Inexpensive information sources

I was talking to someone last weekend about Pagan topics, and money’s tight for her (like it is for a lot of people), so we got to talking a bit about the usefulness of the library.

Which leads me to wanting to talk about some tips for getting books inexpensively in general.

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

​The library

Let’s start with the most obvious – libraries exist to share materials so we don’t all have to buy our own. This is a win for basically everyone involved. (Even for authors. If their work is popular, the library will probably buy more copies. A copy in the library means many more people may explore their work, and eventually start buying it.)

There are some complexities, though.

1) Library purchasing practices

Libraries do buy books on a huge range of topics (unless they’re a specialised library). However, many libraries rely on a fairly limited set of sources to figure out what they’re going to buy. Large library systems may have a structure to how items are selected (some libraries routinely order a certain number of copies of books in particular categories, like award winners or new books by a list of much-loved authors.) In many cases, libraries look at a number of review publications (designed for librarians) and make selections from that.

That is a great start, but there are a lot of limitations to it. One big one (for Pagans and other people with esoteric interests – and I’m using that word both in the magical and occult sense, and in the sense of ‘interests that are uncommon and not widely shared’) is that those review publications don’t include a wide range of books in the relevant field.

In a previous library job we got Booklist, one of the major publications for library reviews, and there’d be a handful of books a year on explicitly Pagan, magical, or divinatory topics that got reviewed. There’d be other relevant titles (myths, herbs, history, and so on.) There’s only so much room in the publication, after all. Mostly those would be books from mainstream publishing houses that publish an occasional Pagan title, and a select few from the bigger metaphysical and magical publishers like Llewellyn or Weiser.

2) Publishing methods

Libraries buy most of their books from traditional publishers. While there’s been a big rise in the number of self-published books (and I’m gearing up to do some of that!) it’s been a big challenge for libraries. That’s because the quality is so incredibly varied, and because people doing independent publishing methods often aren’t aware of what information libraries used to make their decisions, or what they need to consider adding.

(Take a look at the copyright page of a traditionally published book, and you’ll see a lot of information that looks a bit incomprehensible, but has cataloging information for libraries. When a book doesn’t have that, someone has to create it for the library to use, and that takes staff time and therefore money. When the publisher provides it, the library still has to do some steps, but most of the time-consuming part is already done, and they just have to make the changes for their particular standards.)

It’s also just plain hard for libraries to find out about small press or indie published books. It can take really significant time to search sites, figure out what formats are available, and so on. (And quality for format of printed books can also be poor, and not hold up to circulation.)

Because of this, many libraries have limited selections of indie books. Sometimes their collection development policy will be available online and explain how they handle this (for example, they may collect books from local authors, or set in or about the local area, but not others.)

3) Library networks and interlibrary loan

Getting books via the library network is often what happens with esoteric books (more specialised topics, in less active demand). You may need to plan ahead a bit, but if some library in the system has it, you can get it fairly quickly, check it out as many times as your library lets you renew it, and enjoy!

4) Requesting books

One great way to get books into public libraries is to see if the library has an option for requesting titles. You enter the information about the book (title, author, publisher) and usually there’s a way to comment on why you think it’s of interest. There’s usually a box where you can sign up to be the first person to check it out if the library buys the title.

Libraries review these requests, and if there’s money in the budget and the book seems like a good fit for the collection, they may well buy it. Picking books that have really solid reviews will help a lot.

A word about libraries and privacy

Privacy when using the library is a key part of library ethics, and librarians and library staff shouldn’t be sharing what you’ve checked out unless required to by law (which in many libraries involves a subpoena). Many libraries actually delete loan records once the item is returned specifically so they can’t be forced to share that information.

That said, if you use a local library where the staff know you, they can’t erase the part of their brain that’s about you checking out books on a particular topic. Library ethics says they shouldn’t talk about it, but sometimes people do gossip. If you have concerns about privacy, consider getting your esoteric topic books at a different library, or even a different library network.

Used books

If you’re trying to save money, used books are a great way to go. Amazon has extensive listings for used books, and ABE Books is now a subsidiary company of Amazon, but has independent listings. There are other used book seller online tools.

