How catalogues work: algorithms

The last part of how catalogues work is looking at algorithms.

( was not a computer science major. This is going to be the non-technical discussion.

Also, the two links I mention here are from 2016, and technology has moved on a bit, as technology does, but these are good illustrations of my specific points.

Catalogues: Wooden chest of old-fashioned catalogue cards

What is an algorithm?

A good definition is that an algorithm is a step by step way of doing this. This video from the University of Washington notes that sorting your laundry is an algorithm (is it a white shirt? This pile, these things get washed together. Is it a red shirt? That goes in a different pile. Does it need special treatment? Follow these steps.) The video’s a great overview of the topic in a couple of minutes.

Computers are extremely fast at doing this kind of step, but how successful the algorithm is depends on what the people programming the algorithm have told it to do.

An important digression

The fact that human beings design these lists is a particularly business-centered reason why diversity in technology (and in companies in general) is such a big deal – people who have different backgrounds, life experiences, or ways of looking at the world are going to think about different things in the design process,. When that’s managed well, a diverse group will likely come up with algorithms and other programming that work much better for a wider range of people.

(An example here – though it is a legitimately sort of complicated record keeping – is that the Apple Health app didn’t include any menstrual cycle tracking for a long time, and it’s still much more rudimentary than some other apps. If your body does things outside of the expected timeframe, you have fewer options.)

What does this mean for catalogues?

Some of the things a catalogue uses an algorithm for are pretty straightforward. Sorting a list by the last name of the author, or the title of the work, or the year it was published is pretty simple, so long as the data is consistent.

What data might be inconsistent? An example would be if the date formats swap between United States standard dating (Month-Day-Year) and the Day-Month-Year common in parts of Europe, your results are going to be confusing. Good data is essential to sorting and organising your catalogue.

(This is why I am spending my summer cleaning up a lot of data in our catalogue at work. This week, this has meant hours of moving identifying file numbers from the format area, where they shouldn’t be anyway, to a different area, and making sure the correct format is actually entered.

We can automate some kinds of data changes, but this one requires moving data into a different field, and we don’t have an easy way to do that automatically.)

Where it gets complicated

However, once we get into things where there is a bit more of a value judgement.

What kinds of images should we get if we search on “beautiful”?

One of the examples that has stuck with me the most was something illustrated in a keynote Dr. Safiya Noble illustrated in the keynote she gave at the LibTech conference in 2016 (LibTech is my favourite library conference for a reason) It’s worth noting this was given in March of 2016, and she talks about the manipulation of algorithms and the effect on elections….

In her keynote, she did an illustration where she did a search on “Beautiful” and at that time the algorithm turned up a lot of landscapes (that were really gorgeous). But if you searched on ‘beautiful woman’, you turned up white women (and white women of a particular kind when it came to facial structure, hair, body size, and a bunch of other characteristics’. That’s what happens when human programming goes awry, or is not sufficiently questioned.

And if you tried searches like “black girls”, you got a whole different set of results, and much more mixed ones in terms of positive and negative.

So, when your library catalogue tells you you can sort by ‘relevance’ or gives you options for ‘similar topics’, there are probably a lot of different things at play. Usually, there’s software decisions in there somewhere. Some of these may be accessible to the library staff, others may be decided by the software programmers, and the librarians may have no idea how it works.

(In our new catalogue, we can choose which things to weight more – so for example, we could choose to weight phrases in the abstract (where we put a summary of the content) more than the title, or less than the title (depending on what decided). We haven’t played around with this much yet, but it’s a way to help refine options for people.)

Even more complicated

Large companies – Google, Amazon, Facebook, any of the big ones – also look at your reactions to what you click on, where you spend time, what you click away from and when (and where you go to) – because it helps them create vast maps of data they can use. Sometimes this is really handy (like when Amazon’s list of also-boughts shows you a book you love and you had no idea it existed, or Spotify’s algorithm suggests music you really like.)

Sometimes it’s a lot creepier and more awful. There’s a famous story, when it comes to algorithms, of Target figuring out a teenager was pregnant based on other purchases before her father found out about it, based entirely on purchases that were not specifically intended for a baby, but rather things like body lotion, a larger purse, two common supplements, and a bright blue rug.

And of course, it gets even scarier if we start talking about government agencies making decisions about who can get visas, fly, or do many other kinds of things, based on algorithms and data management decisions that are obscured to the end user of the information.

What you should take away from this

Trusting a computer on fairly simple sorts (like title or author or date) is fine – but if the computer is suggesting related items, and you care about getting a wider range of options, or you are concerned about implicit bias in how a system designed by unknown people might work, that’s a good time to do some more digging, or to try a variety of searches with specific parameters so that you get a sense of what is there, what’s recommended, and maybe what isn’t.

Simply knowing more about algorithms will also give you a lot more choices and awareness.

How catalogues work: editorial influence

There are several places in a catalogue where there’s a degree of what might best be called editorial influence. More bluntly put, it’s people (at some degree) making decisions about these things, and those decisions come with biases, both good and bad.

We also use algorithms and those algorithms have biases, and that’s a different topic (and one for next week.)

Words mean things

Those words we use as a controlled vocabulary come from somewhere. Humans came up with them – humans with all their virtues and all their biases.

Sometimes, terms were recommended by experts in the field, or people who knew a topic intimately. (Those aren’t always the same thing!) Both these perspectives bring history and assumptions with them that may or may not fit in with the larger collection or way terms are arranged.

Sometimes those terms were the current thing at a particular time, but we have come to new understanding (this is true for a lot of terms about gender identity and sexual orientation, and also for terms around neurodiversity, and around topics like disability.)

Sometimes topics are entirely new – as technology changes, we need to come up with words to help us find things about it. Do we catalogue it by the current tech device, or do we use a more general term, because the iPhone X of today is going to be barely in service in five years, and mostly forgotten in fifteen?

Sometimes we have to pick one – like my exaple in earlier posts, you sometimes need to pick an option so that you have one main subject heading, rather than making people search through

  • Cat
  • Cats
  • Felines
  • House cats
  • Kitties
  • Pussy cats
  • Fuzzballs who take over the bed

(Ok, that last one isn’t very likely.)

