Planning a presentation

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

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

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

Preparing in advance

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

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

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

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

Timing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arranging material

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7) Edit the presentation to a reasonable length

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

8) Time the presentation.

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

9) Save in all the formats

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

Presenting

The actual process of presenting is pretty straight-forward:

1) Test the technology early.

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

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

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

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

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

4) Do the presentation.

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

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

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

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

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.

Introduction

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=”https://www.akronbar.org/when-can-minors-consent-to-medical-treatment”>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.

Hi,

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 : 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.

Steps

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 : digital access

I was talking to a friend online a couple of weeks ago, who was marvelling at how easy it is to do some kinds of research now – and how much has changed. So let’s take a few posts to talk about how – and what you might want to know.

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

A little background

When I was in college, in the late 90s (I graduated in 98), we had computer catalogues, but they were often a bit limited. They’d tell you what that library had, but finding out what other libraries nearby had was complicated. Systems often didn’t talk to each other well. You could often do searches, but not find similar books, or books that were nearby on the shelves.

And while there were some computer databases out there, a lot of journals, you still had to go look up topics in the index – printed volumes that came out with additional volumes every so often. Once you figured out what issues you wanted, you’d then have to go walk down rows and rows of shelving and find the actual physical copy. If it was actually on the shelf, and someone else wasn’t using it (or it hadn’t been misplaced.)

As you can imagine, this all took rather a lot of time to even figure out if a thing you were interested in was available, never mind looking at it to see if it was useful for what you needed.

By the time I finished graduate school in library science almost a decade later, in 2007, a lot of things had changed. Catalogues talked to each other much more. And a lot of academic journals had at least an online index, and often online access to articles. You could do a search, find articles (or at least the basics and an abstract) and then go find the article if you had to.

What’s out there?

There are three huge things that have changed in the past decade or two.

  • Figuring out what books (or other resources) might be available.
  • Much more rapid access to them in many cases
  • Easier to find specialists, archives, and museum collection items.

All of these combine to change how research works. (I’m mostly talking in the humanities here, obviously the sciences are different!) We spend a lot less time just getting access to materials or figuring out what materials we might eventually get access to, and can spend a lot more time actually studying those materials, or reading more about them, or accessing detailed research materials.

I’ll be talking more about online catalogue resources, online database resources, and citation managers in future posts, but I want to talk a little about finding experts here.

Experts and specialist knowledge

One of the things that the Internet has made much better is that we have a lot more access to historical material than we used to. Many libraries and archives have been able to digitize at least some of their material.

Why not all of it? Most archives have some things that are confidential or restricted for various reasons. But also, there’s a lot of material that may not be a big priority for researchers, or is difficult to digitize. The library I work in, the archives have papers of the institution’s directors, and the more recent ones are restricted since they may have discussions about students or staff who are still alive.

We have huge collections of incoming and outgoing correspondence, but the outgoing letters are on very thin carbon paper, and difficult and time-consuming to scan well (and also, mostly not a high focus of research interest) so they’re not as high a priority as other materials that are more commonly asked about, or that are easier to scan.

But I digress.

A thing that the Internet makes a lot more possible is figuring out if there’s someone out there who is an expert in the thing you’re doing, or is a librarian or an archivist or a museum curator whose collection has more about a topic you’re interested in.

Obviously, you want to do research in other ways, too, but there are a lot of solutions, now, for those questions that books and academic articles don’t answer (yet!)

A lot of what I do at work is help point people at resources and materials – because I work with those materials all the time, and they don’t, and I can say “Oh, yes, this will help.”

We have resource guides that deal with some of the more common questions and issues so that we can pull them out – they took me a while to write up, but now they’re done, and they’re helpful to people.

Anyway, these are now easier to find than they used to be. Most collections of any meaningful size will have a website, and if you can hit on the right search terms, or do a little digging (like looking for institutions or organizations associated with the thing you’re interested in) then you can find more resources. Often the websites themselves will have a lot – but even better, you can find other ways to connect or communicate. Even if the first place you try doesn’t have something, maybe they’ll know someone else who does and can point you there.

(Some institutions are really competitive with each other. But there are others out there that are just delighted to connect people with information, however that happens.)

Next time

I’ll be tackling online catalogues in my next post, with a few great resources for figuring out what materials might be out there, and how to get hold of them.

Looking Ahead to Research : part 4

Welcome to my last part of planning research. I’ve talked about breaking down projects into smaller pieces, but it’s often really helpful to have some examples, and that’s where this post comes in.

I’ve talked in the previous parts about asking questions about what you want to do and how you’ll know when you’re done. Here, I’m going to write out some of my answers for two projects, so you can see how that works.

