How catalogues work: figuring out search terms

One key step in using catalogues is figuring out search terms.

Catalogues: Wooden chest of old-fashioned catalogue cards

What kinds of searches can you do?

In most electronic catalogues you can search by all sorts of things.

Many libraries have gone to the single search box (popularised by Google). Technically, this is called a keyword search, and it usually searches all the text in the record.

Pro: You don’t need to guess which field a given thing might be in, and searching on things that aren’t subject headings but show up in the title or blurb will still come up.

Con: You can get a lot of false results that don’t actually have what you want, especially if you’re searching for commonly used words.

If you end up with all sorts of results that don’t help you, two things can help. First, there’s probably an option somewhere on that first search screen that says something like ‘advanced search’. Second, once you do a search, you may be presented with some options to help you filter the results.

Advanced search

Depending on the catalog, you will usually see a variety of options that let you limit your search in different ways. Common ones include:

  • Searching just the author, subject, or title fields.
  • Searching a range of years.
  • Limiting the results to a particular format, location (for systems with multiple locations), or sometimes specific collections (like juvenile books), or languages.

You may need to do a little digging in the help information (likely also linked from the search form) to understand your options in detail.

Limiting results

It’s sometimes (okay, often) a lot easier to start with a keyword search and then limit your results in different ways.

In my library’s catalog, I can limit by the following, to give you an example:

  • Location (so I can find books in my local library)
  • Availability (books I can get right now, either in a library or online)
  • Whether the search term is found in the title or subject
  • Format (book, ebook, audiobook, etc.)
  • What collections it is in (this distinguishes library and children or adult)
  • Places the book takes place

And then it shows me related searches, including established subject terms, and some additional suggestions.

Understanding subject headings

In practical terms, you are probably not going to do what librarians do to learn about subject headings.

(For the curious, this involves most library schools require a class in cataloging that includes a lot of the specifics. Then you go out into the world and spend a lot of time starting at instructions and hoping you’re doing it right, punctuated by asking other people if you are.)

Individual libraries also have their own policies – the library I work at has set up a list of keywords instead of official subject headings, because a lot of our needs aren’t represented in them (or are using terms that aren’t a great fit for us – they’re dated, they draw from specialities that aren’t the terms the people who use us will use, or both!)

As a library catalog user, my best tip is for you to look for hints about what kinds of terms will work. Fortunately, these are pretty straightforward

1) Try searches

One of the best tips for getting your bearings in a new catalogue (by which I mean one that’s new to you) is to try some searches of items you’re pretty sure are in there, and that are reasonably similar for other items you want to look for.

Ideally, these will be the same subject (generally speaking) as the items you want, but if you’re not sure about that, at least try for the same topic area – if you want to do searches about religious information, try other religious titles or topics. If you’re looking for history, try other historical things. And so on.

The goal here is to do a few searches and see what comes up and how the search terms work.

2) Linked subjects

In many library catalogs, you have the option to click on the subject headings to find other items with that subject heading. This can be tremendously helpful once you find one book that’s what you want. (Of course, it’s finding that first thing that can be tricky!)

You may want to add several books to a wish list or cart (whatever the catalog uses) or bookmark them before you go too far astray in your searches, so you can get back to your starting point again easily.

If you’re having trouble with searches, try simpler ones – for example, if you’re trying to search an entire title, try

3) Look for known books or topics that should be in the collection.

For example, for modern Pagan materials, I often suggest people try Scott Cunningham’s Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner, or Starhawk’s Spiral Dance. Both are commonly held by most moderate to large library systems, and they’ll give you a starting place for what terms are being used.

In my local library system, Cunningham’s book comes up with the subject headings “witchcraft”, “magic”, and “ritual”.

That’s a hint that I probably want to check ‘witchcraft’ as well as ‘Wicca’ as subject headings.

(This is because older books were cataloged before Wicca became an official Library of Congress subject heading around 2006 or 2007 – libraries don’t generally go back and recatalog subject headings unless there’s a very significant reason to, because it’s a big cost of staff time.

