Managing online spaces for yourself

I’ve heard or been around several conversations recently about people thinking about their interactions with the Internet, and what it meant for them.

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

Let me start by saying that I am one of those people whose friends are in the computer. Oh, I’ve met a fair number of them, the ones I’m closer to, by now (or we met somewhere in person, and continued the conversation online).

But as someone with chronic health issues that include fatigue and stamina issues, if I didn’t have the Internet, my social interactions would be down to people I see at work (and with one exception, there’s a whole set of things I don’t talk about with people there: my religious life, my health, my writing project – most things that matter to me outside of work.)

I’d see one of my college friends and her husband and family once a month (they live a mile from me: we have a monthly dinner scheduled so we actually see each other.) I’d see the other local college friend and her family maybe every six weeks, depending. And that’d be about it, maybe once or twice a year travelling to see other people.

That’s not a great life. It’s certainly not the one I want to be living.

Because of the Internet, I chat with both of them (and a bunch of other people) pretty much every day on a private MUCK 1. I post on forums, and dabble in Twitter, and I’ve been learning more about Discord. I poke my head in at Facebook for a couple of closed groups relating to my interests. (This is the one I’d gladly give up if I could access them some other way.) I find interesting links and things to read (and sometimes comment on) on MetaFilter. I have an account on Dreamwidth where a lot of my personal day to day notekeeping goes, and I run my own blogs (this one and others.) I read a few Tumblrs. There’s a weird little librarian microblogging site I hang out on. You get the idea.

I learned about all but one major news event on the internet since at least 2001.

(The one exception was the 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis in the summer of 2007. I was sitting at a computer in my grad school library computer lab – I’d moved a few weeks ago and didn’t have internet at home yet. Someone came in with the news right before it turned up online.)

And once I learn about a thing, there’s a host of sources for me to get more information or perspective or meaningful connection, if I put my mind to it.

Some of those places work better for me than others, of course, but they all make a difference in my life.

I also use the Internet to make me much better at my job, much better as a priestess and witch, much better as a writer and communicator of things in my head. I read widely, I use tools on the internet to help me find high quality pieces I wouldn’t come across any other way. (Oh, my parents got some of the same things out of reading three Sunday newspapers plus the weekday ones, but that also has some complications…)

I have a couple of theories about why people struggle with online spaces, based on way too many years using them (I effectively started in 1994, when I got to college. That was the year after the Endless September when it was still exciting that your web page background was something other than pale gray.)

But I also have some tools that help me make the experience more of what I want, and less of what big social media companies think I should want (or trolls, or any other group or individual that thinks they know what I want more than I do.)

1) Aim for the spaces that give you the most control.

There’s a reason I do a lot of my actual talking about things on Dreamwidth, where there are public posts, but also locked ones, so that you don’t have to worry about the Internet descending on your head without warning. Where you can talk to people who have context about your life and choices, or you can link to other posts that do if you want or need.

The sites that want to control what you see, arrange it, those get a lot harder to manage. It’s harder for you to pace yourself with content you’re less able to deal with.

If the conversation is public (or even friends-of-friends permissions), you never know when you’re going to get suddenly tangled in a conversation that got really weird in no time flat. Or worse, if you’re going to hit something horribly hurtful, destructive, or worse.

(And basically any site that relies on an algorithm for display, there are tons of things you’re not seeing that you have no idea you’re missing. I hate that part.)

So I spend the majority of my time and energy in sites where I have control (Dreamwidth), or sites where there’s thoughtful and consistent (and fairly transparent) moderation (Metafilter, the Pagan forum I’m staff on)

In the other places, I do things to help me control the firehose. I use Facebook almost exclusively for the groups. I have them pinned, I go read the things once or twice a day, and I go away. Most of the time I don’t even look at my main feed. (Fortunately, most of my close friends use Facebook solely to post adorable pictures of their children for grandparents or similar things, and our actual content-heavy conversation happens elsewhere.)