Some of these terms are more clinical than others. Some are questions of ‘do we make a standard of singular or plural for groups of things’? Some are ‘do we include a common nickname or slang term’. Some terms might be more historically dated than others.

Why does this matter, anyway?

This might not seem like a big deal with cats – but it can be a bigger deal if you’re talking about health information, or topics where there’s often a difference between experience of a thing and professional knowledge and training about a thing.

(Dealing with the legal system as a person dealing with a crime versus lawyers and judges. Dealing with a health issue as a person experiencing a problem versus being a doctor or nurse or health care professional.)

Sometimes terms can bias our assumptions about results. I mentioned the issue with the Library of Congress wanting to drop ‘illegal alien’ and use other terms, and being blocked by Congress (because of the role the Library of Congress plays with the actual work of Congress and the need to reflect the terms used in the laws.)

Individual library systems may decide to change their terms for these kinds of topics, to create a more welcoming and diverse environment in various ways and to reflect the needs of their particular communities.

That part, of course, is where it can get complicated. Libraries are aware that they’re serving the people who come into their building (many of whom do so fairly anonymously: librarians don’t know what you look at on the shelf, and many libraries deliberately do as little tracking of activities, loans, and other user-specific details as they can get away with, to preserve patron privacy.)

But libraries also serve people who never come into them. Not just the people who use online resources (libraries can see what’s getting used), but libraries should also be thinking about all the people who don’t use their services but could.

This is most easily illustrated by public libraries, since they serve a particular location. A library might notice that they’re seeing some types of people use the library regularly, and may be able to tell from demographic information about their area that they’re not seeing some groups as often as they should be.

Sometimes that’s about the words we choose. Whether people can see themselves reflected in the library and the catalogue and the displays.

Who decides subject headings for a work?

There is also a degree of editorial influence on who sets the subject headings.

Large publishers often suggest them – you may see this in the front of the book, on the copyright page. Below the legal information, there will be some suggested subject headings and call numbers. Libraries don’t have to listen to that, but in practice they often do unless there’s a specific reason to overrule them.

In other cases, it may be a central cataloger (in a large library system) or an individual librarian. It’s hard to tell!

Generally, no one in this process (except maybe someone on the publisher’s end) has read the whole book, and the subject headings will reflect the large topics in the book, not specific ones.

People will also pick how specific the subject headings are. For example, do you pick United States – History or Massachusetts – History? Or maybe Women – United States – History – 20th Century. (Here’s a page explaining some of the options from New York University.)

Next time, a brief look at algorithms and how they affect searches. (It’s a huge topic)

How catalogues work: figuring out search terms

One key step in using catalogues is figuring out search terms.

Catalogues: Wooden chest of old-fashioned catalogue cards

What kinds of searches can you do?

In most electronic catalogues you can search by all sorts of things.

Many libraries have gone to the single search box (popularised by Google). Technically, this is called a keyword search, and it usually searches all the text in the record.

Pro: You don’t need to guess which field a given thing might be in, and searching on things that aren’t subject headings but show up in the title or blurb will still come up.

Con: You can get a lot of false results that don’t actually have what you want, especially if you’re searching for commonly used words.

If you end up with all sorts of results that don’t help you, two things can help. First, there’s probably an option somewhere on that first search screen that says something like ‘advanced search’. Second, once you do a search, you may be presented with some options to help you filter the results.

Advanced search

Depending on the catalog, you will usually see a variety of options that let you limit your search in different ways. Common ones include:

  • Searching just the author, subject, or title fields.
  • Searching a range of years.
  • Limiting the results to a particular format, location (for systems with multiple locations), or sometimes specific collections (like juvenile books), or languages.

You may need to do a little digging in the help information (likely also linked from the search form) to understand your options in detail.

Limiting results

It’s sometimes (okay, often) a lot easier to start with a keyword search and then limit your results in different ways.

In my library’s catalog, I can limit by the following, to give you an example:

  • Location (so I can find books in my local library)
  • Availability (books I can get right now, either in a library or online)
  • Whether the search term is found in the title or subject
  • Format (book, ebook, audiobook, etc.)
  • What collections it is in (this distinguishes library and children or adult)
  • Places the book takes place

And then it shows me related searches, including established subject terms, and some additional suggestions.

Understanding subject headings

In practical terms, you are probably not going to do what librarians do to learn about subject headings.

(For the curious, this involves most library schools require a class in cataloging that includes a lot of the specifics. Then you go out into the world and spend a lot of time starting at instructions and hoping you’re doing it right, punctuated by asking other people if you are.)

Individual libraries also have their own policies – the library I work at has set up a list of keywords instead of official subject headings, because a lot of our needs aren’t represented in them (or are using terms that aren’t a great fit for us – they’re dated, they draw from specialities that aren’t the terms the people who use us will use, or both!)

As a library catalog user, my best tip is for you to look for hints about what kinds of terms will work. Fortunately, these are pretty straightforward

1) Try searches

One of the best tips for getting your bearings in a new catalogue (by which I mean one that’s new to you) is to try some searches of items you’re pretty sure are in there, and that are reasonably similar for other items you want to look for.

Ideally, these will be the same subject (generally speaking) as the items you want, but if you’re not sure about that, at least try for the same topic area – if you want to do searches about religious information, try other religious titles or topics. If you’re looking for history, try other historical things. And so on.

The goal here is to do a few searches and see what comes up and how the search terms work.

2) Linked subjects

In many library catalogs, you have the option to click on the subject headings to find other items with that subject heading. This can be tremendously helpful once you find one book that’s what you want. (Of course, it’s finding that first thing that can be tricky!)

You may want to add several books to a wish list or cart (whatever the catalog uses) or bookmark them before you go too far astray in your searches, so you can get back to your starting point again easily.

If you’re having trouble with searches, try simpler ones – for example, if you’re trying to search an entire title, try

3) Look for known books or topics that should be in the collection.

