The Art of Defensive Bookmarking

If you follow my @LibSkrat account on Twitter, you know that I often answer questions there by posting a link to my bookmarks on Pinboard. If you are or were a student of mine, you may know (or correctly suspect) that readings on my syllabi are generally drawn from this same linkstore.

My Pinboard is how I know a great deal more than I actually know, read a great deal more than I have time to read, and use quite a few skills I don’t actually have. You can do this too.

Start by choosing a web-bookmarking or citation-management tool you find easy to use. If you have no idea where to find such a tool, ask a prolific bookmarker or link-sender you know; chances are they use one and know about more. Tastes in tools vary, but at minimum, you want the following features:

  • Access to your bookmarks from any device you use, including kiosk or other public computers, tablets, and smartphones. (Yes, I’ve consulted Pinboard from my iPod Touch!)
  • Tagging (folders are no substitute; tags are faster and easier)
  • A browser bookmarklet, button, or other fast simple way to trigger a bookmark for whatever you’re looking at (Zotero’s address-bar icons are fine)
  • Full-text capture and search of bookmarked materials (I cheerfully pay Pinboard yearly for this feature; Zotero has it built-in, though you will have to do extra configuration work to search PDFs)

If you use a feedreader for current awareness, direct export from it to your bookmarking tool can be very nice to have. I admit I have it and don’t use it, though; I open a new tab with the item and use the Pinboard bookmarklet instead.

All else being equal, it doesn’t hurt to pick a tool that you know other people you respect are using. This lets you scan and copy their bookmarks as a form of current awareness, or quickly survey an area they regularly bookmark in that you don’t know much about. It only makes sense to leverage other people’s effort.

Once you have chosen a tool, bookmark and tag everything you see that interests you, even if you only read the executive summary—even if you don’t have time to read it then (or possibly ever). That’s it. That’s the secret sauce. That is the Art of Defensive Bookmarking: bookmark and tag everything you might ever someday need! Get into this habit and you’ll soon stake out a lot of expert territory because you’ll be able to find in-depth information exactly when you need it. I, for example, became a noted go-to person for research-data-management horror stories without even trying, purely on the strength of my list of horror-story bookmarks on Pinboard.

Like any other digital tool or service, bookmarking websites and tools can go bust. Make sure you back up your bookmarks! I do mine twice a year. Look for an “export” or “backup” function in your tool of choice.

A few tips and tricks:

  • Tag as you’re bookmarking; don’t bookmark without tagging. Never pile up untagged bookmarks with a mental promise to go tag them later. Not only is later tagging harder and more time-consuming because memory is fragile, you won’t actually go back and tag your bookmarks, and you’ll eventually stop bookmarking because you feel so guilty about not tagging.
  • For similar reasons, don’t bother with a “toread” tag. When you truly need to consult something you’re bookmarking, you can easily find it again. The “toread” tag guilt-trips you unnecessarily.
  • Don’t waste time worrying about which tags to use. Bookmark, type the first two or three tags that come to mind, done. If you “lose” a bookmark you know you have because you didn’t apply the right tag to it, full-text search is your backstop; when you find what you were looking for, add the missing tag to it.
  • Do fix incomprehensible or missing item titles as you bookmark, especially when the “title” is a meaningless filename. For a lot of your bookmarks, title and tags will be the only metadata you have. Don’t bother editing apparently-extraneous information out of titles, though; leaving it alone is harmless.
  • Don’t waste time weeding out bad links. When one of your bookmarks 404s just as you need it, you still have the title, which you can plug into a search engine. Up to you whether you then fix the link in your bookmark; I do because I use links on syllabi.

Tagging schemes

Of course I can’t resist talking more about tagging; I’m a librarian! If you prefer to think up your own tagging scheme, go right ahead. My own is a bit of a Lovecraftian nightmare: it’s ancient and it evolved long before I gave any conscious thought to it. Despite that it still mostly works, so it might help you too.

I have three kinds of tags, any or all of which may be applied to any given item I bookmark:

  • Topic tags, as you’d expect: “digitalpreservation” or “openaccess,” for example.
  • Project tags, which for me are oftenest course-number tags, such as the number “751” that means the database-design class I teach. Upcoming presentations and writing projects get specific tags too; this book has its own tag.
  • Genre tags for specific kinds of materials I particularly care about. For example, I have a “tools” tag for software and hardware relevant to what I do and teach, a “bibliography” tag for pages I can trawl for lots of information on a given topic, and a “tutorial” tag for introductory material I and my students might find useful. Your genres of interest may well differ.

Where this little tag-taxonomy comes in particularly handy is filtering my immense bookmark list. Pinboard allows me to filter the list by up to three tags at once, so I can (for example) combine a topic and a genre tag to find all the digital-preservation tools I have bookmarked, or find everything I’ve bookmarked about video for my digital-curation class while leaving out any video bookmarks that aren’t specific to that class.

