Researching events: What’s this thing?

Lots of us want to consider going to events in our communities. Lots of us aren’t sure if that’s a good idea. It seems like it’s a good time for a guide to researching events (and the people running them.)

This will be a series of at least three posts (this one about larger events, one about warning signs for larger events, and one about smaller more regular events.) If you’ve got questions, let me know, I’m glad to work them in.

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

My background

I’ve been part of a number of convention-type events, in different roles, as well as attending a reasonable number. Most of my experience is with smaller events (in the 100-300 person range) and most of my committee experience is as Hotel Chair, but I’ve also been in charge of Programming in the past.

One of those events (Paganicon), is one I was part of founding, and on the committee for the first few years, until I moved out of state, so I’m also very familiar with ‘how do you create an event that starts at a sustainable level so you can build on it’.

Why am I thinking about this now?

If you’re in fannish circles, you may have seen the recent news about UniversalFanCon announcing a week before the convention that it would not be happening (it was scheduled for April 27-29, 2018, the announcement came out on Friday, April 20).

This has left a huge number of people – vendors, people on programming, attendees – scrambling, and likely out significant money for travel, expenses, etc. It’s particularly painful for people who’d been looking forward to a con that was specifically aimed at fans of colour and people from marginalised groups within fandom.

I’m not going to rehash the details here (and as I write this, more info is coming out) but that’s the context for why I’m writing this post this particular week.

Get a sense of the event

The starting point for learning about an event is a little research. A larger event probably has a website, which should have some key information about the event.

  • When is it? (not just dates)
  • Where is it? (with relevant transportation info if relevant)
  • Who’s running it? (more on this in a second)
  • What will be happening? (at least an overview)
  • Any special guests, activities, or high points.
  • Other important details (depends on the event)

It’s really easy to make a splashy, well-designed website that doesn’t actually tell you important information. You want to check into what people say, not just how it looks.

It is very common for different kinds of information to be shared at different points – the timeline that follows gives some idea of when specific pieces of information should be available. If it’s not, that’s a good time to take some steps to protect your options and ask some more questions. You may also find some information more easily on different forms of social media (like responses on Facebook, or crowdfunding pages, or other sources.)

Overall, you’re looking for clear communication about necessary information, consistency about how they talk about details, and to have some sense of how much experience they have in the community in question and with planning events.

Who’s running it?

One big question for events – and especially new events – is “Who’s running it?” This is one of those questions that can be hard to figure out if you’re not familiar with the people or with that kind of event.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to be certain about this, but some research can help.

Start by looking at who’s putting the event on. This can be an existing group, or it can be individuals.

Existing group

If it’s a group, what other kinds of events have they put on? Sometimes a little research will turn up the fact this is an ongoing event. If so, try some searches on phrases like the event name and previous years (or using date limiting in your search to find a specific year.) If there are posts, they’ll probably be in the first month after the event.

Individual people’s experiences with an event will obviously vary a lot, but you can usually get a sense of whether the event was reasonably well managed, people were responsive to concerns, and things went more or less as planned.

Moving from a series of open afternoon events to a day-long event to a weekend event is a pretty common progression, and allows the group as a whole to learn more about what they can do well in manageable stages – even if the individual people involved change over time (as they probably do.)

Want to know how to limit by date? Currently, in Google search, try a search on your terms. At the top of the page, just under the search bar, on the same level on filtering results by all, news, images, videos, etc. there will be two options that say settings and tools. Click on the ‘tools’ and you should see options to limit your search by ‘any time’ and ‘all results’. Click on the one that says ‘any time’ and you can choose other options, like the last week, month, year, or custom dates.) Other search engines may have similar features, if you look around a little or check their help information.

Or is it a new set of people?

If it’s individuals working together on a new project, take a look at what other projects they mention. What can you find out about those projects? Do they seem to run smoothly? Are there people involved with specific experience in running events that you can check out?

Lots of people successfully run organizations or blogs or websites or podcasts or other projects, and many of those organisational skills do transfer to running events. But events have a number of their own considerations, so you really need some people in the mix who have experience running events well.

Someone needs to make sure that all the needs for the space are handled well (whether that’s a hotel or a festival campsite), and you also need people who can coordinate volunteers, manage funds, and some other more specialised tasks, some of which have big legal, safety, or financial implications. 

If you have a list of people, and none of them mention that experience explicitly (or not enough for the event!), that’s a time to be a little cautious. Check out their bios, but also try some searches on the names they use, and other events they mention being involved with.

If there’s a long list, focus on the experience of the people listed for operations, logistics, hotel, and the convention chairs, plus anything else that might have legal or safety implications, like performances, security, or food. Programming matters too, but it’s usually a lot easier to come up with awesome stuff to do on the fly if it’s planned badly than it is for someone with no hotel experience to sort out hotel problems.

In most groups of people doing this kind of thing, you’ll have some people with more experience, and some people who are new to a thing. You want some signs that the people new to it either have guidance from the chairs (who have extensive experience) or that there’s some other method for getting advice (especially for the roles I just listed.)

Special note for Pagans: This can get particularly complicated in the Pagan community or some other places, since many people use a public Craft name for privacy reasons – and that may not be the name they use on social media. Events may not list their staff explictly by name or photograph. Finding dead ends isn’t automatically a reason to worry, but it means you want to check into other information more carefully.

Guests and activities

Check out those people (even if you’re not really interested in what they do). Do they make sense for the skills and size and scope of the event?

