Mechanics of a project

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

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

Step one: What am I trying to do here?

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

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

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

Why do I want to know about the source?

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

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

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

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

Step two: What do I need?

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

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

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

Early sources

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

Early modern sources

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

Modern sources

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

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

Step three: Make a plan

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

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

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

Challenges of research

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

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

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

Research tools: how to choose

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

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

Where will you use it?

This is one I think about a lot.

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

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

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

My work machine is a Windows machine.

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

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

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

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

Backing up

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you get information out of it?

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

There are a couple of different considerations with exports.

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

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

What format should you save things into?

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

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

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

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

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

Research tools: what I use

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

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

Why have a system to keep track of things?

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

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

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

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

What kinds of options are out there?

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

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

Here’s what I use:

What books I have copies of: LibraryThing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Websites I want to share: Pinboard

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

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

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

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

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

References (books, websites, PDFs): Zotero

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

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

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

Notes and writing: Ulysses, 4theWords, Scrivener

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come back next week.

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

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

Researching events: small events

Last in the current series of researching events, I want to talk a little about small events.

My religious community is the modern Pagan community (or rather communities: there are a lot of overlapping ones), and one of the things I know confuses people new to this thing we do is how to find out about and learn more about smaller events – the ones that happen weekly or monthly or seasonally.

(The same thing goes for people exploring new religious communities in other places, too. Or any other place that has its own culture: an exercise studio, an arts activity, moving into a new school as a kid or a parent, all sorts of places.)

Researching events: loaf of bread and bowls of grain and lavender on a table, ready to share

Tacit knowledge

There’s a concept called ‘tacit knowledge’ – if you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve seen me refer to it before.

Tacit knowledge is, by definition, hard to explain in words or examples. It’s the things we pick up by doing things or sometimes by watching other people (either in person or through TV or movies) It’s what can help us feel like we know what we’re doing in a new situation – if what we’ve picked up is accurate and helpful for that situation.

You can probably see right away how this can also be a big problem.

Not everyone has equal access to tacit knowledge. Some of it depends on experiences you’ve already had (it’s easier to make a leap of understanding if you’ve done something similar).

Some kinds of tacit knowledge require you (or your parents or someone else near you) to have time, money, or resources to expose you to a particular thing – for example, how attending a live theatre performance might be different than movies or a sports event.

Exploring a new community involves lots of tacit knowledge.

Knowing yourself

Exploring a new community also works better if you know yourself well. Some people find entering a group of people they don’t know stressful at best and upsetting at worst. That makes it hard to relax or enjoy what’s going on. Other people like the chance to meet someone new, and don’t find entering a group event very intimidating at all. (I am not that person, but I am assured they exist.)

Some people are intimidated by a classroom or workshop setting, and find it makes them very anxious. Other people find the structure of that setting (which usually comes with a reasonably good idea of the topic to be covered, how long you’ll be there, and some of what you’ll be doing) to be very reassuring. I’m one of those people.

Some people don’t mind large groups, and like the chance to observe and interact as they choose, without people pressing them for conversation. Some people really prefer small groups, where a new person is noticed and welcomed (well, hopefully welcomed.)

Finding out about small events

This depends a lot on the community.

If you’re looking at a particular organization, start with their information. Depending on the org, that might be a website, a Meetup group, a Facebook group, some other form of social media, a mailing list, or something else.

Whatever form it is, a well-run event will do a few things. They’ll tell you when the event is happening, a rough outline of what will happen at it, and what you should bring or expect. If you don’t see the things below, with enough advance time for you to make appropriate plans, then either give the event a pass this time, or at least go into it a little cautiously.

1) When the event is happening (with enough warning)

People have busy lives, and may need to schedule other things – if you tell someone about an event that takes place a few times a year a week or two out, a lot of people may already have plans, or have been scheduled for shifts at work, or need to sort out children’s schedules, or all sorts of other things.

The same guidelines go for special events at something that has a regular schedule (for example, special services at a religious community that has weekly meetings.)

If an event is always at the same time, and happens monthly or more often, you can just let people catch up when they can. If it’s something like a Sabbat ritual (eight times a year, roughly 6-7 weeks apart), then letting people know when it’s scheduled at least a month in advance is nice, even if you follow up with additional details later.

2) The event’s schedule

Depending on the event, there may be a time people gather (i.e. the space is open and you can get in the building), a start time (maybe after this time no one else is allowed in) and often a time that everyone has to be leaving the site.

There may also be a time for a social hour or potluck or other community event (often with food, that’s my next topic.) and it’s nice to let people know the split between the main activity and the social community time (which is also important, but usually more flexible if you need to leave early.)

3) Tell you about what to bring and expect

Different communities have different customs. Some places pass a donation bowl (so in our increasingly cash-free society, you may want to make sure you have a suitable amount of cash to drop in). Some places have a potluck. Some may want you to wear certain clothing or not wear certain clothing, or bring certain items or not bring some items.

A well-planned event will tell you these things, or at least provide some way for you to find out. It’s also great if they provide basic accessibility info and how to find out more, too.

