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.

What is remembered lives: research connecting someone to their ancestors

Last spring, I did a presentation at Paganicon about research relating to ancestor work.

My full notes from that presentation (including slides) are up on my Seeking site, but I thought Samhain (at least where I am) was a good time to talk a little more about some aspects of things I brought up there.

Image saying "Research: what is remembered, lives" with a photograph of pomegranates, one whole, one sliced in half.

I’m focusing here on the complexities of history, and will come back and do an article series on academia and its research goals sometime later, but if you’re curious about that, go look at the notes from the presentation.

Why do we care?

One really good question with any research project (or really any project) is figuring out why we’re putting time into this thing, and what we hope to get out of it.

For some people, ancestor work is part of their religious practice (or at least possibly part of their religious practice). Sometimes that’s about blood relationships or relatives we knew directly.

For some of us, it can be about more distant relationships, or interests or skills we have in common, or about individuals we want to connect with for other reasons. For example, I honour a historical figure – Hypatia of Alexandria – as an ancestor of profession, in work that’s about intellectual curiousity and learning.

(This can also be a really good solution if you’d like to do ancestor work, but the ancestors whose names and identities you know are not necessarily people you’d like to interact with more, for a variety of reasons.)

Sometimes, historical research is also important for understanding the history of ideas.  My good friend, Kiya Nicoll, has been doing a lot of research about this recently as it relates to the soup that makes up the Pagan socio-cultural movement, and you can read more on her website and here’s a graphic that gives an idea how complicated some of the relationships are (you’ll want to zoom in) and one more specifically about religious witchcraft. Note that this is very much a work in progress, so things are still being edited.

So many kinds of history

One of the things that fascinates me about historical research is that there are so many more goals and desires in it and ways to approach it than just ‘write a an academic paper’. (Frankly, I think that’s often one of the least interesting ones.)

I like to say that research is a conversation with the world and with time. There are some fixed points we know about (when we know a specific thing happened, or someone did something) but there’s a lot of space around that for things that are much more varied and complex.

My history has popular non-fiction in it. It has musicals. (Hello, Hamilton) It has historical fiction, and historical mysteries, and fantasy novels modelled on historical events. It has reconstructions of food and drink and clothing. It has walking tours and public history events and podcasts and websites. It has rituals and meditations and trancework. It has family photographs and stories from the community, customs and memories.

No one of those things gives the whole picture – but different parts can illustrate different things, and let us see different aspects more clearly. Sometimes it takes designing a historical dress or pair of shoes to realise what that meant about what people did in those clothes, which things were easy and which were challenging. Sometimes looking at the food customs tells us things about what abundance felt like, and the change of seasons. Sometimes fiction lets us immerse ourselves enough in the time and place to start asking different questions or explore different issues,

My day job as a librarian is about 1/3 history by our statistics, questions about the institution I work for, people associated with it, and questions from children or grandchildren of alumni – people where the stories passed down in the family aren’t available any more, and they’re curious about the family history.

Every time we get one of those, I learn something else, because even if they ask something we hear a lot, their particular question is a little different from everyone else’s. And I learn from what they bring to their questions.

Complications in history

There are so many complications in doing history. Never mind doing it well.

Missing pieces:

Most potential sources didn’t survive for us to study. Some cultures didn’t write much down or sources didn’t survive. Some kinds of material require too much time or too many resources to use. (What gets funded is often determined by other needs than doing great history.)

Example: The Etruscans didn’t leave much written material. They have some gorgeous art, but we have to guess about what some (a lot of it…) of what it means.

Biases:

All people – and all sources – have biases. Some are obvious. Many aren’t. They’re still there. Biases are often present in multiple layers of history. They affect what was recorded, when, what was preserved, what gets studied.

Example: Myths being written down after an area had become Christianised: some things may get left out or changed to fit the preferences of the majority culture. Someone studying those writings may also bring their own biases about how to translate words or ideas, or what they mean. Religious topics are perhaps particularly vulnerable to this.

