On the length of cover letters

Since I made a comment about this elsewhere online, and people found it really helpful. Someone had asked about length of cover letters.

My major determining factor has become how long the job description in the ad is. (Once you take out the necessary boiler plate and other more general stuff.)

If you have a description that runs the better part of a page, you’re going to need at least that much space to talk about it in your cover letter. Some things can be combined, of course, but on average, my cover letters were the length of the list of specifics about the job, plus a brief opening and closing paragraph.

This usually came out to about four or five paragraphs plus the intro and closing, depending on what the duties of the job were and how it made sense to group them. It was common for me to do a paragraph about reference tasks, one about instruction or training, one about technology, and one about supervision, for example. When applying for my current job, it made a lot of sense to take a paragraph to talk about my interest in accessibility, even though I didn’t have specific background in the field of blindness and visual impairment.

Opening paragraph was a basic “Hi, I am interested in This Job You Have Here.” and a sentence pr two about the kind of job or library or whatever made sense as a way to get into my main content “The position’s focus on reference is a particular attraction for me…” or whatever. Closing paragraph had any logistical notes (my last hunt, interviewing on Friday was much easier for me than other days), plus general “Thank you for your time and attention, I hope to hear from you soon.” or something similar.

If it’s a more general ad, with duties that are common in the field (and also obvious from the resume) then you obviously need a lot less space to say “Yes, I can do that thing.”  though my letters usually still run about three-quarters of a page or about four moderate paragraphs.

Related: I have a longer post about my 2014-2015 job hunt, but I keep forgetting to check stats on files on my computer when I’m home. Mostly because I never did write up the summary at the time – moving on a tight time frame and then launching into a job where I had a lot of content learning to do will do that to a person – and it’s come up a couple of times recently. You should see it in the next couple of days.

My personal set up

Here’s the thing: when you go looking at comments about different tools, you’ll probably find what I did: lots of people talking about the tools, but not as many talking about the meat and bones of how they set things up. (There are a few, but not, in my opinion, enough!)

So, I wanted to do a detailed overview of exactly how my system’s set up. (It got long, but I think having it all in one place is easier than splitting it up.)

Continue reading My personal set up

Task management: theories and approaches

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

Thoughts after Marlowe

I am returned from seeing the Theatre Pro Rata’s production of Dido, Queen of Carthage. Short version: I liked it, it made me think interesting things, and if you’re in the Twin Cities, and have free time before the end of the run, I recommend it to your attention.

[It is running Sunday, the 13th at 2pm, then the 17th, 18th, 19th at 7:30pm, and Sunday the 20th at 2pm. Tickets are on a sliding scale, $14-41  (cash or check only) and you can call and reserve tickets in advance. As my friend Liza found out: to reserve, you call, leave a message, and they’ll call you if there’s a problem. More at their website.]

I incidentally very much like the tag line in their program and on their mission statement: “We want you to love the play as much as we do.” As you might guess from the length of the following, I do indeed!

Now on to the more involved thoughts. (I am going to discuss things like how the play ends below, because I figure that spoilers on a story that’s been kicking around for the better part of two millenia is just sort of silly. I do make mention of the pace of the ending of another work – Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn, but not what actually happens.)

Continue reading Thoughts after Marlowe

File management: what to keep

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

Personal collections

No links post this week, as I’m travelling, but there’ll be one next week. In the meantime, I’ve been working on weeding through my bookshelves and thinking about what I want as a ‘collection’ in library terms. (The realities of job hunting right now mean that there’s a reasonable chance a move will be involved. So I’m sorting through books and weeding out stuff I no longer need to own, on the theory that if I move, it’ll be useful, and if I don’t move, it’ll still be useful.)

My starting point:

– I currently live in a little tiny house with limited bookshelf space. (To the point that the childhood books I adore but rarely reread live on the top two shelves in my pantry, which are too tall for me to use for kitchen storage without a ladder.) Everything I own therefore needs to pass the ‘do I love this enough to make room for it?’ test.

– Realistically? There is this thing called the Internet, and this other thing called the Library. I own very few reference books, because the Internet does most of what I need in a far smaller space, and I own very little non-fiction in general because the library is likely to have what I want. (Exceptions noted below.)

What I own:

Reference: A small reference collection useful for the kinds of questions easier to work with in print than online. (Greek lexicon, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phase and Fable, that sort of thing.)


  • books which would be very expensive to replace but that are in formats I am affectionate about or sentimentally attached to. (The Riverside Chaucer, several gorgeously illustrated books on the history of the book, etc. etc.)
  • A very few college and grad school textbooks that remain reasonably current and useful, in subject areas I’m likely to want to reference at home. Or if not current, at least a reasonable starting place (A classic in this category is Grout and Palisca’s music history text book, though I forget which edition I have. A number of other music books, as well.)
  • cookbooks I refer to regularly (though I usually start by checking them out of the library first to see if I like them.)
  • a few pieces of classic literature that include annotations of usefulness (I have a number of the Penguin editions of various Arthurian legends pieces.)
  • and a few miscellaneous non-fiction books that I come back to regularly and enjoy rereading for pleasure (The Mummy Congress (mummies) or Honey, Mud, and Maggots (where modern science and folklore around healing and remedies coincide), or Color: A Natural History of the Palette (color))

These are about a fifth of my shelves.