Sometimes this information will be in the announcement itself. Some events (especially ones with the same general information most of the time) will have it on the website (maybe under a link for first time visitors).

If you have questions, events should also have a way for you to check in with someone in advance.

Once you’re there

Of course, part of evaluating an event involves being there. Usually there’s less sizeable investment on your part in an event that happens regularly or repeatedly. At the same time, that’s no excuse for not looking for how things are going.

Well run events usually stay roughly on schedule (or if they’re running late, they’re specific about why). They’ll often build a little bit of flexible time in the beginning, so that if something runs late, they can adapt.

Again, you’ve likely been to other events sort of like this, and you can use all that past experience to evaluate how it’s going. Do people seem welcoming? Do they explain where things are or help you figure out what you need before things start? Does the event do what they said they would? The specifics are going to depend a lot on the type of event – a networking coffee meeting is different than a religious service is different than an educational workshop, of course.


Researching events: What’s this thing?

Lots of us want to consider going to events in our communities. Lots of us aren’t sure if that’s a good idea. It seems like it’s a good time for a guide to researching events (and the people running them.)

This will be a series of at least three posts (this one about larger events, one about warning signs for larger events, and one about smaller more regular events.) If you’ve got questions, let me know, I’m glad to work them in.

Researching events: loaf of bread and bowls of grain and lavender on a table, ready to share

My background

I’ve been part of a number of convention-type events, in different roles, as well as attending a reasonable number. Most of my experience is with smaller events (in the 100-300 person range) and most of my committee experience is as Hotel Chair, but I’ve also been in charge of Programming in the past.

One of those events (Paganicon), is one I was part of founding, and on the committee for the first few years, until I moved out of state, so I’m also very familiar with ‘how do you create an event that starts at a sustainable level so you can build on it’.

Why am I thinking about this now?

If you’re in fannish circles, you may have seen the recent news about UniversalFanCon announcing a week before the convention that it would not be happening (it was scheduled for April 27-29, 2018, the announcement came out on Friday, April 20).

This has left a huge number of people – vendors, people on programming, attendees – scrambling, and likely out significant money for travel, expenses, etc. It’s particularly painful for people who’d been looking forward to a con that was specifically aimed at fans of colour and people from marginalised groups within fandom.

I’m not going to rehash the details here (and as I write this, more info is coming out) but that’s the context for why I’m writing this post this particular week.

Get a sense of the event

The starting point for learning about an event is a little research. A larger event probably has a website, which should have some key information about the event.

  • When is it? (not just dates)
  • Where is it? (with relevant transportation info if relevant)
  • Who’s running it? (more on this in a second)
  • What will be happening? (at least an overview)
  • Any special guests, activities, or high points.
  • Other important details (depends on the event)

It’s really easy to make a splashy, well-designed website that doesn’t actually tell you important information. You want to check into what people say, not just how it looks.

It is very common for different kinds of information to be shared at different points – the timeline that follows gives some idea of when specific pieces of information should be available. If it’s not, that’s a good time to take some steps to protect your options and ask some more questions. You may also find some information more easily on different forms of social media (like responses on Facebook, or crowdfunding pages, or other sources.)

Overall, you’re looking for clear communication about necessary information, consistency about how they talk about details, and to have some sense of how much experience they have in the community in question and with planning events.

Who’s running it?

One big question for events – and especially new events – is “Who’s running it?” This is one of those questions that can be hard to figure out if you’re not familiar with the people or with that kind of event.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to be certain about this, but some research can help.

Start by looking at who’s putting the event on. This can be an existing group, or it can be individuals.

Existing group

If it’s a group, what other kinds of events have they put on? Sometimes a little research will turn up the fact this is an ongoing event. If so, try some searches on phrases like the event name and previous years (or using date limiting in your search to find a specific year.) If there are posts, they’ll probably be in the first month after the event.

Individual people’s experiences with an event will obviously vary a lot, but you can usually get a sense of whether the event was reasonably well managed, people were responsive to concerns, and things went more or less as planned.

Moving from a series of open afternoon events to a day-long event to a weekend event is a pretty common progression, and allows the group as a whole to learn more about what they can do well in manageable stages – even if the individual people involved change over time (as they probably do.)

Want to know how to limit by date? Currently, in Google search, try a search on your terms. At the top of the page, just under the search bar, on the same level on filtering results by all, news, images, videos, etc. there will be two options that say settings and tools. Click on the ‘tools’ and you should see options to limit your search by ‘any time’ and ‘all results’. Click on the one that says ‘any time’ and you can choose other options, like the last week, month, year, or custom dates.) Other search engines may have similar features, if you look around a little or check their help information.

Or is it a new set of people?

If it’s individuals working together on a new project, take a look at what other projects they mention. What can you find out about those projects? Do they seem to run smoothly? Are there people involved with specific experience in running events that you can check out?

Lots of people successfully run organizations or blogs or websites or podcasts or other projects, and many of those organisational skills do transfer to running events. But events have a number of their own considerations, so you really need some people in the mix who have experience running events well.

