How research has changed : online catalogues

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

Today’s installment is about online catalogues.

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

The state of the map

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

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

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

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

WorldCat

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

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

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

Library of Congress

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

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

Information in entries

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

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

Limitations

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

Not all books are in libraries

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

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

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

Not all libraries are part of WorldCat

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

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

You still have to figure out access

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

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

Next time

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

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)

Visiting archives and special collections

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

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

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

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

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

1) Get An Overview

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

When are they open?

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

Do you need to make an appointment?

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

Do you need to request items in advance?

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

What do you need to bring with you?

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

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

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

What might be really helpful?

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

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

Some examples of different sites

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

2) Plan Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Read Information Carefully

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

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

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

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

4) Respect the Schedule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5) Understand Why Policies Exist

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

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

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

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

Reference questions: why I love being a librarian

I adore the puzzle of helping someone find information that makes their life better. Also great is the chance to help someone learn skills that mean they can do it themselves. If that’s the thing that’s helpful. (Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes people just want the information, because they’re overwhelmed with other things in their life. It’s part of my job to figure that out, or figure out how to ask in a way that works out.)

Here’s how I got there.

Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom: Research help for esoteric and eclectic topics. Consulting, courses, resource blog. Jenett Silver : http://seekknowledgefindwisdom.com

I’ve had two conversations this week about how much I love my day job.

(One with my mother, who’s back in my area helping a friend, and one with my boss, because it was my annual review today).

The reasons I love my day job are also the reasons I started Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom.

My last library job, I didn’t get a lot of chances to answer reference questions – I was usually on shifts where we just didn’t get as many. I was also doing other library tasks that meant I got fewer through class liaison relationships or other interactions.

(Reference is the library term for “People ask us questions and we find sources that answer their question or get them information they need for their research.”)

I’d done a lot of it at my first library job, in a high school library. I helped people find books to read. I understood them balancing high-achieving academic expectations (and parents) and a need to do something else with their brains sometimes. (Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.)

I knew they had a lot riding on some projects and research – and more than that, they were great kids who cared about doing the project well, not just getting a good grade. And sometimes, there were kids who needed a place to spend some time that wasn’t with a teacher who’d grade them or a coach with expectations. Just librarians who’d say hi, and maybe suggest a book.

My current job reminded me how much I’d missed it. Immediately. 

I overlapped with my predecessor for a couple of weeks (she was retiring) so she could get me up to speed. The second day, she threw me an interesting and complicated research question to track down. It was a question about the sculptor of a particular famous bust (well, for values of famous: it was really well known in the 1800s, much less so now) and whether there were other copies, and what else we knew about it.

It was hard to figure out what to look for, about a topic I hadn’t done a lot with. Once I dug up some of the answers (which included asking her what info we already had about it, in filing cabinets I had only just learned about), I got to answer the question.

I had to figure out how to write the response, to hit the line between friendly and not too informal, to write like the skilled professional I am, but not be stuffy. A big part of being a reference librarian is figuring out how to present the information sometimes.

It took me a lot longer than it’d take me today.

For all that was overwhelming, I loved it. I knew then that this job was going to be hard work to learn all the subject material about the main topics we focus on that was new to me . But it was going to be so much fun.

I was right. 

I get to do things like that a lot. Pretty much every day, I get to answer a question from someone where I know it’s going to make their life better or mean something to them. I know how rare that is, too, so I really appreciate it.

A bunch of the questions I get are easier than that first one.

Do we have this book? Can we get this article? Can we help with this common question? What’re the recommended books about this topic we get all the time? (We have a list. And sometimes a handout.) Someone’s just discovered a famous person associated with our school, and has questions. (Enthusiastic fourth-graders – or high schoolers – are the best.)

Some questions are a little tedious to track down, a lot of searching through lists or being systematic about where we look for obscure things.

But some questions, we’re the only people who stand a chance of answering them. Or we’re the best chance. (There are other institutions that deal with our topic, but not that many, and most of them don’t have full-time reference help. At best, there’s someone doing it along with a couple of other roles.)

Those questions, I go home feeling great when I find an answer. Or even if I know we’ve looked everywhere and come up blank.

There are lots of other great reference librarians out there.

I know some of them. I know there’s a lot more.

But I’ve been around the Pagan community for a long time (and around the SF community, and around academics, and…) And I know that there aren’t enough. That people get frustrated or overwhelmed. Some people have had lousy experience with judgy library staff, or people who told them there was only one way to do research, and that way didn’t work for hem.

Then there’s the fact that the kinds of research skills that many of us learned in school don’t always work for things like religious or spiritual research – some tools work, but others need some adjustment or people need some additional ways to apply them or evaluate what they find.

Frankly, many of the things we learned about research in school don’t always work for medical or legal or business or internet privacy and security information, either, but that’s a whole other post. Or series of posts.

Not everyone’s got a great librarian handy where they live. (Or maybe you do, but you can’t always get to the library. Or you’ve got questions about topics you don’t want to bring up at your public library, for various reasons.)

I want to give you options. 

I love what I do. I love finding information for people. And not just finding information, but figuring out which sources are more available, or better for a particular goal. I think every bit of information is giving people that much more choice, that much more freedom. It’s not my job to tell you what to do. It’s my job to help you figure out the possibilities.

And that’s why I started Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom. Reference help for esoteric and eclectic topics. It’s up to you whether that’s some Pagan or magical technique or concept or historical tidbit, or something for a fiction book you’re writing, or trying to figure out the best way to do research on a topic you want to learn about.

If I and my skills can help, I’d love the chance.