Visiting archives and special collections

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

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

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

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

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

1) Get An Overview

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

When are they open?

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

Do you need to make an appointment?

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

Do you need to request items in advance?

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

What do you need to bring with you?

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

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

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

What might be really helpful?

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

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

Some examples of different sites

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

2) Plan Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Read Information Carefully

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

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

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

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

4) Respect the Schedule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5) Understand Why Policies Exist

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

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

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

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

Interlibrary Loan

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

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

Books. Articles. Sometimes multimedia things.

So, how does that work?

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

Local library consortia

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

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

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

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

Do libraries buy differently because of this?

Often, yes, but in a good way.

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

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

How do you search for items?

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

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

Where do you get the books?

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

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

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

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

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

State networks

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

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

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

Are there limits on what you can get?

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

Common restrictions include:

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

What else should I know?

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

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

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

Interlibrary loan

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

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

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

What if I want an article?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A not quite typical Friday

5:15am :

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

6:00am :

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

7:35 am :

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

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

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

8:45 am:

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

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

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

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

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

9:00 am:

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

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

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

9:50 am:

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

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

10:15 am:

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

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

11:15 am:

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

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

12:00 pm:

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

12:30 pm:

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

1:00 pm:

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

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

3:30 pm:

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

3:55 pm:

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

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

4:15 pm:

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

What is remembered lives: research connecting someone to their ancestors

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

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

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

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

Why do we care?

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

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

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

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

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

So many kinds of history

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complications in history

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

Missing pieces:

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

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

Biases:

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

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

No ‘right’ answer:

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

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

Different priorities:

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

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

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

Practical limits:

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

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

Legal limits

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

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

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

Names are challenging

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

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

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

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

Curious about historical research?

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

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

Copyright for Pagans: What creators should know

This is the last part of my series on copyright for Pagans (at least for the moment.) This piece focuses on what you should know as a creator of copyrighted material (which you almost certainly are.)

Copyright for Pagans: What creators should know

You create copyrighted material all the time

… but that doesn’t mean you have to treat all the material the same.

You create copyrighted material every time you send an email (or write a text or a tweet or a Facebook update). You create copyrighted material if you post videos of yourself (or your kids) on YouTube. And if you’re a writer, or artist, or musician (creating original works), you’re creating copyrighted material there, too.

It’s good to sit down periodically and think about what you’re creating, and how you want to handle that. Every 6 or 12 months is a good range, or if something major changes in your life.

Questions to ask yourself:

1) Where am I creating materials?

Do I have a new blog or project or place I hang out and interact? It’s good to do a quick inventory of where you’re currently creating content – it makes it a lot easier to double check policies, think about long-term considerations, and make plans.

For example, you might decide you want to keep a copy of your own content. A regular review can help point out the sites that make it harder to do that. Maybe the kinds of content you’re creating have changed, and you want to keep copies now, but didn’t care as much last year.

2) Do I need to review policies on any sites?

Basically any online site that allows you to talk to other people probably has a clause in their terms of service that talks about allowing them to publish what you share for purposes of use on the site. If they didn’t include this permission, they couldn’t share your stuff with other people. That’s normal and reasonable. But watch out for sites that change their policies, or that try to restrict how you can use your content on other sites.

3) Do I want to give blanket permission in some cases?

Some people do Creative Commons licenses (that give blanket permission to share materials in certain circumstances, like not-for-profit uses, or with attribution) for all their content. Some people do it only for some. Other sites, like Unsplash, collect materials that can be shared and used freely.

4) Do my own spaces have clear policies and contact info?

Do spaces I control (like a personal site, business site, blog, etc.) have copyright statements and information? Is there a way for people to reach me if they have questions about my content?

You don’t need a copyright statement for things to be under copyright, but it’s definitely helpful in reminding people what your policies and preferences are. Because a lot of what I write depends on other material on my blogs or sites, I don’t do Creative Commons, but am generally glad to give permission on request.

5) Where am I getting materials that I use?

Are they coming from appropriate sources that have given permission?

Sharing on social media gets really complicated – but we can decide for ourselves what we’re okay sharing and using. I use photos from Unsplash (which can be modified or shared, and don’t require credit) for my blog, but give credit when feasible. I try to share materials from a creator’s own site or social media accounts whenever possible. I look for credits on art and other creative works, and make sure to share those.

You may make different choices, for a variety of reasons, but it’s good to review what you’re doing, how you feel about that, and whether you want to change anything.

6) Do I have a will that mentions intellectual property?

You create intellectual property, so it’s good to mention that in your will. (I need to do one for my current state: it’s in my to-do list for this month). If you have content online or offline, think about designating someone who can make decisions about that after you die, or whether you want to make a decision about releasing it to the public domain. (Or some of both!)