Someone needs to make sure that all the needs for the space are handled well (whether that’s a hotel or a festival campsite), and you also need people who can coordinate volunteers, manage funds, and some other more specialised tasks, some of which have big legal, safety, or financial implications. 

If you have a list of people, and none of them mention that experience explicitly (or not enough for the event!), that’s a time to be a little cautious. Check out their bios, but also try some searches on the names they use, and other events they mention being involved with.

If there’s a long list, focus on the experience of the people listed for operations, logistics, hotel, and the convention chairs, plus anything else that might have legal or safety implications, like performances, security, or food. Programming matters too, but it’s usually a lot easier to come up with awesome stuff to do on the fly if it’s planned badly than it is for someone with no hotel experience to sort out hotel problems.

In most groups of people doing this kind of thing, you’ll have some people with more experience, and some people who are new to a thing. You want some signs that the people new to it either have guidance from the chairs (who have extensive experience) or that there’s some other method for getting advice (especially for the roles I just listed.)

Special note for Pagans: This can get particularly complicated in the Pagan community or some other places, since many people use a public Craft name for privacy reasons – and that may not be the name they use on social media. Events may not list their staff explictly by name or photograph. Finding dead ends isn’t automatically a reason to worry, but it means you want to check into other information more carefully.

Guests and activities

Check out those people (even if you’re not really interested in what they do). Do they make sense for the skills and size and scope of the event?

What do they do?

Does it make sense for them to be at this event? Here, you want to look both at what they do, and their general status in the field.

Major celebrities probably won’t be at a tiny first-time event (even with a fairly strong personal connection it’s pretty unlikely.) Moderately well-known authors or artists who do the thing the event’s focusing on are a lot more likely (or the equivalent in other fields.)

How many guests are there?

Somewhere between one to four main guests of honour is pretty common for small to moderate size events (up to about 1000 people), especially if they’re fairly new events. If there are more than that, look closely at the event’s track record so far.

Be cautious about events that list a lot of guests, especially if they’re new. I’ll go into this more in a future point, but here’s the summary. Guests of honour are great, but also expensive for a new or smaller convention, and making the experience good for the guest also involves a fair amount of volunteer time and committee attention – both of which are often finite resources in practice.

Is the guest’s visit to this event mentioned on their own site?

This may take a while to update, but if most guests don’t have the information up on their own information site by three to six months out, that’s a big warning sign.

Most people who do GOH or other featured guest slots will put it up on their site once they have an appropriate agreement about what they’re doing at the event. If no one’s posted it on their own site, that may be a sign those agreements don’t exist or aren’t final.

(Note this is different for people who are on panels or leading panels or aren’t featured – some of them may announce it, some may not, or not until programming is announced. I’m talking here about the big featured guests who are supposed to be a significant focus or draw.)

A general timeline

Obviously, you want to find out about the event early enough that you can make plans to attend. Event organisers should be thinking about this. For yearly events like conventions and festivals, the organisers need to start planning at least a year out, so some basic information should be available that early.

Here’s a reasonable timeline for what information you should find when. Well-run events can vary a bit from this, but usually it should be clear what’s going on if they do. (For example, not all events have a big central activity or have guests of honour as a big draw.)

You also want to look for whether they meet their stated deadlines – if they say they’ll have their programming schedule out at a certain date, does it exist or do they make a note about when it will? Or does it just not exist at all?

A year out:

For yearly events, the next year will often be announced at the current year’s event, or shortly after. If you don’t see specific dates by eight months from a yearly event, that may indicate problems in finding a space.

Four to eight months out:

Somewhere in this range, you should start seeing a lot more specific details. If you don’t see most of this by four months from the event, that’s a good time to be a bit worried. People need details to make their plans.

Major guests, events, activities:

These are the things that may make someone want to go to this event over other possible events, or bring in people interested in a specific author, creator, or focus. Basically, if they want you to buy a ticket for a special event, or are using someone as part of their advertising, you want to know around this point.

The site may not list what the guests are specifically doing (such as the precise title of presentations or workshops) but you should have a good idea what kinds of things they’ll be offering. Is it signings? Meet and greets? Panel discussions? A concert? A mix?

How you can participate

Events have very different schedules for arranging other programming like panels, workshops, or discussions. Some events have more structure to their programming and plan a long way out, others will take ideas up to a month or two out from the event.

Events also often want to have vendors or other things (like artists for an artists alley). These people need to plan their calendars in advance, and fees for their tables can be a big part of the income stream for the event.

Most events also rely on volunteers for various tasks, and a well-planned event will let people know about the range of tasks and how to get involved well in advance, so people can plan their time.

Whether or not you want to do any of those things, you want to look for events that let everyone know what the process and deadlines are, and where that timeline makes some sense with other things they say.

Other useful information

Events should at this point also have information about accessibility needs, or things like what if you have children (Do they need a membership? Is there childcare or children’s programming?)

If there are food events, the information should have some general information about what they are planning and how to let them know about any specific needs you have. This is also a good time for the event to let you know about other food options or forthcoming information like a restaurant guide.

