C is for Cosmos

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

So, today I want to talk about context. Which basically means “how does this thing I’m doing fit with the me that’s doing it, and the where I’m doing it, and the why I care about it.”

One of my library professors referred to “collection” – as in ‘collection development, how we select stuff to be in the library’ – as the interrelationships between a given item, the other items in the library, and the people who use them. There are also more subtle interactions with the space (you may run out of room physically, but there are also ways in which you can keep more from a smaller collection in your head at a time, and form connections between different pieces more easily.)

Right. Let me stop and back up.

Resources are sort of like stars. We stand here, on earth, and we can see one really nearby star (the sun) and we can see a lot of more distant stars. If we use some more tools – binoculars, telescopes, missions into deep space – we can see a lot more.

But from where we’re standing, how do we make sense of them? We might look at stars that appear to be near each other in the sky. Which is to say, we stand somewhere, and we look north, and we go “Oh, right, there’s a star, and there’s some other stars, and they all circle around that star, which is Polaris.” (If you live where in the northern hemisphere as I do, anyway.)

And people being pattern makers the way we are, we stand there and we go “That bit there looks like a bear. And that looks like another bear. And that bit is a dog. And that bit is someone’s belt.” and so on and so forth. Even though, really, it’s all about us and where we are at this moment in space and time.

We do that with books, too. And web pages. And resources. And things people tell us. We want so desperately to make connections between pieces that we forget that we’re just seeing from this current moment in time.

And yet, some of those stars might be connected in ways we don’t see. Stars that form out of the same nebulae might be moving in the same direction at sorta roughly the same speed. But over millions of years, they may spread out when we view them, and be in very different parts of the sky. And yet, they’re far more connected than stuff that looks like a constellation.

Here’s the other thing. All those stars? They’re constantly moving. Where they are when we look up at the sky varies, of course (but that’s our perspective changing, as the earth spins). But they also move – the entire universe is expanding – and so the relationships shift and change.

Finally, what we know about them changes. As we’ve discovered more and more ways to look at the universe, ways to hear the universe, ways to map the universe, and even ways to move through the universe, we learn more stuff. Lots and lots of stuff.

Back to the library.

A good library is an ever-changing organism. That’s true of the physical items (we get new books, old books may eventually be discarded), but we need the same sort of mental flexibility, the chance to remember that the way the world was five years ago is different than the way the world is now. And it’s different than a hundred years ago, or a hundred years from now.

(As an example: Netflix recently put The West Wing into streaming, and I have been watching lots of it (again) while I knit. For a show about politics written a decade ago, tons of it is amazingly, stunningly relevant. And yet, there are all the places that aren’t. Because it was always an alternate universe, but also because where we are now in political discourse, in social discourse, in community understanding, is different.)

So, back to Pagans and research. The point here, is, of course, that  you stand there, looking at the stars around you, the books and the websites and the people and the places and the experiences that make up your personal research cosmos. As you stand there, remember that they’re moving and relating to each other, and changing, just as you’re changing and moving and shifting.

The best researchers are the ones who remember the world changes. That it’s vast and huge and always has something new, something they don’t know yet, some shiny new relationship to be discovered.

And they remember not to be fooled by the resources that seem right and true, but don’t necessarily tell you what you think they tell you. (Is that point of light really the star you think it is? And do you know where it came from?)

“That publisher is lousy, they never put out anything good” is one of my favourite examples of this problem: To understand why, you need to understand the stars you’re seeing and how they relate to the business of publishing, to the variety of opportunities and resources, to the ongoing conversations within separate subfields and practices, and much much more.

By looking beyond the obvious patterns, we do better research. We learn more cool stuff. And we can do more with it.

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