No ‘right’ answer:

Good research is often more about the questions than the answers. It’s also about remembering what we don’t know and can’t find out. It can be very easy to think there’s a right or wrong answer, and it’s usually not that simple.

Example: Some of history is facts (the dates of events we can document in multiple sources), but the why and details are often a lot more about interpretation.

Different priorities:

How we do history has changed over time. Previous scholars may have ignored important things or inserted biases. We have new tools, new science, and less destructive methods of investigation.

Example 1: The excavation of Troy was done in a way that we’d never do now (hopefully!) but it destroyed the probable layer that existed during what came down through myth as the Trojan War.

Example 2: Hildegard von Bingen was a 12th century abbess and nun. She wrote some amazing works of science (and is one of the earliest authors to describe both migraines and female orgasm.) For a long time her music was ignored because it wasn’t like what other people were doing. Here’s Sequentia singing O Virga Ac Diadema.

Practical limits:

Time and money are not in infinite supply! Access, funding, tools and skills available for analysis all depend on a lot of factors researchers may not be able to control. New tech tools are great, but have costs or a learning curve. Some places are heavily affected by war and civil unrest. Confidential information may exist, but not be usable.

Example: There’s a classic core work of astronomy from the 10th century that was only translated into English in the past five years – no one had put together the language skills and interest in the topic to that degree before. The work is known as the Book of the Fixed Stars in English, and you can now read a translation for free thanks to the work of Ihsan Hafez.

Legal limits

In more recent years, a lot of information may not be available (or at least not yet).

Privacy laws affect what information is available. These include things like delays in release of census data, or laws limiting how health information educational information are shared. (In the US, that’d be HIPAA and FERPA, but European privacy laws are often much more restrictive than the US.)

Stigmatized or minority communities, conditions, or backgrounds sometimes had very little information kept, or only from some points of view…

Names are challenging

Common names or name changes can make it incredibly hard to figure out relationships.

My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Smith, and her first name was pretty common when she was alive. My maternal grandfather legally changed his name five times for complicated reasons involving assimilation into his local culture and laws changing. Both of these make it really tricky to do genealogical research that goes beyond those people.

People also often write or interact under other names – and if you don’t know those names, it can be hard to track them down.

Example: We had an example at work where a researcher suddenly realised the person she was researching had used a pseudonym for some of his writing, and there was a massive trove of articles she hadn’t looked at closely yet.

Curious about historical research?

I’d be delighted to help you figure out how to attack a historical project – it’s part of my consulting services. This can be a fairly quick round of helping you figure out where to start, what resources to check first, or it could be more involved research consulting. That’s up to you!

If you’re curious, check out my consulting page, and describe what you’re interested in.

Jenett’s quick guide to evaluating information

I got nudged by a friend to do a ramble about information evaluation. It might have gotten a little away from me.

Basic principles:

  • We all have biases and things we know more about than others.
  • Some people are more up front about this than other people.
  • Ditto goals. We all have them, some people are more up front about them.
  • Be really suspicious of the people who claim they have the absolute truth and are telling you for your own good.

(They probably don’t and they probably aren’t. Especially if you don’t have a preexisting trusting relationship. Real world stuff has fewer absolutes, for one thing.)

Information: A quick guide to information evaluation (image of a fountain pen and blank lined notebook)

Who is this person (or What is this source?)

Start with the basics. Who’s telling you this thing? What’s their background? If it’s a website without an individual author, what do you know about the site?

You may need to file this in “Need to do some more research” but knowing you need to do that is a great first step. First thing: check out the ‘about’ page, or a bio. Usually this will give you some hints on what they’re about and what they care about most.

If you’re not sure where to start with that, try searching the person’s name (plus maybe a term from the topics they write about, if you need to narrow it down) or search on the name of the site. Sometimes adding in words like ‘review’ or ‘about’ will help.