Some details may still be in process, but you want to have a sense at this point that someone is thinking about that, and that there are plans in place for common needs or questions.

One month out

Any information people need for plans at the event should be available around now. Some events are lousy about getting their programming schedules up (and sometimes there’s some slippage because people are working out logistical details that get complicated) but you want to see some sense of what’s happening when.

This is also a good time to expect to see things like area food guides, any additional transport/location details (like specifics for shuttles from the airport) or any other important info.

If you don’t see this information, or it doesn’t have a clear date it will be available, that’s a good time to ask some more questions, and make your own plans so that you won’t be in a bad place if some of the details aren’t handled well (Can you change travel or hotel arrangements with less of a penalty? You might make different choices about shipping materials as a vendor, or see if you can make backup arrangements for your event.)

Back next week

I’ll be back next week with some warning signs for events.

Researching complicated details

You get a bonus post this week! Here’s a post that I made for a writer’s community I belong to that I can now share. It’s in a slightly different style than my blog posts here (because it was designed for that community.) Several of the examples used came from people’s questions when they requested this kind of help.

(I have redacted two examples that are more identifying of the specifics of my day job than I do in public, but the rest of it is as posted for the community in February 2018.)

Quick! Research Needed! Pocket astronomy device used for ocean navigation on a table.


Hi! Welcome to a (not that brief) guide to researching complicated details.

I’m Jenett. I’m a librarian by profession, and I work somewhere where I get asked weirdly specific questions a lot. I also really love geeking about the process of finding random bits of information and making sense of them.

I’m drawing some experiences I’ve had below, but also a couple of examples from the original comment suggesting this topic. Those asked about in-depth research about the effects of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the US Military, or details of things like whether a minor in Ohio can go to a psychiatrist without parental permission.

0) What do you actually need, and when?

Not everything is online or readily available (lots of stuff isn’t) so at some point, you may have to make a decision between ‘can find this with reasonable searching’ and coming up with something that may not be ideal but will work.

Because of this, it’s worth pausing with a complicated question to figure out how much time you want to spend on it. How important is it to what you’re writing?

Is it something you can write around (by referencing people doing the appropriate thing, without details, or by cutting the scene at that point and picking up in the aftermath of the thing happening?)

Getting something actively wrong is more likely to throw readers out of your story than either glossing over it, or picking something that is pretty likely but not actually provable.

Some topics are notorious for getting letters from readers if you get the details wrong, and others aren’t. If only a small number of your possible readers would know the amazingly specific thing, then maybe you can fudge more easily than something like horses, which a lot of people know a little about (and definitely have opinions about.)

1) Read widely

Not just books, though books are good too – but read a range of other material, so that you start to have a sense of what kinds of resources are out there. The goal isn’t to retain all the details, but to get a sense of where you can find them if you need them.

Soak in your topic:

Find a few blogs, or Twitter accounts or whatever your social media of choice is that are relevant to your current project (especially the places you might have questions.) Read them. Follow links sometimes. Don’t take notes, but do have a system for bookmarking particularly useful items you may want later.

The thing you really want to do when you know you’re exploring a topic is get a sense of the terms that are used about it. Don’t trust Wikipedia as the final word, but it’s great for giving you a sense of commonly used terms or phrases, and for putting things in some sort of historical, geographical, or intellectual context.

Beyond that, though, I really recommend adding a couple of general purpose things. Longform highlights a couple of longform journalism articles every day on a huge range of topics. Not only are they often very interesting, but I learn a lot of terminology, approaches, and ways people look at the world from them.

I also find Metafilter and Ask Metafilter really helpful in broadening my knowledge.

The former highlights links from around the web, with discussion, and the latter is a personal advice subsite. The kinds of questions people have – or specific detail about things like neighbourhoods or things to visit – can be really amazingly helpful. Even if they don’t have the specific information, they can help you learn about terms for searches you need to do.

2) All knowledge is contained in the Internet.

Not actually – we’ll get to that – but a lot, in the sense of ‘people who can point you to the information you want’.

Building up a diverse set of people you know online who know about stuff you don’t will pay off again and again and again. Online communities for people with shared interests can be a great place to ask (or shared goals, like writing communities.)

Of course, you want to be respectful of people’s time. That’s why a general “Hey, anyone know about X? Can I pick your brain for a couple of minutes about a specific piece I can’t find information on?” request can be better than asking specific people. Also because unexpected people may have answers. (It’s also good to tell people where you’ve already looked.)

I have a story about this. In my job as a librarian, someone asked me about particular map, which was not labelled in a way that he (or I) could read. I thought that if I could identify what the map was and when it was, I’d be able to figure out the names. (I’m obscuring some details here.)

I posted a photo with a few aspects highlighted to my personal Dreamwidth account, and within 2 hours, three different people had all identified it. Why? Because all of them are big board gamers, and the specific map is one used in the Diplomacy board, of Germany around 1901.

Not the way I’d have gotten that information, but with that, I could figure out what the place names were, and why it was labelled the way it was.

I have this kind of thing happen a couple of times a year on average. I am really good at searching, and using library tools – I do it a lot, after all – but sometimes someone with specific expertise will save me hours or days of work.