I use Tweetdeck and Twitter lists to manage what I’m reading. In Tweetdeck, I have a column each for a couple of close friends who are more active on Twitter than anywhere else, then ones for the people I read most often, librarians, writing, my elected politicans (it’s a handy way to get at all of their statements on things). Oh, and my allergist, who announces office closings there. Again, I check in once or twice a day, comment, share things occasionally.

And I read the handful of Tumblr accounts I really want to follow not through my dashboard, but by reading them in my RSS reader.

2) Decide what you want to get out of a given space.

Oh, you can change your mind, later. And it often takes a bit to figure out how using a given space works best for you. (Some spaces, by design, encourage longer or deeper conversations. Others cater to short quips and make it easier for trolling, nastiness, or misunderstandings to happen. Not just by how they handle abuse and harassment, but just in the kind of discussions they favour and discourage.)

When I’ve talked to people who want to change their social media lives, I ask what they’re looking for. To connect with friends? Figure out where that’s going to happen, and then figure out how to make the space work for you. Maybe that’s Facebook with some lists you set up with close attention to who can see what. Maybe that’s a private Twitter account. Maybe that’s deciding to swap emails regularly with one friend to keep in touch because your habits don’t overlap.

Maybe it’s finding topic-focused discussion spaces. Forums are less familiar to many people than they used to be, but they’re still there. More people are exploring using social media as a way to point at blogs and other spaces they control again, rather than having everything be on social media sites. Maybe it’s using a specific tool but in a really limited way, for a particular purpose.

I learned a long time ago that people will use a given technology in vastly different ways – and much of the time, that’s fine. Do the thing you need, not the thing the site tells you you need.

(The one downside is that if the site doesn’t care about your use, you may find relevant features dropped or changed, sometimes without much notice.)

3) Look for spaces that are well managed and give you tools.

If you’re on a site without active moderation, learn the tools the site gives you to mute, block, ban, or otherwise remove people from your bits of the space. Don’t feel bad about using those tools on accounts that are not interacting in good faith with you. That can be spam, or it can be those people who think linking to a 45 minute video to make their point is (I ranted a bit about this in a post from last year).

If a site doesn’t let you have reasonable control over your own experience, reconsider whether you want to be there.

If the site does have reasonably active moderation, like many forums or Discord channels do, take time to read the rules. (They may not remove problem comments or users immediately, but have a process to do so that’s reasonably up front).

This will tell you not only what the rules are, but what the site values. A place that makes it clear they value discussion and debate (but spells out what that means) is different than a place that says “Be nice to each other.” (Nice is notoriously difficult to define. It’s one of my signs of a site or resource that hasn’t had to deal with many challenges and that might not handle future ones well.)

4) Put the things you value where they’re easy to get to.

(And put the other stuff somewhere else…)

This is probably key to my management of my online time and space. I put the places I want to spend the most time in my main toolbar. (In order, my current lineup is Gmail, Todoist, Feedly (my RSS reader), Dreamwidth, the Cauldron (the Pagan forum I’m staff on), YNAB (my budget site), and then there are folders for everything else. I have half a dozen forums I check at varying degrees of frequency, and a dozen or two more I poke my head into occasionally.

I deliberately don’t have bookmarks for Tweetdeck (for Twitter) or Facebook: I want those to be things I deliberately decide to enter (even if it’s just typing the first few letters in the location bar and hitting the auto complete.)

Oh, and you won’t see news sites in there. I get news in my email from several different sources, and I’ll go check news stories when there’s a big specific story, but again, I don’t want it to be a thing I’m mindlessly clicking into. In my email, they get filtered into a specific label (not my inbox), and I skim through them and open the stories I’m interested in a couple of times a day. When there are big stories, I go looking for more information from multiple sources.

In my RSS reader, I have things grouped by topic. Really busy sites (like Metafilter) get their own section, so I can quickly skim, open the posts I’m interested in, and mark the others read. I can read things about libraries, or about Paganism, or divination, or a range of other topics, and easily leave other things for later.