I have multiple websites, plus a lot of comments on a couple of forums, some of them lengthy works of information in their own right. Designating someone who can make decisions about it is a smart move.

Don’t believe me? Here’s Neil Gaiman explaining why this is so important (and not just for the brilliant writers out there. If you’ve ever created anything that’s helped someone else, moved them, meant something to them, then this is a way to make sure that can continue to happen.)

Legalities

Should you register your copyright?

That depends on a lot of factors. Registration can be complex, especially for things like blogs or collections of less formal work, but may be more worthwhile for books.

You don’t need to register to hold copyright – but registration does give you additional options if there are violations of your copyright about what you can sue for.

All of that said, suing for copyright is, in many cases, expensive and frustrating. Benebell Wen, a lawyer who does intellectual property (and who is also an author of works on Tarot and astrology) has a great overview of why copyright infringement is hard to fight. Because issues of jurisdiction, lack of understanding of copyright by many lawyers and judges, and other practical issues, bringing a suit often only makes sense in really significant (precedent setting cases) or other outliers.

Does someone else own your copyright?

If you have signed a contract with a publisher, there’s a decent chance you’ve signed over at least some of the rights you originally held as the creator. This is why it’s really important to have an agent or lawyer familiar with publishing contracts check your contract before you sign it. Publishers (and music producers, and people who make art available through prints, etc.) need permission or to hold the copyright to do some parts of that (making copies, distributing them, etc.) The details can vary a lot between different kinds of works – some things that are completely standard in music contracts would be completely wrong in book publishing, for example.

Contracts vary a lot about exactly which rights, what happens if an item goes out of print, under what circumstances (if any) the creator can get the rights back, and so on. Look for busy, well-run forums for creators of your particular medium for a place to start with advice or what to look for. I’ll look at pulling together some resources, too.

What happens if there’s an infringement?

Think about what you’d like the outcome to be.

Sometimes emailing and asking for a credit link may make more sense than legal options.

(Some people think you have to take action on any copyright infringement or you lose your rights. That’s a myth when it comes to copyright. (It is more complicated for trademark infringement.) You can decide to use a legal process with some infringements, and let others go.)

There are some legal processes that can help.

If your material is posted online, and you want it removed (and the servers are hosted in the US), the Digital Millenium Copyright Act has a specific set of steps for you to follow.

For large sites, there’s usually a form or other structured way you can make a report. For personal sites, you may have to figure out the hosting service and contact them. Benebell Wen includes a link to templates you can use when writing these emails or letters in the post I linked above.

Decide how much time and energy this is worth to you.

Some people find copyright infringement of their work to be a thing where if they know about it, they need to try and make it go away. Other people find that they spend too much time focusing on it, and it makes them miserable.

Figuring out which is the case for you is usually helpful in making long-term plans. If you need to know if things are misused, you might spend more time setting up automatic searches or using tools that help you find infringements and a system for dealing with them (i.e. having a template on your computer ready to go, reading about issues with copyright regularly, maybe a little consultation with a skilled lawyer who deals with intellectual property.)

If knowing makes you miserable, you might prefer to post more material in ways that are harder to copy or have other people use, set up searches in different ways, and make some specific choices about when and how you look for your own material.

A lot of people are somewhere in the middle: knowing that you’ve decided to make a DMCA report (or equivalent) in most cases, but will let things go if it’s more complex than that is a choice a lot of people make. Or that you care more about images than text, or text than images, or whatever’s true for you.

Using other people’s material

If you blog, share items on social media, or do a number of other common things, you may be using other people’s copyrighted material. Here are some general best practices:

Was this piece designed for sharing?

Retweeting a comment on Twitter, yes. Reblogging something that keeps the chain of who posted it and links back to the original? Generally okay on sites where that happens (think Tumblr). Copying and pasting someone else’s writing into your blog wholesale? Probably not.

Is this the original?

Link back to where you found the original and include whatever information about the original there is. If you can’t figure out the original source, seriously reconsider whether to pass it along and how. Links and information about where you found something and why you think it should be part of your work (or you’re sharing it) are great.

Have you checked out permissions?

Some creators are glad to share their material widely (Unsplash, as I mentioned above, is a way to do that. So are Creative Commons licenses) If that doesn’t apply to the thing you’re sharing, consider whether linking to it or referencing it would work just as well.

Is this an entire work?

Don’t repost entire works unless you’re sure it’s okay. That means don’t share entire copies of books, or entire artworks (or things like Tarot deck images, etc.) If it is okay with that artist or creator, a practice of linking to their own site and permissions with a “Shared with permission from…” is a great thing to do.

Is there a way to contact you?