What do they do?

Does it make sense for them to be at this event? Here, you want to look both at what they do, and their general status in the field.

Major celebrities probably won’t be at a tiny first-time event (even with a fairly strong personal connection it’s pretty unlikely.) Moderately well-known authors or artists who do the thing the event’s focusing on are a lot more likely (or the equivalent in other fields.)

How many guests are there?

Somewhere between one to four main guests of honour is pretty common for small to moderate size events (up to about 1000 people), especially if they’re fairly new events. If there are more than that, look closely at the event’s track record so far.

Be cautious about events that list a lot of guests, especially if they’re new. I’ll go into this more in a future point, but here’s the summary. Guests of honour are great, but also expensive for a new or smaller convention, and making the experience good for the guest also involves a fair amount of volunteer time and committee attention – both of which are often finite resources in practice.

Is the guest’s visit to this event mentioned on their own site?

This may take a while to update, but if most guests don’t have the information up on their own information site by three to six months out, that’s a big warning sign.

Most people who do GOH or other featured guest slots will put it up on their site once they have an appropriate agreement about what they’re doing at the event. If no one’s posted it on their own site, that may be a sign those agreements don’t exist or aren’t final.

(Note this is different for people who are on panels or leading panels or aren’t featured – some of them may announce it, some may not, or not until programming is announced. I’m talking here about the big featured guests who are supposed to be a significant focus or draw.)

A general timeline

Obviously, you want to find out about the event early enough that you can make plans to attend. Event organisers should be thinking about this. For yearly events like conventions and festivals, the organisers need to start planning at least a year out, so some basic information should be available that early.

Here’s a reasonable timeline for what information you should find when. Well-run events can vary a bit from this, but usually it should be clear what’s going on if they do. (For example, not all events have a big central activity or have guests of honour as a big draw.)

You also want to look for whether they meet their stated deadlines – if they say they’ll have their programming schedule out at a certain date, does it exist or do they make a note about when it will? Or does it just not exist at all?

A year out:

For yearly events, the next year will often be announced at the current year’s event, or shortly after. If you don’t see specific dates by eight months from a yearly event, that may indicate problems in finding a space.

Four to eight months out:

Somewhere in this range, you should start seeing a lot more specific details. If you don’t see most of this by four months from the event, that’s a good time to be a bit worried. People need details to make their plans.

Major guests, events, activities:

These are the things that may make someone want to go to this event over other possible events, or bring in people interested in a specific author, creator, or focus. Basically, if they want you to buy a ticket for a special event, or are using someone as part of their advertising, you want to know around this point.

The site may not list what the guests are specifically doing (such as the precise title of presentations or workshops) but you should have a good idea what kinds of things they’ll be offering. Is it signings? Meet and greets? Panel discussions? A concert? A mix?

How you can participate

Events have very different schedules for arranging other programming like panels, workshops, or discussions. Some events have more structure to their programming and plan a long way out, others will take ideas up to a month or two out from the event.

Events also often want to have vendors or other things (like artists for an artists alley). These people need to plan their calendars in advance, and fees for their tables can be a big part of the income stream for the event.

Most events also rely on volunteers for various tasks, and a well-planned event will let people know about the range of tasks and how to get involved well in advance, so people can plan their time.

Whether or not you want to do any of those things, you want to look for events that let everyone know what the process and deadlines are, and where that timeline makes some sense with other things they say.

Other useful information

Events should at this point also have information about accessibility needs, or things like what if you have children (Do they need a membership? Is there childcare or children’s programming?)

If there are food events, the information should have some general information about what they are planning and how to let them know about any specific needs you have. This is also a good time for the event to let you know about other food options or forthcoming information like a restaurant guide.

Some details may still be in process, but you want to have a sense at this point that someone is thinking about that, and that there are plans in place for common needs or questions.

One month out

Any information people need for plans at the event should be available around now. Some events are lousy about getting their programming schedules up (and sometimes there’s some slippage because people are working out logistical details that get complicated) but you want to see some sense of what’s happening when.

This is also a good time to expect to see things like area food guides, any additional transport/location details (like specifics for shuttles from the airport) or any other important info.

If you don’t see this information, or it doesn’t have a clear date it will be available, that’s a good time to ask some more questions, and make your own plans so that you won’t be in a bad place if some of the details aren’t handled well (Can you change travel or hotel arrangements with less of a penalty? You might make different choices about shipping materials as a vendor, or see if you can make backup arrangements for your event.)

Back next week

I’ll be back next week with some warning signs for events.

Researching complicated details

You get a bonus post this week! Here’s a post that I made for a writer’s community I belong to that I can now share. It’s in a slightly different style than my blog posts here (because it was designed for that community.) Several of the examples used came from people’s questions when they requested this kind of help.

(I have redacted two examples that are more identifying of the specifics of my day job than I do in public, but the rest of it is as posted for the community in February 2018.)

Quick! Research Needed! Pocket astronomy device used for ocean navigation on a table.

Introduction

Hi! Welcome to a (not that brief) guide to researching complicated details.

I’m Jenett. I’m a librarian by profession, and I work somewhere where I get asked weirdly specific questions a lot. I also really love geeking about the process of finding random bits of information and making sense of them.

I’m drawing some experiences I’ve had below, but also a couple of examples from the original comment suggesting this topic. Those asked about in-depth research about the effects of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the US Military, or details of things like whether a minor in Ohio can go to a psychiatrist without parental permission.