In general, for online sellers, look for ones who have a good rating (I look for 95% or better satisfaction), and whose shipping prices are reasonable. (A lot of places price the book very cheaply, but make it up in shipping charges. If the book is cheap enough, that’s not a big deal, but it can make it harder to make comparisons.)

Another option is to find a used bookstore – if you find a store that has the kinds of books you’re generally interested in, the owner or staff may be willing to keep a wish list for you, or to help you search for particular titles.

Some Pagan, esoteric, or metaphysical stores have used book sections, or Pagan community groups may have periodic book sales or other chances to swap materials.

If you get to know people in the community, you may also hear about chances to pick up books inexpensively – sometimes if people are moving, or their focus has shifted, they’ll be glad to part with books to someone who will appreciate them.

You can also occasionally find great things at library book sales. (Often these books are donations, not books from the library collection that have been withdrawn.)

Ebooks

If you can read ebooks, they can sometimes be very affordable options. I subscribe to a couple of announcement lists for ebooks on sale, and have a running list of titles that I’m interested in.

This is harder to do specifically with esoteric books (though if you have favourite authors, it can be worth getting on their newsletter or email announcement list) but for history, cookbooks, and some types of wellness or lifestyle books, it can be a great way to pick up books you’re interested in at a steep discount.

(It can also be hard on your bank account, so be cautious here!)

What not to do

If money’s tight, it can be easy to be tempted by pirated copies – PDFs of books that sometimes get circulated in various ways. There’s a couple of reasons not to do this.

First, it can destroy the market for an author’s future work getting published. (Which, if you like their work, is something you probably care about.) It can also damage the ability of publishers to put out new works. (Especially smaller publishers – and basically, every esoteric or magical book publisher is a small publisher, just for different definitions of small.)

Publishers rely on data about what’s selling (and how) to make decisions not just about an author’s books, but about other books on similar topics or similar approaches.

Second, it can open your computer up to viruses, malware, and other bad things. Not worth it!

And finally but most importantly, it’s just wrong. Authors work hard on their books. They may choose to share some material for free, but that choice needs to be up to them. They can benefit from library sales or giveaways, or other ways of sharing books that put them out in the world cheaply, without the utterly destructive effects of pirated books.

For the same reasons, don’t take copies from libraries and not bring them back. Libraries have limited resources, and in many cases, they can’t afford to replace copies that go missing (or not quickly). Bring your books back. If you’ve honestly lost a copy and can’t find it, talk to the library staff: they can suggest the best options.

How catalogues work: algorithms

The last part of how catalogues work is looking at algorithms.

( was not a computer science major. This is going to be the non-technical discussion.

Also, the two links I mention here are from 2016, and technology has moved on a bit, as technology does, but these are good illustrations of my specific points.

Catalogues: Wooden chest of old-fashioned catalogue cards

What is an algorithm?

A good definition is that an algorithm is a step by step way of doing this. This video from the University of Washington notes that sorting your laundry is an algorithm (is it a white shirt? This pile, these things get washed together. Is it a red shirt? That goes in a different pile. Does it need special treatment? Follow these steps.) The video’s a great overview of the topic in a couple of minutes.

Computers are extremely fast at doing this kind of step, but how successful the algorithm is depends on what the people programming the algorithm have told it to do.

An important digression

The fact that human beings design these lists is a particularly business-centered reason why diversity in technology (and in companies in general) is such a big deal – people who have different backgrounds, life experiences, or ways of looking at the world are going to think about different things in the design process,. When that’s managed well, a diverse group will likely come up with algorithms and other programming that work much better for a wider range of people.

(An example here – though it is a legitimately sort of complicated record keeping – is that the Apple Health app didn’t include any menstrual cycle tracking for a long time, and it’s still much more rudimentary than some other apps. If your body does things outside of the expected timeframe, you have fewer options.)

What does this mean for catalogues?

Some of the things a catalogue uses an algorithm for are pretty straightforward. Sorting a list by the last name of the author, or the title of the work, or the year it was published is pretty simple, so long as the data is consistent.

What data might be inconsistent? An example would be if the date formats swap between United States standard dating (Month-Day-Year) and the Day-Month-Year common in parts of Europe, your results are going to be confusing. Good data is essential to sorting and organising your catalogue.

