamina stands a good chance of being greater than mine, so maybe you can do it in the course of one or two more intensely busy days.

Either way, there’s a balancing act between arranging things mentally and getting them in the right places. If you need to move things in larger chunks, some banker’s boxes or cardboard book boxes can help you store and move things around temporarily.

Group items by shelf

Usually, it will go faster if you work on getting items for a given shelf in the right place, and then you can worry about arranging them on that shelf further. This may lead to stacks of books all over the place temporarily. If that’s a problem for you, try sorting things out into labelled boxes, or doing just a shelf or two at a time.

Finally, organise the shelves

This is something that may depend on your actual physical setup, and how much you care about precise order. Because I double stack some books (so many books, not enough wall space), I don’t worry about having books within each shelf highly organised by author or series, because they’re in small enough groupings I can spot things.

At times when I’ve had more space to play with, I’ve usually preferred to shelve my fiction by author, and by internal chronology of the series (though there are some series where I prefer publication order – it’s weird what things we have a really strong opinion about!) My shelves, though, so my strong opinion is fine.

Personal Libraries : Simple cataloging principles

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

Which is to say, now that we’ve got a bunch of items, how do we keep track of them? This article is an introduction to basic cataloging principles.

(The quote, of course, is from Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter” and it’s here because it’s a thing that often pops into my head when I start thinking about lists of subjects.)

A hidden bookcase opens out, revealing a room behind. The bookshelves are full of leather-bound books.

What is cataloguing?

Most library schools require librarians to take courses in cataloguing, and many librarians find it really frustrating. At its most formal, cataloguing has a lot of little tiny minute details and special cases.

(My favourite of these, from the system in use when I was in grad school, the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, 2nd edition, was that there’s a method for cataloguing material gained through spiritual mediumship. For the curious, it’s point 21.26 and says “Enter a work that is presented as a communication from a spirit under the heading for the spirit. Make an added entry under the medium or a person recording the communication.”)

Fundamentally, though, it’s about providing ways to get access to information about what your library has.

There are lots of ways to do that. Some of them scale better than others (or work better for large, nuanced collections). Some of them are easier to manage. Some will make more sense for you intuitively than others, probably.

The essentials

Some of this will depend on how you’re keeping track of what you have. If you use software, they’ll probably ask you for certain pieces of information, or have a way to search for it. (I use LibraryThing, about which more in future articles.)

You want to think about points of entry for finding works. Normally, these are author, title, and some sort of subject categorisation.


Titles are usually the easiest to sort out.

Sometimes you have a subtitle, sometimes you have something that feels a little weird. Sometimes series titles look like book titles or vice versa. But we can usually figure out a title most of the time.


The author is also usually pretty obvious, but again can have some complications (some systems deal with multiple authors a lot more elegantly than others.) Corporate authors, the term for an organisation being the author, can also be complicated.

But you can usually look these up, and use what the booksellers or libraries are using.


Subjects are where it gets complicated.

Libraries use established subject headings (sometimes from the Library of Congress, sometimes from other established lists. These are almost always going to be way more complicated than you want for a personal collection.

However, there’s a concept you may want to consider, which is the idea of the controlled vocabulary. This means that you use a set list of terms to organise what you have.

Controlled vocabularies are often contrasted to folksonomies, which are things like open-ended tagging. A lot of us are now used to tagging our things in some way, whether that’s blog posts, social media posts or something else. (Tagging people’s names or handles is a sort of variant method: it connects pieces of information together by whatever that thing is.)

The downside of an open-ended system is that you can end up with things like

  • cat
  • cats
  • cat stories
  • my ridiculous cat


  • book
  • books
  • reading
  • read

Now, these may actually be four distinct categories for you! If they are, there’s no reason they shouldn’t have four distinct labels. But if they’re not, you might want to think about tidying this up.

If you use a variety of words to mean the same thing, you’ll lose a lot of power to search and gather similar items.

Controlled vocabulary tips

Here are a few tips for beginning to build a controlled vocabulary for your collection, if you want to be able to use your tags to find all the material on a topic.

Start with a sample set

It can be really helpful to start with a small but manageable set of items and see how that goes. You’ll often learn a lot about what you care about after you’ve done a few dozen items.

Somewhere between 20 and 40 is a good starting number: you can work through that fairly quickly without it feeling overwhelming, but there’s enough variation you’ll start seeing places your initial ideas may work well or not. Either pick items that are in a similar large category (different fiction books, different non-fiction books, writing research books, etc.) or you can try a mix of all your categories.

Decide on format

Part of why I suggest starting with a sample set is you may discover you have a really strong preference for format when you start actually applying it. This can mean different things, but I find it helpful to have a consistent structure for similar things.