I don’t keep social media apps on my phone (I do have an ebook reader app) and I keep interactive ones several screens back, and the things that I use for my own tracking/information on the first couple.

I don’t personally have a lot of issues with the constant refresh loop once I do the above, but I’ve used various of the extensions to block or limit time on sites that weren’t a great choice as needed, until I could sort out longer term habits that were better for me.

5) Re-evaluate regularly.

It’s okay to take breaks. It’s okay to change things up. Letting the people you’re close to on a specific tool know is handy, if you can manage it. (I worry about people when I realise I haven’t seen them around for a bit, and many of us may not have other forms of contact or not be sure it’s okay to ask.)

But it’s fine to change up what you’re doing. Maybe you’re a person where disconnecting or taking a social media break, or a break from a specific site is really helpful for you. Maybe you don’t know and you want to find out. Maybe you figure out you need to handle it differently. (Because you’ve changed, or learned something new about what you prefer, or the site has changed.) Maybe it’s that the world is pretty awful in a lot of ways right now, and you need to take out some of the places that spills over relentlessly onto you.

That said, there are so many different ways to connect online – so thinking about what ones actually work for you (or might) can help you figure out better options than just ditching them all.

1 What’s a MUCK? It’s one of a handful of similar code bases – others related ones include MUDs and MUSHes – that allow you to create text-only spaces for people to hang out and chat. You can link rooms together to create much larger spaces, describe the people and things in them, create objects that do things when you type commands. I played a number of text-based games on them in college and after, but these days we have a private one for chatting, mostly.

New research project

So, I’d planned for this post to be an introduction to Zotero, as an example of how to use a citation management tool.

But then i was talking to a visiting friend about a project I’ve been kicking around for a while, and got some great ideas on how to approach it. So instead, we’re going to have a post explaining the project, and then I’ll be using it as part of an example of setting up Zotero, since it’s a great fit for that.

Tea ball with a mix of herbs and dried flowers, cracked slightly open.

What’s the project?

If you’re familiar with the Pagan or magical communities, you’ve probably come across the term ‘correspondences’ before. Basically, it’s a concept that relates to certain theories about how magic works (or might work), that different plants, animals, stones, foods, and other materials have properties that are associated with particular energies, deities, other non-physical beings.

The idea is that you can use these items in your magic, to help you with a specific goal. You might use a particular herb for love, a given stone for clarity of communication, a specific colour for getting other people to take you seriously. (Some of these are magic. Some of them are psychology. Often the line betweeen the two is surprisingly narrow.)

Where do correspondences come from?

Here’s the thing. A lot of times, people will quote things in books about what is associated with what – and there’s no source and no explanation.

This drives me up a wall. I have absolutely no objection to someone saying “This is my intuition and experience, it’s not based on anything else.” I am all for people doing what works for them. But that’s different than saying “Traditionally, this is used for X.” Who says? Where did they say it? Was it just them, or is that a pretty common thing, not all based on the same source?

This is a huge problem – and a huge project. The possible sources for this kind of information, even if we’re just focusing on Western Europe, and in about the last millenia, span at least a dozen languages, many different places, and a huge range of possible names for things. (Since the nomenclature we use in modern science is pretty modern, all things considered.)

I’ve been thinking about the problem for a while, and I want to try tackling it. Whatever I do won’t be comprehensive – there’s no way I can promise that. I don’t read enough languages, I have other things in my life besides this project, and I want to try and keep both my research and the actual output somewhat manageable.

The suggestion I got

My friend suggested it’d be a great project for a Patreon. I haven’t set one up yet! I want to work on a couple of example essays, first, so I can get a sense of how many I am likely to produce in a given month and how to structure the articles usefully. It is a project I want to tackle for my own reasons, and sharing it with others would be wonderful.

How might this work?

As you might remember, one of my pieces of advice for any significant research is figuring out how you know when you’ve found what you’re looking for or gotten as much as you can for your goal. Here’s the time to do that.

What do I need for this project?

