I am the Information Technology librarian at a small liberal-arts-college-model campus of the University of Maine system. Part of my job is “Make the technology in the library work”, but part of it is “Be aware of tech things, so we can do awesome stuff with them eventually.” This means that being familiar with a bunch of random things, various ways to do stuff, big topics of various kinds is to my benefit. (Even if I weren’t interested, which I am.) We use GoogleApps, Microsoft, and I’ve got the full Adobe Suite on my computer. Plus a wide range of other bits and pieces.
My home tech life involves a lot of the following: (I will come back and talk about all of these in detail later, promise.)
- Email. Individual emails. Discussion list emails. The many and varied reminders and “someone left a comment on your post” and so on emails that fill our lives these days. I have 7 different email addresses that pour into a single Gmail account, because I regularly access my email from 3 different devices, and it’s not uncommon for there to be about 100 threads in email in a given day for me (many of which are skim + delete)
- Reading stuff on the Web: I use Chrome for most things these days, along with Instapaper, Pinboard, and a few other things to help me manage it. I’m active on Dreamwidth, LiveJournal, and one web forum these days, with periodic pokes at other things. (I have a Facebook account, but spend very little time on there, and I keep wishing I could make Twitter work with my brain.)
- The massive online collaborative project previously mentioned (we do most stuff via email, Gdocs, and chat, plus the actual posts that make it up, which are on Dreamwidth.)
- IM chat (which I do through Gmail, though I’m contemplating a different client now I’ll have more screen space.) I usually have a couple open with various friends throughout the evening.
- Writing: currently a bunch of non-public stuff, but I am about to dive into the long-term non-fiction project again, really. I use Scrivener, which I adore and will talk about at length later. Also SimpleNote
- Watching streaming media – Netflix, Hulu, etc. – generally while knitting. (Depending on my other plans for the evening, this is usually 1-3 hours most nights, with other online stuff, IMing, chatting, etc. interspersed. Because I like making progress on my knitting.) While on the topic, I use the iPad for patterns and the iPhone for row counting. (We’re just going to admit there’s going to be a “tech I use for knitting” post in here, right?)
- Music: both my iTunes library (for permanent stuff) and Spotify (which I use primarily for playlists at work, trying things out that I might like, and for topic-specific playlists where I don’t want to invest tons of money in the subject yet. I listen to podcasts via the iPhone and headphones while doing household cleaning and related chores.
I am much more on the ‘using tech to do other things’ side of the line rather than ‘play with the tech for the tech’s sake’, but I have periodic splurges of doing bits of graphic design work, CSS and various web design work, playing with audio files, and very occasionally dipping my toe into learning to code.
Things I’m mulling over in particular:
- a suitable non-Cloud backup of essential email (there’s a bunch of stuff that if I lost it, meh. There’s a bunch of stuff I’d actually love to archive just in case I ever need it, but get it out of my Gmail so my searches are more manageable. Finding a low-demand method of the above is tricky. Since any practical step on this first involves sorting through about 1o,000 email messages in archive, I keep putting it off. Since it only gets worse the more I do that, I should stop doing that.)
- backing up things currently living on GDocs more seamlessly.
- continuing to improve my workflow for ‘here is interesting link’ -> ‘let me put that somewhere I can find it’
- a better workflow for reading sheet music on the iPad (and playing from it!)
- some general usability tools
- better recipe management
- doing more with Evernote (in particular for ‘books I want to read’ type stuff.)
- a better schedule for doing app updates, podcast/etc. updates, etc. on the iDevices. (The current one is “whenever I vaguely remember”, which can be annoying.
I’ve spent a very cheerful weekend being very happy where I am. Which makes it a good time to talk about why I love it here.
I took two days off work this week, partly because there were online things I wanted to be around for that I knew would run late into the night. And because it gave me time to do some other things around home that I’d wanted. (Lots of thinking about what I want to do with music and writing projects this coming year, and some cooking, among other things.)
But it’s also been good for another reason. When I was thinking about taking this job, one of the things I thought about was the question of “Do I really want to live in rural Maine?” The answer, five months later, is a resounding “Yes!”
Now, mind, access to a reasonable ‘Net connection helps here. I’m not sure I’d have been quite as confident about it ten years ago, or even five. But right now? I spent a lot of the night of the 21st chatting with a dear friend currently doing research in Japan, and have been chatting on and off all weekend with other friends.