Even just knowing what kind of source this is can help. Personal website? Newspaper that’s actually well-known and reasonably respected (even if you don’t agree with them)? Pocket of internet culture you weren’t previously aware of? Political group hidden behind astroturfing techniques?

I sort things into “Probably reasonably competent”, “Dubious” and “Need more information”, personally.

Probably reasonably competent sources are those I’ve checked out before, and came up reasonably well sourced. I still need to check the specifics here, but they get some starting benefit of the doubt. Dubious sources are those that have come up short before. Everything else gets filed in ‘need more info’.

What are their goals?

Education? Information? Sell something? Share something gorgeous or fun or amusing? Are they trying to persuade you of something?

What do they get out of you believing them and taking them (or their information) seriously? Are they being up front and honest about that?

Here’s an example: sales sites are not the most fun thing ever, but there is something refreshingly honest about “Buy this thing from me and here’s why.” It’s clear what the people want, and usually pretty clear what’s involved in getting it.

On the other hand, a lot of sources in the political realm are trying to persuade you of things, but it’s not always clear what they’re trying to persuade you of. (Or whether they’re not trying to persuade you at all, but are instead signalling to their core base what they care about.)

This is often where you see a lot of vagaries and unsourced information that plays on emotions rather than treating you like the intelligent, thoughtful, considerate person I want to think you are.

Where did they get their information?

This is where we get to the meat of things. People who are saying trustworthy things should give you a way to check, or more information about how they know that.

When we’re talking to a friend, we put what they tell us in the context of all the other things we know about them. They’re reliable as anything with a ride when it’s important, lousy at getting stuff to the post office.

They have a lot of specific experience in dealing with Mercutian rabbits, and the last fifty things they told you about those rabbits turned out to be right, but they’re not nearly so reliable about Venusian wombats. And they’re normally great about Saturnian leopards, but there’s this one weird quirk, don’t trust their grooming recommendations.

When we’re reading a random website, we don’t have that. We can’t put some of what they’re saying in context without more information.

That’s why their sources matter. Do they tell us where they’re getting their info? If it’s unnamed experts and sources, be dubious. (Though there’s a link below with some more about how to evaluate this with more nuance.)

If they claim specific expertise, can you verify that or does it seem in line with what someone with that expertise would say? (If someone claims to be a lawyer or doctor or librarian and says stuff that is way outside what you’d expect, be dubious without more specifics. Maybe a lot more.)

When is this information from? Is this a topic where currency matters a lot? Some topics change fast, some don’t. Sometimes the info that debunks a current thing has been around for a while (so older info may still be helpful in sorting this out.)

What kind of source is this, and is the information presented in a way consistent with quality information in that kind of source? Reputable newspapers don’t generally go in for explicit personal insults or completely unverified sources. (Unless they’re quoting someone who used one.) Less reputable current events sources might.

Expect better of where you go to learn things. If they’re not giving you meaningful information, go to sources that that will. You can do better than speculation and gossip.

Other key tips

Beware of absolutes, especially in complex situations.

There just aren’t that many absolutes in the world. This is especially true when looking at expert statements: few experts will give 100% certainty. If they do, they will likely also be explaining why. Look for that explanation.

If a media source says something absolute, check into what the experts actually said, and what information they looked at to get there. Chances are pretty good the expert was not nearly so absolute about things.

Be dubious of things that are too good to be true, too weird, or too perfect.

Again, the world just isn’t like that very often. The more we realise that we live in a world that has a lot of shades of colour and nuance and different experiences in it, the sooner we’re going to get better at evaluating information effectively and using it well.

Is this a situation where there are strong emotions?

Sourcing is often not the top priority in these cases. Which is understandable, but just because someone’s having emotions all over the place doesn’t mean you have to use everything they tell you as the basis of your decisions.

Emotions don’t mean someone’s wrong, mind you.