I’d like to create a summary article for a lot of different items (herbs, stones, plus probably some on different animals, colours, and other things) that talks about the basic physical reality of the thing (where does it come from, does it have any medicinal properties or is it used for art or food?) and then that discusses some of the major stories and associations, plus where they may come from.

Realistically speaking, I’m quite sure this will be relatively easy for some items, and terribly difficult for others. I may start on one and get stuck pretty fast! Or I may find pieces that I can’t sort out, given my available time and resources. I expect I’ll be able to track down sources for some of the stories and correspondences, and not for others.

I also expect there will be revisions over time – because as I look for other items, I’ll come across different things, or stories, or places where someone translated the name of the plant a different way, and a connection becomes apparent. Or perhaps I’ll be able to make special trips to look at rare manuscripts (I do live in the Boston area, and we have lots of libraries with great rare book collections!) Or I’ll find more books and articles that give me more details.

How big a project is this?

Well, it’s huge. But there are two ways to limit it. One is about how I go about the project, and the other is by scope of what I’m going to research.

It would be tempting to go about this project by finding a given source that has information – the writings of Pliny the Elder, or various naturalists who collected folklore about the plants they described, or early grimoires – and index what they have to say. While that might be useful, it is also exactly the kind of project that can bog down very easily, or feel overwhelming very quickly. Also, it’s a kind of research I can do, but often don’t find particularly fun.

So let’s go with the other approach, which is to start with a particular item – a given herb or stone or other thing that has correspondences – and look at a reasonable selection of material that might have things about it, do a range of searches on the open web and in some databases like JSTOR, and rummage for what I can find, tracing sources back where I can to something that is close to the starting point. Pull them together, when I’ve got a satisfying amount, and then move on to the next one.

The other way to limit the scope is to look at what items I’m taking on. Realistically, my language skills are a mcuch better fit for things derived from from Western Europe than other places. (I read and write modern English, but can also take a reasonable stab at Middle English, French, Attic Greek, and a bit of German and Latin. Certainly enough to poke at things with translation tools and get a sense.) I have a lot less of a chance for things that started out in Arabic, or in Chinese or Japanese, or dozens of other languages.

The other part of this, of course, is in what I use. I live in a global community, and have access to herbs and spices from around the globe. But at the same time, my actual magical practice is rooted partly in Western Europe, and partly in where I live (New England), and my research is going to focus first on the things used in those places. Again, I may very well expand in some cases, but I know there are huge swaths of magical and ritual practice that use things I’ve never explored. I’d rather leave research on them to people who have those skills and experiences.

What about the practical aspects of this?

My idea is that I’d post one or two articles every month (probably: see above about testing how long it takes me to produce something useful first.) I suspect I’ll focus heavily on stones and herbs, but I may include other kinds of things from time to time (colours, animals, other kinds of plants, foods).

I want to produce something that is useful to me, to my covenmates. But I also want to produce something that’s useful to other people, because if I’m going to do the work, it makes sense to share it.

My current plan is to make Patreon posts, and periodically (every six months or year, depending on how many I’m turning out and how long they are) collect the articles into something available in other formats. Some of the research will involve getting more books: the Patreon money will go toward buying those books, and also (if there’s money for this) throwing money at some things that save me time so I can spend more of it on the project.

What does this mean for you?

If you’re interested in this, I will put the most frequent updates in my newsletter – sign up, and get a complete list of what I’ve written recently, plus other links I’ve found intriguing in the past fortnight. But I’ll post an announcement here and a few other places when I get things up and running.

If you have thoughts or ideas (or suggestions for a particular set of correspondences for me to tackle first), I’d love to hear about that, too. The easiest way is through my contact form.

Research tools: how to choose

Last week, I talked about different kinds of tools you might use for research. Today, I’m going to talk about how to choose tools.

Research tools: an astronomical device opens up like a pocket watch with many tools

Where will you use it?

This is one I think about a lot.

Some people do all of their research work or personal computer work on a single machine. I am not one of those people.