It’s not quite the same as hanging out in their living rooms, but it’s still pretty awesome. And next weekend, I’ll drive down to Boston, and see my mother and various friends. I don’t feel isolated at all, and in fact, my social life is a lot more to my taste in some ways than it was in Minneapolis. (I get lots of downtime during the week, with excursions when I want rather than feeling like there’s several things I’d really like to be at most nights, and then guilty that I’m not at any of them.)
I love the part where everything here is nearby, and easy. My commute to work is under 5 minutes, and if I walk, it’s 10. I ran two different errands over lunch on Wednesday, because things are just that close together. I can walk down to one of the grocery stores, and did on Saturday. And while I’m still figuring out how I want to pick up more local interests and activities, I’m really happy in a fundamentally contented sort of way.
It’s a very good fit for how I want to live my life. And I can’t begin to talk about the variety and range of locally produced foods, given the climate. (And when I want things that aren’t handy here – there’s a pleasant drive through stunningly gorgeous countryside to get to it. Or Amazon Prime, which is surprisingly handy for household needs that I can’t do easily locally.)
But a lot of people dismiss rural areas. Or flyover country, including Minnesota. Which always makes me blink. (Did you know that the Twin Cities has more theatre seats per capita than anywhere else in the US besides New York City? Yeah. Most people don’t.)
My mother and sister were talking on Facebook about a recent Atlantic article about Iowa City, a place they both have a very strong attachment to: my father taught at the University of Iowa for 10 years at the beginning of his career, and my brother and sister were born there. [Interesting responses here, here, and here, by the way, especially the last one.]
And reading it, I can see why they’re irked. Particularly the bits about homogeneity.
I’ve actually been impressed and amazed by the range of people I get to interact with here. No, there’s not as much ethnic diversity as other places I’ve lived – but there’s a huge range of stories and interests and backgrounds. My campus has a big commitment to being a resource for the larger community, not just the university, and every time I sit down to help someone for more than a minute or two, there’s another story, another chance to learn something. (And definitely a chance to make someone’s life better: I love that part.)
There’s no doubt that there are hard things about living in rural America, in all sorts of ways. But I also see, all around me (and on trips to Iowa, and to rural Minnesota, and all sorts of other places) that there’s a great deal of good and complexity and depth that gets overlooked all too often. This world isn’t simple – and that’s as true here as in a large city. And here, in some ways, it’s easier to see.
And that’s something that’s rather core to why I love my job: digging in below the surface, figuring out why things connect the ways they do, how to follow the thread of information and inspiration from one place to another.
I spent the day at the Maine Tri-Regional conference on ebooks, about which I expect to have a lot more to say in the not too distant future. This, however, is not that post. (Though I will say briefly that getting to hear Jessamyn West in person was just as awesome as I thought it would be, and I also really liked Jason Griffey‘s thoughts and comments about emerging technology and technology and libraries: I went to two presentations by each of them, and have a lot to mull over.)
Anyway, this is about ebooks, but a very practical problem.
See, I read a lot of series books – both science fiction/fantasy and mysteries. And when I have just finished reading a book, and I am lying in bed, and don’t want to go to sleep yet, i do not want to have to spend time thinking about which book comes next.
When I read print books, I shelve them in series order (or my preference for series order, if there are multiple options), and grab the next one if I think I might finish my current book and want more that night.
But with ebooks, I kept hitting the problem of not being able to make the reader software I was using show me the books in order, even if the metadata in the software I use to store and manage the titles was correct.
This seems very stupid to me. And things that seem that kind of stupid to me eventually motivate me to figure out a solution.
Let me pause here to specify what I’m using:
I manage titles using Calibre on a MacBook (running Lion, though it doesn’t matter particularly in this case.) I generally save them in ePub, unless I think I might want to read them on the computer as well, in which case, I am likely to save a PDF as well.
I read them – mostly – on my iPhone, using Stanza. And part of why I’m working on this now is that a shiny iPad is my birthday present. (I expect, for various reasons that should be a different post, to mostly not use it for ereading, though.)
I also have iBooks installed on both potential readers, though I prefer Stanza because I really like reading white text on black background when I’m reading before going to sleep. (I also use the Kindle app for some books, and yes, it’s a pain to have my potential reading multiple places. But I am not immune to the lure of “I really want to read that book now rather than figure out other download options.”)