In my catalogue, I have genres broken out by different aspects (usually historical/modern) because that’s part of how I shelve them. So I have:

  • fantasy – high
  • fantasy – historical
  • fantasy – modern
  • fiction – historical
  • fiction – modern
  • mystery – historical
  • mystery – modern

That means I can see all the mysteries together, and all the fantasy, and so on. I could also have decided that each item would get a genre tag, and also get a ‘time’ or ‘style’ tag. (High fantasy is for the ‘this is a unique magical world with stuff that is not directly connected to our historical timeline’ and ‘historical fantasy’ is what I use for a world that has magic or other elements not in ours, but that is rooted in a time and place that either is in our world, or is a close cognate. The point is, the terms make sense for me.)

Formatting also applies to things like ‘do you use plural or singular or adjectives’ or what? For topic terms for my books, here are some examples:

  • astrology
  • astronomy
  • biography
  • cosmology
  • creativity
  • deities
  • divination
  • embodied life

It continues with things like

  • genii loci
  • internet & technology
  • magical fiction
  • microhistory
  • ritual technology

These may not be terms that matter for you – but these are all really useful for reasons I often go looking for books.

As you can see, I am mostly using names for disciplines if there’s a name for that, and then creating other terms or phrases. I also tend to prefer lower case.

Apply your terms

You’ll almost certainly need to make some adjustments as you go. That’s entirely normal and expected.

You may figure out a more elegant way to phrase things or a phrase that makes you grin. (It’s your collection. You get to have puns, pet phrases, or personal in-jokes in your cataloguing if you want.)

You may also decide to combine things. I try to find a larger category for any term where I have fewer than 2-3 works that fit into that category. (And I look pretty closely at anything less than 5-8.) This helps keep my overall list of tags manageable and useful.

Consider fancy formatting

Depending on the tool you’re using to keep track of things, you may have the chance to group tags (such as in Pinboard, which I use to keep track of web links.)

In others, you may want to use specific characters to group things, if your software allows. You can use these in some tools to keep similar terms together. For example, in LibraryThing, I use characters on the front of terms to group things.

  • !time for the era when something takes place, such as !ancient, !modern, !between the wars. (Where I’ve got rather a lot of books.)
  • .genre for the genre. .fantasy – high or .mystery – historical go here.
  • @location for where it takes place. Some of these are pretty general (@Africa), others are more specific, like @Boston or @London. (Those cities also get regional tags, like @New England and @British Isles).
  • I use the tilde for specific shelving locations for print books, which sorts those at the end.

I find these really helpful for two reasons – it lets me scan the list of tags quickly for similar things. And when I’m entering tags by hand, I can use autocomplete to see a short list of the things of that type. If I type a period at the beginning, it will give me a pretty complete genre list, and the period plus a letter or two gets even better. This is tremendously helpful in keeping a manageable and internally consistent list because I’m relying on autocomplete, not my memory.

I also love using tools that let you rename tags quickly and easily – in LibraryThing it’s just by editing, in some tools you have an extra step or two. But if I discover I’ve been entering “cat” in some and “cats” in another, I can quickly combine the two by editing. The same thing if I have a typo.

Next time

I’ll be talking more about how to figure out how to group things and put them on shelves or otherwise deal with them in long-term groups.

Personal libraries: building a collection

Part of building a personal library is figuring out how to build a collection. I’ve talked about some of this already, but this time, let’s focus on it.

A hidden bookcase opens out, revealing a room behind. The bookshelves are full of leather-bound books.

What does your collection need to do?

Some people are lovers of books as physical objects – seeking out physically satisfying volumes and taking care of them.

Some people see their collection as a map of their history, keeping books they loved or that meant a lot to them.

Some people are authors who use their personal collection for research, inspiration, or to keep up with their field.

Some are people who reread a lot and want to have the books they reread handy at 3 am on a Sunday. No waiting, just reading.

Some have interests specialised enough that it’s tricky to get a lot of materials from the public library (this is true of a lot of Pagans who read a lot: libraries only have a fraction of the material in our community.)

Some people travel a lot, and maybe they need ebooks so they can take things with them. Some may need other formats because they can’t read print (or do it easily) so they may build a collection of audiobooks.

All of these things suggest some different ways to approach a collection, making a collection, taking care of a collection. It’s worth sitting down and figuring out what that is for you, if you’re thinking about managing your books.

What are your limitations?

We all have them, when it comes to collection of physical items. (Well, I assume people reading this do.)

We don’t have infinite space or budget for new books – and if you happen to (lucky you!), you still don’t have infinite time to read them in. We all end up making choices that fit our situations.

For some of us, that’s about space: we can store this many books easily, but not two times that many. Or we can store this many books in a way that’s easy to get to, and these other books in a way that’s less accessible.

Sometimes (often!) it’s about cost. I know my book budget can never keep up with the list of books I’d like to own and read.

It may be about time, or about how lasting an interest might be, or about knowing you’re likely to be making a major move in the near future.

We can’t plan for all of these things, but we often do have a sense of which ones might be relevant for us in the near future.

Do you have a focus?

There are all sorts of different kinds of ways to focus a collection. Like I said above, a collection can be a history of what you’ve read and been interested in. But often, we end up building collections based on other things.