It is, for example, pretty reasonable for someone to be emotional about a topic that has a major impact on their daily life, health, safety, family, or religion, if other people are treating it as a purely intellectual discussion. But a story that’s playing on your emotions to make you feel upset or riled up or righteously victorious, you should be suspicious of that.

If emotions are in play, and you’re not in the middle of the discussion, it’s usually better to pause and take a moment to look at what’s being said.

Who has real experience with this thing? Who doesn’t? How does what people are saying match up with other kinds of information you can find or your experience of people or situations? Who has what at stake? Is this a real person who has specific experiences, or is it a made up storm of emotion that’s trying to get you to react a certain way?

Some additional resources:

Here are a few additional links worth reading

This is only a beginning – there are lots of nuanced issues involved in how we find and evaluate information I haven’t even touched on here (like who decides what gets researched that you can refer to later.)

Tacit knowledge : 5 things to start with

One of the hard things about talking about research (and especially research outside of structured academic work) is figuring out where to start. Figuring out where to start is difficult for a number of reasons, but one of the big ones has to do with what is sometimes called tacit knowledge. Those are the things that are obvious to you once you know about them – but utterly mystifying to people who don’t have experience with it.

Tacit knowledge isn’t just a thing for researchers or students or teachers! It’s also an issue for things like cooking or knitting or picking up any new hobby or craft. It’s true for many jobs.

And it’s true for Pagans – think about all the parts of going to a public ritual. Where is it? What do you bring? What should you expect? What’s polite? What’s rude? What do you do if you feel uncomfortable? What is it okay to ask about? Will anyone ask you to do something you really don’t want to do? And then, depending on the ritual, there may be a whole lot of assumed tacit knowledge about things like quarters and elements and the nature of deity and the theory of magic going on.

Clearly, tacit knowledge is something that deserves some quality time on this blog. This post is an introduction to the topic, and I’ll circle back to more specifics in future posts.

The photo for this post is a photo I took at the Greenwich Observatory on a trip to London in 2015. It’s a pocket astronomical device that does about half a dozen things, and is the size of a pocket watch when it’s closed. To use it, you need a tremendous amount of knowledge about the different tools it includes, and how to interpret the markings and settings, most of which are quite tiny – more reminders than information.

Photo of an astronomical pocket device: astrolabe, sextant, and other tools.

What is tacit knowledge?

Tacit knowledge is often defined as “the kind of knowledge that is difficult to transfer by writing it down or verbalising it.

Tacit knowledge is often about having experience with a thing, and trying it out for ourselves and figuring out how it works. (Guidance can help, but a lot of tacit knowledge things, we need to have that hands on experience before they make sense and stick.)

Librarians talk a lot about this kind of thing, because it affects how we teach people how to find and evaluate information. Information literacy skills rely on a lot of tacit knowledge – and to make things more complicated, what that knowledge is changes, sometimes very rapidly.

In the Pagan community, we often talk about religious mysteries, which are definitely a related idea.

In future posts, I’m going to be talking about different pieces in more detail, but here I want to lay out a few broad categories and give you things to think about.

  • Structure
  • Contextual cues
  • Expected audience
  • Citations and references
  • Location and orientation

If you’d like to read more, I got started thinking about this again by coming across Barbara Fister’s 2013 post about tacit knowledge in my saved bookmarks. Threshold concepts are a related approach, and here’s a good brief handout in PDF (aimed at librarians, so there’s a bit of jargon) designed for a webinar on the topic.

1) Structure

Two classic examples for tacit knowledge are understanding how a book works and how a print newspaper works.

For books, it’s how to use the table of contents, index, and references or bibliography to find information in the book or elsewhere that talks about what we’re interested in. For print newspapers, it’s things like how placement on the page or within the section indicates different things, what cues indicate something is an editorial or opinion, and much more.