In the end, I came up with two solutions: both of which work on Stanza (though one is a really odd solution). I’m still unsatisfied with how they work in iBooks (right now, some authors/series are behaving, and some aren’t. More investigation is obviously called for)
Continue reading Ebook practicalities
As part of preparing a presentation about blogs and blogging, I want to talk in more detail than that presentation allows about the complexities of figuring out what’s true, accurate, or meaningful online. (Obviously, it’s a big topic, but a start at it is good.)
Joyce Valenza has a good article that discusses basics at evaluation skills in the Web 2.0 landscape .
In my years online, I’ve had a whole lot of conversations. And in a small number of cases, people have misrepresented themselves in major (and community-destroying) ways. A number have misrepresented other things that aren’t as damaging, but still worrisome (information that spreads in ways that make learning harder). And some people are well-meaning, but not actually very good at what they’re sharing.
So, one question I was asked recently is “How do you tell what’s accurate online, especially if someone hoping for something from you?” That something might be money (in the case of someone requesting donations after a crisis), it might be belief (someone trying to persuade you of something), it might be a relationship or connection (friendship or romance), or it might be something else entirely.
My own approach is pretty simple:
- Be aware of why I’m looking at a source, and what it can reasonably offer me.
- Explore without believing everything I read. (And doing so often gives me new insights or ideas into a topic, even when the foundation isn’t solid or accurate.)
- Check facts (and other places where accuracy matters) in multiple unconnected sources.
- Varied, wide-ranging interactions give me a better idea of someone (and their reliability as a source) than very limited ones, and I give them preference.
- Networks of trust are important if the request is unusual (request for donations to an individual after a crisis, or any claim that seems unlikely.)
- Be extra sceptical of unusual claims or backgrounds.
Let’s look at each of these in more detail (with some examples.)
Principle 1: Be aware of why I’m looking:
I read a wide range of blogs – and I read them for different reasons. What I expect from a blog talking about professional issues in my field is different than what I expect from a recipe blog. With the recipes, I want useful information (how to make it), and a honest evaluation of what the recipe is like (taste, difficulty). I also care about where it came from (because I might want to go find other recipes from that source.) But there are a lot of other things I don’t care about: what the blogger does with their spare time, what their professional credentials are, what their family is like.
However, if I’m reading a blog about my profession, I care about different information. In particular, I want to know how their experience relates to what they talk about. Someone talking about books who admits they don’t read much is a lot different from listening to Nancy Pearl‘s recommendations. (On the other hand, I might be very interested in what makes someone who doesn’t read much passionate about a specific title or author.)
Likewise, if I’m looking for health, financial, or other information where facts and research are important, I want to know why I can rely on that information. Depending on the blogger (and the topic), that might be references to other sources, explanations of existing widely available material (like an analysis of a news story using their experience), or something else. Whatever the question, I know I probably need to do some additional checking before making a decision.
Principle 2: Explore without believing.
I suspect I was a little warped by Lewis Carroll as a child: the act of believing six impossible things before breakfast has long come naturally to me. It’s a really great skill when reading blogs, though – because I can read something without assuming it’s true.
I ask myself what the world must look like for someone who thinks that thing is true. What shaped them to connect these pieces of information in that way? Who benefits when they do? Why is this important enough to them to write about, given all the other topics out there?
The answers to these questions are some of the most informative evaluation questions I can ask. Sometimes it becomes clear that someone has a financial or political stake in a particular solution or mindset (I may agree or disagree with that, but either way, it can lead to better perspective of what matters to them.) Sometimes it’s obvious that they have a pet project or peeve, and that they’re not entirely reasonable on the subject.
And sometimes, I find myself making connections and links that I would never have done if I’d only looked at an issue from my preferred perspective, in a way that helps me become better at what I do and love. In fact, that happens often enough that reading outside my personal comfort zone is now a regular part of my process. I just don’t believe everything I read.
Principle 3: Check facts
Obviously, facts (and other verifiable data) can and should be cross-checked when it’s useful. My usual rule of thumb is that I double check anything that might affect:
- my health (obvious things like medical advice, but also things like food safety, exercise and food choice recommendations, etc.)