(This is why I am spending my summer cleaning up a lot of data in our catalogue at work. This week, this has meant hours of moving identifying file numbers from the format area, where they shouldn’t be anyway, to a different area, and making sure the correct format is actually entered.

We can automate some kinds of data changes, but this one requires moving data into a different field, and we don’t have an easy way to do that automatically.)

Where it gets complicated

However, once we get into things where there is a bit more of a value judgement.

What kinds of images should we get if we search on “beautiful”?

One of the examples that has stuck with me the most was something illustrated in a keynote Dr. Safiya Noble illustrated in the keynote she gave at the LibTech conference in 2016 (LibTech is my favourite library conference for a reason) It’s worth noting this was given in March of 2016, and she talks about the manipulation of algorithms and the effect on elections….

In her keynote, she did an illustration where she did a search on “Beautiful” and at that time the algorithm turned up a lot of landscapes (that were really gorgeous). But if you searched on ‘beautiful woman’, you turned up white women (and white women of a particular kind when it came to facial structure, hair, body size, and a bunch of other characteristics’. That’s what happens when human programming goes awry, or is not sufficiently questioned.

And if you tried searches like “black girls”, you got a whole different set of results, and much more mixed ones in terms of positive and negative.

So, when your library catalogue tells you you can sort by ‘relevance’ or gives you options for ‘similar topics’, there are probably a lot of different things at play. Usually, there’s software decisions in there somewhere. Some of these may be accessible to the library staff, others may be decided by the software programmers, and the librarians may have no idea how it works.

(In our new catalogue, we can choose which things to weight more – so for example, we could choose to weight phrases in the abstract (where we put a summary of the content) more than the title, or less than the title (depending on what decided). We haven’t played around with this much yet, but it’s a way to help refine options for people.)

Even more complicated

Large companies – Google, Amazon, Facebook, any of the big ones – also look at your reactions to what you click on, where you spend time, what you click away from and when (and where you go to) – because it helps them create vast maps of data they can use. Sometimes this is really handy (like when Amazon’s list of also-boughts shows you a book you love and you had no idea it existed, or Spotify’s algorithm suggests music you really like.)

Sometimes it’s a lot creepier and more awful. There’s a famous story, when it comes to algorithms, of Target figuring out a teenager was pregnant based on other purchases before her father found out about it, based entirely on purchases that were not specifically intended for a baby, but rather things like body lotion, a larger purse, two common supplements, and a bright blue rug.

And of course, it gets even scarier if we start talking about government agencies making decisions about who can get visas, fly, or do many other kinds of things, based on algorithms and data management decisions that are obscured to the end user of the information.

What you should take away from this

Trusting a computer on fairly simple sorts (like title or author or date) is fine – but if the computer is suggesting related items, and you care about getting a wider range of options, or you are concerned about implicit bias in how a system designed by unknown people might work, that’s a good time to do some more digging, or to try a variety of searches with specific parameters so that you get a sense of what is there, what’s recommended, and maybe what isn’t.

Simply knowing more about algorithms will also give you a lot more choices and awareness.

How catalogues work: Controlled vocabulary

Today’s discussion of catalogues is about how you find things by topic. I talked about some of this in my post from March about personal libraries, but I want to talk more here about how libraries select subject terms.

Catalogues: Wooden chest of old-fashioned catalogue cards

It’s mysterious

Let’s be honest. A lot of the process librarians use to select subject terms is pretty mysterious. That’s because we’re trying to label quite complex things in a very complex world, and we’re using a variety of tools to do it, because outside of very very small collections (relatively speaking – in practice, this is probably a couple of thousand books at the smallest), it’s too big for anyone to keep in their head.

On the good side, this means people have to write things down, which makes long-term consistency easier, and which can help us see patterns.

On the bad side, it means things can feel (and be) very rigid, or slow to change, or complicated to navigate. All of which can make things a lot less accessible or useful. And the speed of change often means terms don’t reflect current understanding of things like identity, culture, or communities.

So where do these terms come from?