Lots of authors build up a collection of books that they use in research or for inspiration, or that relate to places or times or people they’re writing about.

Many Pagans I know build a collection related to their specific interests in their religious path, spiritual or magical practices, or deity work – precisely because these books may not be widely available. They are often not a thing we can get from the library, and in many cases, there may be small print runs of niche books, or things only available by special ordering or backing crowdfunding, or very small press runs.

If you do have a focus, you may want to structure things in a certain way, either physically or virtually. For example, if you’re collecting books for a writing project, you ideally want to store them somewhere that’s accessible when you do your writing. Books you want to keep but are less frequently needed could be stored somewhere a bit less handy.

How do items relate to each other?

This is probably the most complex part of building a collection – figuring out how items relate to each other.

If we’re talking about fiction, it’s sometimes easier to see each work as a unique story of some kind, but in a set.

We may collect everything by an author, or everything in a series, or everything set in a particular setting. We may collect across a broader genre. Or we might make a point of reading or collecting books that have gotten (or been nominated for) major awards in whatever particular genre we’re interested in. Or they may be books that have something else in common – interesting point of view characters, or types of worldbuilding, or uses of language or structure.

With non-fiction, it can be a little more tricky to figure out what’s unique or compelling about a particular book. Sometimes it’s really easy to tell – we find that book that exactly fills the research need we had or is about precisely the topic we’re working on.

But at other times, it’s more complicated. There are dozens and dozens of books about some topics – how do we know what ones we should get? Or which ones we should keep?

1) Sometimes you just want a book.

That’s fine if you’ve got space. Get and keep the book, if you want!

2) Currency

Are you working on a topic where having current information is particularly important? Topics that change fast, like technology, medicine and health information, or recent historical events can be more of an issue here than, say, the history of Ancient Greece or the fashions in Colonial America.

3) Classic nature of the text

There are some books that are just classics in their field, or so overwhelmingly influential that if you’re working on something related to their topic, it’s worth keeping them around, just because so many other books in the field are at least partially in conversation with them.

For example, Boyer and Nissenbaum’s Salem Possessed is a classic work about the Salem Witchcraft Trials that suggests a particular cause for the trials. More recent authors have suggested others – but a lot of authors are still in conversation with Boyer and Nissenbaum about it. (And for good reason!) Also, it has some handy maps. If I were doing work on this period, I’d probably want to keep a copy handy.

4) Well-sourced summary

Classic works are well and good, but sometimes you want something that’s a well-sourced summary. For topics where there are a lot of books, you may find a couple of these for major topics to be well worth the investment. They can anchor your understanding of what’s going on, and the really good ones will point you at useful primary and secondary sources.

These usually work best if they’re relatively recent (the past 5-15 years, depending on how fast the field moves), but sometimes there are just delightful books that do this that are older. You’ll likely know them if you find them.

5) What does this add?

Now we’re down to ‘what does this add’. This is where some evaluation comes in – and also that question of how books are in conversation with each other. (I say books, here, but it works for other things and formats, too.)

What does this thing add that other things similar to it don’t do?

  • It gives a great historical grounding before the thing it focuses on.
  • It talks about the thing through periods of time.
  • It has a focus like looking at gender, class, race, or specific communities.
  • It comes at the topic from a different point of view from other common works.
  • It’s by someone with key expertise in the field.
  • It has a new structure for talking about the topic, or great examples or exercises.
  • Everyone’s talking about this one!

And of course, the big one, which is looking to fill a gap in your collection. Maybe you have a great set of books that cover a lot of aspects, but you don’t have one about clothing in that era, or cooking, or how households worked.

For example, when I look for new books in the ‘intro Pagan materials’ categories these days, I do sometimes pick up books that are getting a lot of buzz. But I also look to see what books are doing that’s different – maybe that’s a new way of structuring what they’re talking about, or exercises I find intriguing.

With books that are a step more advanced and specialised, I start looking at what’s not already in my library, that’s interesting to me (or potentially interesting to people I work with.) That still leaves a lot of books, so then I prioritise by

How do you figure some of this out?

Read reviews! Reviews are imperfect things, but for non-fiction, especially, you can often get a sense of what’s going on in the book by reading a cross-section of reviews. Even people complaining about things may be helpful. Classic books in a field will likely get some mentions of that, and if there’s a bunch of reviews, they may also mention novel or particularly interesting things.

Two and four-star reviews tend to be more helpful than one and five-star ones, but any review that’s got details can be helpful in calibrating what a book’s good for. And the basic information can help you find out a lot about where a book’s coming from (what the author’s background is, what their other interests are, etc.)

Making use of ‘read inside’ features (or sometimes Google Books will get you content on older books) can also be really helpful, especially if the reviews make comments about the writing style.

Personal libraries: weeding

One big question about personal libraries is deciding what to keep.

The library term for this is ‘weeding’. And yes, that’s an intentional gardening metaphor there. Read on to learn more about why you might want to, and some practical questions for helping you figure out what to keep.