You’ll want different questions for different kinds of goals, but here’s a list to get you started.

  1. Is there a specific thing I’m trying to answer?
  2. What do I want to do with the information when I’ve got it? Am I going to use it myself? Share it? Develop it further in another project?
  3. What do I already know about this topic or thing?
  4. What resources do I have access to? Do I have any particular limitations I should be thinking about (like needing specific materials or having language limitations)?

Rocks at the edge of the sea, at twilight.

Goal 1: Learn more about astrology

One of my ongoing goals is to learn more about astrology. It’s part of a larger and longer goal to dive more into the myths and stories and connections about planets and stars and constellations, and how the macrocosm and the world we live in interact.

(But that’s a huge project, so I’m starting with the astrology part.)

Do I have a specific question I’m trying to answer?

No, this is a project that’s about larger-scale mastery of knowledge.

What do I already know about the subject?

I’ve been generally familiar with astrology (especially in its applications for religious witchcraft and related magical work) for years now, and I’m also somewhat familiar with broad changes in the topic over time. I’ve read several introductory books, and I’ve been reading about a dozen blogs and other regular sources about it for the past six months or so.

What are my limitations and resources?

Time! Always time. This is a project that will do better if I spend time with it regularly (like reading blog posts, or learning about particular current aspects), so I should make time for it at least every few days, as well as longer stretches for deeper reading.

For resources, I feel pretty happy with the current books and materials I have, but I need to start by sitting down and reading them in more detail and working from there. I’m sure I’ll find more things as I keep reading, but I don’t feel like I’m really missing major resources right now.

Framing my goal

I would like to get myself to a point where I can read detailed analysis and understand it, or look at the current chart for the sky and understand some ways to approach patterns that are highlighted.

I’d also like to build up a particular understanding of the planets, in an astrological / mythic sense. I’ve had an increasing interest in building some regular practices around this, but I need to learn more to make some things click into place for me.

By Samhain, I’d like to have worked my way through the three or four books I want to read, the detailed analysis of my chart I got last year, and establish a regular habit of checking in on current transits and possible effects. By then, I’d also like to develop some regular spiritual practices that build on astrology.

To make progress on this, I should spend 10-15 minutes more days than not, plus find time for an hour or two each weekend, and for reading things in amongst my other reading time.

Goal 2: Recipes and food

Food is hard, sometimes.

I’ve got some specific medical things that both mean I need to eat sensibly and regularly, and that I’m sometimes too tired to cook, or that something that was food last week totally doesn’t look like it this week.

I’d like to figure out better solutions for this, especially things that require shelf stable ingredients (or freezer ones) or things I always have and minimal prep, as well as meals that work well for me that are slightly more effort. Currently my recipe notes are all over the place, a bunch of them are heavily aspirational (lovely idea, but realistically, I’m not going to make that thing that takes 10 steps very often)

Do I have a specific question to answer?

I’d like to come up with a set of recipes or foods that make reasonable meals (by my definitions) with some seasonal variations.

What do I already know?

I have some foods that work pretty reliably for me, and ditto some recipes. My notes on this are scattered around, and it’s hard to see patterns.

What are my resources and limitations?

There’s a lot of help out there! I know where some communities are that talk about the combination of things I’m trying to solve, there’s a few books that are useful, and some other resources I’ve got bookmarked.

(Also, so many recipe bookmarks.)

One of my big limitations is time – both in the sense of time to work on this in a structured way, and in the sense that there are a limited number of meals in the week to experiment with.

Framing my goal

Over the next three to six months (so by the end of June or so), I’d like to come up with a list of foods for different meals and circumstances (i.e. lunch at work has different options than lunch at home) so that I can look at a list and make choices.

I’m still thinking about what format I want that information in – whether that’s a ring of index cards, or something on the computer, or something else. But I clearly need a more useful format.

I’ll know I’ve finished this project when I’ve got a process that works well for me, and a range of foods to draw on that fit my specific needs.

To make progress on this, I probably need a chunk of time to get my notes in order, and I may need to play with some different ways to organise what I’m doing.

Conclusion

I’ve got one more kind of project (research for an ongoing writing project) to talk about, but the more I write this post, the more it’s clear that should be its own thing. I hope this gives you some ideas on how to break down the project a bit.

Looking ahead to research: part 3

Making a plan for larger projects

Here we are at part three of making a plan for larger projects. How do we break down a big project into something more manageable, when we’re not quite sure what we’re going to be finding once we start?

This post talks about five questions you can ask yourself. The final part of this series, next week, will talk about a couple of examples.

Looking ahead to research : view of rocks looking out toward a twilight ocean.