In libraries, libraries usually pick a set of subject headings to use. The subject headings act as a controlled vocabulary (which basically means ‘we have a fixed set of terms we choose from.) Like I explained in the post last March, this is what helps us avoid using all of these terms for the same thing:

  • felines
  • cats
  • cat
  • domesticated cat

Sometimes we might want to make distinctions (domestic cats as compared to lions or tigers or snow leopards), but if we don’t, we want to pick one term and settle on it.

Libraries use one of a couple of common lists for subject headings. The most common, probably, are the Library of Congress. These are very extensive (it takes up about 20 volumes as print books on a shelf) but the fact the Library of Congress deals with so many different topics means that it’s often quite slow to make adjustments.

For example, the addition of the word “Wicca” as a subject heading only took place in about 2004, and only after a petition from a librarian. (This is often the way changes get made: one or more librarians notice that a term needs adding or improving or changing, and they provide evidence.) The term ‘Wicca’ had been in broad general use since the 1950s and 60s, so that’s about 50 years.

This isn’t always simple – here’s a story of attempts in 2016 to get the terms ‘aliens’ and ‘illegal aliens’ changed, and how the support from librarians and library associations for a student-led project ran smack into issues of law.

(Why does Congress get a say in this, you might be wondering? The Library of Congress’s first job is to provide resources for Congress and members of Congress. Makes sense if you think about the name.)

One other important note is that many libraries don’t have the resources to go back and catalogue older items to the new subject headings – so you may see pointers from new terms to check older terms as well. (This depends a lot on the library and the priority of the topic.)

Who assigns the terms?

Good question. In many cases, the subject headings are primarily assigned by whoever it is at the Library of Congress assigns the headings for that particular item. These are likely people who have some experience in the general field or area of the books, but you can usually assume they’re not experts or specialists in all the nuances of the field or topic.

(In other words, they’re not going to get really nuanced about choosing, say, a term of magic or ritual in a Pagan setting. They may assign them both.)

Usually terms are based on the few most obvious and relevant topic. If something is mentioned for less than a chapter or two, it almost certainly won’t get a subject heading unless it’s something really unusual. For a full length nonfiction book, you can usually expect 3-5 subject headings.

You can also assume the person doing the cataloguing probably hasn’t read the book. Cataloguers don’t have time for that! They’re relying on the blurb on the back and things like skimming the table of contents. Publishers can also suggest subject headings or terms to include.

Some libraries do have their own cataloguers evaluate materials and add or edit terms. This is particularly true for things like local history or other items of particular local interest.

Or a school library might assign a heading for particular regular class assignments or projects, to make it easier to find those items. (There are other ways to group things, too.) Some libraries do a “Best resource” subject heading to make it easy to find the best resources in a topic. (Mine does this.)

Next week, more about working with search terms in practice.

How catalogues work: An introduction

We’re working on a major catalogue update at work, which has me thinking a lot about how people use catalogues, databases, and other collections of information.

In talking about our new catalogue, I’ve also been reminded that most people don’t know how these things work, or what might be useful to them – so it seems like a great time for a short series of posts about that.

Catalogues: Wooden chest of old-fashioned catalogue cards

The basics

So, the first thing we should start with is what’s a catalogue?

For libraries, a catalogue is a highly specialised database that holds information about books in the collection. Often these are parts of an Integrated Library System, or ILS, that tracks a whole bunch of things. Sometimes the catalogue only does pieces of it.

Common things included:

  • Information about works in the collection (such as title, author, publisher, publication information, call number, subject headings). This is sometimes referred to as the bibliographic record.
  • Information about particular items in the collection, i.e. each actual thing that’s on the shelf (or however it’s stored or accessed). This is sometimes called a ‘holding’ record (because it describes the holdings of the library).
  • Loan information about specific items in the collection and who has them.
  • Information about electronic resources (sometimes this might be a link to them, sometimes systems pull in all the things in a database so you can search for them all in one place.)
  • Additional resources the library has chosen to add (documents, files, etc.)

These records may have public notes (things to help library users) or staff-only notes (to help staff manage resources and answer questions.)

Again, not every library will have all these things.

Our collection at work has bibliographic records, but doesn’t have separate holdings records (all the information about all our copies is in a single record: this is sometimes a bit clunky, but it works okay for us because we don’t check a lot of items out.)