- my finances (financial advice, online banking security related things, etc.)
- my reputation (if I’m going to take a stand on something, professionally speaking or within other communities I care about, I want to make sure all my facts are in order.)
- long-term consequences. (Being wrong about something in a fiction book is embarassing, but it doesn’t often have lasting major consequences. Being wrong about a legal issue might well long-term implications.)
And I double check any information I intend to pass onto other people who might consider me a reliable source (such as reporting it in my own blog). If I’m not sure of the facts, I indicate that somehow in how I write my own comments. (So, there’s a difference between “I found parts of this blog post interesting, but I’m not sure about the details.” and “I recommend what this blog post says.”)
Checking in unrelated sources can happen in a variety of ways: often I will already be familiar with a topic (having read and learned about it in the past), so the parts I check are limited to new and particularly contradictory information to what I already know.
Principle 4: Varied interactions get preference.
I interact with a lot of people online on a regular basis – through blogs, through forums, through other conversations. As that happens, I get a very good sense of some people, and not such a good sense of other people. Sometimes this is about what they share (it’s obviously easier to get a good grasp of someone who shares about a wide range of topics), but more often, it’s about how they share it, and how those pieces build a larger picture.
When I’m not sure about a piece of information, I look at that past history, and give some preference and priority to people who I’ve had varied and wide-ranging interactions with. Sometimes that means we’ve met in person. Sometimes it means that we’ve interacted in several settings, over a couple of years. Sometimes it’s that we’ve shared some specific interests, but gotten to be closer as we’ve shared more personal information. It’s been a good way for me to handle less easily verifiable information.
Of course, it does mean I need to be attentive for places where what is shared doesn’t match up. Sometimes this is perfectly normal: people share their lives in different ways in different spaces (or at different points in a decision or experience). But sometimes it’s a sign that someone is pretending something that isn’t true for them. Being aware of it, while being open to good explanations, works well for me.
Principle 5: Unusual requests need extra support.
One thing I love about the spaces I spend some of my online time in (the social journalling sites Dreamwidth and LiveJournal) is that people will chip in to help friends in trouble. On one hand, that’s awesome, and it’s helped a number of people I know with a specific crisis or difficulty when they just didn’t have the resources to get themselves out.
On the other hand, like most people who’ve been around this kind of thing for a while, I know of more than a handful of cases where someone’s abused the kindness of friends and strangers to get some kind of benefit. Sometimes that’s about money – but sometimes it’s about connections, influence, or prestige.
My basic guideline these days is that any unusual request needs extra support: clarity from the requester about what’s involved, who benefits and how, and anything that might support the request. For a small scale request, this isn’t a big deal – but for a larger request, relevant documentation can help. (What this is obviously varies by type: a link to a news story for a house fire or tragedy. Specific details rather than “My cat is dreadfully ill.”)
And this is also a place where interpersonal connections can be very important. I’m a lot more likely to offer my time, energy, and financial support if someone I know and trust says “I know and trust this person.” (Often, in my social circles, it’s people who have met at a conference or convention for a shared interest, but there’s all sorts of other options.) That helps me feel secure that the request and needs are real, and going to the right place. (And of course, I don’t contribute anything I couldn’t manage to lose.)
Using these methods, I’ve only been burned once, relatively early in my online experience. In that case, the thing I should have paid attention were the lack of details in people who were saying they supported a particular individual, and the fact that other details couldn’t be independently confirmed.
Principle 6: Be sceptical of unusual claims
Related to the above point, be sceptical of unusual claims and information. And particularly if you start seeing material that’s either contradictory or would put the person in question at high risk for some reason. It’s not that these things might not be true – but it does mean that additional questions and research are a good idea before you consider the source reliable.
What do I mean by unusual?
Extremely rare or high profile claims – this can be everything from an extremely high profile job to a rare medical condition. Obviously, people may have either, and be quite accurate, but if someone is using either type of thing to avoid questions, duck responsibility, or use as a method to get other people to agree with them, it’s good to be sceptical.
Persistent excuses to avoid things that might lead to verification. Obviously, people have a reasonable desire for privacy, and not everyone is up for meeting random people from online. But if you have someone who persistently avoids every opportunity (or every opportunity but for one or two people), being a bit sceptical until you get additional data is not a bad move.