So long as you’re not interrupting or being pushy, people also often really love to share their knowledge, passions, and interests. A general post with a “Know anyone who can help with this?” lets people share that in a way that works out well for everyone a lot of the time.

3) Is this a topic there might be substantial resources about?

One of the things that happens for writers is that we want to know a lot of pragmatic details about how things work.

What was it like to put on clothing? How did it feel to move in it? How did cooking work? Or things people did in the household? What was the street outside like? What did medicine look like or taste like or smell like?

Unfortunately, these are often not the sort of details that are in a lot of resource books – you often have to dig pretty hard, and on the more academic side, they may not actually answer the questions you’re really interested in. They might talk about how to make the thing, but have no clue about what it was like to wear it or use it every day.

These days, this is getting better. For a lot of time periods (at least for English-language places) there are actually books called things like “Daily Life in Elizabethan Times” or “Daily Life in Colonial America” or whatever, that will fill in a lot of these gaps for you. Even if you can’t find quite the right time period, you can often get a long way by finding the closest one and then adjusting specific things that changed.

If you’re writing fantasy, this can also work if you can figure out what point in history your world is similar to.

Reenactment groups, experimental archaeology, and other similar resources can also be a huge help – there’s a genre of videos on YouTube, for example, of people getting dressed in clothing from different time periods. The Royal Ballet did a fascinating lecture series on changes in dance over time. Obviously, someone has to have produced the thing you’re interested in, but there are a lot more options around these days than there were 20 years ago.

4) Is this a topic that there will be public info on?

In some cases, the answer may be no.

For example, you usually won’t find a lot of detailed information on enforcement of online terms of service harassment issues (not them happening, but how a given site’s process handles them step by step) because advertising that kind of thing can make it easier for people to walk up right up to the line of what’s actionable and still make people miserable.

The same is often true for harassment, abuse, domestic violence issues, etc.

In other cases, people don’t publicise the information because it might put first responders at risk, or be easily misused in ways that can harm others. (For example, lots of sources on poisons won’t get specific about how much a lethal dose is. Which makes a lot of sense when dealing with people, but complicates things for mystery writers.)

Closed settings also present problems for research. Some details about military policy, practice, or procedure may only be available for people in the military or in some closely associated group. Handbooks about how a school handles something may only be available to parents, staff, and students at that school.

Other items might technically be available, but sufficiently hard to get to it’s like they’re not. This covers things like detailed legal resources (not the laws themselves, but analysis), some kinds of genealogical records, and other things where there are business interests who’d like to make you go through them to get it.

If you’re looking at a topic where this might be a case, one way in is through the next step.

5) Are there people who’ve lived through this experience?

Is it possible there’s a biography, memoir, podcast, blog, or another resource from a person who’s done this thing, is interested in this thing, etc? Sometimes this can be an incredible way to get details – especially for smaller things or emotional reactions.

Looking at our examples that started this, this is where I’d probably start for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I might look especially for things from advocacy groups or lawyers working to help people affected by it, as well as people who were in the military and affected at the time.

(At the same time, I’d be exploring more formal research and writing through library database resources and focused internet searches too, so that I could get both the ‘official’ side, and the actual experience.)

6) Is this a law?

It can be really hard to track down legal information. While the actual laws are usually public in the United States (and also in other countries with at least a premise of democracy), a lot of the more functional ways to access those laws are through indexes, databases, and other resources that cost money to access and are designed for lawyers, firms, and law libraries, not for random authors. They’re also (unlike many other online resources) harder to get access to through your local public library.

One trick here is to figure out what the law is (the numbers or other identification) and do searches on that. Or, failing that, try tightly focused internet searches.

An example:

For our question about Ohio, minors, and whether they can go to a psychiatrist, I tried the search terms “ohio law minors parents medical appointments” (because I suspected that the relevant laws actually cover a range of medical issues, not just psychiatry.)

For reasons having to do with filter bubbles, your precise results will probably be different than what I saw (that’s a whole different discussion!), but on the first page of my search results, I found <a href=””>this article from the Akron Bar Asociation website</a> which says that minors can consent to outpatient psychiatric treatment on their own behalf at the age of fourteen.

Now, that blog post isn’t dated (though it comes from an organization that’s relevant to the question and likely to be accurate at the time it was written) so I’d want to confirm this information in other sources. But that post gives me the specific laws to go check, and here’s the law, which explains it covers only six visits, no medication, and what should happen when you hit those limits.

7) Is this a city/state/regional thing?

You can ask libraries in many places for help with local/regional questions – even if you’re not from there! Try other options first, since this can both take some time to hear back, and libraries have a large but limited capacity to answer questions, but if you get stumped, a lot of libraries will be glad to help you.

You may be able to get help from your local library, or from a large library in your region. (For example, anyone who lives, works, goes to school, or owns property in Massachusetts can get an ecard for the Boston Public Library.) But even if that’s not the case, you can also often ask libraries in other locations.

