B is for Barrier

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

One of the things we kick around in professional discussions, sometimes, are barriers to research, to learning, to trying new things. And it’s a topic I admit I find fascinating, because some barriers are things that if you just know they’re there, they get a lot easier to deal with. And some are things that may have fairly simple fixes for many people. Others, of course, are hard to fix, or are very persistent, or are rooted in wide-scale assumptions about how the world works.

So, today, I want to talk about some barriers to research and why they’re there. Sometimes, just knowing what’s affecting us makes it easier to talk about solutions. Good thing, since due to length, this post is mostly about what the barriers are, not about how to work around them. I would be really interested, though, if anyone reading would be willing to be a case study for looking at solutions.

[What would this involve? Exchanging a couple of emails with me about your basic demographics – where you live/what you can get access to – plus what the researchy stuff that’s frustrating you right now looks like and what you’ve tried. (I’d send you email with more specifics to make that easier to answer). I’d be glad to use whatever pseudonym you like, and the only locational data I’d want to share is rural/suburban/urban and country. I don’t promise to find a solution to your problem (though it might happen) but I’d hope to give you a couple of things to try you haven’t checked into. Offer good for all English-speaking countries, but I’m more likely to be really useful regarding the US than anywhere else, because I’m more familiar with the possible options. If you’re interested, bounce me a note via the contact form, please, so I have your email address.]

Some common barriers to research:

Time: Good research generally takes some time and focus. If you’re juggling multiple responsibilities – say, working a demanding job plus taking care of kids or elderly parents – your available time for detailed research is going to be a lot less than someone with a more flexible job and fewer obligations as a carer. Even more than that, you may have a harder time getting free at times some help is available – see my case study below.

Access: There are, in fact, still places in the US and elsewhere in the world where reliable reasonable-speed Internet access is somewhere between not-affordable and not-available. (My small town, you need to be living within a mile or so of the town center to get high speed access: otherwise it’s still dial-up or sattelite in a lot of places.) You also need to have/afford/manage a device able to do the kinds of learning you want to do.

Energy/focus/spoons: Learning new stuff takes a particular kind of attention for a lot of people. There are tons of times in our lives when one more thing is one thing too many. Some of those are sort of obvious: you’re grieving a loved one’s recent death, you’re about to move (or have just moved) across the country, you just had a brand new baby, you’re graduating school and starting the next phase of your life. But a lot of them are less obvious – chronic health concerns, longstanding social commitments (that were great once and maybe are more stress-inducing now), changes in your job (not where you work, but what you’re doing and how it’s going) – can also all do a number on how much spare brain you have for new learning.

Bad past experiences: Lots of people have had miserable experiences with research in their past. (Sometimes with librarians, too. I promise not all librarians are like that.) But those past experiences stick with us.

Humans are not so great with the open-ended: We get really wiggly and nervous when we’re presented with a wide open field of choices we don’t know much about. And researching religion, especially if we’re really new to it, is full of exactly that sort of question.

Most of what we’re directly taught about research is aimed at only one goal: Which is to say, many of us were taught something about how to do research to write an academic paper. (Though probably some people reading were taught a lot about it very deliberately, and some people reading this weren’t really taught it directly at all, but learned what they know about it from tiny bits and pieces.) And yet, that kind of goal or focus (or the tools we use for it) is only one way of interacting with research. There’s material out there talking about business and consumer health research and learning or personal finance, but there’s much much less on other topics, like religion.

Many of the tools we can use to learn new things have changed massively in the past decade: Online databases have massively shifted things in many areas of research. So have ebooks. But even more than that, we now have a wide range of other tools – podcasts, audio recordings, videos, online learning environments, and much much more – that really change what’s possible.

More complicated things: Disabilities, learning differences, health considerations that make getting to a different place or using some physical tools all complicate the possible solutions (sometimes a lot.) Some people fight with mental bits and pieces that make focus, concentration, or other such things an ongoing war. (Having spent a year or so with major brain fog, I have a great deal of sympathy.)

