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.

Mechanics of a project

My new project seems an excellent time to walk through a way to think about a large long-term research project (it’s always nice to have a handy example!)

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

Step one: What am I trying to do here?

I described a lot of this in my previous post, but I want to turn out articles that take on the core theories behind what a given plant was used for, and provide more information about them, in a way that allows people to figure out where the information comes from.

(As I said, there’s nothing wrong with intuitive response – but it helps a lot to know what’s underlying it. A lot of our intuition is built on our experiences and the connections we’ve made between our experiences, so knowing what’s influencing that is pretty helpful.)

It’s also really helpful to know where a particular idea comes from if you need to make an adjustment. For example, if you need to substitute a herb you’d use for a spell (you can’t get it, or you’re allergic to it, or some other reason), wouldn’t you rather have a detailed idea of what people think about the alternatives? Too often, people put a whole lot of things together, while forgetting that ‘herb that does passionate lust’ is possibly a different flavour (magically speaking, and possibly also physically) from one that is known for helping build a long-lasting committed relationship.

Why do I want to know about the source?

I don’t believe that older sources are better. A quick look at medical history suggests why learning things is so powerful and important! But I do think knowing where our ideas and information comes from is very helpful, in figuring out what it means to us.

I want to look at the sources to figure out where they came from, and to begin to understand the other associations. One common one from the Middle Ages is the question of why certain figures (Mary is a common one here) are so commonly shown in certain colours.

In Mary’s case, it’s a particular shade of blue. She’s painted in that shade, because it was an incredibly rare and expensive colour to make at the time. So the same way you might put gold leaf on the most important pieces of art, you painted that shade of blue to demonstrate how something in the picture was important or central or most honoured.

In this day of other options for colours, maybe that reason for choosing blue is less relevant than the fact that we know psychologically it is calming, or that it echoes water, or some other reason. (Probably, given colour symbology, multiple different reasons.)

Step two: What do I need?

I need some sources. My idea, to start with, is to pick a number of well-known plants and culinary herbs, things that are widely used and pretty widely documented. (There are whole books devoted to roses, for example!)

And then check out those items in a selection of well-known sources.

This means I need to collect those sources, which will fall roughly into three groups:

Early sources

By which I mean mostly Classical sources – Greeks, Romans, and maybe some Medieval and Renaissance texts. These are things that largely predate our understanding of modern medicinal uses. (In other words, some of their medicinal uses worked, but they might have the wrong idea about why. In other cases, the suggested things and their uses are just bizzare. Want more about this? Listen to just about any episode of the podcast Sawbones…)

Early modern sources

In the 17th to 19th centuries, you start getting a more systematic review of medicinal uses – but of course, you see less discussion of magical uses. However, many of the herbals of this time included folklore and stories. A great example here is Nicholas Culpepper, whose Complete Herbal is a classic in the field. This exists as an ebook on Project Gutenberg, which has the advantage of being searchable.

Modern sources

There are of course dozens, hundreds, of modern resources out there about these topics, from a variety of different perspectives (medicinal herbalism, magical herbalism, religious and magical sources, folklore collections, and many many more.) Making sense of them is baffling.

Obviously, I’m not going to read every modern source – my time, my library, my available ability to hold things in my head won’t allow it. But I can look at a few of the most widely referenced ones, and look at what they talk about, and try and track down stories. For example, Scott Cunningham’s Complete Book of Magical Herbs doesn’t have citations, but I can use it to help me look at stories to trace backwards. I won’t be able to figure out sources for all of them, but I can do some.

Step three: Make a plan

Identify some widely referenced sources, and see what a handful say about each plant, and then follow stories from there. For example, Culpepper, talking about saffron, says: “It is an herb of the Sun, and under the Lion, and therefore you need not demand a reason why it strengthens the heart so exceedingly.” From there, one can follow some notes about where it comes from, how one recognises a plant suitable for use, and so on.

I full expect that sometimes later research will turn up new information or new sources to explore. But one of the things I want to do with this project is model how a long-term project can go, how there often is a spiralling pattern to the work, where you come back to things over time as you’ve learned more or have a new way to connect them.

Mixed with the plants and stones, I also want to highlight useful books, or at least books that are relevant to the project, putting them into context of why they were writtten, what kinds of information they’re interesting and useful for. High on my list is Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Palette which is a fabulous look at stories and information about colour.

Challenges of research

Wrapping up this post, I want to talk about a few challenges of research.

The biggest one, I suspect, is going to be variations in names. In books written before we had species names for plants, they can get referred to in a wide range of ways. Sometimes the names are consistent through the centuries, but often they’re not. I’ll have to do some digging and hunting to figure out what the references might be in many cases.

The other big challenge I’ve discussed above: so many sources, so little time. The only way to do this is to do things in a manageable chunk, and remind myself (and everyone reading) that I can and will come back.

Planning a presentation

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

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

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

Preparing in advance

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

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

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

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

Timing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arranging material

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7) Edit the presentation to a reasonable length

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

8) Time the presentation.

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

9) Save in all the formats

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

Presenting

The actual process of presenting is pretty straight-forward:

1) Test the technology early.

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

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

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

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

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

4) Do the presentation.

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

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

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

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

RSS feeds and you

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

Green leaves curling up around the word "productivity"

What are independent blogs?

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

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

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

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

What is RSS?

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

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

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

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

Keeping things in order

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then two sort of special categories:

  • Tumblrs
  • AO3 subscriptions

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

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

Want more ideas?

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

Researching events: 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.

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.

Personal libraries: weeding

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

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

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

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

The reality is, though, that our lives change.

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

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

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

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

Why do libraries weed?

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

But there are other reasons to weed.

The world changes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions to ask

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

What’s the physical condition?

Is this book still usable as a book?

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

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

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

Does it duplicate other things in my library?

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

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

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

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

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

Do I have a strong sentimental attachment to it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can I replace it if I change my mind?

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

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

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

In practice, I ended up keeping books like this:

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

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

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

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

Personal library: What do you need?

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

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

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

Why think about this?

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

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

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

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

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

What do you have?

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

1) What kind of items do you have?

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

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

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

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

2) Is that possibly going to change?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some people do and some don’t.

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

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

5) Do you have any specific storage needs?

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

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

6) Where will items be used?

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

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

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

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

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

What I do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time

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