For example, for modern Pagan materials, I often suggest people try Scott Cunningham’s Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner, or Starhawk’s Spiral Dance. Both are commonly held by most moderate to large library systems, and they’ll give you a starting place for what terms are being used.

In my local library system, Cunningham’s book comes up with the subject headings “witchcraft”, “magic”, and “ritual”.

That’s a hint that I probably want to check ‘witchcraft’ as well as ‘Wicca’ as subject headings.

(This is because older books were cataloged before Wicca became an official Library of Congress subject heading around 2006 or 2007 – libraries don’t generally go back and recatalog subject headings unless there’s a very significant reason to, because it’s a big cost of staff time.

Something like ‘witchcraft’ and ‘Wicca’ where it can be tricky to figure out exactly which heading applies to some books, and where ‘witchcraft’ is still accurate, if a bit more general ideal, is less likely to get edited than, say, a library that is fixing or updating subject headings to reflect current understanding of gender identity or sexual orientation or legal issues.)

4) Check the ‘about’ for information or ask a librarian.

Still stuck? Check the library’s help information or ask a librarian for help – you can ask general questions, and they can help you navigate.

If you don’t want to (or can’t get to) the physical library easily, most libraries have an option for email or chat help these days, at least some of the time.

How catalogues work: Controlled vocabulary

Today’s discussion of catalogues is about how you find things by topic. I talked about some of this in my post from March about personal libraries, but I want to talk more here about how libraries select subject terms.

Catalogues: Wooden chest of old-fashioned catalogue cards

It’s mysterious

Let’s be honest. A lot of the process librarians use to select subject terms is pretty mysterious. That’s because we’re trying to label quite complex things in a very complex world, and we’re using a variety of tools to do it, because outside of very very small collections (relatively speaking – in practice, this is probably a couple of thousand books at the smallest), it’s too big for anyone to keep in their head.

On the good side, this means people have to write things down, which makes long-term consistency easier, and which can help us see patterns.

On the bad side, it means things can feel (and be) very rigid, or slow to change, or complicated to navigate. All of which can make things a lot less accessible or useful. And the speed of change often means terms don’t reflect current understanding of things like identity, culture, or communities.

So where do these terms come from?

In libraries, libraries usually pick a set of subject headings to use. The subject headings act as a controlled vocabulary (which basically means ‘we have a fixed set of terms we choose from.) Like I explained in the post last March, this is what helps us avoid using all of these terms for the same thing:

  • felines
  • cats
  • cat
  • domesticated cat

Sometimes we might want to make distinctions (domestic cats as compared to lions or tigers or snow leopards), but if we don’t, we want to pick one term and settle on it.

Libraries use one of a couple of common lists for subject headings. The most common, probably, are the Library of Congress. These are very extensive (it takes up about 20 volumes as print books on a shelf) but the fact the Library of Congress deals with so many different topics means that it’s often quite slow to make adjustments.

For example, the addition of the word “Wicca” as a subject heading only took place in about 2004, and only after a petition from a librarian. (This is often the way changes get made: one or more librarians notice that a term needs adding or improving or changing, and they provide evidence.) The term ‘Wicca’ had been in broad general use since the 1950s and 60s, so that’s about 50 years.

This isn’t always simple – here’s a story of attempts in 2016 to get the terms ‘aliens’ and ‘illegal aliens’ changed, and how the support from librarians and library associations for a student-led project ran smack into issues of law.

(Why does Congress get a say in this, you might be wondering? The Library of Congress’s first job is to provide resources for Congress and members of Congress. Makes sense if you think about the name.)

One other important note is that many libraries don’t have the resources to go back and catalogue older items to the new subject headings – so you may see pointers from new terms to check older terms as well. (This depends a lot on the library and the priority of the topic.)

Who assigns the terms?

Good question. In many cases, the subject headings are primarily assigned by whoever it is at the Library of Congress assigns the headings for that particular item. These are likely people who have some experience in the general field or area of the books, but you can usually assume they’re not experts or specialists in all the nuances of the field or topic.

(In other words, they’re not going to get really nuanced about choosing, say, a term of magic or ritual in a Pagan setting. They may assign them both.)

Usually terms are based on the few most obvious and relevant topic. If something is mentioned for less than a chapter or two, it almost certainly won’t get a subject heading unless it’s something really unusual. For a full length nonfiction book, you can usually expect 3-5 subject headings.

You can also assume the person doing the cataloguing probably hasn’t read the book. Cataloguers don’t have time for that! They’re relying on the blurb on the back and things like skimming the table of contents. Publishers can also suggest subject headings or terms to include.

Some libraries do have their own cataloguers evaluate materials and add or edit terms. This is particularly true for things like local history or other items of particular local interest.

Or a school library might assign a heading for particular regular class assignments or projects, to make it easier to find those items. (There are other ways to group things, too.) Some libraries do a “Best resource” subject heading to make it easy to find the best resources in a topic. (Mine does this.)

Next week, more about working with search terms in practice.

How catalogues work: Search

Welcome to part 2 of my series on catalogues. In this part, I’m going to talk a bit about different kinds of searches you might want to be able to do.

Skills and tools : Glasses and pen resting on sheets of printed music

Keyword

This is the kind of search many of us are most familiar with today is a keyword search. You know, the kind where you. get presented with a search box, and you type words in, and sometimes the thing you want comes out the other end?

Keyword searches basically search anywhere in the searchable text for a word or phrase (depending on how things are set up). This can be really helpful, or really horrible.

Helpful

Keyword searches can be great because you don’t have to remember what kind of information the thing you’re searching for is. And you don’t have to figure out how it might be organised in the thing you’re searching. The word matches or it doesn’t.

They’re also fantastic for something we’re doing at work – instead of having hundreds of subject headings that get used for just one thing (a person, a device or software program, a tool), we’re making sure those are in the abstract, and then assigning more general subject headings.

That way, people can both look at groups of things (handy in a rapidly changing setting like technology) and also find specific tools or people if they need to.