If you’re regularly posting other people’s content, make sure there’s a way for someone to get in touch if something slips through (contact form, comments on your site, whatever works for you.)

A few last words on this series:

I expect I’ll be coming back to copyright sometime in here – if you weren’t clear about it already, it’s a topic I enjoy digging into. Have a question? Please ask (in comments or on my contact form.) I remain a librarian, not a lawyer, but I’d be delighted to see if I can at least point you in the direction of useful resources.

Copyright for Pagans: Common situations

So, all this talk about copyright, what does it mean? In this part, I’m going to talk about some situations that come up commonly, and best practices for dealing with them.

Copyright for Pagans: Common Pagan situations : white chalk text on green blackboard background.

Personal notes

People sometimes wonder where the lines are, and I’ve known some people who panic about copying material for their own personal notes.

Copyright law has an exception for personal research and study. It’s okay to make a copy (from a legit copy of a work) of a moderate amount of material for your own use – for example, a specific chapter of a book that’s most relevant, or an article from a journal issue, or a selection of articles from a bunch of different journals specific to your topic.

The key is that it’s for your own personal research, and it shouldn’t replace the purchase of that book, or that journal, or whatever. The minute you want to share your collected stuff, you’re stepping outside personal use, and some different concerns apply.

What else is okay? It’s usually fine to copy something (or portions of something) into your own notes, such as a chart, map, layout, quotation, summary, etc. that you find helpful.

Here’s some examples

  • Copying a specific ritual bit (spell, invocation, etc.)
  • A layout for a ritual set up, Tarot spread, or other item.
  • An article on a specific obscure deity from an academic journal
  • A chapter dealing with deities from a specific location from a larger book.
  • Keeping a copy of a public post (such as on a blog) for future reference or study (i.e. a post about a particular tradition or group).

Key tips

Whenever you make copies of materials like this, it’s important to note where you got it from. That way, if you ever do want to use it in a way that requires permission or formal citation, you’ll have the information you need.

The information I find useful to note includes:

  • Author’s name
  • Title of where I got it from (blog, website, book, journal, etc.)
  • Address of site (if relevant) or other contact information for the author.
  • When I collected it

In some cases, noting what I was working on when I found it is helpful. If you’re collecting PDFs, many PDF readers have an annotation tool that means you can type in brief notes on a blank bit of page (beginning or end).

Creating a ritual

One of the things some Pagan folk do a lot is create ritual, or help provide ritual.

And no one wants to stop in the middle of ritual to say “This chant comes from Jess Middleton’s Songs for Earthlingspage 77, and it’s by Donald Engstrom” (One of my favourites, and not just because I know Donald.)

So how do we handle that?

One way is to provide ritual notes at the beginning and end, or to provide them in some other format, so people can track down that chant.

For example, if you have a website, email list, Facebook or Meetup page, put the notes in the ritual of pieces from elsewhere afterwards. Some groups might do half or quarter sheet pages with lyrics and also things to take away from the ritual, like a reminder of the focus or the names of the deities invited.

Sometimes it’s possible to slide that into a description “We’ll be singing “This song” written by This Person, to raise energy to charge our working and “Other song” written by Second Person as we share in food and drink together.”

Key tips

If you’re using other people’s stuff, make it easier for the people you’re sharing it with to find more of it. Everyone wins that way. It also provides reassurance that you’re not misappropriating materials.

(I was around for a situation where someone lightly rewrote evangelical Christian songs and passed them off as their own work. Not only is this not cool on the copyright front, and probably disturbing to the creators of the works who had other things in mind, but it was really jarring and ritual-disrupting for people in that ritual who knew the originals, had strong emotional reactions to them, and didn’t expect to hear close variants in a Pagan ritual.)

It helps a lot if you use sources that mention where they got things when they share them – the Songs for Earthlings book does this, as does the Panpipes Pagan Chant site from Ivo Dominguez for chants. (And sometimes you can use these sources to find the original creators of things you learn elsewhere.)

Blog posts, reviews, and similar writing

Book reviews (and reviews of other things, like audio recordings, podcasts, sites, etc.) are a common way to share resources and talk about them. It can be a great way to send traffic to the sources and resources you most like.

People often wonder whether it’s okay to quote, and if so how much. Here’s the bad news: there’s no clear on answer to this, but there are some common good ideas.

Key tips

Quote the minimal amount you need to to make your point. If you like someone’s ideas but don’t need to quote the precise words, summarise or paraphrase the original.

Not sure how to do that? Here’s some great clear examples from Kate Hart using Harry Potter as the source. The rest of the article has some useful tips too.