Many libraries have an email option or contact form. (It’s usually under ‘Research’ or ‘Research Help’ or as an option or link on their Contact page, but you might have to hunt around a bit.)

Some places require you to have a barcode for their system, but a lot of libraries are glad to get reasonable requests from other places. (And obviously, you want to do your best to ask in the language the library uses, though sometimes you’ll get lucky with other options.)

How do you figure out how to contact a library?

First, start with a large city in the state or area that you’re interested in (the largest one is usually best here – try the capital of the state or province, or if you need something slightly smaller than that, the largest city or town that will do.) Look for a contact form or method, and see if they put any limitations on asking that affect you.

How to ask:

The best way to ask questions, in this case, is to be brief, clear, and tell them what you’ve already tried or what you’re hoping for. It will be useful to the librarian to know that you’re looking for information as an author rather than for a school project or immediate legal need (because they might suggest other resources that could also help you.)

Take a minute to prepare what you’re asking. Your question shouldn’t be too long – two to three paragraphs is plenty. Explain your question in a couple of sentences, why you’re looking for the information, and where you’ve already looked. Here’s an example.


I’m an author working on a story set in Cleveland, and I’m trying to find information on what Ohio law says about medical treatment and consent for minors. Can you direct me to a reliable source that explains what the options are?


I’ve tried online searches, but haven’t found anything that quite fits the question I have: I’m looking for the options and laws around someone who is 16 and dealing with mental health issues, specifically seeing a psychiatrist.

Note how this makes it clear in the first sentence why you’re asking a library in Ohio about this, which is helpful.

Getting an answer

Usually, libraries that answer questions in the first place will provide at least a brief answer (though it may take a bit of time for them to get back to you), but there may be costs if you want copies of material or longer research times.

Some libraries offer additional services for a fee if you go over a set amount of time, others just won’t answer questions that take the librarians more than 15 or 20 minutes and will point you at some resources and you take it from there. Some libraries may refer some topics – like detailed business questions or genealogy – to other sources, and libraries generally don’t answer detailed medical or legal questions other than pointing you at resources from reliable sources.)

8) Is there a relevant museum, society, or library?

If there’s a reasonable way to contact them, try asking.

I work for a highly specialised library, and I get questions from authors every couple of months. I’m always glad to answer them because it can help people understand what we do and our particular community better. (Also, they’re often fun questions to dig into.)

Small libraries, museums, and historical societies can be very slow to get back to you, though, especially if they’re mostly staffed by volunteers, or if the paid staff are wearing a dozen hats. The more clearly you can phrase your question, and the more you can do for yourself first, the better.

For example:

“I’ve looked at your website and your annual reports, but I haven’t been able to find something that explains exactly how the fees worked for students in 1890. Can you point me to something?” is a pretty easy question for someone who’s familiar with their materials to answer.

Either they’ll be able to point you at something, answer it quickly from materials they have handy, or they’ll know the information isn’t actually available like that for some reason and can tell you that (and maybe a best guess.)

A “Tell me all about your institution in 1890”, however, is a much harder thing to answer. That could take days to work through, and still not touch on the parts you were interested in.

And sometimes information just isn’t available.

We’ve had two questions about how domestic chores were handled at our institution in the 1840s, and we just don’t know a lot of details, because it’s something that the white professional-class men who were writing the annual reports didn’t write much down about.

We know there were servant-type staff, and we know students had some minimal chores. We know more about the fact that the students had to take cold showers (it was considered good for their health) because the students wrote a letter protesting it.

There might be more in some of our correspondence, but it’s in volume after volume of 19th century handwriting, and even the people who work there haven’t read all of that yet!

On the other hand, if someone asks me about that (as an author has), it’s pretty easy for me to explain what we know, where to find more, and what we don’t, and to point them to some things they can look at in more detail if they decide to.

A few final notes

The kinds of questions I mention here are exactly the kind of thing I’m glad to help with through the research consulting part of what I do here.

(To give you an example of how doing this a lot improves speed, none of the examples here took me more than 5-10 minutes to poke at, though obviously they took a bit longer to write up.)

How research has changed: citation managers

The last in my current series on ‘how research has changed’ is that I want to mention citation managers.

This is not intended to be a guide to how to use them – I haven’t had the time or focus to work that up yet! Instead, consider this a starting point for learning more about them.

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

What’s a citation manger?

It’s a piece of software that helps you keep track of what you’ve found and where you’ve found it.

Specifically, they allow you to enter articles, books, and in some cases webpages into the manager, format the metadata, and do things with it. Some of them allow you to save PDFs in the software, but even if the manager you choose doesn’t do that, it will help you keep track of what you have.


Metadata is the term for information about content – for a book, the metadata includes things like the author, title, or publisher.

A better explanation might be this one from Scientific American’s blog, about 5 years ago, where Bonnie Swager explained metadata using Santa Claus’s naughty and nice lists.

(Whatever you think of this particular story and mythology, it’s a much more fun example than a lot of the ones out there, and she does a great job explaining different kinds of metadata with it.)