Something like ‘witchcraft’ and ‘Wicca’ where it can be tricky to figure out exactly which heading applies to some books, and where ‘witchcraft’ is still accurate, if a bit more general ideal, is less likely to get edited than, say, a library that is fixing or updating subject headings to reflect current understanding of gender identity or sexual orientation or legal issues.)

4) Check the ‘about’ for information or ask a librarian.

Still stuck? Check the library’s help information or ask a librarian for help – you can ask general questions, and they can help you navigate.

If you don’t want to (or can’t get to) the physical library easily, most libraries have an option for email or chat help these days, at least some of the time.

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 : 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.)

Personal libraries: Background

I think about personal libraries a lot. The questions about a personal library obviously are somewhat similar to a library than many people use (how do we know what we have, how do we store it in a way that makes sense, how do we find things on the shelf).

And yet they’re totally different in others, because the choices we make don’t have to work for lots of unknown people.

So, over the course of a few posts, I’m going to talk about:

  • What my personal library’s like
  • Some things I’d like to improve
  • Useful tips for getting a handle on your library

And I’m sure more as I start writing and realise there’s this thing I want to talk about.

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

My personal library

So, one thing you should know is that I read a lot – on average over 100 books a year.

I am weirdly superstitious about talking about specific lists of what I’ve read in any detail (I feel like this gives a very intimate look into the inside of my head and steals my soul) but it’s usually about equal parts fiction and non-fiction, with a side of Pagan-specific material.

The fiction’s mostly a mix of fantasy and mystery, with a dash of romance. The non-fiction is mostly popular non-fiction. I’m fond of books that talk about a single subject (microhistories) or dive into a given place or time or situation.

The second thing you should know is that I’ve done three long-distance moves in my adult life. Books are annoying to move long-distances, and also heavy.

I’d already begun to move to ebooks when I did the second of those moves.

For one thing, I read really fast. It used to be that on any trip, my bag would need to be half books, to keep up with my reading speed. This was both heavy and awkward. And there was always the question of “I’m going to this thing, and I might be waiting for half an hour. Will I run out of book?”

These days, I have six hundred books that sit on my phone, and I can swap what I’m reading on the fly. I usually have a print book around too (in case of technology issues, for reading in baths, etc.) but it’s one per trip instead of half a dozen or more.

I do most of my reading on screen now. I still love a physical book, but my actual practical set up means I mostly read them in the bathtub or at work (where we use print heavily, but also digitized versions)

A little history

When I did the move from Minnesota to Maine in 2011, I looked at my print books and thought about what I really wanted to move. (Especially when I wasn’t sure what my apartment was going to be like for shelving: I rented it sight unseen.)

I made the decision to move things in a few categories:

  • Pagan books (for reasons explained in a moment)
  • Books where the physical object had meaning, not just the text.
  • Books I reread regularly not yet available in ebook versions
  • Books that would not be readily available (either via the public library or used book sources) if I decided I wanted them again.

I got rid of almost everything else. I got down to about 220 print books, if I remember right – a dozen boxes sent media mail across the country.

I kept the Pagan books for two reasons. One is that I wanted to have copies I could open up while working with someone, and let them look at. (With some friends, I’m willing to lend, too.)

The other was that replacing that part of my library would be very challenging – many of the books don’t have electronic versions, or they’d be unsatisfactory since it would be a pain to look at diagrams or illustrations of particular aspects or charts. So, print it is.

(I have bought some since in electronic version for various reasons, but not many.)

The truth is, there’s a lot of books where laying hands on them again later has not been all that hard. I’ve had a couple of regrets of things that went to used bookstores, but only one or two.

In a lot of ways, I found it freeing – books are tremendous things, but they can carry a lot of weight in our head. The weight of memories, the weight of expectations, the weight of emotions.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is set that free, and let it transform into something else.

If you want to try this yourself, there’s a low-risk way to do it. Look at your shelves, with the guidelines that I’ll be talking about in the next parts of this series, and put books you’re not sure about in a separate box, somewhere that you can get to but that isn’t right on your shelves or the easiest to get to.

See if you get things out of that box in six months. Or a year. If not, maybe that’s a book that could find a new home.