0) What do you actually need, and when?

Not everything is online or readily available (lots of stuff isn’t) so at some point, you may have to make a decision between ‘can find this with reasonable searching’ and coming up with something that may not be ideal but will work.

Because of this, it’s worth pausing with a complicated question to figure out how much time you want to spend on it. How important is it to what you’re writing?

Is it something you can write around (by referencing people doing the appropriate thing, without details, or by cutting the scene at that point and picking up in the aftermath of the thing happening?)

Getting something actively wrong is more likely to throw readers out of your story than either glossing over it, or picking something that is pretty likely but not actually provable.

Some topics are notorious for getting letters from readers if you get the details wrong, and others aren’t. If only a small number of your possible readers would know the amazingly specific thing, then maybe you can fudge more easily than something like horses, which a lot of people know a little about (and definitely have opinions about.)

1) Read widely

Not just books, though books are good too – but read a range of other material, so that you start to have a sense of what kinds of resources are out there. The goal isn’t to retain all the details, but to get a sense of where you can find them if you need them.

Soak in your topic:

Find a few blogs, or Twitter accounts or whatever your social media of choice is that are relevant to your current project (especially the places you might have questions.) Read them. Follow links sometimes. Don’t take notes, but do have a system for bookmarking particularly useful items you may want later.

The thing you really want to do when you know you’re exploring a topic is get a sense of the terms that are used about it. Don’t trust Wikipedia as the final word, but it’s great for giving you a sense of commonly used terms or phrases, and for putting things in some sort of historical, geographical, or intellectual context.

Beyond that, though, I really recommend adding a couple of general purpose things. Longform highlights a couple of longform journalism articles every day on a huge range of topics. Not only are they often very interesting, but I learn a lot of terminology, approaches, and ways people look at the world from them.

I also find Metafilter and Ask Metafilter really helpful in broadening my knowledge.

The former highlights links from around the web, with discussion, and the latter is a personal advice subsite. The kinds of questions people have – or specific detail about things like neighbourhoods or things to visit – can be really amazingly helpful. Even if they don’t have the specific information, they can help you learn about terms for searches you need to do.

2) All knowledge is contained in the Internet.

Not actually – we’ll get to that – but a lot, in the sense of ‘people who can point you to the information you want’.

Building up a diverse set of people you know online who know about stuff you don’t will pay off again and again and again. Online communities for people with shared interests can be a great place to ask (or shared goals, like writing communities.)

Of course, you want to be respectful of people’s time. That’s why a general “Hey, anyone know about X? Can I pick your brain for a couple of minutes about a specific piece I can’t find information on?” request can be better than asking specific people. Also because unexpected people may have answers. (It’s also good to tell people where you’ve already looked.)

I have a story about this. In my job as a librarian, someone asked me about particular map, which was not labelled in a way that he (or I) could read. I thought that if I could identify what the map was and when it was, I’d be able to figure out the names. (I’m obscuring some details here.)

I posted a photo with a few aspects highlighted to my personal Dreamwidth account, and within 2 hours, three different people had all identified it. Why? Because all of them are big board gamers, and the specific map is one used in the Diplomacy board, of Germany around 1901.

Not the way I’d have gotten that information, but with that, I could figure out what the place names were, and why it was labelled the way it was.

I have this kind of thing happen a couple of times a year on average. I am really good at searching, and using library tools – I do it a lot, after all – but sometimes someone with specific expertise will save me hours or days of work.

So long as you’re not interrupting or being pushy, people also often really love to share their knowledge, passions, and interests. A general post with a “Know anyone who can help with this?” lets people share that in a way that works out well for everyone a lot of the time.

3) Is this a topic there might be substantial resources about?

One of the things that happens for writers is that we want to know a lot of pragmatic details about how things work.

What was it like to put on clothing? How did it feel to move in it? How did cooking work? Or things people did in the household? What was the street outside like? What did medicine look like or taste like or smell like?

Unfortunately, these are often not the sort of details that are in a lot of resource books – you often have to dig pretty hard, and on the more academic side, they may not actually answer the questions you’re really interested in. They might talk about how to make the thing, but have no clue about what it was like to wear it or use it every day.

These days, this is getting better. For a lot of time periods (at least for English-language places) there are actually books called things like “Daily Life in Elizabethan Times” or “Daily Life in Colonial America” or whatever, that will fill in a lot of these gaps for you. Even if you can’t find quite the right time period, you can often get a long way by finding the closest one and then adjusting specific things that changed.

If you’re writing fantasy, this can also work if you can figure out what point in history your world is similar to.

Reenactment groups, experimental archaeology, and other similar resources can also be a huge help – there’s a genre of videos on YouTube, for example, of people getting dressed in clothing from different time periods. The Royal Ballet did a fascinating lecture series on changes in dance over time. Obviously, someone has to have produced the thing you’re interested in, but there are a lot more options around these days than there were 20 years ago.

4) Is this a topic that there will be public info on?

In some cases, the answer may be no.

For example, you usually won’t find a lot of detailed information on enforcement of online terms of service harassment issues (not them happening, but how a given site’s process handles them step by step) because advertising that kind of thing can make it easier for people to walk up right up to the line of what’s actionable and still make people miserable.

The same is often true for harassment, abuse, domestic violence issues, etc.

In other cases, people don’t publicise the information because it might put first responders at risk, or be easily misused in ways that can harm others. (For example, lots of sources on poisons won’t get specific about how much a lethal dose is. Which makes a lot of sense when dealing with people, but complicates things for mystery writers.)