Some barriers specific to Pagan research: 

There are also some barriers to research that hit Pagans especially hard. These can include:

Privacy and confidentiality issues: Some kinds of research may involve asking people for help, or requesting specific materials. If you’ve got concerns about your religion coming out (because you live in a small town, some of the library staff know you or your family members or your employer, etc.) you have more issues than someone who just wants a good book about Random Topic. Likewise, if you live with family or roommates who don’t know about/don’t approve of your interest, your ability to do thorough learning is going to be limited (you may not be able to leave books around, take off for the library by yourself for an extended period, etc.)

Fewer resources: While many public libraries have *some* materials on Pagan topics, the range is often relatively small. This is for a bunch of reasons, most of which boil down to complicated issues in how books get reviewed in journals that librarians read when deciding to select books, the relatively small proportion of Pagans compared to other parts of the community.  These issues are not exclusive to Pagans – take a look at books about Hindu religion, or Jewish practice in areas without a large Jewish community. But they’re still real.

Resources may simply not exist: There are still a huge range of topics – even within the most common strands of Paganism – where no one’s written a book yet. The problem is even more extreme in the less travelled routes. Or sometimes there’s a book, but it’s out of print and hard to come by. Or there’s a book and it helps with half your question, and not the other half. This is, alas, a really complicated problem to fix.

A case study:

I live and work in a rural town in Maine. (And I work at the library.)

We offer some resources that would help someone interested in Paganism learn more

  • Few books on site, but a couple of dozen available through interlibrary loan (which can be used by community patrons as well as members of the campus community.) There’s a slightly different range available through the public library, down the street.
  • Internet access (Our physical computers do not have any filtering on them. Our guest wi-fi access has very limited filtering on it – we don’t control that, but my tests of Pagan sites have generally gone through.)
  • Many further resources on related topics (myth, religion in general, gardening, seasonal cycles, etc.)

However, there are also barriers:

  • Our library is open limited hours outside of school semesters (basically, if you work regular daytime hours, you’ll have trouble stopping by: we’re open 8-4:30 in breaks, and not at all on weekends.)
  • Residential Internet access in my area is still expensive or requires satellite (expensive and prone to flakiness) outside of the downtown areas. (I can only get 3mbs as my top speed, and I’m just outside of downtown.)
  • ILL requests involve someone seeing what you request. This is usually true anywhere (because people have to handle the physical objects to get them to you), but it’s trickier in a small town where the people working the library desk may know you, your family, your extended family, your boss, etc. in a way that’s less common in a larger area.
  • Because of the low population density, there are almost certainly fewer options if you want to talk to someone, because there are just plain fewer someones to talk to. There’s certainly no kind of regular access to public rituals or even gatherings of like-minded people. (The nearest one I know about is about an hour away.)
  • We – unlike a lot of places – have two bookstores in town (one independent with new books, the other is a used bookstore.) However, your chance of finding material specific to Paganism is pretty slim unless you order it. (The independent store is lovely, but not very big.)
  • We are a college town, so also unlike a lot of equivalent sized towns in rural America, we do in fact have multiple stores that sell things like incense, stones, some herbs, etc. but your options are still more limited than you would have somewhere with an esoteric store.

And, as a case study:

I’ve been recently meeting with someone who lives locally, who’s interested in learning more. She doesn’t have Internet access at home (she has a limited data plan on her phone), but she doesn’t even have a computer at home (so she can’t just download something and take it home to read: she has to find money for printouts, or time to come read on a computer at one of the libraries.) And she’s currently unemployed (and has been for a while, in an area where jobs can be hard to come by), so money’s an issue.

That’s a lot of barriers to being able to learn more, even before considering any more specific personal details (like the amount of time and energy she might have, what she’s interested in, how well that matches up with what people who could share stuff might share, etc.) And she’s interested in Wicca and religious witchcraft – topics that have a wide range of print and online resources out there.

And even though I am in fact, willing to hang out and talk periodically, I’m very aware that that’s dependent on my available energy, time, and other commitments. (And I happen to like and am generally up for being a general resource for people like this: many people aren’t up for it, or have barriers that make it hard for them to offer. My friends with young kids, for example, are unlikely to hang out in a coffee shop with a near stranger for a couple of hours every few weeks.)

For example, I’m going to be travelling in March and April, and between the time I’m actually away, and the recovery time I’ll probably need in the middle (there’s only about 10 days between trips), chances we’re going to meet between early March and the second half of April are pretty slim. That’s a slender thread for someone’s religious life to hang on.

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