Horrible

The downside to keyword searching is that if the word is only in one place in the record, and there’s a typo or something else that affects how the word is entered, you won’t ever find that record.

That’s also true if someone uses a similar word to the one you’re searching on – but not the exact one. (Remember what I said in part one, about libraries not having cutting-edge computing power?)

For example, in some systems, “cat” and “cats” may be treated as different words, and typos or alternate spellings definitely will be. There’s a word that is all over our work catalog, but it is sometimes spelled with a hyphen and sometimes no hyphen (the two parts of the word together) and our catalogue searches these as different things.

Depending on the system, the catalogue may adapt some things for you, but it probably won’t be as wide-ranging as your favourite search engines.

Somewhere in between

One of the challenges of keyword searching is that you need to have terms that are unique enough to make a search find what you want – and sometimes that’s going to be really challenging.

I was part of a long-term Harry Potter project – it ran for 7 years, and over those years, we averaged 100 emails many days. As you can imagine, a lot of them had very similar terms and names in them, so we had to learn to figure out other ways to search email to find specific details (and since it was such a long project, sometimes those details were a year or two back, and relied on someone’s memory of what term we were using.)

This eventually drove me to create a wiki for the project that ended up with 9000+ pages, but that’s a whole other story…. (And set of posts.)

This is where learning to think about your keyword searches in more complex ways (such as using multiple terms, using boolean searches, or using ways to filter or limit the results) can be a big help.

Boolean?

You may remember hearing about this in library classes back in your education somewhere. Boolean is the term for doing searches that are joined by AND, OR, or NOT.

(You don’t usually actually have to capitalise the terms, and some systems may use symbols instead of words, but people often do when explaining them because it makes it a lot easier to figure out what’s going on. On some systems, you can select them from drop-down menus.)

AND means you want results that match all the items you list with AND. For example, “cats AND dogs” will return only those items that talk about both cats and dogs.

OR means you want anything that mentions either of them (or any of them, if you have more than two terms.) In this case, “cats OR dogs” would return any page that has “cats” on it, any page that has “dogs”, and also any pages that have both terms.

NOT means that it won’t return pages that have the term indicated by the NOT. So, “cats NOT dogs” would give you all the pages about cats, but not any that mention dogs. This one can be tricky because it would also leave out things like “Cats are not like dogs at all!” or “This is the page for people who love cats, no dogs here.”

In many search tools for catalogues, you can do different combinations – for example, you could say you wanted to search all items mentioning cats or dogs (keyword search), and then say you didn’t want a particular format (NOT book, in the format search).

Other tips

In some search tools, you can also do more complex searches. Usually, you can find out about the options by looking for the search help information, or sometimes an advanced search tool.

Some common options include:

1) Searching on a phrase.

Usually, this is done by putting quotes around the phrase. “Sun and moon”, for example. Normally this will search for the exact words in that order.

2) Limiting results in different ways.

These can include by date (usually you can specify a range, with some common ones being pre-set, like ‘last month’ or ‘last year’.) It can include things like ‘this email has an attachment’. It can include multiple search fields.

A lot of this depends on context and your particular technology.

3) Type of resource

In some tools, you can search by different types of resource ( for example, on Google, you can search on word or phrase, and then also look for images, news stories, videos, etc. each of which have some additional tools

Next up, talking about controlled vocabulary and why it is both handy and complicated.

4) Not finding expected results?

Sometimes you’ll do a search, and you’ll get very different results than you expected – you know there are things about that in the thing you’re searching. If that’s the case, try a simpler search (just the title or just a phrase from the subtitle, for example). Sometimes a symbol will do something you didn’t expect (in our catalogue at work, a colon will tell the computer to do a ‘from X to Y’ search, so you get really weird results when you put a colon between a title and subtitle if you don’t put the whole thing in quotation marks.)

Usually the help information or the library staff can help you sort this out.

How catalogues work: An introduction

We’re working on a major catalogue update at work, which has me thinking a lot about how people use catalogues, databases, and other collections of information.

In talking about our new catalogue, I’ve also been reminded that most people don’t know how these things work, or what might be useful to them – so it seems like a great time for a short series of posts about that.

Catalogues: Wooden chest of old-fashioned catalogue cards

The basics

So, the first thing we should start with is what’s a catalogue?

For libraries, a catalogue is a highly specialised database that holds information about books in the collection. Often these are parts of an Integrated Library System, or ILS, that tracks a whole bunch of things. Sometimes the catalogue only does pieces of it.

Common things included:

  • Information about works in the collection (such as title, author, publisher, publication information, call number, subject headings). This is sometimes referred to as the bibliographic record.
  • Information about particular items in the collection, i.e. each actual thing that’s on the shelf (or however it’s stored or accessed). This is sometimes called a ‘holding’ record (because it describes the holdings of the library).
  • Loan information about specific items in the collection and who has them.
  • Information about electronic resources (sometimes this might be a link to them, sometimes systems pull in all the things in a database so you can search for them all in one place.)
  • Additional resources the library has chosen to add (documents, files, etc.)

These records may have public notes (things to help library users) or staff-only notes (to help staff manage resources and answer questions.)

Again, not every library will have all these things.

Our collection at work has bibliographic records, but doesn’t have separate holdings records (all the information about all our copies is in a single record: this is sometimes a bit clunky, but it works okay for us because we don’t check a lot of items out.)

Likewise, we don’t have a separate circulation (or loan) module – all the loan information is in the record. Library users can’t see it, because it doesn’t display to them, just to the tools staff uses.

(In some libraries, this would be a problem, but in our library, there’s just one and a half staff members, and we both need to have access to it. The library assistant usually deals with loans and circulation, but if she’s on vacation or something comes up, I need to be able to see what’s going on and make changes too.)

Metadata

When you put information into a catalogue, you are collecting metadata – that’s the term for ‘information about a thing’.

My favourite explanation of metadata comes from a Scientific American piece from 2012 that used Santa Claus and Christmas lists as examples. Go read it, if you’re not sure how metadata works, I’ll wait for you.