A hidden bookcase opens out, revealing a room behind. The bookshelves are full of leather-bound books.

A lot of people find the concept of weeding a collection horrifying – they can’t imagine getting rid of books.

The reality is, though, that our lives change.

Sometimes that’s in very pragmatic physical-world ways: we move across the country and have to think hard about what we take with us and what we don’t. Sometimes it’s about moving to a new apartment and the space for bookshelves is less than ideal. Sometimes it’s about deepening a relationship and deciding about whether and how you’re combining libraries.

It might be about moving to a different stage of our life – from a larger house to an apartment or assisted living space. It might be about when and how we read changing so that the old format doesn’t work as well for us. It might be about our bodies changing – maybe we can’t really hold a large hardcover comfortably now, or we need to be able to adjust the size of print or colour to read more comfortably.

It might be that when and how we read books, indulge in books, enjoy books, has changed.

And, just like weeding a garden, weeding our shelves can allow more of the things we want space to grow and flourish. Weeds are not inherently wrong (many of them are beautiful and fascinating) but they aren’t helping us have a garden that does specific things.

Why do libraries weed?

People have done studies that make it clear that packed shelves with old-looking books mean that even the newer titles don’t circulate as well. Books circulate much better when there’s space for people to easily take things out and explore them, and when books that look obviously dated

But there are other reasons to weed.

The world changes.

My first library job was an independent high school, and a history teacher there had strenuously resisted any weeding in the history section. She retired when I’d been there for a couple of years as the assistant, and we immediately looked closely at the books there.

There were lots of great books that had been of great service but were now not going to be useful for our current students. Or that are just dated.

The most extreme of these was a book about the history of the Jewish people.

Written in 1936. Before the Anschluss. Before the Second World War. Before the Holocaust. Before Israel. Before so much more history for that particular community. That is a book someone should have, to show what we thought then. This is why research libraries and storage collections exist.

But we can probably all agree it is not an optimal book for a comparatively small secondary school library collection (we had about 15,000 books total) to have. We were only going to have a couple of books on Jewish history – our kids deserved to have books that included the last 60 years of what’s happened in the world.

In other areas of the library, our weeding turned up books with very dated language and assumptions (especially about race and gender). I’m not talking about fiction, here, I’m talking about things on the shelves in the Dewey 300s, about sociology and society and culture.

In our personal libraries, we may choose to keep some of these books, because we want them for different reasons than a high school student doing research papers or preparing for class or extracurricular projects (we had a strong Model UN and debate program at that school, and kids who would cheerfully do additional background reading.)

But we should still be thinking about why we’re keeping something.

I know a bunch of authors for whom ‘how did people talk about this thing in the 1930s’ is in fact a totally legitimate research need. But if that’s not your research need, maybe you need different books. (Or other sources).

Questions to ask

When I’m reviewing my personal collection, here’s what I ask myself.

What’s the physical condition?

Is this book still usable as a book?

I’m actually really hard on my physical books as objects. (Not ones I’ve borrowed, but ones I own.) I read in the bath. I dogear pages. I eat while I’m reading.

My books usually last pretty well, but if we’re talking about 1980s and 90s paperbacks – well, the glue and the paper have started going brittle, and older titles, that’s even more so.

Sometimes a book has done valiant service, and it is time for it to stop being a physical readable book. Or at least for us to expect it might be.

Does it duplicate other things in my library?

Duplication on purpose is one thing. I have a whole bunch of intro books about Wicca, religious witchcraft, and Paganism. Not all of that kind of book out there, but a good cross-section.

That’s because I want to know what’s out there in commonly recommended books, so I can help with questions about things better, or suggest specific titles (since one book will handle a particular thing better than another one.)

Having five books that say the same general things, and make it hard for me to figure out which one to use, however, is not so helpful. Maybe I went through a thing about a particular topic several years ago, read a bunch of books, and I have a couple I come back to, but the others I don’t touch.

And if I’m looking at my books because I need to reduce space or complexity, thinking about duplication is a good place to start.

This question of how things relate to each other is complicated. I’ll be talking about it more in a future part of this series.

Do I have a strong sentimental attachment to it?

Sometimes I do! I have a box of books I have moved across the country twice because I can’t bear to get rid of them. A box is pretty manageable. But if it were multiple boxes, that might be a bit trickier to manage.

Knowing that I’m resisting getting rid of something because of the sentimental attachment also helps me figure out what to do about it. Do I have memories of reading this book with my father? Borrowing it from someone particular? Sharing it with friends? Maybe there’s another way to deal with the memory but not keep the physical book. Sometimes there is.

Maybe I keep a few representative books for that person/memory/situation, but not every book in the relevant series. Maybe I replace the books in an easier format to manage. Maybe I look for a piece of art or jewellery or another non-book object that reminds me of the memories.

Do I have an emotional aversion to it for some reason?

There are a couple of movies I loved, and don’t really ever want to watch again because they are tied to memories of my ex-husband. Nothing bad about the movie, just – it’s tangled and iffy.