I work on a Mac at home (I’ve been a Mac user since … well, before there were Macs, technically, I started on an Apple IIC.) I have specific software I use on my home machine – Scrivener for long-form writing. I use Aeon Timeline mostly for fiction projects, but I know people use it for historical research as well. (It is an excellent and detailed timeline application.)

But some things I need access to on multiple machines. I want to be able to pop a note into my to-do list if I think of it at work, so I can follow up later. I want to be able to dip into my personal email (that’s fine at my workplace, within reason).

My work machine is a Windows machine.

I could bring a personal device with me. In my case, that’s an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard: it has the iOS app version of Scrivener on it among other things. But the wifi is unreliable in my office, so it’s often not usable. Even for writing on breaks, that’s not ideal, because I need to be able to sync files, and keeping up with the syncing at home would take a fair bit of time and attention. I may want to check something that’s sitting in my email, and not scroll through a lot of text due to the small screen size of the phone, or have easier access to search tools.

So for me, I want tools that have at least some option for web access, even if I also use a specific application on my computer or mobile device most of the time.

You may well make different choices, if you only need to access your work in one location, or you have (and regularly carry) a laptop. Or if you’re regularly doing work in places without reliable internet.

Make the choices that work for you, reevaluate as you change jobs or technology, to make sure they’re choices that still work for you.

Backing up

One of the very first questions you should ask yourself about a tool is how the information is backed up, and how you can get information out of it in a format you can refer to or (ideally) transfer to a different tool. You don’t want your critical material to be held hostage by a company going out of business, or lose material because you have a computer failure.

The actual issues are slightly different – you may have no warning of a computer failure (or someone stealing a laptop, or any of a number of other things): your ideal is continuous backups. That means a copy on your computer itself, a copy on a separate medium (external hard drive, USB drive, etc.) and probably a copy in the cloud (among other reasons, this means that if something happens to your physical location – fire, flood, tornado – you have a copy somewhere else.)

If you don’t want to trust the cloud for some reason, is there a friend who lives in a different region of the country who you can mail a copy periodically? (Cheap USB drive, files burned to CD-ROM, etc.)

How specific and exacting you are about your backup plans will probably depend a bit on your technology setup, a bit on how critical the files are, and a bit on how good you are about manual process things like sticking something in the mail.

Me, I have a copy on my computer, the critical files sync to Dropbox, and I periodically pull copies onto a separate drive (I usually leave mine at work, for a backup in a sufficiently different physical location.)

If you are working on something that you absolutely can’t recreate in a timely manner (like a dissertation or all of your research notes for multiple years) you want to be more attentive to your backups than writing you do solely for fun or emails to a friend. (Those are great to back up, and they can hurt a lot to lose, but they probably won’t derail a significant part of your life for months or years if you lose them.)

How do you get information out of it?

The other side of this question is making sure you can keep control over your information and research, no matter what happens. So long as you’re regularly using software or a tool, you should have at least a bit of warning before a site or tool disappears (though sometimes it can happen nearly overnight!) It’s good to get in the habit of pulling an export regularly.

There are a couple of different considerations with exports.

It’s often easiest to pull a copy that has all your information, but not in a format you can stick into another program easily. For example, it may be easiest to pull a copy of your material as a PDF, but you’d need to do some wrangling (possibly with some specific software) to get the text out easily. VoodooPad, an application I use for keeping personal wiki-type information (where I can link to other pages in the document) will let me export in a number of formats, but I may lose formatting and some connections between files.

Knowing what your options are in advance, and picking the best options for your current needs is usually a good way to go.

What format should you save things into?

Good question. The formats that will absolutely save the core of your material (but may lose formatting, connections between files, or ‘about this work’ type information) are plain text and csv files for spreadsheets. (CSV stands for ‘comma separated values’ which means that each column is separated by commas. You can often set a different character, if your actual data may have commas, and then tell the program you load it into what you picked.)

A slightly more complex option for text is RTF or rich text format. This will save much of the formatting for you, but it may add glitches or not include some specialised formatting .