So, metadata about books includes the title, author, publication information. It might also include things like if a book is considered a particularly good resource, or is on a recommendation list. It might include if it was donated (and if so, by who). All kinds of things can be metadata.

Libraries have some commonly used systems for formatting it. A lot of libraries still use MARC (which stands for Machine Readable Cataloging record). Here’s a longish explanation from the Library of Congress about the details. This provides the structure for the data.

Besides the structure, there needs to be consistency in how you write things down. For a long time, libraries used the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules (AACR or AACR2 for the 2nd edition, etc.) but now a lot of libraries use RDA or Resource Description and Access.

Why all the rules?

Computers are still fairly stupid – they’re really quick at matching up things we tell them with things that they have stored, but they need a lot of help to match up things like typos or alternate ways of phrasing things.

(Google, Amazon, and the other tech giant companies have huge amounts of resources and lots of cutting edge design capabilities to make that work. Your average library just doesn’t. Your average library is probably pretty excited if their staff computers are less than four years old.)

So, in order for the computer to match things up, the library needs to be using consistent words (what’s called a “Controlled vocabulary” for things like subject headings and formats) and an underlying structure.

What does this mean in practice?

A lot of what I’m doing in our new catalogue right now is setting up that structure and arranging the different screens so they do what we want.

For example, we have a lot of options on the screen to add things to the catalogue, but when we edit things, we’re usually only editing a couple of specific pieces. So I set it up so those are at the top of the screen, and then we can get to everything else if we need to, but don’t have to scroll to get to it.

(You have no idea how exciting this is, when you’ve been spending years having to scroll down a very similar-appearing form to look for one specific field.)

But another big part of what I’m working on is fixing things so we’re using a smaller list of terms for things like format and location. That means people will be able to filter usefully by them, which will be amazing.

(This is going to take months and months. Fixing the formats and locations are pretty quick, but we have 14,000 subject headings, and a lot of them are tiny variants or typos of the ones we actually want.)

Planning a presentation

One of the things about research is that sometimes you want to tell people about it (or need to tell people about it.)

The details of what makes a great presentation depend a bit on what you’re doing and who you’re presenting to, but since I just did one in March and I’m preparing another one for early June at work, now seems a good time to talk a bit about my process in case it’s helpful to anyone else.

Skills and tools : Glasses and pen resting on sheets of printed music

Preparing in advance

Among writers, one of the commonly phrased distinctions is between plotters (people who plot their writing in advance) and pantsers (as in ‘writing by the seat of their…’, who make it up as they go along.)

I think there’s something similar with presentations. I’m the kind of person who starts thinking about what I’m doing months in advance. I tease a friend who starts thinking about slides a couple of weeks in advance, if that.

On the other hand, if you’re putting together slides, you do need to leave some time to do that, because the process of making the things always takes longer than you think it’s going to.

(Or is that just me? I don’t think it’s just me.)

Timing

One of the biggest factors in presentations is the question of time, so that’s where I always start.

There are different styles of presenting – some of them are about personal preference, some are about the style asked for in whatever you’re doing, and some are a mix. Obviously, if there’s a set format (like pecha kucha, which is popular in tech conferences and some library settings)

The presentation I did in March was just me for a full hour, so I had a lot of freedom about how to structure it. The one in June is a panel discussion where I get maybe 15 minutes. Obviously, there’s a lot of difference in how much content I can fit.

Some people do relatively few slides, and spend a lot of time on them. I more generally prefer very brief slides, with about 30 seconds on most of them and lingering on them. (I usually fall into this, though it depends on the presentation.)

Another factor is whether the slides are getting distributed after. If my slides are mostly for the presentation factor and not getting distributed as notes afterwards, I usually go for fewer words (and I also generally do a text-based writeup – I often do this if I have lots of links or things I want to explain briefly.)

If my slides are the principle information people are getting, then I’ll use more words, and I’ll structure it so the slides and presenter comments sections cover the key information, and then I can share the notes and people can make sense of the content.

Arranging material

I find it really helpful to set up slides and then move things around as I develop the presentation. It usually looks like this:

1) Pick a theme if I need to (work makes this easy: there’s a set one we’re supposed to use.)

2) Set up the title slide and a slide at the end for questions and contact information. With professional presentations, I usually know what the title is by this point because I had to come up with something for the program.

3) Make a slide for each big point I want to make.

4) As I work through the content, make additional slides as I need to break things down more, or need more space. Doing this by clumps of content works best for me.

5) Periodically review the entire deck and see what needs to be moved around, or duplicates itself, or needs a bit more expansion.

(In the slide deck I’m currently creating at work, I realised that I really needed to back up and explain things for two slides before I got into the content, to put something in better context. I don’t want to dwell on it in detail, but I need to remember that most people in the room don’t live and breathe the details!)

6) Somewhere in here, putting some images in is good.

I’m not a visually driven person – I’m just as happy with well-chosen text-based design (like a big word or short phrase on a slide, with maybe some additional text below)

But other people like images, so I look for ways to include them (and then include alt-text and other appropriate captioning and description for accessibility.) The current presentation has images of the people and places I’m talking about. If I’m just looking for decorative images, Unsplash is a great source for public domain images.

7) Edit the presentation to a reasonable length

For me, this is no more than one slide per minute, and I may make further cuts depending.

8) Time the presentation.

This is when I run through the presentation (usually two or three times) to get a sense for timing and what information I need a bit more time on or what can be cut or combined.

9) Save in all the formats

Having had enough glitches, I bring a copy on USB, save a copy in a format I can get to via Google Drive or email, and usually save a copy in an alternate format (PDF) as well in both places. Just in cases.

Presenting

The actual process of presenting is pretty straight-forward:

1) Test the technology early.

The conference in March was great – they let me get in the room, get my file on the computer used with the projector, all when I first arrived. Sometimes that’s not possible.

2) Get to the room before my presentation with plenty of time.

I usually do a quick pause by the bathroom, make sure I have water, and then go there without lingering after the previous section. (If there’s 15 minutes between presentations, this usually works fine: I’m there at least 10 minutes in advance.)