I was lucky not to have that happen with books, but I know people that’s happened with. Sometimes we may just need to let something go, so we’re not looking at it all the time, or coming across it when we’re not prepared.

(If you’re not ready for this one, try packing things like this in a box, label the box with a reminder, and stick it in a closet for a year. If you actively want something from the box, go get it. If you haven’t touched something in a year or two, consider whether you really want to keep it. This works well with other books you’re not sure about getting rid of, too.)

Can I replace it if I change my mind?

When I moved from Minnesota to Maine, I knew I needed to cut down my physical books a lot (both because of the cost and logistics of moving them – they were going by media mail, and because of limited space on the other end.)

I used to spend an awful lot of mental energy making sure I always had a book (and a backup book, if I was within 100 pages of the end of the current one and might have to wait for more than 20-30 minutes. Downside of reading fast.) Which cascaded into “How much space do I need for books in this bag” and suitcases for trips that were half books.

I made the decision to swap more actively to ebooks. Which, it turns out, I love, because I can now carry my entire ebook library around on my phone, and I never run out of book. (I might run out of battery, and I usually do have a print book in the car or while travelling, for times I can’t read on the phone. But I don’t need half a suitcase a trip anymore.)

In practice, I ended up keeping books like this:

  • The physical object had sentimental value (a smallish number: maybe 25)
  • Pagan books I might want to lend/use with people in person (ebooks are tricky to lend.)
  • Books I couldn’t replace in ebook (and wasn’t sure if I’d be able to.)
  • Books where the physical version is more practical for me (like cookbooks and books about specific crafts)

Which means most of my print collection these days is Pagan books, books unavailable in ebook form (older non-fiction, mostly) and some books I’m nostalgic about and haven’t wanted to replace in ebook versions.

Even without the ebook aspect, used books are often pretty widely available. Some aren’t, of course – speciality titles or small press runs, for example. But if your book came from a large well-known publisher in the last 30 years, there’s a pretty good chance you could replace it fairly easily if you changed your mind later.

If you’re not sure, make your pile of possible discards and then check in used book searches and see what comes up, or libraries where you live or are moving to (depending on your situation)

To the Researchmobile! : Identity theft

So, here I was, planning to do another installment in the Personal Libraries series. And then last Friday happened.

To be precise, I got a call from our head of HR, saying she’d gotten an unemployment request from me, and thought I should know about that. Someone had gotten hold of my social security number and name and used it to file a fraudulent claim.

So, for today’s post, here’s a guide to what I did to check that I was doing all the necessary things.

Quick! Research Needed! (gold exclamation point on a dark background)

Background is useful

One thing that makes for really excellent research is having something of a background in the topic.

Obviously, we’re not going to be experts in all the things, all the time – no one can do that. But we can help ourselves out by taking in a steady stream of information that makes it easy to get ourselves up to speed on specifics quickly if we have to.

For me, this means reading or skimming a couple of general purpose sources of news and information. I subscribe to online editions of two newspapers and support one of my local NPR stations (and they send a summary of current major stories daily), plus I read several general purpose sites that cover a wide range of topics (Metafilter, in my case), plus a couple of general financial and lifehack sites.

I specifically wasn’t trying to build expert knowledge in what to do if I got hit with identity theft (because the specifics on what to do change periodically, as services and government resources change), but all of this meant I was well aware it happens sometimes, that it’s not always easy to figure out where the breech happened, and that there are in fact steps in what to do about it.

That meant that when I got that call from HR, I didn’t have a tidy list of what to do. But I knew they were out there, that ‘identity theft’ was the term I wanted to work with, and that I’d just need a little time to do those searches and check my information.

Oh, and a bit of background:

If you’re outside the US and trying to figure out what this means: in the United States, the social security number is the closest thing we have to a personal identification number.

It’s technically only supposed to be asked for in a limited number of situations (like taxes, or some kinds of financial accounts) but it’s often asked for in a bunch of other places – everything from college applications to rental applications to medical records.

This makes it rather easy to abuse, unfortunately.

(For those curious about the history of the number designations, here’s a page from the Social Security Administration.)

Habits are also useful

Fortunately, I already have a routine for keeping an eye on financial accounts (more on that in a few steps).

So I knew right where everything was for the different accounts, and could check quickly to see that there were no unexpected charges, and that no one had opened up accounts in my name recently.

First steps

The first step here is to take a deep breath. Panicking isn’t going to make this go better, and it won’t solve the problem (no matter how tempting it is.)

I was at work when I got that call. I did a little quick searching that made it clear that yes, I was going to want to make half a dozen phone calls, and a couple of them probably needed to be during business hours, which helped.

I’d been out sick for two days on Wednesday and Thursday, and had already been considering going home early, so I arranged to do that (because making the calls from home would be a lot easier.) Fortunately, I’d already done the things that I really needed to be in the office to do.

The drive home was fast (no traffic!) but it gave me about fifteen minutes to process through things and sort out what I wanted to do in my head, so it would be easier to take steps in a useful order when I got home.