Closed settings also present problems for research. Some details about military policy, practice, or procedure may only be available for people in the military or in some closely associated group. Handbooks about how a school handles something may only be available to parents, staff, and students at that school.

Other items might technically be available, but sufficiently hard to get to it’s like they’re not. This covers things like detailed legal resources (not the laws themselves, but analysis), some kinds of genealogical records, and other things where there are business interests who’d like to make you go through them to get it.

If you’re looking at a topic where this might be a case, one way in is through the next step.

5) Are there people who’ve lived through this experience?

Is it possible there’s a biography, memoir, podcast, blog, or another resource from a person who’s done this thing, is interested in this thing, etc? Sometimes this can be an incredible way to get details – especially for smaller things or emotional reactions.

Looking at our examples that started this, this is where I’d probably start for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I might look especially for things from advocacy groups or lawyers working to help people affected by it, as well as people who were in the military and affected at the time.

(At the same time, I’d be exploring more formal research and writing through library database resources and focused internet searches too, so that I could get both the ‘official’ side, and the actual experience.)

6) Is this a law?

It can be really hard to track down legal information. While the actual laws are usually public in the United States (and also in other countries with at least a premise of democracy), a lot of the more functional ways to access those laws are through indexes, databases, and other resources that cost money to access and are designed for lawyers, firms, and law libraries, not for random authors. They’re also (unlike many other online resources) harder to get access to through your local public library.

One trick here is to figure out what the law is (the numbers or other identification) and do searches on that. Or, failing that, try tightly focused internet searches.

An example:

For our question about Ohio, minors, and whether they can go to a psychiatrist, I tried the search terms “ohio law minors parents medical appointments” (because I suspected that the relevant laws actually cover a range of medical issues, not just psychiatry.)

For reasons having to do with filter bubbles, your precise results will probably be different than what I saw (that’s a whole different discussion!), but on the first page of my search results, I found <a href=”https://www.akronbar.org/when-can-minors-consent-to-medical-treatment”>this article from the Akron Bar Asociation website</a> which says that minors can consent to outpatient psychiatric treatment on their own behalf at the age of fourteen.

Now, that blog post isn’t dated (though it comes from an organization that’s relevant to the question and likely to be accurate at the time it was written) so I’d want to confirm this information in other sources. But that post gives me the specific laws to go check, and here’s the law, which explains it covers only six visits, no medication, and what should happen when you hit those limits.

7) Is this a city/state/regional thing?

You can ask libraries in many places for help with local/regional questions – even if you’re not from there! Try other options first, since this can both take some time to hear back, and libraries have a large but limited capacity to answer questions, but if you get stumped, a lot of libraries will be glad to help you.

You may be able to get help from your local library, or from a large library in your region. (For example, anyone who lives, works, goes to school, or owns property in Massachusetts can get an ecard for the Boston Public Library.) But even if that’s not the case, you can also often ask libraries in other locations.

Many libraries have an email option or contact form. (It’s usually under ‘Research’ or ‘Research Help’ or as an option or link on their Contact page, but you might have to hunt around a bit.)

Some places require you to have a barcode for their system, but a lot of libraries are glad to get reasonable requests from other places. (And obviously, you want to do your best to ask in the language the library uses, though sometimes you’ll get lucky with other options.)

How do you figure out how to contact a library?

First, start with a large city in the state or area that you’re interested in (the largest one is usually best here – try the capital of the state or province, or if you need something slightly smaller than that, the largest city or town that will do.) Look for a contact form or method, and see if they put any limitations on asking that affect you.

How to ask:

The best way to ask questions, in this case, is to be brief, clear, and tell them what you’ve already tried or what you’re hoping for. It will be useful to the librarian to know that you’re looking for information as an author rather than for a school project or immediate legal need (because they might suggest other resources that could also help you.)

Take a minute to prepare what you’re asking. Your question shouldn’t be too long – two to three paragraphs is plenty. Explain your question in a couple of sentences, why you’re looking for the information, and where you’ve already looked. Here’s an example.

Hi,

I’m an author working on a story set in Cleveland, and I’m trying to find information on what Ohio law says about medical treatment and consent for minors. Can you direct me to a reliable source that explains what the options are?

 

I’ve tried online searches, but haven’t found anything that quite fits the question I have: I’m looking for the options and laws around someone who is 16 and dealing with mental health issues, specifically seeing a psychiatrist.

Note how this makes it clear in the first sentence why you’re asking a library in Ohio about this, which is helpful.

Getting an answer

Usually, libraries that answer questions in the first place will provide at least a brief answer (though it may take a bit of time for them to get back to you), but there may be costs if you want copies of material or longer research times.

Some libraries offer additional services for a fee if you go over a set amount of time, others just won’t answer questions that take the librarians more than 15 or 20 minutes and will point you at some resources and you take it from there. Some libraries may refer some topics – like detailed business questions or genealogy – to other sources, and libraries generally don’t answer detailed medical or legal questions other than pointing you at resources from reliable sources.)

8) Is there a relevant museum, society, or library?

If there’s a reasonable way to contact them, try asking.

I work for a highly specialised library, and I get questions from authors every couple of months. I’m always glad to answer them because it can help people understand what we do and our particular community better. (Also, they’re often fun questions to dig into.)