3) Get the slides up, and any handouts out where people can get them. Check if there’s any introduction happening, and if so what I need to do about that.

(In professional settings, this usually involves correcting how you pronounce my last name. People insist on making it French. It hasn’t been French since the Norman Invasion, in terms of it being my family name.

4) Do the presentation.

I don’t get stage fright (there are advantages to growing up with a theatre professor and performer and lecturer as a parent), and I’m not really experienced in how to deal with it if you do.

But this is the point where you need to do the thing or you’re not doing the thing. If you think doing the thing is going to be a problem, sorting that out in advance is usually better if you can.

5) When you’re done, share whatever you said you’re going to share.

This might be your slides, a handout, a text version of the presentation, or something else. It might be passing out business cards or contact information.

RSS feeds and you

I’ve seen several people talking about a resurgance in independent blogs and RSS readers recently – so it’s clearly time for a post about what they offer and why you may want to make them part of your research and learning process.

Green leaves curling up around the word "productivity"

What are independent blogs?

This is a term used for blogs that people host themselves, that are not part of some larger social media network. That means that they control what gets posted, they can determine the layout of the site, and (other than some actual legal limits and the site host’s terms of service), they can decide what they include or don’t include.

The good thing about this is that if a site changes its focus, or gets bought, or changes its focus, you still have all your own content, under your own control. And modern tools make it pretty easy to share what you create on other social media sites.

Blogs are also great for putting up longer thoughts or posts (like this one) even if you then quickly reference them in a site where long discussions don’t work as well (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram are all designed to share things other than long-form content at a stable location you can return to and review easily.)

Back in the early web, you had to remember to go check blogs and see if they’d posted anything new. That meant loading lots of pages, and could get really annoying really fast.

What is RSS?

RSS stands for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication. Basically, it looks for a particular kind of content on sites (a ‘feed’) and gathers all of that information in one place.

That means instead of loading all your different sites and checking them manually, you open the RSS reader, and you see all the new posts in the RSS reader. It’s particularly great for blogs that update erratically or rarely – you can be sure you’ll see posts when they happen.

Depending on a vareity of settings (some on your end, some on the blog’s end) you may see a short summary or beginning of the post, the full text of the post, the full post with any graphics, or something else. You can always click through to the actual site if you want to see the post in all its glory.

As you can guess from that, RSS readers can also be great if you want a simplified reading experience (just the text without graphics or flashy designs or ads), or if you have bandwidth concerns.

Keeping things in order

If you’re like me (or lots of other people, I gather) you read different sites for different reasons. You may want to group things in your reader to make it easier to keep up. Some things you may care about reading all the time, others you may dip into when you have some spare time, but mark as read when you’re busy.

Many people find it helpful to divide their feeds up into groups, to make it easier to find things, or to skim things they’re sometimes interested in, but don’t read all the time.

Here are my folders (and an explanation of the less obvious categories)

  • Academia
  • Authors (blogs by authors)
  • Business (blogs about business things – mostly small business or writing focused)
  • Comics
  • Divination
  • Food (recipe blogs, mostly.)
  • Legal issues (mostly copyright and intellectual property issues, since that’s a particular thing I’m interested in.)
  • Libraries
  • Pagan
  • Practicalities (where I put advice, finance, and lifehack type blogs)
  • Stories (authors focusing on folklore)
  • Technology
  • Thinky (see below)
  • Voluminous reading (also a see below.)

“Thinky” is my category for long-form writing I usually want to think about more. Longform.org is a good example (they link to three or so long-form articles every day), or John Scalzi’s blog Whatever (even though he’s an author, it goes in the Thinky category because a lot of his posts are things I want to chew on or take some time with.)

Voluminous reading is where I stick things that produce a lot of posts, or posts I mostly want to skim past and just read the ones that are interesting. Some people find very active blogs frustrating, because they want to read it all. I feel like that unless I put them in a special section that’s labelled so I know I’ll be skimming through. Metafilter feeds go here (they can produce 20-50ish posts in a day, depending on how busy things are.)

And then two sort of special categories:

  • Tumblrs
  • AO3 subscriptions

I find the Tumblr interface frustrating, and I also do a lot better reading through individual people’s blogs in order, rather than everyone’s posts intermingled (why this matters to me on Tumblr, I have no idea, because I’m fine with it in other contexts). Handling it this way lets me have a space to read a particular person’s Tumblr easily.

AO3 are my feeds for particular tags for fanfic on Archive of Our Own – mostly specific canons that get intermittent posts but not always very frequent. That way, when there is something new, I can check in.

Want more ideas?

There’s a great discussion post on Metafilter about one of the articles about RSS coming back, which has recs for different apps and tools, if you want more ideas.

Researching events: small events

Last in the current series of researching events, I want to talk a little about small events.

My religious community is the modern Pagan community (or rather communities: there are a lot of overlapping ones), and one of the things I know confuses people new to this thing we do is how to find out about and learn more about smaller events – the ones that happen weekly or monthly or seasonally.

(The same thing goes for people exploring new religious communities in other places, too. Or any other place that has its own culture: an exercise studio, an arts activity, moving into a new school as a kid or a parent, all sorts of places.)

Researching events: loaf of bread and bowls of grain and lavender on a table, ready to share

Tacit knowledge

There’s a concept called ‘tacit knowledge’ – if you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve seen me refer to it before.

Tacit knowledge is, by definition, hard to explain in words or examples. It’s the things we pick up by doing things or sometimes by watching other people (either in person or through TV or movies) It’s what can help us feel like we know what we’re doing in a new situation – if what we’ve picked up is accurate and helpful for that situation.

You can probably see right away how this can also be a big problem.

Not everyone has equal access to tacit knowledge. Some of it depends on experiences you’ve already had (it’s easier to make a leap of understanding if you’ve done something similar).

Some kinds of tacit knowledge require you (or your parents or someone else near you) to have time, money, or resources to expose you to a particular thing – for example, how attending a live theatre performance might be different than movies or a sports event.