A good guideline is no more than about 2-3 sentences in a longish (1000 words or so) blog post or online post. If you’re writing a review or discussion of a piece of material, then you’re adding additional information, and you can usually get away with quoting a bit more. For longer works, a common guideline is 250 words total from a book-length work, and proportionately less for shorter works.

On social media, if you’re sharing images or passing along information, make sure you include link backs to the original – it can be easy to miss these when reblogging or tweeting.

Formal writing

The most complex section in some ways, because there are so many variations here. But it’s also the briefest here, because my basic guidance is to look for resources on the kind of formal writing you’re doing .

Academic writers use one of a variety of style and citation guides (MLA, APA, Chicago, or many other field-specific ones) to manage this, and those citation guides take entire books or websites to explain.

In the meantime, keeping clear accurate notes of your materials and their sources will go a long way.

This series

The last part will be coming soon, talking about what to do if you create material (and you have created copyrighted material yourself, I’m quite sure!)

Copyright for Pagans: Examples

There are a number of common confusions about copyright and Pagan uses. Here’s a quick overview. (Want more details about one? Contact me or leave a comment!)

Copyright for Pagans: Common Pagan Situations

Common confusions : libraries and used book stores

Some people wonder why libraries and used books are okay under copyright, when sharing copies of ebooks or other electronic files isn’t.

The short answer is that there’s something called the “first sale doctrine” that covers physical objects, but not digital ones.

One of the reasons for the distinction is that first sale grants some rights to redistribute a copyrighted work, but not to reproduce it (and in our current technology, a copy of a digital file involves a reproduction, even if you later delete the original from your computer.) Libraries and used book stores are working with the same object (either lending it, or selling it) and there is no residual copy left while the material is being loaned or once it leaves the original owner’s hands.

Some parts of the first sale doctrine have gotten attention at the Supreme Court in recent years relating to geographical limits for first sales. These might be of interest if you’re curious about some of the ways copyright can affect trade

(Other confusions about ebook and digital production costs, and about whether making illegal copies hurts people are better left for other posts. They have their own complexities.)

Complicated world : transformative works

Another way things get complicated is the idea of transformative works. This has been a growing area for discussion.

Transformative works take a copyrighted work and adapt it. Parodies are one example, and they’ve been a specific discussion in copyright law and copyright cases for a long time. These days, we also have things like fanfiction and fanvids, memes, mashups, and related concepts to play with.

If you’ve been around the speculative fiction or fannish community for a while, you’ve probably seen lots of examples of this in one form or another: it’s a way of playing with ideas or concepts, without having to create everything from scratch – or of using widely known material to explore new ideas

In a Pagan setting

Different kinds of actions have different implications when it comes to copyright. It’s hard to tell for certain unless we’re looking at specific cases, but here are some common actions in the Pagan community that are probably violations, some that depend a lot on the specifics, and some that are permitted uses.

Quite possibly a violation

Republishing of work without permission without any additional commentary/material. (Permission might include a Creative Commons license.) This would include sharing an entire copy of a work online.

Quoting large portions of a work, even for purposes like review. This would include the core of the work, extensive portions of the work, etc. Generally a few sentences here or there from a work of non-fiction is considered acceptable, especially if it is clearly not the core of the work.

Posting an image to your social media site if you do not know the original source/creator and have permission (either directly or via something like a Creative Commons license.) Some artists are fine if credit is given, others don’t want their work shared like this at all.

Gray areas: depends on the specifics:

Pieces used in ritual (especially public ones) such as chants, invocations, ritual dramas, full rituals from print sources.

These might be covered by implied license – the idea that people shared them in the first place because they wanted them to be shared in the larger community. In these cases, it’s still best to know where they came from, and share the creator’s name/etc.

Spells
Recipes are a complicated situation in copyright law – a list of facts, steps, etc. is generally not copyrightable, but something like a poetry verse in a spell generally falls under copyright.

Spells usually have some components like recipes, and some components (chants, text, descriptive language about what to do or what to focus on while doing the spell) that would be covered by copyright.

Sharing materials in a closed setting like a coven or small group meeting, taking steps to make sure sure they are not shared in openly available sources online.

This falls under some of the educational provisions, which get complicated. In general, if you want to share things year after year, you want to get permission.

Permitted uses:

Putting material in a Book of Shadows (or other personal religious compilation) that is not shared with others (whether in person, through print copies, or online). Including your sources is always a good idea.

Sending yourself an article in email from an online database or website, for your own reference and study. (A copy for yourself is fine. Sharing that copy could be a problem. It’d depend on the source.)

Passing down material through oral tradition. One person talking to another is not a fixed or tangible form.

Casual discussion, review, or comment on works without extended quotations.
“I liked this book because of these things” is just fine. So is “I didn’t like this book.” It’s the quotations that are the copyright issue. Brief quotations in the places where the specific wording matters are generally fine, but extended quotations where you could have summarised or paraphrased can be a problem.