  • Books I re-read at least every 2 years or so.
  • Genre series where the library has proven unreliable in keeping copies of everything …
  • … or which I want to read at 3am when I can’t sleep (or I’m sick, or any other thing that makes it unlikely that the library will be very useful.)
  • And a small collection of fiction that I don’t necessarily re-read very often, but when I want to read it, it’s for a very specific reason, and I like to have it handy.

These are about half of my shelves.

Religious non-fiction (and some fiction):

(For other people, this might encompass books about a hobby or a very specific interest, too.)

The library is not a good and reliable source for a sizeable amount of the material I refer  to in my religious life: often copies would only be available via ILL, and even then, not very reliably (since my home library right now is the biggest public library system in the state: chances are decent that if they don’t have it, it’s going to be hard to come by, as we’re talking ‘books for members of the religion’ not ‘academic discussion of the religion’, which would be easier to come by from university sources.)

So, I have copies at home (both of books I like and recommend, and a shelf that a friend of mine labelled ‘Books of Ill Repute’ where I like having certain popular but problematic titles handy. It’s a lot easier to say “On page 50, I really disagree with the assumption that…” and “This section in chapter 3 is really muddy and poorly explained: I’ve heard people interpret it this way, and that way, and this other way.” if, in fact, you have the books in front of you.

I do the least weeding here, honestly – because I never know which of these books is going to be useful or not useful, and in which circumstance. (And because replacing them would be more expensive and complicated in many cases than replacing, say, a genre mystery series I decided I do want to keep.)

I’ve also gotten (through the kindness of a friend) a number of copies of items that are now fairly hard to come by (small press run books in the days before Print on Demand), and I figure I ought to keep them until I find a specific better home for someone to make use of them.

So, mostly, I look for whether I’m going to want to refer to a book repeatedly, whether it fits a hole in my existing collection, and  the quality of information before I bring it home, and after that, expect to keep it (though I do plan to do a little bit of weeding here, as there are a few things that probably don’t need to live with me anymore.

(These, if it weren’t obvious, are the rest of my collection.)


I am very odd in that I shelve by sub-genre in fiction. All my historical mystery series are together. All my urban fantasy are together – near, but separate from – my high fantasy, and my historical fantasy (my term for books clearly in the fantasy genre but clearly in a world closely influenced by our history – Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series, or Guy Gavriel Kay’s books.

Within those, I go by place within series (usually chronological internal to the series, rather than publication date), and then by ‘where does this fit on the shelf’ (so my authors are not always in alphabetical order, since for some series, they’re all paperback, and in others, there’s a mix of mass market, trade, and hardcover editions.)

In the non-fiction, I group by general topic (and in the religious materials, by subtopic).

In an ideal world with more shelves for bookshelf space, I’d have the space to spread everything out, and to go alphabetically by author (and then by place in series) and so on, but until then, I make do.

Tracking things to read

Tracking books I’ve read is much easier – I’ve played with various options, including a nice straight plain text list, but I’m currently using GoodReads, because it’s got the nicest integration with WordPress in my opinion. (Just take a look at my sidebar…) But tracking what I *want* to read is a lot trickier.

Like most avid readers, I usually have a long list of books I want to read. But those lists can get complicated.

  • Some books aren’t out yet.
  • Some I want to get from my library (most)
  • Some I’ll need to buy (things not readily available from my library, or just plain books I want to own.)
  • Some might be out of print.
  • Some are going to be very popular, and I’m going to sit on the reserves list at the library for quite a while.

And most importantly, I want to read a wide variety of different kinds of books: when I’m looking for something new to read, I try to keep a balance between them. My basic categories include genre reading (fantasy, science fiction, mysteries), non-fiction, professional reading, books related to my religious interests, and I don’t like the list of one type of reading complicating finding titles of other types. Also, I sometimes have the “I want to read a mystery…” moments and don’t want to wade through dozens of other entries to find the mysteries.

There’s no really great solution for this. I’ve looked at various discussions – this discussion from the Unshelved Answers site on tracking books to read and this one from AskMetafilter on tracking books to read are both focused on tracking books already read, but include comments on tracking things to read as well. I’ve played with a few of the iPhone/iPod apps, and find them useful, but a bit cludgy: it takes me a long time to enter and move data around, and I read enough books that that’s problematic. (The one I like best is BookCrawler, though, if you’re looking…)

But I think I’ve settled down into a spreadsheet – in my case, in iWork’s Numbers, which I prefer to Excel when I get the chance. I have one page for fiction, and one page for non-fiction right now, but may split those out in other ways later.

My columns are:

  • Title (the thing I’m most likely to remember about the book, personally.)
  • Author (because it is also useful)
  • The publication date, with conditional formatting I’ll explain in a moment
  • Genre
  • And a brief notes field

The publication date is the trickiest one for me. I often hear about books a good while before they’re coming out, sometimes long before I can put a hold in on them at the library. Likewise, there are times I want to focus on recent titles (especially those that are getting a lot of conversation right now) so I can join in discussions about them.

My publication date column is therefore set up so that I can tell at a glance how recent a title is. I divided things up into books more than 5 years old, books 1-5 years old, books 3-12 months old, books out in the last 3 months, and books not yet out. This way, it’s easy for me to see what I might want to go and request at the library (or go and get from the bookstore.) and an idea of how long the reserve list might be. I can easily sit down once a month and add a reminder in my task management program for forthcoming books once they might be in the system, too.

Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

More about my job and a day in the life

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