Exploring a new community involves lots of tacit knowledge.

Knowing yourself

Exploring a new community also works better if you know yourself well. Some people find entering a group of people they don’t know stressful at best and upsetting at worst. That makes it hard to relax or enjoy what’s going on. Other people like the chance to meet someone new, and don’t find entering a group event very intimidating at all. (I am not that person, but I am assured they exist.)

Some people are intimidated by a classroom or workshop setting, and find it makes them very anxious. Other people find the structure of that setting (which usually comes with a reasonably good idea of the topic to be covered, how long you’ll be there, and some of what you’ll be doing) to be very reassuring. I’m one of those people.

Some people don’t mind large groups, and like the chance to observe and interact as they choose, without people pressing them for conversation. Some people really prefer small groups, where a new person is noticed and welcomed (well, hopefully welcomed.)

Finding out about small events

This depends a lot on the community.

If you’re looking at a particular organization, start with their information. Depending on the org, that might be a website, a Meetup group, a Facebook group, some other form of social media, a mailing list, or something else.

Whatever form it is, a well-run event will do a few things. They’ll tell you when the event is happening, a rough outline of what will happen at it, and what you should bring or expect. If you don’t see the things below, with enough advance time for you to make appropriate plans, then either give the event a pass this time, or at least go into it a little cautiously.

1) When the event is happening (with enough warning)

People have busy lives, and may need to schedule other things – if you tell someone about an event that takes place a few times a year a week or two out, a lot of people may already have plans, or have been scheduled for shifts at work, or need to sort out children’s schedules, or all sorts of other things.

The same guidelines go for special events at something that has a regular schedule (for example, special services at a religious community that has weekly meetings.)

If an event is always at the same time, and happens monthly or more often, you can just let people catch up when they can. If it’s something like a Sabbat ritual (eight times a year, roughly 6-7 weeks apart), then letting people know when it’s scheduled at least a month in advance is nice, even if you follow up with additional details later.

2) The event’s schedule

Depending on the event, there may be a time people gather (i.e. the space is open and you can get in the building), a start time (maybe after this time no one else is allowed in) and often a time that everyone has to be leaving the site.

There may also be a time for a social hour or potluck or other community event (often with food, that’s my next topic.) and it’s nice to let people know the split between the main activity and the social community time (which is also important, but usually more flexible if you need to leave early.)

3) Tell you about what to bring and expect

Different communities have different customs. Some places pass a donation bowl (so in our increasingly cash-free society, you may want to make sure you have a suitable amount of cash to drop in). Some places have a potluck. Some may want you to wear certain clothing or not wear certain clothing, or bring certain items or not bring some items.

A well-planned event will tell you these things, or at least provide some way for you to find out. It’s also great if they provide basic accessibility info and how to find out more, too.

Sometimes this information will be in the announcement itself. Some events (especially ones with the same general information most of the time) will have it on the website (maybe under a link for first time visitors).

If you have questions, events should also have a way for you to check in with someone in advance.

Once you’re there

Of course, part of evaluating an event involves being there. Usually there’s less sizeable investment on your part in an event that happens regularly or repeatedly. At the same time, that’s no excuse for not looking for how things are going.

Well run events usually stay roughly on schedule (or if they’re running late, they’re specific about why). They’ll often build a little bit of flexible time in the beginning, so that if something runs late, they can adapt.

Again, you’ve likely been to other events sort of like this, and you can use all that past experience to evaluate how it’s going. Do people seem welcoming? Do they explain where things are or help you figure out what you need before things start? Does the event do what they said they would? The specifics are going to depend a lot on the type of event – a networking coffee meeting is different than a religious service is different than an educational workshop, of course.

 

Researching events: Warning signs

In my previous post, I talked about researching events. This time, let’s look at some specific things to evaluate when considering events.

Why am I going into this in this much detail on a blog about research? First, it’s helpful (and I like being helpful!) but it’s also a concrete thing to evaluate, because we all have some experience in the physical world, and how some things work there.

Learning how to evaluate specific points with things we know something about helps us learn skills we can use when we’re evaluating things we know less about (like new information or subject areas.) It also helps us learn to ask better questions, which can guide our research.

Researching events: loaf of bread and bowls of grain and lavender on a table, ready to share

Information wants to be available

(Or rather, people planning an event should want to make it easy to find the important things about the event.)

One big warning sign – for events, for people, for research – is information that is seriously insufficient for what the resource wants to be able to do.

A well-planned event will want to tell you important things so you can make decisions about your plans in good time. They won’t make it terribly hard for you to find things like where and when the event is, practical details like what you should plan for, or any costs.

A poorly planned event, however, will often talk up guests or big plans – but they won’t mention exactly what those guests are going to be doing or focusing on (which makes it hard to plan.)

They may mention dozens of panels or activities, but not provide any kind of schedule in advance. They might talk about accesibility or inclusion, but not actually provide advance information about accessibility resources (or ways to ask) or think about different parts of the community.

No event can be all things to all people – but the good events will give you lots of information up front so you can figure out if it’ll work for you, if you need to ask some more questions, or if it’s not a great fit for you (at least at the moment).

You’ve probably known people in your life who talk up a thing, and don’t have follow through. You can apply the same skills here. If something seems a little weird to you, follow up further.

Where is that information?

Another warning sign is for an event of any size that doesn’t have some sort of stable web presence. Facebook and Twitter (and other forms of social media) can be good ways to get the word out, but there are plenty of people who don’t use them, or who don’t use them for parts of their life.

(I use Facebook for professional reasons, but avoid things that make my religious life obvious there.)

It can be really hard to find current information on a lot of social media sites – so if that’s the only place an event has a lot of information, people may miss important things or necessary details. That’s no good for anyone.

When is that information ready?

Obviously, it takes time to put together the details! However, if information isn’t available roughly along the timeline in the last post, that’s a good time to think about some alternate plans.

First time events often don’t leave quite enough time for programming information to be finalised, or they may have changes up to the last minute (if they have open slots, they may add things, or people may need to change plans and can’t do what they signed up for.