Questions

What do you want to accomplish?

Different kinds of goals have different outcomes. The kinds of information that will help you most if you’re designing a ritual may be quite different than those that help for non-fiction writing, fiction writing, or designing a divination tool.

One way to start is to figure out what your end result looks like or will be used for. That will help guide some of your questions and resources.

Another part is figuring out what you’re hoping to answer or learn about. Here are some possibilities (and there are many more I’m not listing…)

  • Answering a specific question (How did they do that thing, why does it work like that, how did something develop?)
  • Looking for a new direction for your path (much more open ended)
  • Finding resources that are like ones you’ve found and liked.
  • Beginning to learn about a new topic.
  • Deepening your understanding of a topic where you know some of the basics.
  • Connecting with people who have a lot more experience in that thing (experts, leaders in the community, people with specialised skills.)

Each of these will have different ways you might want to go about it.

These questions can also help you begin to figure out how much time this might take – or how deeply you want to get into a question.

For example, you might be writing a ritual that includes a deity or story you’re not as familiar with. Different people will have different feelings about how much research is needed, but there’s often a way to create a meaningful and respectful ritual that works with resources many people can access relatively easily (public in-depth info) and with 5-10 hours of focused work (plus some additional time for thinking about it, maybe, while you’re doing other things.)

And yet, someone else might decide that they really want to dive deeply into that same deity or stories, and that be a much more involved process requiring translation of texts, learning how to make sense of particular styles of art or styles of writing, and much more.

Here’s a way to try framing your goal: I want to understand X so that I can Y. (Examples below.) Try replacing ‘understand’ with ‘learn’ or ‘explore’ if that helps.

Do you have a deadline?

One really pragmatic question is ‘when do you need this by’? Some questions have harder limits than others.

If you are doing research to write a ritual, you need to have the information before the ritual and probably not the day before, either! You’ll want time to create the ritual and get the things you might need or want for it! Usually you’ll want to be done with your research at least 2-3 weeks in advance if not more.)

Other projects might take months or years or even decades! (Serious long-term study of Tarot or runes or astrology, for example – any complex system with many moving pieces, materials in multiple languages and from multiple cultures, and with many layers, is going to take you a while to get a grip on.)

With these huge projects, you should be realistic that they’re huge, and also figure out a way to break down the huge project into small pieces, so that you can feel like you’re making progress.

A good framing for your goal is: In the next X months, I want to Y. (Where Y is related to your specific research goal.) p

Are there subgoals in your project?

Often, once we understand our actual desire (what we want to do this research or learning for) it gets easier to break it down.

Maybe there are stages in our project – we have a thing we need or want to do first, and then continue later. Maybe our project is very big, but it’s clear we probably want to start with an overview of the topic in some way. Maybe we can do part of it on our own, but then we’ll likely want to find a way to get deeper and draw on other people’s expertise, like a course or talking to someone who knows that thing much better.

Are there resources that might help?

There are so many options here. Start a list.

It doesn’t need to have answers on it. It can have things like “Something that explains what this thing is” or “A book that gives me a general overview of what was going on here that century.”

(In my day job, I have had several questions come up in the past few months that deal with different parts of India, and while I can pick up specifics from a variety of sources, I have added a couple of books that give an overview of Indian history or a good look at current social issues there to my to-be-read list. Figuring out that would be helpful was one step, finding the books is a second, and reading them is a third, and it’s okay to pause on any step if you need to.)

Similarly, you might identify skills that would be helpful. These can be partial skills, not becoming expert.

For example, maybe becoming just a little bit better at some research skills will open a lot more doors for you (like learning what academic writing focuses on, how to make the most out of articles, or how to find academic sources.)

Maybe it’s learning a little bit of a language – Duolingo can be great for giving you an idea how the language works, some key vocabulary, even if you never remotely become fluent. And if nothing else, it may make it easier to understand how names or some customs work in that language or culture.

(I might or might not be working through sentences in Welsh and can say that I am a dragon and I like leeks, at the moment. Though I had to check and see if I like leeks plural, or if I’ve learned the singular yet.)

Final part

In the final part of this series, I’ll look at some different kinds of projects, and how I break them down.

Looking ahead to research : part 2

One of the complicated things about research is that you never quite know how long something is going to take you.

Oh, it’s possible to group projects into ‘probably short’ and ‘very long’, and some spaces in between. But ‘probably short’ can range from 3 minutes to a couple of hours (depending on how many Internet rabbitholes one falls down) and ‘very long’ can be 10 hours or 10 years.

Which makes planning rather tricky.

So, let’s look at some things that affect how long research might take, and then some ways to help plan. Many of them are not only individual to you as a person, but may be specific to particular projects. Unfortunately, there’s no simple solution, here!