Small libraries, museums, and historical societies can be very slow to get back to you, though, especially if they’re mostly staffed by volunteers, or if the paid staff are wearing a dozen hats. The more clearly you can phrase your question, and the more you can do for yourself first, the better.

For example:

“I’ve looked at your website and your annual reports, but I haven’t been able to find something that explains exactly how the fees worked for students in 1890. Can you point me to something?” is a pretty easy question for someone who’s familiar with their materials to answer.

Either they’ll be able to point you at something, answer it quickly from materials they have handy, or they’ll know the information isn’t actually available like that for some reason and can tell you that (and maybe a best guess.)

A “Tell me all about your institution in 1890”, however, is a much harder thing to answer. That could take days to work through, and still not touch on the parts you were interested in.

And sometimes information just isn’t available.

We’ve had two questions about how domestic chores were handled at our institution in the 1840s, and we just don’t know a lot of details, because it’s something that the white professional-class men who were writing the annual reports didn’t write much down about.

We know there were servant-type staff, and we know students had some minimal chores. We know more about the fact that the students had to take cold showers (it was considered good for their health) because the students wrote a letter protesting it.

There might be more in some of our correspondence, but it’s in volume after volume of 19th century handwriting, and even the people who work there haven’t read all of that yet!

On the other hand, if someone asks me about that (as an author has), it’s pretty easy for me to explain what we know, where to find more, and what we don’t, and to point them to some things they can look at in more detail if they decide to.

A few final notes

The kinds of questions I mention here are exactly the kind of thing I’m glad to help with through the research consulting part of what I do here.

(To give you an example of how doing this a lot improves speed, none of the examples here took me more than 5-10 minutes to poke at, though obviously they took a bit longer to write up.)

How research has changed: citation managers

The last in my current series on ‘how research has changed’ is that I want to mention citation managers.

This is not intended to be a guide to how to use them – I haven’t had the time or focus to work that up yet! Instead, consider this a starting point for learning more about them.

Massive pendulum clock (from the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studios) with the text "Times change"

What’s a citation manger?

It’s a piece of software that helps you keep track of what you’ve found and where you’ve found it.

Specifically, they allow you to enter articles, books, and in some cases webpages into the manager, format the metadata, and do things with it. Some of them allow you to save PDFs in the software, but even if the manager you choose doesn’t do that, it will help you keep track of what you have.

Metadata?

Metadata is the term for information about content – for a book, the metadata includes things like the author, title, or publisher.

A better explanation might be this one from Scientific American’s blog, about 5 years ago, where Bonnie Swager explained metadata using Santa Claus’s naughty and nice lists.

(Whatever you think of this particular story and mythology, it’s a much more fun example than a lot of the ones out there, and she does a great job explaining different kinds of metadata with it.)

This information helps you sort and filter information. Maybe you want all the things by a specific author, or all the things written around a particular time. Or maybe you half remember the title of something, but know you read it and put it in your system at a particular point – if your metadata includes the date an entry

If you want a more detailed explanation of metadata, including a number of standards sets for managing it, there’s a PDF that Bonnie links to at the end of her article that is a dead link there, but can be found on the National Information Standards Organization website: Understanding Metadata

What are the options for citation managers?

There are several different widely used citation managers out there. Some of them cost money. If you’re a student at university or work for one, you may have access to an institutional subscription, but if you aren’t, there are a couple of free options (or free + a fee for additional storage space).

The big names are RefWorks (usually needs a university subscription), EndNote (in a couple of versions), Mendeley, and Zotero. The University of Minnesota has a handy chart comparing the last three in detail (they discontinued their RefWorks subscription for cost reasons).

If you want a really detailed comparison, here’s another chart (which has multiple pages) from the University of Wisconsin Madison.

All of them should have methods for exporting and importing data (important for academics, since different institutions have often picked one or two to focus on or provide rather than others, and people do move institutions.)

I’ve tended to gravitate toward Zotero, for the combination of cost and the fact it works best with online sources, but I’m still working out my best workflow for managing materials. There’s a web extension for Chrome that allows you to connect between the desktop app and the browser.

Fee for space: One place these managers charge fees is to store materials. Just storing information about an item is a small amount of plain text (which takes a tiny amount of space on modern computers). If you want to store full PDFs in your manager tool, however, you may need more space.

If that’s a problem, you can always choose to save your files somewhere (cloud service, your computer, a backup drive, whatever makes sense. Ideally more than one of those as a precaution!)

What can you do with one?

Even if all you do is make a list of resources in there, that’s probably a big win. You can tag or organise your entries in all sorts of different ways, marking things you’ve read and things you want to read, different topics, and much more.

However, citation managers become invaluable if you’re doing any kind of formal writing where you might need to produce reference lists, bibliographies, end notes, or footnotes. They can take all that metadata and do most of the work of putting it in the correct format.

(You may need to do some review and minor editing: computers are great at this kind of task, but sometimes need help with which words are capitalised or unusual entries.)

If you’re serious about research, or you’re managing a lot of complex files, you owe it to yourself to check out citation managers and other research tools. They’re a lot less awkward and clunky to use than they were just a few years ago, and they can really make your life much easier if you spend a little time keeping on top of them.

How research has changed : digital work flow

Penultimate in the current series on how research has changed, I want to talk about digital-only workflows.

Massive pendulum clock (from the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studios) with the text "Times change"

Electronic workflow

I don’t know about you, but a whole lot of how I get information starts digitally these days. Having a workflow that works for you is critical if you’re doing larger projects.