Initial searches

I started by doing a search on “identity theft social security number” because that was the thing I knew had been compromised – and it’s a slightly different kind of issue than someone who potentially has your credit card info.

I browsed through the results, looking for highly reliable sources – for example, there’s this PDF guide direct from the Social Security Administration. I also found less official guides like this one, that still had a useful set of tasks and suggestions.

I focused on recent pages, written in the last year, since advice changes as people try new scams, and technology has new options. I also looked at my state attorney general’s site for information.

(If you search in Google, you can use the “Tools” option and select “Past year” instead of “Any time” in the option that will pop up below the main search tabs.)

I didn’t take the advice from any one source (even the Social Security folks!) Instead, I looked at about 20 sources and combined them into a list of things to do. (That’s also why I’m not giving you a ton of links here: the best resources will change over time.)

Here comes the spreadsheet

You knew there was going to be one, right, if you’ve been reading this blog.

I set up a spreadsheet with multiple sheets in it.

The first sheet has conversations I’ve had or steps I’ve taken (like online reports). It has columns for date, time, who I talked to, what the general topic was, how (phone, online, etc.), and then notes for the conversation and any follow up I need to do or pay attention to.

The second sheet has links of things I still need to do.

The third sheet has specific contact information for people I may need to get in touch with again, so I don’t have to hunt up the numbers or web addresses.

What did I do?

1) Put a fraud alert on my credit account.

This is a 90-day alert, and if you call one of the three agencies in the United States, they will pass the alert on to the other two. The call was entirely automated and very straightforward for being an automated call.

I got a reference number and asked for my rights to come in the mail, rather than hearing them over the phone, so I’ll have a confirmation of what they are. It’s possible to extend these alerts or put a credit freeze on for longer, but it’s easier to do that once I have a completed police report.

2) Put in a police report with my local police department

This produces a temporary report (the instructions say very clearly not to use the confirmation number until they’ve followed up) but a police report opens up some additional options for later (and if there ever is a problem down the road, being able to demonstrate that I reported it is helpful.)

My police department has an online form that you fill in, or I could have called the non-emergency line. This was the second step because I wanted to be able to say I’d made the report to any later calls.

3) Called the Massachusetts Unemployment Fraud line.

I found them by looking at the Unemployment Office site. Since this is the place where the actual identity theft happened, it was high on the list. I spoke to a really pleasant man who was glad to confirm they’d already flagged it as a problem in their system, and that the address they had wasn’t the one I gave them.

The big issue is that if I ever do need to file for unemployment in Massachusetts, as long as that claim is on file, I’ll need to have additional identification and documentation. (This means that police report is important! But also things like a photocopy of my ID, and current mail to demonstrate my address, etc.)

4) My bank

I bank with a small local independent bank who have the best customer service (Thanks, Leader Bank!)

I got a real person right away, no phone tree, and he was great about checking and making notes in my file that if there are any inquiries about my account, to ask for an agreed on passcode, or call me for verification.

5) Credit cards

I didn’t put a freeze on my credit accounts just yet (it will take a little more paperwork and I want to have the police report to reference before I do).

I did turn on alerts on all of them to let me know if there are more than very minimal charges on any of them. I already check my accounts manually twice a week. (I will be bumping that to three times a week.)

6) Reporting to the FTC

Many of my sources (including the SSA) encouraged me to report it to the FTC’s Identity Theft site. They ask you a series of questions about what happened and advise what steps you should take. You can also get a confirmation number saying you filed a report with them, which helps demonstrate that you took action on the problem.

7) Social Security Administration

I was able to lock access to my account online but will need to do a more elaborate process to sort out some of it. Again, some of that will be much easier with the police report.

Things I need to do in the future

Once I have the police report, then I’ll do additional paperwork for a credit freeze and to clear up documentation with the social security offices.

It’ll be important to keep that documentation somewhere easy to access if I need it (i.e. all in one place) so that if I do need it, I can grab it quickly. I’ve been a little unhappy with my current ‘important papers’ filing for a while, so this is a good time to rework that system into something a bit easier to use.

I live by myself, so one of the things I’m thinking about here is if something happens where friends need to help me with filing for disability or other benefits, what I need to document now to make that easier. My ideal is to be able to identify a folder that has a summary of everything.

Along the way, I also read a bunch of advice – for example, I may get scam calls with threats if I don’t make payments, pretending to be from the IRS, etc. The sites I looked at had advice on ignoring those and explained how the IRS actually contacts you.

I’ll also just need to keep an eye out for weird stuff, in case something else crops up. Some of the things I found suggest people try the unemployment scam first and then move on to other things if it works. On the other hand, this might not be the only person who has my information, depending on how they got it, so it could be an issue for credit, leases, etc.

Personal library: What do you need?

What’s in your library? And maybe more to the point, what are you going to add to your library in the future? How do you use it?

These are all questions that can help you figure out how to manage your personal library more effectively. Today’s post is going to look at them in more detail.