Looking ahead to research : seekknowledgefindwisdom.com

Things to think about

Speed of access

One big factor is obviously how quickly you can access what you’re looking for. For example, reading faster obviously helps with some kinds of research, but it’s not a skill everyone has.

Some people have lives that allow them to spend regular time on research – this can save time over a long project because you spend less time remembering where you were, or what you were focusing on.

Others have jobs or commutes that let them get through a fair chunk of new information through podcasts or audiobooks, even if they have to spend some focused time on things they can’t listen to at other points.

And of course, some of this may be about other access needs. If you have a slow internet connection, or limited time to be online, some things are going to move a lot more slowly than someone who has a speedy connection or more time.

Getting materials

If you happen to be at an academic institution, you likely have very quick access to a wide range of databases and to interlibrary loan resources that can get you many articles or books very promptly (in many cases, articles will come within 24 hours, and books within a week or so). That’s true in most places even if your job doesn’t have anything to do with research.

For the many of us not there, there may still be options. You may have regional or state services that provide some of the same options. For example, if you live, work, go to school, or own property in Massachusetts, you can likely get access to the electronic resources from the Boston Public Library.

(Some states and regions and places fund their library services – especially on larger geographic levels – better than others. Sorry, I don’t run the world, or I’d make that possible a lot more places. But in a lot of place, you have to dig a little to find out about these options, and I encourage you to ask and dig a little when you get time.)

Some of these options take more time and planning than others. Electronic resources like journals are usually available when you’d like, but ebooks may be limited to one user at a time. Interlibrary loan books usually have fixed loan periods, and you need to send them back promptly.

It can take some practice to figure out how to time when an interlibrary loan arrives with having enough time from other parts of your life to work with the materials before they have to go back.

And of course, you may want to own materials, but need time to get the money in your budget to buy them, or need to wait for a copy of an older text to show up at a vaguely affordable price.

Grouping similar tasks

Some kinds of research tasks go faster if we do them all at once. For example, if you’re looking at the history of words as part of research on a topic, looking them all up at once in a really good dictionary is going to be faster than doing one, going away, doing something else, and then coming back and having to open up the dictionary (whether that’s physically or electronically), and do more searches.

Similarly, you can

What tools can be helpful? (Todo list that lets you tag by amount of time something will take or whether it can be done while you’re doing other things.)

Special situations

Not every research question has a simple solution. Sometimes you need a source that is only available a few places (or is in something like an archives or historical society collection.) Sometimes materials will be in languages you don’t read, or not available where you live.

These can be so frustrating – most people can’t go off to every corner just to read a book or find a source. And we certainly can’t be learning every language we might be curious about.

There are some solutions out there. For example, finding people who know or can access the thing you need. This can include hiring an independent researcher to go look at an item local to them, getting help from people working on similar topics, or finding people who read the language you need and figuring out a suitable arrangement for a translation or notes.

This is the hardest – and least predictable – category to solve, but fortunately, as long as you’re making some progress with your research in other ways, you can get traction here. Every time you talk about an ongoing project, you have a chance to connect with people who can help you further (or who know someone who can help.)

Tools to help

So how do you keep all of this manageable? A really good project management system and notes are a great start. One of the most frustrating parts of research projects is when you know you saw a post, or an online article, or a mention of a book, and if you could just remember what it was, it had something you needed. But now you can’t.

This is a place where tools help. Start by writing down your actual questions. For long-term projects, your questions may be fairly vague at first. If so, focus on what you know about what you want to do with the information when you find it. That will help you plan your time better.

More on that in part three, so you can see a couple of examples, but start with whatever you know right now.

  • Do you have a specific thing you’re trying to answer?
  • What do you want to do with the information when you’ve got it? (Use it somehow? Share it with others? Whatever you know is helpful.)
  • What do you already know about the subject?
  • Do you see any particular limitations you want to start thinking about early? (Needing specific materials, or languages, or sources?)

Then, as you begin to gather information, keep track of it, so that you can look at what you have and what you would like to have in one place. There are tons of different possible systems about this (and I’ll be talking about the details next post and in future posts.)

Next part: Breaking down large projects and getting a grip on how long they might take.

Visiting archives and special collections

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

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

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

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

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

1) Get An Overview

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

When are they open?

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

Do you need to make an appointment?

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

Do you need to request items in advance?

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

What do you need to bring with you?

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

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

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

What might be really helpful?

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

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

Some examples of different sites

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

2) Plan Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Read Information Carefully

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

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

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

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

4) Respect the Schedule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5) Understand Why Policies Exist

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

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

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

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