Unique information or perspective: It’s a big world out there, so anyone who claims to have a totally unique piece of information or idea may not be accurate. (And reasonable people recognise this.) If you see a lot of pressure to recognise something as unique and unusual, be cautious until you have more information to fully evaluate it.
Any time someone claims they can fix all my problems. Chances are they can’t – they simply don’t know enough about me and my situation, after all! (Nor what I consider wonderful in my life versus something I’d like to change.) Anyone who thinks they know more about me than me gets my scepticism on full blast.
These are certainly not the only options:
I do encourage you to explore your own. In general, the balance between being open to new ideas, but curious about where they come from (and what supports them) is the place I prefer to live in my online interactions. It means they bring me a lot of joy, and that I check out more details when it’s relevant (or I plan to act on the information.)
I’ve been promising a series of posts about task management for a while now. Welcome to the first one, where I’m going to talk about some of my own background, and then some different basic philosophies. I’ll have links to resources as I talk about different approaches. (Next post will be looking at some different tool options, and then I’ll talk about my actual system.) I’ll also touch on some things we as educators are not really teaching students about these topics in various places.
Many task management systems were originally designed for use by business executives – or at least people with offices (and doors that close), appointment calendars, assistants, and who could plan on at least some chunks of focused time. As a librarian and educator, that’s not reliably a part of my work life (and it isn’t for a bunch of other professions, either), so one thing I’m going to particularly focus on is creating a system that works for those of us who are frequently interrupted, regularly have to switch priorities, or who have variable amounts of energy and focus for whatever reason.
As with other posts in this file and information management series, this series on task management is going to be about half general theory and things to think about, and half “here’s what I do, and why”. I promise screenshots when they’re useful, too!
Continue reading Task management: theories and approaches
Welcome to the last post in this series of file management discussions (at least unless people have more questions! I plan to talk about tagging next, which is related, but different. And maybe my thoughts on using Wikipedia and other crowd-sourced tools sensibly. Suggestions and questions and such make me go “oooh” and put particular topics first, so feel free to suggest your favorites)
Anyway, the last topic on file management I really want to address is the question of what to keep. When I started using computers, hard drive space was precious and finite, and at some point, you generally had to look at deleting old material, or saving it to a long-term storage device that was more of a pain to access. These days, not only is storage cheaper, but I can use tools like my Time Capsule and Dropbox so that backing up files takes very little additional time and energy, and that deleting them often isn’t necessary.
(Have a good backup plan. And have a way to back up essential files that lives outside your house, in case of emergency/natural disaster/whatever. Some people swap USB drives with friends, or mail a DVD every few months to relatives out of state, both of which have some password protection options.)
On the other hand, large piles of files we’re never going to touch again, or that can be accessed in other ways make digital clutter that makes it hard to find the stuff we want to use.
So, what do we keep? Here’s what I keep.
Continue reading File management: what to keep
A phone conversation got me thinking about making this. Here’s my day on Wednesday:
Wake up. (To a playlist of amusing music via my alarm clock program, Aurora)
Read email, the various online fora I check daily, my daily round of web comics (because hey, starting the day with either interesting narrative or humor is never bad.) I plan for this to take me between 30 and 60 minutes most days, as it gives my brain time to wake up properly. Time variable, because it depends on what replies I write immediately.
Check my to do list in Things and figure out which things really need to get done today (and roughly what order). I do plan to talk more about how I use Things in the near future, once I finish the file management posts. I even have screenshots ready for it!
Spend some time answering emails about an upcoming community event, make a couple of quick changes to the event website. (This takes me about an hour, because it’s a bunch of emails and fiddly tasks.)
Respond to a couple of emails with possible referrals to potentially interesting jobs. Pause to read professional list mails that have come in in the last couple of hours. (about half an hour)
Write a draft for a cover letter for a job I’m interested in, and set it aside to let it gel a bit in my head. (about forty-five minutes)
Have an early lunch (while reading in front of the computer: joys of living alone.) While it’s cooking, do a bunch of housecleaning in between stirring. While eating, check Twitter, which I’m trying to get better about doing and my Google RSS feeds, including bookmarking several links for this week’s links post.
Come back to working on that letter, and get something I’m happy with, and send it off. (Takes me about an hour, including some more detailed reading about the school.)