This information helps you sort and filter information. Maybe you want all the things by a specific author, or all the things written around a particular time. Or maybe you half remember the title of something, but know you read it and put it in your system at a particular point – if your metadata includes the date an entry

If you want a more detailed explanation of metadata, including a number of standards sets for managing it, there’s a PDF that Bonnie links to at the end of her article that is a dead link there, but can be found on the National Information Standards Organization website: Understanding Metadata

What are the options for citation managers?

There are several different widely used citation managers out there. Some of them cost money. If you’re a student at university or work for one, you may have access to an institutional subscription, but if you aren’t, there are a couple of free options (or free + a fee for additional storage space).

The big names are RefWorks (usually needs a university subscription), EndNote (in a couple of versions), Mendeley, and Zotero. The University of Minnesota has a handy chart comparing the last three in detail (they discontinued their RefWorks subscription for cost reasons).

If you want a really detailed comparison, here’s another chart (which has multiple pages) from the University of Wisconsin Madison.

All of them should have methods for exporting and importing data (important for academics, since different institutions have often picked one or two to focus on or provide rather than others, and people do move institutions.)

I’ve tended to gravitate toward Zotero, for the combination of cost and the fact it works best with online sources, but I’m still working out my best workflow for managing materials. There’s a web extension for Chrome that allows you to connect between the desktop app and the browser.

Fee for space: One place these managers charge fees is to store materials. Just storing information about an item is a small amount of plain text (which takes a tiny amount of space on modern computers). If you want to store full PDFs in your manager tool, however, you may need more space.

If that’s a problem, you can always choose to save your files somewhere (cloud service, your computer, a backup drive, whatever makes sense. Ideally more than one of those as a precaution!)

What can you do with one?

Even if all you do is make a list of resources in there, that’s probably a big win. You can tag or organise your entries in all sorts of different ways, marking things you’ve read and things you want to read, different topics, and much more.

However, citation managers become invaluable if you’re doing any kind of formal writing where you might need to produce reference lists, bibliographies, end notes, or footnotes. They can take all that metadata and do most of the work of putting it in the correct format.

(You may need to do some review and minor editing: computers are great at this kind of task, but sometimes need help with which words are capitalised or unusual entries.)

If you’re serious about research, or you’re managing a lot of complex files, you owe it to yourself to check out citation managers and other research tools. They’re a lot less awkward and clunky to use than they were just a few years ago, and they can really make your life much easier if you spend a little time keeping on top of them.

How research has changed : digital work flow

Penultimate in the current series on how research has changed, I want to talk about digital-only workflows.

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

Electronic workflow

I don’t know about you, but a whole lot of how I get information starts digitally these days. Having a workflow that works for you is critical if you’re doing larger projects.

There are a fair number of resources out there to help you get a grip on tools that work for you (I’m going to talk about my current setup here, but there are lots of other ways to do this.)

I find the Prof. Hacker blog, a collective blog focusing on tech tools and resources, a helpful read. A lot of the tools aren’t things I need, but they highlight things I want to know about fairly regularly, and I find it interesting to know about other tools. The already mentioned Productivity Alchemy podcast also brings up interesting tools regularly, on a less academic front.

Basically, though, you want a way to collect things, and then a way to organize the things. If you’re like me, many of your things may be webpages or sites.

My basic workflow

This is what I use for all online content I want to save – it works for me, but it’s not the most elegant option. What I like about it is:

1) I can use it from any device

I use a Mac at home, a Windows machine where I can usually add browser extensions but not apps at work, and an iPad when travelling. Because this relies on extensions (or the iOS ‘send to this app’ option) it’s pretty easy to use anywhere I happen to be.)

2) The management can be sporadic

Obviously, there are benefits to keeping on top of it, but the way my system works, it’s okay if I get behind on moving from the collection point to the organisation part.

3) I can usually find the thing I’m looking for.

This is key. If I couldn’t find things, it’d be a bad system. But I usually know which place to look for it, and the search tools work well enough.


I rely on two tools, Instapaper and Pinboard. Instapaper is currently free (but is owned by Pinterest, so changes are possible in the future). Pinboard has a small yearly fee ($11 currently) but is run by someone independent, Maciej Cegłowski, who designed and runs the site. There’s also a full page archival option for another $25 a year.

(There are plenty of other tools out there for saving things as you read them, but I really do recommend Pinboard for organizing them once you’ve got them.)

My actual steps look like this.

  • Read or find a thing I want to save.
  • Use extension to save it to Instapaper.
  • Periodically, go through Instapaper and move new items to about 8 folders in Instapaper for later sorting.
  • When I’ve got time and feel like it, put things into Pinboard with much more useful tags.

Right now, I go through Instapaper every two weeks, a few days before I start doing my newsletter for the fortnight. I have a folder where I put the links I want to share in the newsletter, so I can work my way through writing them up efficiently.

My other folders include recipes, links related to my day job, writing, Pagan topics, writing, and business things. I have a catchall folder (cleverly called ‘links’) for anything else I want to save. I also have folders for things to read (which is where I save books I want to read), and things to watch or listen to.