Citing the source for an idea, even if the expression of the idea is new.

For example: you like someone’s approach to the myth of Persephone, but rewrite it entirely in your own words, it is great to rework it, but give credit for the idea. Storytellers and comedians have community customs about how you do this and when it’s important

Linking to a source or document online. Linking does not affect the original, and is not a copyright issue. Note, however, that some sources for Pagan materials online are themselves copyright violations. If you care about this issue, checking out the sources you’re linking to is a great habit to get into.

Using public domain images (i.e. from historical grimoires) to illustrate grimoires, journals, etc. Public domain images are no longer under copyright or never were, and they’re fine to use like this. In general, anything created before 1923 is quite possibly public domain: there are exceptions, but they’re pretty rare.

Some other examples

Ritual planning. 

“Beltane celebrates the coming summer and the love of the God and Goddess” is a general idea.

A discussion of planning a ritual with that idea isn’t under copyright (because it’s not a fixed form). But the actual ritual script, a video of the ritual, or an audio recording of the discussion would all be under copyright law, because they’d be a fixed form.

Creating spiritual images

An artist makes a picture, using a combination of a photograph they took and adding some effects in an image editor. They post it to their social media site. Even though it doesn’t say Copyright Artist Name 2013, it’s still a copyrighted image.

Sharing a ritual text

A Pagan group comes up with a ritual to celebrate the winter solstice. They share it on their website. While they’ve given permission for it to be used by members of the group, they do not give permission for others to copy it to their own sites (distribution or display), only to use it for their own rituals privately.

Photographs of stars and galaxies

Some things are automatically in the public domain. In the US, this includes things created by government or government agencies. For example, all the Astronomy Photos of the Day from NASA (but not necessarily other sources in the APOD site) are public domain because NASA is a government agency.

Coming next

Part 6 of this series will talk more about some common Pagan situations, including some best practices for avoiding copyright issues.

Course launch! You and Your Library

Welcome to course launch day!

My free course, You and Your Library is now available.

The course

How do you get access? 

Sign up (for free) and get access to all the material. The course is hosted on Teachable.com, but you can download the PDFs and read them anywhere you like.

What’s in it? 

This course is offered because I run into a lot of people who don’t know how libraries work, or all the things they can do

  • Different kinds of libraries and what they offer
  • How to learn more about library services.
  • How to find materials in libraries (and on library shelves)
  • How to explore a collection and find new things.
  • Useful library services you may not be aware of
  • Ways to get access to databases and books at other libraries.
  • A troubleshooting guide to help with some situations people run into.
  • Finding public libraries near you.

The course is divided into 5 parts with some supplemental material, and covers both Dewey and Library of Congress shelf numbers (what they mean and how to use them.)

Other news

Just want announcements of courses and other materials (not this chatty newsletter?). I have a list for that now too.  The announcement list will be very low traffic, just when I have something new.

Sign up for both or either (but I hope at least one of them!)

Coming in the near future

People of the Library : a Pagan-focused and Pagan-friendly guide to library services.

Some of the same topics as You and Your Library but with additional material for common Pagan research needs like useful databases to learn more about, Pagan-specific subject headings, and much more. Sign up for at least one of my newsletters to find out about it when it launches.

This course will cost $10 at launch.

Want to keep up to date?

I have a mailing list for announcements about new courses or other materials I release. Messages here are brief and to the point.

I have a website for my research help and consulting services, Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom.

And if you’re the sort of person who likes a chattier regular newsletter (every other week) with links, neat things I found online, research tips, and a few things of beauty, I have one of those too.

Got questions?

Use the contact form on my website and I’ll be glad to help with your questions.

Jenett’s quick guide to evaluating information

I got nudged by a friend to do a ramble about information evaluation. It might have gotten a little away from me.

Basic principles:

  • We all have biases and things we know more about than others.
  • Some people are more up front about this than other people.
  • Ditto goals. We all have them, some people are more up front about them.
  • Be really suspicious of the people who claim they have the absolute truth and are telling you for your own good.

(They probably don’t and they probably aren’t. Especially if you don’t have a preexisting trusting relationship. Real world stuff has fewer absolutes, for one thing.)

Information: A quick guide to information evaluation (image of a fountain pen and blank lined notebook)

Who is this person (or What is this source?)

Start with the basics. Who’s telling you this thing? What’s their background? If it’s a website without an individual author, what do you know about the site?

You may need to file this in “Need to do some more research” but knowing you need to do that is a great first step. First thing: check out the ‘about’ page, or a bio. Usually this will give you some hints on what they’re about and what they care about most.

