New research project

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

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

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

What’s the project?

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

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

Where do correspondences come from?

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

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

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

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

The suggestion I got

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

How might this work?

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

What do I need for this project?

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

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

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

How big a project is this?

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

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

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

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

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

What about the practical aspects of this?

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

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

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

What does this mean for you?

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

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

Transcribing magical texts (and an intro to digital archives)

Image of a large old-fashioned library of dark wood with a high arched ceiling. Text on image reads: "going digital : transcribing archival materials"

Transcribing magical texts

If you’re me, about half a dozen people mentioned an article from Atlas Obscura about a project transcribing magical texts for the Newberry Library in Chicago. (And then most of them followed it up with this being how movie plots get started and/or Buffy the Vampire Slayer references. I find the predictability of my people very reassuring, honestly.)

The project is interesting in itself (and the Esoteric Archives project it links to has a ton of historical materials about magic and related topics.)

But above and beyond the content, I’m always delighted to see interesting catchy articles that talk about the amazing things going on in archives these days.

Bonus tip: Atlas Obscura is a long-running website that highlights quirky or interesting history. They started as a tiny little two person blog back when, but in the past year or so they’ve started doing longer detailed pieces, many of which are fantastic intros to new resources and hidden gems.

A brief pause for a technical note

Here is where I should note that I’m a librarian, not an archivist: there’s overlap between the two, and we share the same professional degree. But the trained archivists I work with have a whole lot of training on topics like preservation, and digitization, and how you label archives materials that I don’t have.

That said, I work really closely with our archivist, and I’m very grateful she exists, because she knows all this important stuff I don’t know. (And she’s glad I exist, because mostly she’d rather work with the materials than answer reference questions, and I consider reference questions the most fun thing ever, even the ones I’ve basically answered a dozen times before.)

Here’s what I didn’t really know before I got my current job two years ago, and started working a lot more closely with an archivist:

  1. There are all sorts of tools for making materials available. Ok, I knew this part. Just not the rest of the details.
  2. Some of them are things you might use as an individual (like Flickr) but there are other tools that make digitizing entire books feasible in a very short period of time, compared to what it used to be (scanning or photographing each page.)
  3. The Internet Archive (and some other places, but many archives use the Internet Archive for a variety of reasons) makes it easy to upload entire books (that we can do this with, so things out of copyright and/or things an institution can give permission to make available.)
  4. For books with print text, they also do optical character recognition on the test, producing a machine-readable and machine-searchable copy of the text. This text isn’t perfect, but it works pretty well for many common uses.

To give you a sense of what this means, my predecessor had a painstakingly indexed list of all student names mentioned in our annual reports. Done by hand, over months, and it only has the students, so finding information about teachers or staff or other kinds of people associated with the school was overwhelming to search.

I can, with about 15 mouseclicks and keystrokes, load a volume of our annual reports, search across multiple years for a given name, and then click to the places where it’s been found. It takes maybe two minutes, depending on how quickly pages load.

Handwriting is hard.

Here’s the thing. Computers are pretty good at figuring out printed text. But they’re really lousy at handwriting. Especially any handwriting that is at all quirky. (Like your average Renaissance manuscript.)

That means that for handwritten manuscripts, you can make the images available fairly easily, but that’s not always a lot of help to researchers – it can be very time consuming to figure out what’s there (and if it’s worth the effort to spend more time on it), and of course, not everyone has the skills to read various forms of handwriting. (The term for this is paleography, and it’s something historians often learn as part of their degree and education.)

Also, some of these people had truly horrendous handwriting for their time period.

(At work we have a 20th century collection that includes handwritten notes from someone associated with a major historical figure whose handwriting has baffled at least half a dozen researchers. We currently have a couple of volunteers who are the world’s experts in deciphering this particular person’s handwriting, and we’re really sure the transcriptions they’re working on are going to reveal new and interesting information people do actually care about. Plus a lot of other random things like what the dogs and garden were up to – we’re mostly not transcribing those.)

Finally, of course, untranscribed or undescribed images aren’t accessible. They’re not available to people with visual impairments, and they can be tremendously hard to access for people with learning differences like dyslexia. Or just plain people who struggle with other people’s handwriting.

Want to transcribe things?

There’s probably a project out there for you. If you don’t want to transcribe these magical manuscripts, check out the Smithsonian Digital Volunteer program (which has people transcribing field notes, manuscripts, and related topics) or the National Archives Citizen Archivist project (documents in the US national archives collections) or there’s a long list from the Folger Library of other projects over here.

What’s particularly cool about this is that you don’t need to be anywhere near the collection, and you can do as much or as little as you like. You usually don’t get to choose your topic, but if you’ve got a particular passion (and can commit a bit of time) try contacting an archive that deals with your topic and asking if they need help. They may not have a snazzy online set up to do it yet, but they might be delighted to send you images and ask for a text transcription.