Likewise, we don’t have a separate circulation (or loan) module – all the loan information is in the record. Library users can’t see it, because it doesn’t display to them, just to the tools staff uses.

(In some libraries, this would be a problem, but in our library, there’s just one and a half staff members, and we both need to have access to it. The library assistant usually deals with loans and circulation, but if she’s on vacation or something comes up, I need to be able to see what’s going on and make changes too.)

Metadata

When you put information into a catalogue, you are collecting metadata – that’s the term for ‘information about a thing’.

My favourite explanation of metadata comes from a Scientific American piece from 2012 that used Santa Claus and Christmas lists as examples. Go read it, if you’re not sure how metadata works, I’ll wait for you.

So, metadata about books includes the title, author, publication information. It might also include things like if a book is considered a particularly good resource, or is on a recommendation list. It might include if it was donated (and if so, by who). All kinds of things can be metadata.

Libraries have some commonly used systems for formatting it. A lot of libraries still use MARC (which stands for Machine Readable Cataloging record). Here’s a longish explanation from the Library of Congress about the details. This provides the structure for the data.

Besides the structure, there needs to be consistency in how you write things down. For a long time, libraries used the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules (AACR or AACR2 for the 2nd edition, etc.) but now a lot of libraries use RDA or Resource Description and Access.

Why all the rules?

Computers are still fairly stupid – they’re really quick at matching up things we tell them with things that they have stored, but they need a lot of help to match up things like typos or alternate ways of phrasing things.

(Google, Amazon, and the other tech giant companies have huge amounts of resources and lots of cutting edge design capabilities to make that work. Your average library just doesn’t. Your average library is probably pretty excited if their staff computers are less than four years old.)

So, in order for the computer to match things up, the library needs to be using consistent words (what’s called a “Controlled vocabulary” for things like subject headings and formats) and an underlying structure.

What does this mean in practice?

A lot of what I’m doing in our new catalogue right now is setting up that structure and arranging the different screens so they do what we want.

For example, we have a lot of options on the screen to add things to the catalogue, but when we edit things, we’re usually only editing a couple of specific pieces. So I set it up so those are at the top of the screen, and then we can get to everything else if we need to, but don’t have to scroll to get to it.

(You have no idea how exciting this is, when you’ve been spending years having to scroll down a very similar-appearing form to look for one specific field.)

But another big part of what I’m working on is fixing things so we’re using a smaller list of terms for things like format and location. That means people will be able to filter usefully by them, which will be amazing.

(This is going to take months and months. Fixing the formats and locations are pretty quick, but we have 14,000 subject headings, and a lot of them are tiny variants or typos of the ones we actually want.)

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.

 

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, Academia.edu, 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

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

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

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

Library of Congress

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

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

Information in entries

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

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

Limitations

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

Not all books are in libraries

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

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

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

Not all libraries are part of WorldCat

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

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

You still have to figure out access

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

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

Next time

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

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.

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.

Interlibrary Loan

Here’s an amazing tool you may not know about (lots of people don’t.)

If your library doesn’t have something, there’s a decent chance they have a way to get it from other libraries that do. There are some things this doesn’t work for, and I’ll talk about that in a minute.

Books. Articles. Sometimes multimedia things.

So, how does that work?

Research: Interlibrary loan (image of books on shelves with hanging lights.)

Local library consortia

These days, many public libraries in individual towns or cities are part of larger groups of libraries, like a regional library network, system, or consortium.

These libraries have agreed to make it easier to share resources. Generally, in a library network, you can:

  • Check out books from any library in the network.
  • Return books to any library in the network.
  • Use electronic resources at any library in the network.
  • Request books from other libraries in the network to be picked up at your local library (or whatever library in the network is most convenient for you.)

As you can imagine, this can be really handy. It allows libraries to run as independent entities, with their own unique personalities and focus, but also have access to a wider range of material.

Do libraries buy differently because of this?

Often, yes, but in a good way.

For example, maybe in a network of 30 libraries, they might buy 15 copies of a given title between them – and that’s what they need. If each library had to buy their own for the people in their town to use, there are 15 other books those libraries couldn’t buy.