Every so often, I make a point of churning through links and tagging them in Pinboard – it’s a great project for when I don’t have a lot of focus to write and have a thing I want to watch.

I usually can remember if I’ve moved something to Pinboard yet, so I also usually can figure out where to look for something.

Having a two step process also helps for saving things to read later (especially when I’m travelling and have less time or internet access), or weeding out highly aspirational recipes I’m never going to actually consider making.

I use this process for all my links, but it’s pretty easy to see how to adapt it for research work. You could have a folder for each big project, or make a point of moving those to a bookmarking service more frequently.

Or you could use a citation manager. Which will be my final post in this series, coming next week.

How research has changed : online databases

Today’s installment of what’s changed in research comes back to a topic I’ve talked about before – the relative wonders of online databases.

(Relative, because they’re not entirely perfect, but they’re still a big improvement in many ways over the previous options.)

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

What’s an online database?

An online database collects articles or materials from various (relevant) sources, and provides a way to find things in different ways (by topic, by author, by publication, by whether it’s a peer-reviewed publication, all sorts of options. often.)

A database can collect material from one source (like an archive of a particular newspaper) or it can collect material from dozens or hundreds of possible sources.

Often, when a database is pulling from many sources, they’ll be about roughly similar topics. For example, the ERIC database gathers educational journals and materials, and JSTOR has a number of different modules, many of which focus on different collections of journals in the humanities.

As you might guess from these descriptions, some of what’s in a database can be rather obscure at first glance.

Getting access to databases

Database access is expensive – in academic libraries, there’s a pretty good chance more than 50-60% of the library’s collection budget goes for database access these days. Worse, the costs go up all the time, sometimes by double digit increases.

That means that libraries make choices every year about what databases they have, and which they continue to have – and how to manage access to them.

The actual details get incredibly messy and complicated, because publishers often bundle access (you can only get access to things A, C, and G you really want, if you also get access to B, D, E, and F, which are sort of useful for your library’s users, but if you had the choice, you probably wouldn’t get that, you’d do something else with your limited funds.)

Also complicating the details are the fact that sometimes groups of libraries arrange access to databases jointly – sometimes a library consortium, sometimes there are state or regional contacts.

Probably obviously, there are lots of different kinds of databases out there, and different kinds of libraries will make different choices. A public library doesn’t really need access to a specialist chemistry database, the academic library maybe doesn’t need one about crafts or genealogy.

What that means for you is that it’s usually best to look at a combo of what you’re doing, and what your local or area libraries offer, as a first step of figuring out access to materials.

How do you find out what databases a library has access to?

Usually there will be lists on their website – it might be under “Electronic resources” or “Online databases” or “A-Z database list” or other phrases like that. Sometimes it’ll be along with other kinds of resources, like ebook access or music downloads.

This should give you links, information about what you need to access it. Sometimes you may need to be on site, often you may need a library barcode or other login method.

Tips later in this series will help you find out about other kinds of articles and resources, which you can usually request through interlibrary loan, even if your library doesn’t directly offer access.

How do you get access to a library?

Most libraries, even very small ones, offer a little access to databases – but they may not be very useful ones for your research.

In some places, you can get access to databases at very large public libraries if you live or work or go to school in the state. In some places, you can get access as an alum (though licensing costs make this a bit less common). In some cases, you can get access if you’re physically in the building, but not otherwise.

It’s worth checking the policies of any library you can reasonably get to – even if that chance is once every few months or every year, you can store up things that need database access and do it then.

Especially in more rural areas, many campuses have more generous access options for people who live in the area. And in the United States, state colleges and universities often have fairly generous guest access.

Figuring out what’s out there

Once you find out what databases you have access to, I advise doing a little exploring. Figure out which databases deal with the topics you’re particularly interested in, and explore. There will often be a list of topics covered, or you can find a list of specific journal titles through links about the resource. (Often this will say something like “Publications”

You can also search for topics outside the library database ecosystem. Google Scholar,, and other sites gather information about articles and resources from various sources, and make it accessible in different ways. In many cases, you won’t be able to get direct access to an article this way, but you can read the title and abstract and other information, and figure out how much you want to track it down.

One of the problems with database searches is that computers are often stupid. While Google and Amazon have a lot of data to do predictive searching, the academic journal databases aren’t usually quite so wide-reaching. If you search on a different term or a different way of wording something, you might not find what you’re hoping for.

These things might help:

  • Take a quick look at Wikipedia, Google Scholar, and other public resources to see what kinds of terms or phrasing show up. Sometimes these tools will help you make better searches.
  • If you find an article that looks promising, check to see if there are subject headings assigned by the database. You can often click on these to find other similar articles.
  • If you find an article you like, check out more about the author. Often they’ve written other things on similar topics.
  • Check out the articles they reference – it’s a great way to find more similar items.

As you go, it’s worth paying attention to terms people use. Many academic fields have preferred ways to phrase things (at least at the moment) so figuring out what those are will help you narrow down your research much more effectively. The same thing goes if you’re researching something where the name has changed: dig a little and figure out alternate possible names, and you’ll likely find more articles.

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 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.


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.