Saving files in widely used formats – such as Microsoft’s .docx or .xls formats – will often work too, but again may add some additional material or leave some things out. (Microsoft formats are sort of notorious for bloating files with a lot of additional formatting data that can cause problems on import.)

Sometimes you may have the option to export as an HTML or XML format – usually this is an option for linked pages, like a website or wiki. These formats should preserve the links between pages, and you can access them by opening the file on your computer as if it’s in a web browser. (And from there you can save the material into other formats if you need.)

Thinking about how you might want to use the information if you need to resurrect it is usually a good indicator for your best format.

Research tools: what I use

Time for a new series – this one on keeping track of reference materials. In this post, I’m going to talk about a couple of different aspects. Then, in future posts, I’ll be looking at some specific tools to keep track of references, like Zotero (one of the citation management programs.)

Research tools: an astronomical device opens up like a pocket watch with many tools

Why have a system to keep track of things?

If you’re only managing a few references, or a few sites (for values of ‘few’ that go up to about 50), you probably don’t need a big system – you can keep track of a few dozen things in a word processing or text file pretty easily.

But once you get over a few dozen, it gets harder to keep things organised. Our brains have a harder time processing a long list: it’s easier to miss something, or duplicate entries, or otherwise have housekeeping errors. Different people will have different length limits, but somewhere between 20 and 40, you’ll probably hit your personal ‘this is too long’ .

The same thing goes if the items you’re keeping track of fit into multiple categories. It’s one thing to have a list of items you need to read – but what happens when you want to list things as “to read” and then by the type of content. How do you file things? Do you list it every possible place? That makes for a much longer list.

Either way, if you want to keep track of lots of things, you need a system.

What kinds of options are out there?

For many people, the system that works best will depend on what you’re trying to keep track of. You may need a different approach for websites than for print books, or a different way to handle ebooks.

I suggest that you think about the difference between what you own, and what you use as reference material. You may want to own a book (and keep track of the fact you own it), but not care about it as reference material. You might have a system for keeping track of books, and a different one for tracking reference material. Having multiple systems can be annoying (and potentially confusing) but not if you’re clear about why you’re using a specific tool.

Here’s what I use:

What books I have copies of: LibraryThing

I use LibraryThing to keep track of everything I own – print and ebooks. Items get entered in the catalog. I have a collection of print books (so I can just search things I have in print), or ebooks (just things that live on my phone.)

Everything also gets content-specific tags like genre, or when it’s set if it’s historical, or topic. I keep my tags edited, so that I can search them easily, and I refine them regularly so that I don’t have tags with only a couple of items unless it’s really necessary. (I am not a fan of lists overwhelming for me.)

You can add books with a simple form or by importing a spreadsheet if you’ve been using a different tool, or by scanning the back of books in many cases with a tool in the mobile app.

If they’re print books, they also get assigned a tag that indicates where they’re shelved (so I can find them again.) The shelving tags are really simple – I have the IKEA cube bookshelves, so I do A1, A2, A3, A4, B1, B2, B3, B4, etc. Each cube only has about 12-15 books, so it’s easy to spot once I’m looking in the right place.

The actual ebook files are managed through Calibre. This means I can search or tag and manage files much more easily, or save files to a different place if needed.

Costs: LibraryThing has a fee for over 200 books in an account. The fee is $10 for a year, or $25 for a lifetime account. (Obviously, one of these is a much better buy if you expect to keep using the site.) Calibre is free, but they appreciate donations!

Websites I want to share: Pinboard

Pinboard describes itself as “a bookmarking website for introverted people in a hurry.” (It’s also been described as anti-social bookmarking, in contrast to social bookmarking.)

I have a personal account, and one for coven links. My personal account is private and where I put things I want to find later, the coven site is public. You can set tags, group tags, and do some additional things.

I use Instapaper as an interim tool to keep track of things I want to save, read later, or think about reading.

Costs: There’s a yearly fee for new Pinboard accounts ($11 a year right now) and it’s well worth it if you want to share bookmarks, keep track of more items than your web browser’s bookmark tools will handle easily, or access bookmarks from multiple browsers or devices.