There are a fair number of resources out there to help you get a grip on tools that work for you (I’m going to talk about my current setup here, but there are lots of other ways to do this.)

I find the Prof. Hacker blog, a collective blog focusing on tech tools and resources, a helpful read. A lot of the tools aren’t things I need, but they highlight things I want to know about fairly regularly, and I find it interesting to know about other tools. The already mentioned Productivity Alchemy podcast also brings up interesting tools regularly, on a less academic front.

Basically, though, you want a way to collect things, and then a way to organize the things. If you’re like me, many of your things may be webpages or sites.

My basic workflow

This is what I use for all online content I want to save – it works for me, but it’s not the most elegant option. What I like about it is:

1) I can use it from any device

I use a Mac at home, a Windows machine where I can usually add browser extensions but not apps at work, and an iPad when travelling. Because this relies on extensions (or the iOS ‘send to this app’ option) it’s pretty easy to use anywhere I happen to be.)

2) The management can be sporadic

Obviously, there are benefits to keeping on top of it, but the way my system works, it’s okay if I get behind on moving from the collection point to the organisation part.

3) I can usually find the thing I’m looking for.

This is key. If I couldn’t find things, it’d be a bad system. But I usually know which place to look for it, and the search tools work well enough.

Steps

I rely on two tools, Instapaper and Pinboard. Instapaper is currently free (but is owned by Pinterest, so changes are possible in the future). Pinboard has a small yearly fee ($11 currently) but is run by someone independent, Maciej Cegłowski, who designed and runs the site. There’s also a full page archival option for another $25 a year.

(There are plenty of other tools out there for saving things as you read them, but I really do recommend Pinboard for organizing them once you’ve got them.)

My actual steps look like this.

  • Read or find a thing I want to save.
  • Use extension to save it to Instapaper.
  • Periodically, go through Instapaper and move new items to about 8 folders in Instapaper for later sorting.
  • When I’ve got time and feel like it, put things into Pinboard with much more useful tags.

Right now, I go through Instapaper every two weeks, a few days before I start doing my newsletter for the fortnight. I have a folder where I put the links I want to share in the newsletter, so I can work my way through writing them up efficiently.

My other folders include recipes, links related to my day job, writing, Pagan topics, writing, and business things. I have a catchall folder (cleverly called ‘links’) for anything else I want to save. I also have folders for things to read (which is where I save books I want to read), and things to watch or listen to.

Every so often, I make a point of churning through links and tagging them in Pinboard – it’s a great project for when I don’t have a lot of focus to write and have a thing I want to watch.

I usually can remember if I’ve moved something to Pinboard yet, so I also usually can figure out where to look for something.

Having a two step process also helps for saving things to read later (especially when I’m travelling and have less time or internet access), or weeding out highly aspirational recipes I’m never going to actually consider making.

I use this process for all my links, but it’s pretty easy to see how to adapt it for research work. You could have a folder for each big project, or make a point of moving those to a bookmarking service more frequently.

Or you could use a citation manager. Which will be my final post in this series, coming next week.

How research has changed : online databases

Today’s installment of what’s changed in research comes back to a topic I’ve talked about before – the relative wonders of online databases.

(Relative, because they’re not entirely perfect, but they’re still a big improvement in many ways over the previous options.)

Massive pendulum clock (from the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studios) with the text "Times change"

What’s an online database?

An online database collects articles or materials from various (relevant) sources, and provides a way to find things in different ways (by topic, by author, by publication, by whether it’s a peer-reviewed publication, all sorts of options. often.)

A database can collect material from one source (like an archive of a particular newspaper) or it can collect material from dozens or hundreds of possible sources.

Often, when a database is pulling from many sources, they’ll be about roughly similar topics. For example, the ERIC database gathers educational journals and materials, and JSTOR has a number of different modules, many of which focus on different collections of journals in the humanities.

As you might guess from these descriptions, some of what’s in a database can be rather obscure at first glance.

Getting access to databases

Database access is expensive – in academic libraries, there’s a pretty good chance more than 50-60% of the library’s collection budget goes for database access these days. Worse, the costs go up all the time, sometimes by double digit increases.

That means that libraries make choices every year about what databases they have, and which they continue to have – and how to manage access to them.

The actual details get incredibly messy and complicated, because publishers often bundle access (you can only get access to things A, C, and G you really want, if you also get access to B, D, E, and F, which are sort of useful for your library’s users, but if you had the choice, you probably wouldn’t get that, you’d do something else with your limited funds.)

Also complicating the details are the fact that sometimes groups of libraries arrange access to databases jointly – sometimes a library consortium, sometimes there are state or regional contacts.

Probably obviously, there are lots of different kinds of databases out there, and different kinds of libraries will make different choices. A public library doesn’t really need access to a specialist chemistry database, the academic library maybe doesn’t need one about crafts or genealogy.

What that means for you is that it’s usually best to look at a combo of what you’re doing, and what your local or area libraries offer, as a first step of figuring out access to materials.

How do you find out what databases a library has access to?

Usually there will be lists on their website – it might be under “Electronic resources” or “Online databases” or “A-Z database list” or other phrases like that. Sometimes it’ll be along with other kinds of resources, like ebook access or music downloads.

This should give you links, information about what you need to access it. Sometimes you may need to be on site, often you may need a library barcode or other login method.

Tips later in this series will help you find out about other kinds of articles and resources, which you can usually request through interlibrary loan, even if your library doesn’t directly offer access.