If you’re not sure where to start with that, try searching the person’s name (plus maybe a term from the topics they write about, if you need to narrow it down) or search on the name of the site. Sometimes adding in words like ‘review’ or ‘about’ will help.

Even just knowing what kind of source this is can help. Personal website? Newspaper that’s actually well-known and reasonably respected (even if you don’t agree with them)? Pocket of internet culture you weren’t previously aware of? Political group hidden behind astroturfing techniques?

I sort things into “Probably reasonably competent”, “Dubious” and “Need more information”, personally.

Probably reasonably competent sources are those I’ve checked out before, and came up reasonably well sourced. I still need to check the specifics here, but they get some starting benefit of the doubt. Dubious sources are those that have come up short before. Everything else gets filed in ‘need more info’.

What are their goals?

Education? Information? Sell something? Share something gorgeous or fun or amusing? Are they trying to persuade you of something?

What do they get out of you believing them and taking them (or their information) seriously? Are they being up front and honest about that?

Here’s an example: sales sites are not the most fun thing ever, but there is something refreshingly honest about “Buy this thing from me and here’s why.” It’s clear what the people want, and usually pretty clear what’s involved in getting it.

On the other hand, a lot of sources in the political realm are trying to persuade you of things, but it’s not always clear what they’re trying to persuade you of. (Or whether they’re not trying to persuade you at all, but are instead signalling to their core base what they care about.)

This is often where you see a lot of vagaries and unsourced information that plays on emotions rather than treating you like the intelligent, thoughtful, considerate person I want to think you are.

Where did they get their information?

This is where we get to the meat of things. People who are saying trustworthy things should give you a way to check, or more information about how they know that.

When we’re talking to a friend, we put what they tell us in the context of all the other things we know about them. They’re reliable as anything with a ride when it’s important, lousy at getting stuff to the post office.

They have a lot of specific experience in dealing with Mercutian rabbits, and the last fifty things they told you about those rabbits turned out to be right, but they’re not nearly so reliable about Venusian wombats. And they’re normally great about Saturnian leopards, but there’s this one weird quirk, don’t trust their grooming recommendations.

When we’re reading a random website, we don’t have that. We can’t put some of what they’re saying in context without more information.

That’s why their sources matter. Do they tell us where they’re getting their info? If it’s unnamed experts and sources, be dubious. (Though there’s a link below with some more about how to evaluate this with more nuance.)

If they claim specific expertise, can you verify that or does it seem in line with what someone with that expertise would say? (If someone claims to be a lawyer or doctor or librarian and says stuff that is way outside what you’d expect, be dubious without more specifics. Maybe a lot more.)

When is this information from? Is this a topic where currency matters a lot? Some topics change fast, some don’t. Sometimes the info that debunks a current thing has been around for a while (so older info may still be helpful in sorting this out.)

What kind of source is this, and is the information presented in a way consistent with quality information in that kind of source? Reputable newspapers don’t generally go in for explicit personal insults or completely unverified sources. (Unless they’re quoting someone who used one.) Less reputable current events sources might.

Expect better of where you go to learn things. If they’re not giving you meaningful information, go to sources that that will. You can do better than speculation and gossip.

Other key tips

Beware of absolutes, especially in complex situations.

There just aren’t that many absolutes in the world. This is especially true when looking at expert statements: few experts will give 100% certainty. If they do, they will likely also be explaining why. Look for that explanation.

If a media source says something absolute, check into what the experts actually said, and what information they looked at to get there. Chances are pretty good the expert was not nearly so absolute about things.

Be dubious of things that are too good to be true, too weird, or too perfect.

Again, the world just isn’t like that very often. The more we realise that we live in a world that has a lot of shades of colour and nuance and different experiences in it, the sooner we’re going to get better at evaluating information effectively and using it well.

Is this a situation where there are strong emotions?

Sourcing is often not the top priority in these cases. Which is understandable, but just because someone’s having emotions all over the place doesn’t mean you have to use everything they tell you as the basis of your decisions.

Emotions don’t mean someone’s wrong, mind you.

It is, for example, pretty reasonable for someone to be emotional about a topic that has a major impact on their daily life, health, safety, family, or religion, if other people are treating it as a purely intellectual discussion. But a story that’s playing on your emotions to make you feel upset or riled up or righteously victorious, you should be suspicious of that.

If emotions are in play, and you’re not in the middle of the discussion, it’s usually better to pause and take a moment to look at what’s being said.

Who has real experience with this thing? Who doesn’t? How does what people are saying match up with other kinds of information you can find or your experience of people or situations? Who has what at stake? Is this a real person who has specific experiences, or is it a made up storm of emotion that’s trying to get you to react a certain way?