Instapaper is free, and there are other similar services (Pocket is the other big one)

References (books, websites, PDFs): Zotero

Zotero is one of a handful of widely used citation management programs, and the one I’d recommend for most people – it’s free, has an add-on for Chrome, and has other benefits. It will help you keep track of references, and you can produce a formatted bibliography with a few clicks (though you probably still need some human review. Citation styles are tricky!)

If you’re in academia, you may have access to other options through your school. Your library (or the library website) probably has more information. (There are certain advantages to using the same system other people in your institution are, and if you’re working in a research lab or closely with a professor or researcher, you may not have a lot of choice about which tool is used.)

Costs: Depends on the tool, but Zotero is free. If you want to store PDFs on their site, you’ll likely need to pay for additional storage if you have more than a few.

Notes and writing: Ulysses, 4theWords, Scrivener

My briefer writing is sometimes a little tricky, because Ulysses is a Mac only app, and I can’t access it at work. You can have lots of folders, tag items, create smart folders, and much more. There’s even a publishing option for putting things into WordPress (and a few other tools).

I’m also using a site called 4thewords which is exploring a gamification approach to writing. You battle various monsters and win by writing a certain number of words in a span of time. As you do quests, you can earn items for your avatar or other game objects. As I wrote this sentence, I won a battle of 500 words.

It also keeps some stats I’m finding more useful than I expected about how long I was actively writing a given piece. (And I’ve found the battles a certain incentive for doing just another hundred or two hundred words, several times.)

Scrivener is where my long-form writing lives, and it is amazing for being able to move things around, save a piece you cut but want to keep just in case, and has a lot of tagging and drafting tools to help.

Costs: Ulysses is a subscription (it’s also currently part of the SetApp subscription option, if you’re interested in other apps they offer, which includes Aeon Timeline, a popular timeline app) and 4theWords has a month free trial and then is $4 a month.

There are obviously lots of free options in this space: I use Google Docs for sharing word processing with other people, and especially for editing that we’re looking at together. It’s also my go-to for things I may want to add to during lunch at work.

Come back next week.

Join me next week for part 2, things to think about when choosing tools.

If you use other tools you think I should look at, I’d love to hear from you – the contact form is probably the best way.

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: 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.)

To the Researchmobile! : Identity theft

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

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

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

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

Background is useful

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, and a bit of background:

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

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

This makes it rather easy to abuse, unfortunately.

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

Habits are also useful

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

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

First steps

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

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

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

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

Initial searches

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes the spreadsheet

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

I set up a spreadsheet with multiple sheets in it.

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

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

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

What did I do?

1) Put a fraud alert on my credit account.

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

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

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

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

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

3) Called the Massachusetts Unemployment Fraud line.

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

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

4) My bank

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

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

5) Credit cards

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

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

6) Reporting to the FTC

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

7) Social Security Administration

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

Things I need to do in the future

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

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

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

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

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

Looking ahead to research : part 2

One of the complicated things about research is that you never quite know how long something is going to take you.

Oh, it’s possible to group projects into ‘probably short’ and ‘very long’, and some spaces in between. But ‘probably short’ can range from 3 minutes to a couple of hours (depending on how many Internet rabbitholes one falls down) and ‘very long’ can be 10 hours or 10 years.

Which makes planning rather tricky.

So, let’s look at some things that affect how long research might take, and then some ways to help plan. Many of them are not only individual to you as a person, but may be specific to particular projects. Unfortunately, there’s no simple solution, here!

Looking ahead to research : seekknowledgefindwisdom.com

Things to think about

Speed of access

One big factor is obviously how quickly you can access what you’re looking for. For example, reading faster obviously helps with some kinds of research, but it’s not a skill everyone has.

Some people have lives that allow them to spend regular time on research – this can save time over a long project because you spend less time remembering where you were, or what you were focusing on.

Others have jobs or commutes that let them get through a fair chunk of new information through podcasts or audiobooks, even if they have to spend some focused time on things they can’t listen to at other points.