How do you get access to a library?

Most libraries, even very small ones, offer a little access to databases – but they may not be very useful ones for your research.

In some places, you can get access to databases at very large public libraries if you live or work or go to school in the state. In some places, you can get access as an alum (though licensing costs make this a bit less common). In some cases, you can get access if you’re physically in the building, but not otherwise.

It’s worth checking the policies of any library you can reasonably get to – even if that chance is once every few months or every year, you can store up things that need database access and do it then.

Especially in more rural areas, many campuses have more generous access options for people who live in the area. And in the United States, state colleges and universities often have fairly generous guest access.

Figuring out what’s out there

Once you find out what databases you have access to, I advise doing a little exploring. Figure out which databases deal with the topics you’re particularly interested in, and explore. There will often be a list of topics covered, or you can find a list of specific journal titles through links about the resource. (Often this will say something like “Publications”

You can also search for topics outside the library database ecosystem. Google Scholar, Academia.edu, and other sites gather information about articles and resources from various sources, and make it accessible in different ways. In many cases, you won’t be able to get direct access to an article this way, but you can read the title and abstract and other information, and figure out how much you want to track it down.

One of the problems with database searches is that computers are often stupid. While Google and Amazon have a lot of data to do predictive searching, the academic journal databases aren’t usually quite so wide-reaching. If you search on a different term or a different way of wording something, you might not find what you’re hoping for.

These things might help:

  • Take a quick look at Wikipedia, Google Scholar, and other public resources to see what kinds of terms or phrasing show up. Sometimes these tools will help you make better searches.
  • If you find an article that looks promising, check to see if there are subject headings assigned by the database. You can often click on these to find other similar articles.
  • If you find an article you like, check out more about the author. Often they’ve written other things on similar topics.
  • Check out the articles they reference – it’s a great way to find more similar items.

As you go, it’s worth paying attention to terms people use. Many academic fields have preferred ways to phrase things (at least at the moment) so figuring out what those are will help you narrow down your research much more effectively. The same thing goes if you’re researching something where the name has changed: dig a little and figure out alternate possible names, and you’ll likely find more articles.

How research has changed : online catalogues

Welcome to another post in how research has changed (well, for those of us who are more than 5 or so years out of school.)

Today’s installment is about online catalogues.

Massive pendulum clock (from the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studios) with the text "Times change"

The state of the map

These days, most libraries (even very small ones) are likely to have some online method of accessing their collection online.

If you’re responsible for a small library – like many religious communities have, or community centres or hobby groups, there are some great tools out there to manage your collection.

My personal recommendation is LibraryThing, which has an option called TinyCat that provides circulation and other tools to small libraries. TinyCat is free for personal use (which covers ‘I am lending things from my personal collection to friends’) and very affordable otherwise.

Bigger and established libraries obviously have more elaborate systems – which can be a good thing or a completely overwhelming thing, depending. Sometimes it can be really hard to figure out how to do a search, or what works. That’s what this article is for – to give you some tips.

WorldCat

WorldCat is what is referred to as a union catalogue. Thousands of libraries around the world share records, so that you can try searching on a title (or author, or subject) and see books and other items.

You can enter a zip code to figure out what libraries near you might have a copy (very useful for figuring out if you can get a copy easily, or need to look at interlibrary loan. And if you need to look at interlibrary loan, knowing where there are copies can help you with the request.

WorldCat is also great for helping you figure out things like the most recent edition of regularly revised books, or tracking down older books that may not be in bookstores or in print anymore.

Library of Congress

In the United States, many books end up in the Library of Congress, which is the library of record for the country. (Other countries have similar things). This covers books published in that country, and also selections from other places.

The Library of Congress catalogue is a good way to find out more about topics, titles, and authors – and it will also help you find the most widely used subject headings for many topics.

Information in entries

Many online catalogues have some additional nifty tools that can help you. For example, you are often able to click on the subject headings for a particular title, and it will help you find other books with that subject. (You can do the same thing for the author, and sometimes for other aspects.)

Some catalogues have an option to ‘browse nearby on shelf’ which will show you titles that are near the one you’re currently looking at. This is really handy if you want to see other items that are closely related but may have different subject headings assigned.

Limitations

Of course, not everything works in an ideal way. So, as well as talking about the awesomeness of online catalogues, we have to talk about some of the limitations.

Not all books are in libraries

The biggest one is that not all books end up in libraries.

Many libraries don’t collect widely in the popular Pagan and magical title areas – they’ll get a few every year, but not everything that’s published. The same is true for other topic areas, especially those that rely on self-publishing, small niche publishers, or other areas of publishing.

For these, you’ll have to go to places that focus on that topic, to commercial sellers (at least to get a sense of what’s out there) or to resources like bibliographies and publisher websites as you can find them.

Not all libraries are part of WorldCat

Being part of a union catalogue system comes with obligations for the libraries – and those don’t make sense for most smaller specialised libraries. These can involve things like how records are shared (small libraries may be using software or formats that doesn’t make this at all easy), involve staff time they just don’t have, or other factors.

(The library I work in doesn’t share our catalogue with anyone, though it’s available online. We use both a less common back-end, and we use highly specialised subject headings that would mesh badly with other systems.)

You still have to figure out access

Just because you know a book exists doesn’t mean it’s easy to get your hands on it, unfortunately!