Coming next

Future parts of this series will talk about:

  • Building a library as a collection
  • Dealing with works we’re sentimental about.
  • Organising books on shelves – theory and practice
  • Simple cataloging approaches

Organising a personal library: 5 ideas from Ranganathan, applied

Organising a personal library is hard. Even for librarians.

I moved here a bit over two years ago, but with one thing and another, I was busy in ways that made it hard to sort out my personal library for a long time. Since December, I’ve spent part of two vacation weeks sorting out my books, including the second week of July.

I’m delighted to say they’re all on shelves now in some semblance of order that pleases me, and entered into LibraryThing. I’ve got a bit more work to do, but I’m now at a stage where I can work on it in much smaller pieces that fit into my day to day life.

One of the things I was thinking about while I was doing this was S.R. Ranganathan, who in 1931 wrote the Five Laws of Library Science. These are like ‘laws of physics’ not ‘laws of the United States’, which is to say they’re concepts for understanding how things work or should work, so we can create practical models that work with our physical and intellectual world, not against it.

All of which makes me want to talk about organising a personal library, and how this librarian does it.

Card catalog drawers with different drawers of slightly different woods. Text reads: Personal Library: 5 ideas from Ranganathan, applied

 

Ragnathan’s Laws

One reason these are so popular is that they are stated very simply. (Though they have a lot of room for nuance and discussion.) Here they are:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his / her book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

So how do those apply to a personal library? How I apply them may be different than how you apply them, but here’s some food for thought.

1) Books are for use.

When applied to institutions, the idea behind this law is that books should be available. Ranganathan was familiar with libraries where books were chained up, could be used only after extensive application processes, or only by people who could provide certain kinds of references. That’s a very different model than most public libraries in the United States in the 21st century.

For personal libraries, I think this is a great place to apply the core Marie Kondo question – does this thing bring you joy? Is it actively useful? Or are you keeping it for other reasons?

I don’t think people should get rid of books if they don’t want to (minus actual health and safety or practical reasons like moving or moving into a much smaller apartment) but it’s definitely good to think about why we’re holding on to physical objects.

My personal library these days is about 400 print books, and over 600 ebooks. (I got rid of a lot of print when I moved from Minneapolis to Maine, for reasons that are obvious if you think about moving print books.) These days, I mostly read print in the bathtub – I’ll come back to that – and ebooks everywhere else.

Here’s what I chose to keep in print:

Books with specific sentimental value. Not just ‘a friend gave this to me’ but things where the book itself has a lot of specific resonance. 1066 and All That which I remember reading with my father. Books he wrote.

Books I want potentially want to lend (or at least let someone look through). Lending ebooks doesn’t really work (both logistically and legally). This means most of my Pagan books are in print format.

Books where the print format works better for me. A large book of illustrated stories about the constellations. Cookbooks. Herbalism books.

Books without an ebook version. For obvious reasons, since this is the only way to have that book.

Books that had an ebook version, I made notes about, and have been slowly adding titles back to my collection as my budget allows if I want to replace a copy. There are places I made exceptions (I have a complete set of Dorothy L. Sayers novels in print, because my brain wants to read them in print.)

Your decisions might be different! That’s to be expected, because I bet you use your books differently than I do.

One other part of books being for use for me is that I’m hard on the physical objects. (With a few exceptions of rare and hard to replace books that have particular value – I’ve got a first printing of the Charles Vess Book of Ballads, for example – that link describes the second printing.)

I read in the bath. I read while I’m eating. I dogear pages. (Only in my own books, all of these.) I want the books to be something I use, not something I worry about damaging. I take reasonable precautions, of course, and sometimes I have to replace a physical copy. But normally it’s the content I care about deeply, and the physical item is the way to get that.

2) Every reader their book.

In large libraries, this rule guides librarians to look at the entire community they serve when deciding what books to focus on. (Since basically no library can buy – or house – everything. It’s also a rule about not judging people by what they want to read.

Back around the turn of the 20th century, there was a significant movement in public libraries in the United States to have libraries focus on morally uplifting literature – things that would ‘improve’ the reader. If you’ve walked into a public library recently, you’ll see that’s not true these days. But librarians still argue about how much libraries should focus on books versus movies and dvds. If they should be collecting video games. If certain genres (romance, or genres tightly associated with particular communities, like urban fiction) should be part of the collection.