And of course, some of this may be about other access needs. If you have a slow internet connection, or limited time to be online, some things are going to move a lot more slowly than someone who has a speedy connection or more time.

Getting materials

If you happen to be at an academic institution, you likely have very quick access to a wide range of databases and to interlibrary loan resources that can get you many articles or books very promptly (in many cases, articles will come within 24 hours, and books within a week or so). That’s true in most places even if your job doesn’t have anything to do with research.

For the many of us not there, there may still be options. You may have regional or state services that provide some of the same options. For example, if you live, work, go to school, or own property in Massachusetts, you can likely get access to the electronic resources from the Boston Public Library.

(Some states and regions and places fund their library services – especially on larger geographic levels – better than others. Sorry, I don’t run the world, or I’d make that possible a lot more places. But in a lot of place, you have to dig a little to find out about these options, and I encourage you to ask and dig a little when you get time.)

Some of these options take more time and planning than others. Electronic resources like journals are usually available when you’d like, but ebooks may be limited to one user at a time. Interlibrary loan books usually have fixed loan periods, and you need to send them back promptly.

It can take some practice to figure out how to time when an interlibrary loan arrives with having enough time from other parts of your life to work with the materials before they have to go back.

And of course, you may want to own materials, but need time to get the money in your budget to buy them, or need to wait for a copy of an older text to show up at a vaguely affordable price.

Grouping similar tasks

Some kinds of research tasks go faster if we do them all at once. For example, if you’re looking at the history of words as part of research on a topic, looking them all up at once in a really good dictionary is going to be faster than doing one, going away, doing something else, and then coming back and having to open up the dictionary (whether that’s physically or electronically), and do more searches.

Similarly, you can

What tools can be helpful? (Todo list that lets you tag by amount of time something will take or whether it can be done while you’re doing other things.)

Special situations

Not every research question has a simple solution. Sometimes you need a source that is only available a few places (or is in something like an archives or historical society collection.) Sometimes materials will be in languages you don’t read, or not available where you live.

These can be so frustrating – most people can’t go off to every corner just to read a book or find a source. And we certainly can’t be learning every language we might be curious about.

There are some solutions out there. For example, finding people who know or can access the thing you need. This can include hiring an independent researcher to go look at an item local to them, getting help from people working on similar topics, or finding people who read the language you need and figuring out a suitable arrangement for a translation or notes.

This is the hardest – and least predictable – category to solve, but fortunately, as long as you’re making some progress with your research in other ways, you can get traction here. Every time you talk about an ongoing project, you have a chance to connect with people who can help you further (or who know someone who can help.)

Tools to help

So how do you keep all of this manageable? A really good project management system and notes are a great start. One of the most frustrating parts of research projects is when you know you saw a post, or an online article, or a mention of a book, and if you could just remember what it was, it had something you needed. But now you can’t.

This is a place where tools help. Start by writing down your actual questions. For long-term projects, your questions may be fairly vague at first. If so, focus on what you know about what you want to do with the information when you find it. That will help you plan your time better.

More on that in part three, so you can see a couple of examples, but start with whatever you know right now.

  • Do you have a specific thing you’re trying to answer?
  • What do you want to do with the information when you’ve got it? (Use it somehow? Share it with others? Whatever you know is helpful.)
  • What do you already know about the subject?
  • Do you see any particular limitations you want to start thinking about early? (Needing specific materials, or languages, or sources?)

Then, as you begin to gather information, keep track of it, so that you can look at what you have and what you would like to have in one place. There are tons of different possible systems about this (and I’ll be talking about the details next post and in future posts.)

Next part: Breaking down large projects and getting a grip on how long they might take.

Jenett’s quick guide to evaluating information

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

Basic principles:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are their goals?

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

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

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

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

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

Where did they get their information?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other key tips

Beware of absolutes, especially in complex situations.

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

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

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

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

Is this a situation where there are strong emotions?

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

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

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

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

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

Some additional resources:

Here are a few additional links worth reading

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