Some additional resources:

Here are a few additional links worth reading

This is only a beginning – there are lots of nuanced issues involved in how we find and evaluate information I haven’t even touched on here (like who decides what gets researched that you can refer to later.)

Sharing information effectively

I’ve been having conversations recently about sharing information, specifically the medium used. Not the complex things, like how you frame something differently, but the simple “When do you share a link? Text? A video?”

(We got into this because of the tendency of some people to link a whole bunch of videos without summaries or other content information as part of discussions – it especially happens with some threads of political discussion, but I’ve seen it on other topics, too.)

This lead me to three questions, a principle, and some discussion.

The questions:

1) Are you switching modes?

2) Are you asking for a chunk of someone else’s time, focus, energy, or attention (beyond what would be a reasonable part of the interaction they’re currently in.)

3) What does this add to the conversation in the place you’re already in?

Here’s the principle. Use material outside the space you’re currently talking in as supporting material, not the core of your contribution. Give people a reason to consider taking time for the content.

If you don’t do that, and you browbeat people for not using a different kind of content in the way you want, well, that’s not an honest discussion, is it? People are going to notice that.

1) Are you switching modes?

I started thinking about this because of someone linking to uncontexted videos in a text-based discussion on a site that is set up for longform text discussion.

But it’s also true if you link to a PDF in a text discussion. If you are on Twitter and link a podcast episode. If you’re listening to a podcast episode or the radio and they reference visual materials. In a short-form text format (texts, Twitter, Facebook) linking to a lengthy news story on another site.

All of these are about switching modes. Sometimes, that’s really appropriate and informative. But if it’s handled poorly, it can leave a bad taste in the mouth. Personally, it makes me less likely to take other things someone says seriously.

Here’s the thing. Handling it well is pretty simple.

If you are switching modes, tell people that you are. Give them a brief summary so they can decide when and how they might want to explore that.

Things to include:

  • What’s the format you’re linking to?
  • Why are you dropping it into this conversation?
  • How much content is it? (Especially for video or audio.)
  • What are the key points, if someone can’t watch/listen/read/access it?
  • Any major accessibility notes. (Is it purely an image? Not captioned? Only auto-captioned?)

You don’t need to be extremely precise about these things: a brief summary will be really helpful in the vast majority of cases.

It can also be very helpful to identify a specific part (particularly in a longer work) that is relevant to the conversation or that you’d like to discuss more.

Example summaries

(All examples entirely made up.)

Video link:

There’s a great video that illustrates this perspective. It’s about 20 minutes, from ExampleUser on YouTube. Auto-captioned, but the speaker is facing the camera. The part most relevant here starts at about 10:30, about the purple rabbits.

 

PDF link:

There’s a PDF that goes into this. About 50 pages, but the opening summary is the part I’m interested in, especially the discussion of how they chose people to interview.

 

Images being discussed on a podcast:

You can find the image from our show notes for this episode on our website, but the important parts are the claws, which are about eight inches, and were used for digging burrows.

 

Linking to a long detailed source:

Much more detail at this link – about 20,000 words. The discussion of previous experience is about a third of the way through, and there’s a significant chunk of citations at the end.

 

Referencing a much longer work (a book, in this case)

I got most of this from a really great book, called Finding All The Things, by Named Author. The book’s quite long, but I found it worthwhile and recommend it to anyone who’s really interested in how our current search algorithms got developed.

 

Audio track

Here’s a version of the song (about 6 minutes) via YouTube. Lyrics on the screen.

 

You can see here that these examples are brief, and should be pretty straightforward to explain if you’re familiar with the content you’re sharing. None of them require extensive additional time on your end , but they’re tremendously helpful to people trying to figure out if they should click through or make time for this, and why.

They also help someone continue the conversation even if they can’t take in that piece of material now (or anytime soon).

2) Are you demanding someone’s time?

People have a lot of things going on in their lives. What those are will be different for each person.

You don’t get to decide how they spend their time. (Unless you’re paying them, or have an agreement about that.)

Often when people won’t click through to videos, or point out accessibility issues, they get a “Well, it’s less time than Game of Thrones” (or whatever the current TV of choice is. (Like people who are poor get the “Well, stop buying a daily cup at Starbucks.”)

That’s making a false equation.

I set out what my day looks like when it comes to information consumption in a previous post. Your day probably looks pretty different, but the point is, there’ll be some things that are easier for you or fit more comfortably in your day, and some that don’t.

(Key points if you don’t want to read that post: I read very fast, so I can consume most written content much more quickly than video or audio. I can listen to some podcasts while at work, but my time to watch video content is pretty limited and it competes with a number of other things I want to do like writing or projects.)