(The actual math is a lot more complicated, of course, but you get the idea: it works really really well for items that get some use, but are not immensely popular.)

How do you search for items?

Library networks will usually make it pretty obvious on their website and catalog pages (in my local consortium, you actually do the catalog search on the consortium site, rather than the individual library sites, but other library systems have you do the search on the specific library’s site.)

Try a search out at that link, and if you click through to a specific book, you’ll see that it tells you which libraries own copies, and which of those copies is available (or how long the hold queue is.)

Where do you get the books?

If you request books that come from a different library, you can request they go to a specific location (maybe a library in the network is close to your work, or whatever), and then you pick them up from the library’s hold shelf.

A hold shelf might be behind the library desk, or there might be shelves with paper bookmarks indicating which books are yours. (For privacy reasons, this should be thing that isn’t personally identifying like your name, so people can’t just browse the shelves and go “Oh, Mary’s checking out a lot of books about cancer/divorce/other topics.” Lots of libraries use a portion of your library card number.)

How long does it take to get items from a different library?

That depends on your network, but since the libraries in the network are usually pretty close to each other physically, items usually show up in a couple of days. Many consortia have vans that go from location to location, unloading the items for that library and collecting items going to other places.

These delivery and sorting systems usually don’t run on weekends (or maybe only on Saturday) so requests that include a weekend take a bit longer.

State networks

Many states have a larger network of libraries, that function like a larger network. They don’t have the same efficiency of delivery as local library networks (and they’re covering a much larger geographic area) so they are usually a bit slower.

Usually in this case, you will need to check a separate catalog than your usual catalog. In Massachusetts, this is the Commonwealth Catalog.

These state-wide systems vary widely, because states vary widely in how well supported their library services are on a state level (let your state representatives know how you feel about this!)

Are there limits on what you can get?

In most case, there are greater restrictions on how you use items through this service.

Common restrictions include:

  • Limit on the number of items you can have out.
  • Limit on the number of active requests.
  • Limit on how long you can keep them (some systems won’t allow renewals at all, in others you have some limited options for renewal.)
  • Some formats may not be available (especially multimedia things like DVDs or audio books on disc)
  • Items in high demand may not be available. Different systems define this in a variety of ways.
  • Recently released items may not be available. (Sometimes this depends a lot on demand.)

What else should I know?

Fines or other outstanding issues with your account may also limit your options. (If paying your fines is a hardship, talk to the library they’re at: many libraries have fine waiver months or other programs that reduce or eliminate the fine in some situations.

Libraries also have policies about how to deal with items you’re sure you returned but they don’t have checked in that can result in the fine being removed from your record.

Many libraries also make exceptions for unusual circumstances like you being sure you’ve returned something, fines due to hospitalisation or housing insecurity, or other challenging life events.

Interlibrary loan

Interlibrary loan (usually called ILL) is one more step out from that. It is used for books and items you can’t get through other area networks, and it’s commonly the system used for copies of articles (such as from academic journals or other publications.)

In both cases, you’ll need to ask your local library how to get access to these materials. They may have a specific form for you to fill out or can help you get access in other ways.

(For example, many people who live, work, or go to school in Massachusetts can get access to the electronic databases that the Boston Public Library subscribes to, so you wouldn’t need ILL to get access to materials you could get through there.)

What if I want an article?

Articles are a sort of special situation. You can use ILL to get access to articles. If the article is available somewhere in a database, it will usually come pretty quickly, normally as a PDF, in your email.

(Though again, the people processing these usually work Monday to Friday, so it may take a bit longer over holidays or weekends. Or if you want something more obscure or that fewer libraries have access to.)

Sometimes the article may be missing some images or figures, depending on how the original item was digitized. If this is the case, and they’re essential to why you wanted the article, let the library you got it through know: there may be some options.

This isn’t meant to duplicate a subscription to the journal, so if you want lots of articles from the same journal within a few years of each other, your library may tell you that you need to figure out some other way to access them (like a research trip to a library that has that journal so you can look at things directly.)

This is usually less of an issue for older materials (older than about 5 years), and the library you’re working with may have good suggestions about the best way you can move forward.