Covers and Context

A large parchment map laid out on a table held down by an open book, set of old-fashioned keys, and an envelope and quill

(image from canva.com)

Welcome!

One of the things I’ve learned as a librarian is that people have vastly different experiences with how they go about finding information (or not finding it, as the case may be) and that that happens for all sorts of different reasons.

That’s particularly true for many Pagans I’ve talked to over the years.

Sometimes there are good reasons for that. The methods of research taught in many schools work well for some academic topics and projects, but not nearly as well for personal projects, especially ones that involve emotions, religion, magic, or other things that have an experiential aspect.

Sometimes we just don’t know how to get started learning about a new topic (especially one as big as a socio-cultural movement like modern Paganism, or a given path within that group). Research has shown that the getting started part of research is the most stressful part for a lot of people – even those who are really good researchers and do it a lot. A lot of times, people don’t know what resources are available to them, or could be available to them.

Some people get hung up on academic sources as the only ‘valid’ source of information while forgetting that those sources are often trying to answer different questions than we are (as Pagans looking for information for our religious or magical lives), or that those sources have their own biases and limitations.

Too many people I know have had a bad experience with a teacher or librarian who turned them away from asking questions or getting help, who judged what they were interested in and disapproved. Sometimes people are concerned about their privacy, and won’t ask for those reasons.

I’ll be talking about all these things (and a lot more) in future posts, but today I want to start by talking briefly about covers and context.

Start with the cover

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a longstanding proverb, and there’s a good reason for that. While covers do often tell us something about what’s inside (especially the past few decades, where cover design has become a huge part of book marketing), they don’t tell us everything.

But here’s the thing: all of us have covers like a book, as we go about our days. In person, that can include things like the clothes we wear, the way we do our hair, if we wear jewelry or makeup (and what, if we do). It can include body language, the way we talk, the kinds of words we use. These things don’t show all the ways we’re a complex human with many different things going on in our hearts and minds, but they do give other people some ideas about what we’re like and what we might value.

The same thing can be true online. I didn’t choose the layout here (as I have on my own sites), but I did choose what I put in the biography, and the image I chose for my profile picture, and those things tell you some things about me (and they deliberately don’t tell you some things, like what my face looks like.)

These pieces of information begin to give you an idea of what I might talk about and whether you’re interested, and what kind of context to put them in. I’m a librarian, I’m probably going to focus on some librarianish things, however you define those. I mention a cat but no kids. I’m in Boston.

But there’s also a lot that isn’t in that bio, and that you can’t fill in from what I say there. I don’t say what kind of librarian I am, or if I’ve lived other places. I don’t talk about my other interests, whatever they are. ‘Religious witchcraft’ is a phrase that can cover a whole lot of ground, so you know a little about my religious life, but not very much.

That’s why the covers aren’t a substitute for the book itself. I treat them as a quick way to get a sense of where I am. How recent is this information? When was it last updated? How does the person providing it describe themselves? What do they highlight in the blurb or summary info? All those things give a starting point for more questions and more ways to evaluate that source for what you need.

Filling in the details

One of the things I’m going to keep coming back to as I do more posts here is knowing what the source of your information is, and that source’s background. So, to be fair, I should fill in some more context for that very brief bio at the bottom of this post.

I got my Master’s in Library and Information Science degree in the summer of 2007, and I’d been working as a library assistant for 7 years before that. I’ve worked in a high school library, and in an academic library on a small college campus.

I’m now working at what librarians refer to as a ‘special library’, which is basically any library that doesn’t fit into the three biggest categories of library: public libraries, academic libraries, and school libraries. I prefer to keep my religious and personal life a bit separate from my professional life, so I won’t talk about exactly where I work (it’s pretty instantly identifiable if I get specific) but it’s attached to a school and larger organisation.

I spend my work days helping people with questions about resources related to what the organisation does, but also questions about historical people associated with the school. I get to help everyone from 4th graders to tenured professors, from people just starting out in the field to world experts, and everything in between, and I get questions our campus, around the US, and around the world. I’ve been there nearly two years, and no two days are ever quite alie (or any two questions!)

A lot of my job is solving puzzles, figuring out how to find answers for people (or help them find their own). Sometimes that’s about material we get asked about a lot, but often it’s the first time someone’s asked for a particular combination of things.

And oh, you might have noticed a few British spellings in the previous text. I was born and raised in the United States (born in Boston, in fact, though I’ve spent about 15 years living other places – Minnesota and Maine). My father was English, and my mother grew up in the United Kingdom, and in informal writing, I prefer British spellings as a way to remember that.

My personal religious practice takes a bit more explaining than will fit tidily in this post, so if you’re curious, there’s more on the Seeking site linked in the bio, and also more on the about page from my public personal blog.

Putting it together

None of these facts by themselves is a big deal, but when you put them together, you begin to get a better picture of the context, and where some of what I might say might be coming from. (For one thing, I probably have some different experiences than someone who’s had their whole career in one place or one kind of library.)

Over time, as you read more things I write (or talk to me, or whatever other sources we’re talking about), you’ll start to build up more and more details that will help you evaluate both me as a source, and other similar sources (like other librarians.)

That idea, building up experiences, is one of the things a lot of people don’t teach explicitly about how to do research, and it’s also one of the things that I think is most useful in many Pagan contexts, so we’ll be coming back to it a lot in future posts.

For now, though, if you want something to think about, I’d encourage you to stop and look at this a few times in the next week or two. Reading a post online? What bio or other info goes along with it? Listening to a radio piece or a podcast? What do you know about the reporter, podcaster, or person they’re interviewing? Rummaging through Twitter? Check out what people’s accounts list.

About the Author

Jenett is a librarian and priestess in a small initiatory religious witchcraft tradition fascinated by the intersection of how we find information and how we can use it to make our lives (and other people's lives) better. She lives in the Boston metropolitan area with a cat and a fair number of books. Along with other online projects, she maintains a site, Seeking, with introductory material about religious witchcraft, research, and other useful tools, and offers research consulting on esoteric and eclectic topics through her business Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom.

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