Example : me

If I’m watching a video for content, I want to pay attention to it – and my time for that is pretty limited, both by time slot and by attention. My current backlog of “Video I know I’d like to watch but requires more attention than I can usually manage after work” is currently well over 20 hours, and growing.

So, if you link me to a video, it’s competing with that 20 hours (plus all the other things I’d like to do), but if you give me text, I will get through it much faster.

Other people might be quite different. They might find it harder to get through text, and have an easier time with audio (or a longer commute or a job where they could listen more than I do.)

There are some tendencies, though. Video tends to be least accessible. Someone doing a long commute on public transit might have more time, but they might also have data or battery limits. Someone at home with young kids might not want to expose those kids (or themselves!) to random undescribed content from an internet stranger.

There are also accessibility issues to think about – I’ll get to those at the end of this post.

3) What does this add to the conversation?

People having a conversation in a particular place have probably chosen to spend time in that place for a reason – often because the format and kind of conversation suits them for some reason. Even if it’s not ideal for them, if they spend a bunch of time there, they’ve probably figured out how to make it work for their specific preferences.

(Obviously, many of us are somewhat flexible about this: we may use a format that’s not our favourite because someone we really like talking to strongly prefers it, or needs it. There are reasons I’m hanging out on Twitter more than I used to.)

The people in a space are there because they want to have conversations with the other people there. At least spaces that are focused on conversation (rather than one-to-many content or one-upsmanship.)

The more time you’re asking someone to spend, the more that’s important to remember.

Thinking about proportions

If I’m in a text-based discussion, and the comments are a few hundred words each, each comment is going to take me a minute or so to read. (And most comments will be shorter than that…)

If we’re in the middle of that kind of exchange, and you suddenly want me to watch 45 minutes of video, you’re asking me to spend 20 times as many minutes on your comment as I am on every other comment in the conversation.

If you want me to do that, it’s up to you to tell me what’s so compelling and why it’s worth that significant a proportion of time.

The same thing is true if you want me to read a long PDF, or work my way through a complicated flow chart graphic, or read a bunch of interconnected discussions with many links and hundreds or thousands of comments.

Expecting people to spend 45 minutes of their time on the thing you think is important, when it’s off to the side of the main conversation is unrealistic. People might spend 5, but more than that, and they probably want to know why it matters.

Giving a summary, and a “If you want more, here’s where I got more about that” is a good start.

In other words, use the links and other modes of content as supporting evidence, not your only contribution.

Talking in your own words about what a source or approach does for you is ideal – that’s you talking, and they’re in a conversation with you, directly, not with your video (or audio or PDF or whatever) link.

If you just want to monologue, well, that’s a different thing. Monologues are fine things! But don’t blame people for deciding not to be in dialogue with them, and doing something else with their time.

Accessibility

The final piece of this is that not all types of content are equally accessible.

If someone is an ongoing and active user of a particular site, you can probably assume they’ve sorted out ways of using it that work for them (at least well enough.) If they’re not on the other site you link to, though? Maybe it’s not accessible to them.

Someone might be visually impaired, and not able to get anything out of that really gorgeous but badly described infographic or chart. Or that PDF may be so badly organised it will take as long to navigate it as to get a sense of the content.

Someone might have hearing impairments and the thing you linked to has lousy auto-captioning. Even when the captioning’s okay, it takes extra time and energy for them to figure out who’s speaking and to sort out context cues that others can hear (like background noises, music cues, or who’s speaking.)

Someone may find some sites frustrating or impossible to use for design reasons. They may have medical conditions affected by flashing images or lights, and not want to watch videos without someone checking that’s okay. They may have specific experiences that mean they’re strongly affected by some kinds of content, images, or sounds, and watching those things (especially without warning) will mess them up for hours or days.

Someone may have young kids at home or just not care to listen to some kinds of language or content themselves. (Or at least not without some warning and a chance to prepare.)

Someone may have medical issues that make concentration and focus precious things. They may find it much less tiring to process text than audio or video, or short text compared to longform conversations. Switching from one location to another online often changes these things too.

Someone may get most of their online access from work or school (so some sites may be blocked, or some content could get them in trouble). Others may have limited data or technology access, so they can only watch videos in specific places (and need to balance that against other tasks.) Some people may be in a public internet space and not want to click on unknown sites, or be using a network that has filtering.

You probably know these things about your close friends. (I hope so, anyway!) But you probably don’t know many of them about someone in a given online conversation.

Long story short

Pointing people at undescribed content isn’t a good way to get them to engage with your points. If you care about the conversation, give them some content in the context you’re all currently talking, and take a sentence or three to explain what you’re linking to.

It feels weird to explain this, but clearly, it’s a thing a lot of people on the Net haven’t adequately internalised yet.