This is somewhat less common with large well-established events, but even then guests can get sick or have unavoidable conflicts come up.)

The plans are based on a sensible foundation

It’s a rare event that starts out and can have a couple of thousand people there the first year. Most first year events start with a couple of hundred people at best – and sensible event planners will start there.

Ambitious plans can be very attractive – but they’re one of the easiest ways for events to go wrong.

Think about the money

Some of it’s about money. If you are touting an event as really big, you need a place to put those people. Big event spaces cost a lot of money, and come with a lot of other complicated commitments (like AV and technology rental, stages, things like tables and drapes and chairs.)

With smaller groups and smaller spaces, you often have a bit more control over what you need to spend money on, and what you can find some other options for.

Even a small event (off-season, in a modest amount of hotel space that is not competing with wedding parties) can run $10,000 very easily, and often quite a bit more. So just because an event has raised a lot of money, doesn’t mean they have enough to make a huge event.

Some costs associated with the event are things that it’s hard to estimate if you’re not familiar with event planning in general (to have a sense of the range of things that will cost an event money) and the place the event is taking place in specific (because there are tons of regional or even neighborhood differences).

But you can spot some of them, like “More guests probably involves a lot more money” and you can make some rough napkin calculations about likely amounts for plane fares and hotel room nights for guests based on details the convention tells you. If those don’t seem to add up, you can tell other stuff might not either.

And about the infrastructure

It’s not just about money (though the money is an issue too). A big event needs a lot of infrastructure.

Running operations takes some people – someone’s got to register people or check them in, and be available for operational help (the AC is on too high, it’s too hot in there, we’ve run out of water, do you have some tape?) But someone also needs to be on hand for more complicated needs like managing high-demand lines or events, or providing security.

If there are party rooms, alcohol, competitions, or special guests who attract a lot of attention, you probably also need some kind of security or at least a plan for people to circulate and make sure things are going legally and smoothly.

Who’s providing medical support if medical issues come up? Smaller events in hotels or other rented buildings may not need anyone specifically focused on it, but bigger events or outdoor events do. Even in a hotel-based event without particular physical risks, a group of a few thousand people has a decent chance of someone having a significant medical issue during the event. You want the event to be thinking about safety concerns, and especially to be clear about options for events that are at campground or festival sites, have significant outdoor activities, or at times of year when things like heat exhaustion or cold might be a problem.

Competent staff don’t grow on trees – so where is this event getting them from? A lot of events run on a lot of volunteer help (especially for things like badging, supporting programming or panels, or the vendor/dealer room or art show). Where are those volunteers coming from? Is there a known number of people who are steady, going to show up for their shifts, and ask questions if they’re confused?

This list is woefully incomplete, but it gives you an idea of what to be looking for.

Follow the numbers

There are three sets of numbers you should pay attention to, especially for a new event. These are the advertised number of attendees, the number of guests, and the cost for the event.

Number of attendees

I touched on this one above, but it’s not that common for events to start big. Most events – even the ones that are now 5,000 or 10,000 or 20,000 people, started much smaller (often just a couple of hundred). Plenty of successful ongoing events started with a hundred or two hundred people in a reasonably sized rental space, and grew from there.

If an event’s success depends on it starting large – or if you see lots of urgent pleas for significant numbers of tickets – that’s a time to look closely at your options. Make sure you won’t get stranded if something goes wrong.

Number of guests

Bringing in guests is usually a significant expense for a convention – even the ones that are not big media conventions. It has to be worth it to the guest to give up their time (and for authors or other creators, it can often be a big disruption in their work schedule to be away from home from Thursday or Friday through sometime on Monday.)

It’s common for even very small conventions to offer their guests of honour at least housing, a food stipend, and often also transportation and at least a small honorarium. (Extremely popular guests, guests associated with big media productions like movies or major TV series obviously may have a lot of additional requirements).

Guests also involve time and infrastructure from the committee – someone needs to be focusing on where the guest is and needs to get to, that everything is ready for them, and to make sure the guest gets a chance to eat and sleep without disruption.

You can see why most small conventions often have one or two guests of honour. They may have other featured presenters, panel moderators, or people doing other programming, but usually those people are not getting the same sort of support from the convention.

So if you see a long list of special guests or guests of honour, be a little cautious. Or maybe a lot cautious.

Unrealistic funding streams

A lot of new events want to give everyone a discount! And yes, rewarding your early backers is great, but doing it with things that take money away from your event is not so great.

Take a look at similar events in the area, and what they charge for memberships or tickets or specific kinds of activities at the event. The chances are pretty good that a brand new, unknown event is not going to make a better deal for space rental or other kinds of expenses than a known event that’s been doing this for a while.

(Known events who bring in solid income for a hotel or conference center every year can sometimes make some really great deals – that can help them keep costs low, or bring in more guests, or do more special activities. But you need to build up a reputation of being easy to deal with and lucrative for the other businesses involved, first.)

If you see an event that’s half the price of similar events in the same area – what’s different? Sometimes you can figure out (One event is not doing a lot of expensive things that are at the other event. They’re in different seasons, and one of them is high tourism season or during some other regional big event when hotel prices are high, or whatever.)

If you can’t figure it out, be cautious of events that seem too good to be true. They quite possibly are.

Similarly. if the event is relying on crowdfunding, look for what the rewards are, and if those make financial sense for the event. It doesn’t make sense for an event to give rewards that take a lot of the money it needs for the event, does it? (That’s things like highly discounted attendance, or hotel rooms, or other big discounts.) Those things make sense if someone’s pledging a lot of money (like 10 times the amount of the ticket) but not just for the ordinary ticket price.

You will often see a wide range of ticket prices over the course of the event – that’s normal. Many events have an early bird registration that’s significantly cheaper, sometimes half the price of a later membership, to encourage people to register early and give them seed money for deposits for the event.

As it gets closer to the event, prices go up. But events should be pegging the costs so that their cheapest prices still would cover the expenses per person of the event, at a bare minimum.

Next in this series: evaluating smaller regular events.