A hidden bookcase opens out, revealing a room behind. The bookshelves are full of leather-bound books.

Why think about this?

Library schools talk about how a library should learn about and provide resources that fit the community it serves – but each community is different. So we take courses, as librarians, about how to do that better. One common course is called something like Collection Development or Collection Management, which is a rather boring label that is really about something much more interesting.

My Collection Management professor was fantastic (thanks, Dr. Lesniaski!) and I still think about what I learned in that class multiple times a week, more than a decade later.

One of the things he focused on was the idea that what makes a library more than a random collection of items is that it’s built on relationships – and specifically, the relationship between a given item, the other items in the collection, and the people who use it.

That’s a concept that applies well to personal libraries, though it’s obviously a lot simpler when you’re only thinking about a small number of people who use the collection.

When I’m looking at my own collection, it helps me ask questions and make choices (and it also helps me figure out what things I maybe want to focus on adding next, or what things I could find new homes for.)

What do you have?

It’s good to start with a few questions that have to do with your physical reality. By that, I mean both the physical objects, and how you access the digital ones.

1) What kind of items do you have?

Some people want all the print. Some people have switched to ebooks but have some print items. Some people buy CDs or vinyl or DVDs. Others have moved entirely to digital formats.

Different kinds of items need different kinds of management, so having a list of what broad categories of things you’ve got is really helpful as you start thinking about how to manage it.

This is also a good time to think about content – what kinds of books and items are you wanting to keep. Are you pretty sure you’re going to want to keep them long-term, or are they things you may read and then be done with? Most people have some of both.

Do you have books you keep for sentimental reasons? A lot of booklovers do. On the other hand, they can be tricky to manage: sometimes they take up lots of space or are in poor physical condition (enough that they’re hard to read – or if you have allergies or insect issues, they may really not help.) That can lead to some hard choices. The first step for all of these questions is being aware what you have.

2) Is that possibly going to change?

What you have right now is probably working okay for you – but maybe you know things are going to change for you. (Or maybe you’re really not happy with what you’re doing and this is why you’re reading a series about personal libraries.)

Maybe you’re shifting into more digital stuff because you’re traveling for work a lot, or have a baby (and you can read on a digital device more easily than holding a book open while feeding them.)

Maybe your physical surroundings are going to change – if you’re planning a big cross-country move, or are looking at downsizing the space you live, or taking on roommates, your physical collection can be taking up a lot of space, and you may want to make sure you really do want to keep all of that (or move it).

Of course, it goes the other way – maybe you’ve finally had time to refinish the attic library space in the house you bought a few years ago, and your books can come out of boxes and live on shelves. (Like friends I know. So envious of that space.)

3) How do you feel about how things are working right now?

Maybe you feel pretty good about it, but you’d like better ways to manage some things. Or a way to put things on shelves in a way that makes sense to you.

Or maybe you feel overwhelmed by it – you don’t know where things are, you feel like there are some things you’re never going to use, but you don’t know how to sort through them.

You don’t need to figure out the answers immediately, but knowing how you feel about this, in general, will help you make better-informed choices.

4) Do you lend things to other people? Or borrow them?

Some people do and some don’t.

If you do lend things, you probably want some method of keeping track of that (if for no other reason than knowing that you can’t find that thing because someone else has it right now.)

If you regularly borrow things (from the library, from other people) you might want to set aside a shelf to keep them on, so you know where they are and can return them easily.

5) Do you have any specific storage needs?

Often, this can be very driven by the physical space we’re in. I’ve had more than one apartment where I had really limited space where shelving could fit. My current apartment is more reasonable, but it was a good reason to keep my shelving needs as minimal as I could for a good 10 years of my life.

If you have mobility or other health issues that mean bending over or working with materials near the floor can be a problem, maybe you don’t want to use shelving close to the floor. In my current set up, the books I use least live down there.

6) Where will items be used?

Sometimes this is obvious – the cookbooks are probably going to be more use close to the kitchen then up in the attic, and the books about crafting or art might live well near the art supplies.

Sometimes it’s a lot less obvious, in which case you can start thinking about other questions, like how much space different areas have, and can you shelve a complete set of books about this thing there, or do they have to go in this other location if they’re going to all be together.

7) Do you expect to add new titles? Where?

Why does this matter? Shelving! If you keep adding more print titles or other physical media, you need somewhere to put them.

If you know you’re going to keep adding physical objects, you probably want to plan that into your shelving – both in terms of having space to put things and in terms of how you arrange what you have right now. Digital items, obviously, don’t have the same kind of impact.

What I do

(This is not what you should do. This is what works for me right now, and is an example of how to think about different pieces.)

I currently have three sets of those 4×4 square shelves from Ikea – they’re a little weird for shelving books (they’re deep) but they work great for mixed materials. Also, the cat loves taking over the top of one of them to look down at me from a high place. I have two in my bedroom space, and one in the living room.