Get a call from the programming chair for the event: he’s finalizing the schedule, and has some questions for me about details, since I’m the overall chair of the event and the hotel coordinator. (We’re using a really cool website, sched.org, which makes the schedule available online, on mobile devices, and in various other formats.)
Work on three more letters for other jobs I’m interested in, and send them out. (This takes me a substantial portion of the afternoon, but the letters are more straightforward than the earlier one.)
Settle in to read a book for a bit, while petting the cat. (She never minds this part.)
Have dinner. Watch the lighting of my computer screen slowly change – I’ve been playing with an add-on called f.lux which shifts from blue light (daytime light, inducing wakefulness) to warmer light (more like typical indoor lighting) on the theory that it’s less disruptive to sleep cycles. I’ve been using it for a few days, and it’s definitely easier for me to fall asleep more quickly (after some reading in bed time.)
I have mine adjusted to shift over the course of an hour, and currently shift from daytime to halogen, but I’m considering going all the way to halogen. (My actual lighting in my bedroom, where my laptop and I mostly hang out in the evenings is usually a single lamp with frosted glass and a CFL bulb.)
Write the previous blog post here, on naming conventions and things to think about.
Have a bath. I believe in baths, because it is hard to read books in the shower. In this case, I take time to finish a nice light reading book so it can go back to the library in the morning.
Pull a number of library books together on their appointed shelf, so I can easily drop them in my library bag and take them tomorrow while I’m doing other errands.
Get a phone call from a friend and a friend of hers, asking for help setting up a Dreamwidth account with icons and some other details. I get to do something I dearly love, which is explain technology to someone who is not entirely sure about it, and do so in a way that makes sense to her.
Yay! I get called a goddess for it, which never hurts. (There is a reason my personal business card now includes the line “speaker to technology” on it. As well as “librarian, process geek, infovore”.)
Figure out what I want to have with me tomorrow as I both want to get out of the house for a bit for a change of pace and do various errands. Locations likely include
- Coffee shop (where I will find wi-fi, outlets, and a nice range of drink options)
- Laundromat (wi-fi, tables, and sensibly placed outlets) I’m taking advantage of a thaw to do a big batch of comforter/pillows/other such things that are a pain to haul into the car in Minnesota winter temperatures (and icy pavement), hence the laundromat stop.
- Library (wi fi, but really, just there to grab holds and drop off returns because there isn’t much nearby parking, and I always feel sort of guilty taking a space for long.) 
- YWCA (no wi fi, but I’m going to be in the pool, so don’t need it).
Three years ago, this amount of wi fi – not so much. How quickly life changes. (And that means that I can do meaningful, useful, productive stuff at any of those first three places, rather than at home, if I feel like it. Which, tomorrow, I do.)
Wrap things up, grab a last drink of water, do various other useful ‘time for bed’ type things, and prepare to curl up with book and cat for a bit before going to sleep, at about 9:30pm.
Things I did not do on Wednesday that I wish I had: It was really nice out, and I wanted to go for a walk, but extra housecleaning won. I was also hoping for some time to work on a personal project or two, but I can bring them with me tomorrow. Also, I have an iPod touch, but did not actually use it today. (It got a good workout on Tuesday going grocery shopping with me, though.)
[footnote 1] Also, if I am in my public library branch for more than about 5 minutes, and not obviously wearing an outdoor coat, I tend to get asked if I’m a librarian.
To which the answer is “Yes, but not here…” and depending on what they need, either helping them (if it’s something simple like using the catalog or a self-check-out) or pointing them at the information desk. I don’t mind doing it, but it always feels a little weird, even if I am clearly giving off “Librarian with something of a clue” vibes.
Time for the next installment on “How I manage files”, this one on naming. As with the other parts of this series of posts, there’s stuff that works for me that may not work for you, and vice versa (feel free to share in comments!)
Continue reading File management: naming
Welcome to part 1 of the “How I manage my files” reports. (You can read the prequel, in my previous post: My Computer Geography)
A few starting principles:
I work on the following theories. I list them so you know where my preferences are, and can adjust to whatever your preferences are (as yours are almost certainly different.)
- Huge piles (well, lists) of files are not my friend.
- I like seeing what I’ve done when it’s done.
- I like to focus on the current thing, not see all the other stuff I should think about.
Continue reading File management: self-awareness and philosophy