You may still have to figure out how to get a book through interlibrary loan, track down a used copy you can afford (if one exists), or get yourself to a library where you can access it. But at least, with modern tools, you can figure out what your options are, mostly from the comfort of your computer (or even a mobile device.)

Next time

Next time, I’ll be talking about databases and options for access.

How research has changed : digital access

I was talking to a friend online a couple of weeks ago, who was marvelling at how easy it is to do some kinds of research now – and how much has changed. So let’s take a few posts to talk about how – and what you might want to know.

Massive pendulum clock (from the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studios) with the text "Times change"

A little background

When I was in college, in the late 90s (I graduated in 98), we had computer catalogues, but they were often a bit limited. They’d tell you what that library had, but finding out what other libraries nearby had was complicated. Systems often didn’t talk to each other well. You could often do searches, but not find similar books, or books that were nearby on the shelves.

And while there were some computer databases out there, a lot of journals, you still had to go look up topics in the index – printed volumes that came out with additional volumes every so often. Once you figured out what issues you wanted, you’d then have to go walk down rows and rows of shelving and find the actual physical copy. If it was actually on the shelf, and someone else wasn’t using it (or it hadn’t been misplaced.)

As you can imagine, this all took rather a lot of time to even figure out if a thing you were interested in was available, never mind looking at it to see if it was useful for what you needed.

By the time I finished graduate school in library science almost a decade later, in 2007, a lot of things had changed. Catalogues talked to each other much more. And a lot of academic journals had at least an online index, and often online access to articles. You could do a search, find articles (or at least the basics and an abstract) and then go find the article if you had to.

What’s out there?

There are three huge things that have changed in the past decade or two.

  • Figuring out what books (or other resources) might be available.
  • Much more rapid access to them in many cases
  • Easier to find specialists, archives, and museum collection items.

All of these combine to change how research works. (I’m mostly talking in the humanities here, obviously the sciences are different!) We spend a lot less time just getting access to materials or figuring out what materials we might eventually get access to, and can spend a lot more time actually studying those materials, or reading more about them, or accessing detailed research materials.

I’ll be talking more about online catalogue resources, online database resources, and citation managers in future posts, but I want to talk a little about finding experts here.

Experts and specialist knowledge

One of the things that the Internet has made much better is that we have a lot more access to historical material than we used to. Many libraries and archives have been able to digitize at least some of their material.

Why not all of it? Most archives have some things that are confidential or restricted for various reasons. But also, there’s a lot of material that may not be a big priority for researchers, or is difficult to digitize. The library I work in, the archives have papers of the institution’s directors, and the more recent ones are restricted since they may have discussions about students or staff who are still alive.

We have huge collections of incoming and outgoing correspondence, but the outgoing letters are on very thin carbon paper, and difficult and time-consuming to scan well (and also, mostly not a high focus of research interest) so they’re not as high a priority as other materials that are more commonly asked about, or that are easier to scan.

But I digress.

A thing that the Internet makes a lot more possible is figuring out if there’s someone out there who is an expert in the thing you’re doing, or is a librarian or an archivist or a museum curator whose collection has more about a topic you’re interested in.

Obviously, you want to do research in other ways, too, but there are a lot of solutions, now, for those questions that books and academic articles don’t answer (yet!)

A lot of what I do at work is help point people at resources and materials – because I work with those materials all the time, and they don’t, and I can say “Oh, yes, this will help.”

We have resource guides that deal with some of the more common questions and issues so that we can pull them out – they took me a while to write up, but now they’re done, and they’re helpful to people.

Anyway, these are now easier to find than they used to be. Most collections of any meaningful size will have a website, and if you can hit on the right search terms, or do a little digging (like looking for institutions or organizations associated with the thing you’re interested in) then you can find more resources. Often the websites themselves will have a lot – but even better, you can find other ways to connect or communicate. Even if the first place you try doesn’t have something, maybe they’ll know someone else who does and can point you there.

(Some institutions are really competitive with each other. But there are others out there that are just delighted to connect people with information, however that happens.)

Next time

I’ll be tackling online catalogues in my next post, with a few great resources for figuring out what materials might be out there, and how to get hold of them.

Personal libraries : putting books on shelves

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

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

I do have some tips for sorting it out.

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

Where will you use things?

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

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

Plan for expansion

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

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

Consider building a virtual collection list first

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

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

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

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

What groups matter to you?

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

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

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

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

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

Expect the process to take a while.

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

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

Move things around virtually first

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

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

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

Move things around physically

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

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

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

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

Group items by shelf

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

Finally, organise the shelves

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

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

Personal Libraries : Simple cataloging principles

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

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

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

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

What is cataloguing?

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

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

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

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

The essentials

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

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

Title

Titles are usually the easiest to sort out.

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

Author

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

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

Subject

Subjects are where it gets complicated.

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

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

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

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

  • cat
  • cats
  • cat stories
  • my ridiculous cat

or

  • book
  • books
  • reading
  • read

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

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

Controlled vocabulary tips

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

Start with a sample set

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

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

Decide on format

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

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

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

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

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

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

It continues with things like

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

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

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

Apply your terms

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

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

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

Consider fancy formatting

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

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

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

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

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

Next time

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

Personal libraries: building a collection

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

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

What does your collection need to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your limitations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have a focus?

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

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

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

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

How do items relate to each other?

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

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

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

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

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

1) Sometimes you just want a book.

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

2) Currency

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

3) Classic nature of the text

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

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

4) Well-sourced summary

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

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

5) What does this add?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you figure some of this out?

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

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

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