One and a half of them have print books, the other one and a half have bins for clothes, space for jewelry, and various other items. Two squares have sheet music. Some of the books (mostly the mass market paperbacks) are double stacked.

As someone who’s Pagan, my Pagan books live in the bedroom, because it means there’s less chance of odd conversation if someone comes in to do work in other spaces in the apartment. It hasn’t been a huge problem for me, but I know of people where it can be. Family who don’t approve, or friends of friends, that kind of thing. In my case, it also means they’re handy to where I actually do ritual stuff.

The cookbooks are right next to the kitchen, and my herbalism books. I also decided, in general, to put the non-fiction out there, and the fiction is on the shelves in the bedroom.

The ebooks are managed in Calibre (more about that in an upcoming post).

All my books are catalogued in LibraryThing (more about that, too), and I have separate collections for print and ebooks, so I can tell immediately where things are.

At this point, I add new print books only occasionally (maybe a dozen or two a year, in a variety of areas) and I continue to buy some titles in ebook I have in print, so I’m still sometimes freeing up shelf space.

Next time

I’ll be talking about one of the most emotionally complex questions for people who love books – letting them go from our collections. (And yet, why that can be a really good idea.)

Personal libraries: Background

I think about personal libraries a lot. The questions about a personal library obviously are somewhat similar to a library than many people use (how do we know what we have, how do we store it in a way that makes sense, how do we find things on the shelf).

And yet they’re totally different in others, because the choices we make don’t have to work for lots of unknown people.

So, over the course of a few posts, I’m going to talk about:

  • What my personal library’s like
  • Some things I’d like to improve
  • Useful tips for getting a handle on your library

And I’m sure more as I start writing and realise there’s this thing I want to talk about.

A hidden bookcase opens out, revealing a room behind. The bookshelves are full of leather-bound books.

My personal library

So, one thing you should know is that I read a lot – on average over 100 books a year.

I am weirdly superstitious about talking about specific lists of what I’ve read in any detail (I feel like this gives a very intimate look into the inside of my head and steals my soul) but it’s usually about equal parts fiction and non-fiction, with a side of Pagan-specific material.

The fiction’s mostly a mix of fantasy and mystery, with a dash of romance. The non-fiction is mostly popular non-fiction. I’m fond of books that talk about a single subject (microhistories) or dive into a given place or time or situation.

The second thing you should know is that I’ve done three long-distance moves in my adult life. Books are annoying to move long-distances, and also heavy.

I’d already begun to move to ebooks when I did the second of those moves.

For one thing, I read really fast. It used to be that on any trip, my bag would need to be half books, to keep up with my reading speed. This was both heavy and awkward. And there was always the question of “I’m going to this thing, and I might be waiting for half an hour. Will I run out of book?”

These days, I have six hundred books that sit on my phone, and I can swap what I’m reading on the fly. I usually have a print book around too (in case of technology issues, for reading in baths, etc.) but it’s one per trip instead of half a dozen or more.

I do most of my reading on screen now. I still love a physical book, but my actual practical set up means I mostly read them in the bathtub or at work (where we use print heavily, but also digitized versions)

A little history

When I did the move from Minnesota to Maine in 2011, I looked at my print books and thought about what I really wanted to move. (Especially when I wasn’t sure what my apartment was going to be like for shelving: I rented it sight unseen.)

I made the decision to move things in a few categories:

  • Pagan books (for reasons explained in a moment)
  • Books where the physical object had meaning, not just the text.
  • Books I reread regularly not yet available in ebook versions
  • Books that would not be readily available (either via the public library or used book sources) if I decided I wanted them again.

I got rid of almost everything else. I got down to about 220 print books, if I remember right – a dozen boxes sent media mail across the country.

I kept the Pagan books for two reasons. One is that I wanted to have copies I could open up while working with someone, and let them look at. (With some friends, I’m willing to lend, too.)

The other was that replacing that part of my library would be very challenging – many of the books don’t have electronic versions, or they’d be unsatisfactory since it would be a pain to look at diagrams or illustrations of particular aspects or charts. So, print it is.

(I have bought some since in electronic version for various reasons, but not many.)

The truth is, there’s a lot of books where laying hands on them again later has not been all that hard. I’ve had a couple of regrets of things that went to used bookstores, but only one or two.

In a lot of ways, I found it freeing – books are tremendous things, but they can carry a lot of weight in our head. The weight of memories, the weight of expectations, the weight of emotions.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is set that free, and let it transform into something else.

If you want to try this yourself, there’s a low-risk way to do it. Look at your shelves, with the guidelines that I’ll be talking about in the next parts of this series, and put books you’re not sure about in a separate box, somewhere that you can get to but that isn’t right on your shelves or the easiest to get to.

See if you get things out of that box in six months. Or a year. If not, maybe that’s a book that could find a new home.

Coming next

Future parts of this series will talk about:

  • Building a library as a collection
  • Dealing with works we’re sentimental about.
  • Organising books on shelves – theory and practice
  • Simple cataloging approaches

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.)