Individual different libraries come to different decisions about these things, and how they do that is a topic for other posts.

For me, it means that I think about what books fill out my collection. What does this book bring me that isn’t already here? “Something amusing to occupy me that’s similar to other things I’ve liked before” is a perfectly fine reason.

Knowing how a book I’m considering relates to what I already have and don’t have yet helps me make better choices. (And since I’ve always read more than my budget entirely supports, this is important!)

3) Every book its reader.

This is the flip side of the second law. This means that every book that someone wants to read has a place in the library, even if a relatively small number of people want to read it.

For me, this is a reminder in my personal library that it’s my personal library. The books that are there make sense to me, for reasons I don’t have to defend. (Though I do choose to keep my main LibraryThing account private for a variety of reasons.)

In a world where there’s often a lot of performative norming, especially on social media, this is a pretty powerful concept.

We’ve probably all seen the discussions where people are shamed because they’re reading something from a problematic author, or not just reading things from authors valued particularly by that community or group, right? And how poisonous that can get sometimes?

I definitely believe in thinking about what I’m reading and why I’m reading it. But I think that is – has to be – my own call.

Sometimes I find myself doing what I’ve come to call processing reading, where I find myself reading certain kinds of stories, for an extended period of time, as I try to work through particular emotions or reactions or situations. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious why I’m stuck on a thing, but sometimes it isn’t. (And often, during my witchcraft training, this would happen and it would take me months to figure out what my subconscious was working on!)

Letting other people control what goes into my head has never worked well for me. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Especially for something as personal as reading.

4) Save the time of the reader.

Applied to larger libraries, this has to do with things like signs and catalogs and information about how to find books.

In my personal library, I come back to “When I want to find this book, where am I going to look for it?”

I normally group my physical books by genre and subgenre because those are the things I’m most likely to remember about a book or want to look for a book by. Here’s some examples of my current shelving:

  • Stars : astronomy and astrology, because I have some books that are about both.
  • Ritual technology : magical and ritual techniques – though not ‘how to write a ritual itself’
  • Rituals : which is the shelf for collections of ritual works, and larger ritual structure discussion.
  • Fantasy – historical : my classification for fantasy in mostly historical settings.
  • Anthologies : because they tend to be cross-genre but I’ll remember that it’s an anthology.
  • Embodied life : books about being in a physical body, with all its quirks. (Cleaning, health, exercise, etc.)

In my current shelving, I also thought about making sure the books I’m likely to want to grab most easily are convenient for that – my cooking books are in the shelf nearest the kitchen (on the other side of the wall in the living room), and in my bedroom the physical copies I keep but don’t read often are in the bit of shelving that I have to move something to get to.

5) The library is a growing organism.

This last law is about remembering the world changes, and we should adapt with it. In libraries, the approaches (and books, and materials) that were great 20 years ago are no longer sufficient. We’ve got new technology, different needs, communities the libraries in are changing.

In my personal library, it’s a reminder that this book that was hugely meaningful ten years and two moves ago might not be a thing I need to hang onto forever. It’s a reminder that a book that I love can have some serious flaws (and that means some things about whether I should recommend it to others). It means I should look at what I’m doing periodically with my books (and other sources of information) and make sure that’s still working for me.

And on a practical level, it means I should think about how much space I have for shelving, and what I’m going to do about that. In my current apartment, I have a bit of expansion space, possibly, but in other places shelf space has been so limited that I definitely had to watch how many print books I brought home. Some people have a “One book in, I have to get rid of another.” (Yet another reason I love ebooks.)

What does it all mean?

There are hundreds of different ways to look at organising a personal library, whether we’re talking about print books, or ebooks, or videos, or bookmarks, or podcasts, or any of the many other possible formats. Having a guide like Ranganathan’s laws helps me remember what really matters most when I’m making decisions.

It’s not a quick and simple checklist (I’m working on one to help people with these questions!) On the other hand, five rules are pretty easy to pin up and put somewhere obvious.

How do you apply these concepts in your own library? Leave a comment, use my contact form, suggest what you do on Twitter.

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.