On the web, we can look at things like how a page or site is structured, if there’s advertising (and what that indicates), whether there’s information about authorship or source, and how to find it if there is. On social media, it can involve understanding how posts get shared, memes get started, and things can change context over time.

2) Contextual cues

A lot of our society is designed to give us cues about how to do things or how seriously to take them. But we’re often not very consciously aware that that’s going on. Design choices can encourage us to use one door or path over another (or to buy one brand or type of product over another).

Many of us have a sense that Comic Sans is not a font choice with much gravitas, or that lots of blinking images across our screens may be someone trying to catch our attention with flash rather than substance. But we may not realise why we read those things that way.

There are also things that we learn by being in a space for a while. People who are active users of Tumblr or Twitter or Facebook will become familiar with the customs there (or at least in the circles they spend time with there) about how to tag things, what kinds of tags are considered useful or acceptable in that set of people, what customs are around things like warning for possibly upsetting content.

People online also signal things in other ways. The theme or account name we use on a blog or service. The avatars or icons or profile photos we choose. The email addresses we share in public. (An email with a legal name is different from WitchyChick333 is different from a magical name.) What sites are linked to (or not linked to). The terms different groups use for the same thing. Which hashtags or other tags get used. Which don’t.

3) Expected audience

One of the most complicated things about information is realising that different audiences sometimes matter a lot. It’s extremely hard to write material that is accessible to someone new to a subject, and to someone who knows a fair bit about it.

Aiming for a middle path, or including supplemental explanations can still leave lots of people out. (And that’s before we get into actual accessibility issues, which are many and also important!)

One of the things I see a lot in the Pagan community is a thing of not understanding how academic writing works – who academics are mostly writing for, what their goals are, how topics of research might be picked, and how work fits into an existing conversation in a particular field (or interdisciplinary conversation.) This all adds up to a lot of assumed tacit knowledge.

Likewise, the way we write for people in the Pagan community (and especially for people in our particular path, or at least general focus) is often a lot different than the way we’d explain things to a family member or non-Pagan friend. This can sometimes make it very hard to share information in an order that makes sense, or it can mean we need to circle back several times to explain things as people get comfortable with earlier topics.

This kind of thing is why time often helps – if you get introduced to a new concept, and then see it in action a couple of times, then talk about it again, you’ll often make more sense of it.

4) Citations and references

Citations are a whole bog of tacit knowledge of their own. Why do we have them? Why do they matter? How do we handle them?

They’re especially boggy when we talk about informal references – the kind of thing we do in a casual conversation, or an online social media space, where we’re often not going to trot out “Oh, this is on page 64 of The Best Book About Dinosaurs” and the full publisher and author information.

And yet, these things are very obscure unless you know how they work. What are all those things? How do you sort out abbreviations? Why do the different pieces make a difference?

(And that’s before we get into the sources themselves, and how we identify a scam journal or publisher, or someone who’s hiding their actual goals for some reason.)

5) Location and orientation

Most people know that there are methods to how libraries put things on shelves. However, many people don’t know (and why would you) where those systems come from, or why it’s hard to change terms, or what’s involved in doing so. Or they don’t realise that the two major systems in use in a lot of the English speaking world (Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress) both have their origins in a very Christian-centric and fairly colonialist worldview, and how that affects how subjects were set up.

The subject term “Wicca” is actually a really interesting case study here, and will be getting its own post and other materials in the future.

When I’m talking about orientation here, it’s also about how we move through information. Many people also don’t know all the different things your public library might be able to do for you, or what some options are if you move beyond what your public library can do. The same goes for online searches: there are a lot of things we can find with search engines, but what about the things the search engines don’t see? Or don’t show us? Poking at the tacit knowledge issues here can bring us huge benefits.

Conclusion

As you can see, these are all very large topics, and I’ve covered them only in the most general terms here, to give you an idea of what we’re going to dig at in future. If you’ve got a particular topic you’d like to see sooner than later, drop me a note on the contact form or in the comments.