I refer to my Pinboard bookmark list as my “backup brain.” It’s no more than the truth. As any good reference librarian will tell you, success isn’t knowing specific information, it’s knowing where to find it quickly. Building a backup brain for yourself will let you confidently tackle work you never would have touched otherwise, knowing that if you get stuck you have the information you need to unstick yourself.


Techniques for staying current

The only hard-and-fast rule for staying current is “do it.” The methods I use for keeping up differ signally from how my favorite professionals do it. That’s fine—my ways work for me, and theirs work for them. You don’t have to do everything I suggest below; even I don’t, and I am a terrible infovore! Pick a few tricks that feel congenial and start fitting them into your routine.


In my first job as a librarian, what made me feel most like a professional was the pass-along publication list. I added my name to the list for College and Research Libraries and one or two other journals, and the new issues turned up on my desk magically. When I was done, I passed them along to the next person on the list. It’s a time-honored system because it’s effective. If valuable print periodicals are still turning up in your workplace, and there’s time to make a pass-along list work, why not?

Now that much of the periodical literature has moved electronic, the pass-along list is not as handy an alert mechanism as it was. Fortunately, JournalTOCs can alert you to new issues of worthwhile journals. You can receive notifications by email or newsfeed (see below for more on newsfeeds). I also use JournalTOCs to evaluate whether an unfamiliar journal is worth my time to scan on an ongoing basis; after a few Tables of Contents hit my feedreader, I know whether the journal is useful for me. If it’s not, no guilt—I just unsubscribe and, if so moved, go on to a different journal.

Archivist Eira Tansey keeps a calendar spreadsheet of journals whose tables of contents she scans. She makes brief notes in the spreadsheet about how many articles she actually reads in each journal issue. If a journal does not prove its worth to her within a few months by publishing something she actually takes the time to read, she drops it from her spreadsheet.

Of course you need not limit yourself to peer-reviewed literature (if you even have access to it; many professionals don’t). Newsletters, weblogs, whitepaper and working-paper series, preprints—gray literature in LIS is extraordinarily rich and worthwhile. A carefully-assembled combination of newsreaders, Twitter, and email can keep you happily current for years to come.

Personal learning networks

Fred Rogers was on to something: who are the people in your professional neighborhood? What can you learn about and from them without hardly even trying?

Start with your workplace colleagues. What’s on their radar? What are they planning to learn about next? What services, tools, changes are they reading and thinking about? Where do they get their professional news?

Where you expand next depends a lot on how you structure your professional life. If you are involved in service work for professional organizations, that is likely your next step. If you interact a great deal online, you may find congenial company there. Just keep in the back of your mind that these interactions are not purely social (though they are social) and not purely about professional advancement (though they can be about that, and that’s fine). You want the communities you are active in to alert you to things happening in the profession (or your corner of it) that you wouldn’t otherwise know about. If they are not effectively doing that, consider shifting your involvement mix.


Visiting a bunch of blogs, journals, and news sites just to track what’s going on is a drag. Some rarely change, such that routinely visiting them wastes time; others change so fast it’s easy to miss important things. It’s just plain inefficient and time-wasting.

But what if you could follow all those sites in one place, seeing only what’s added to them when it’s added? You can! That’s what newsreaders (also called “feedreaders”) do: poll websites for new articles, showing them to you at your convenience.

The technical details are obtuse, boring, and largely irrelevant to you. Here’s all you need to do:

  • Choose a newsreader. I use NewsBlur. Many of my friends speak highly of Feedly and The Old Reader. (All these are mobile-friendly.) If you do your professional reading interstitially (that is, in odd moments throughout your day, or during commuting), perhaps choose one with an offline mode.
  • Find the “add site” function in your newsreader. Go to sites you would like to follow. Grab the homepage URL and plug it into the site-add function. For most sites, that is all you will need to do. If you do need to dig further, search the home page (and if that fails, the whole site) for the terms “RSS” and “feed.” If that fails, look for this orange icon RSS feed icon and give your feedreader the URL it links to.
  • Check your feedreader on a schedule that makes sense to you. Bypass what is irrelevant. Skim what is interesting. Bookmark at will. Declare bankruptcy and mark everything read now and then; practically all newsreader users do.


Twitter gets a bad rap among many professionals for excellent reasons. It can absolutely be a vile oppressive cesspit along any number of axes. It can absolutely overwhelm. If you avoid Twitter for those or really any reasons, that’s fine; it’s not obligatory! Used judiciously, however, Twitter can be remarkably helpful for current awareness. Its three major current-awareness uses for the working professional are newsreading, conferences, and hash discussions.

Some publications without newsfeeds do have Twitter feeds. Some think tanks and professionals (myself included) often post interesting work they’re reading to Twitter. In my experience, the best way to dip into Twitter-as-newsreader without becoming overwhelmed is to:

  • Create a Twitter list containing accounts that tweet useful links. I recommend that your list be private to avoid drama associated with moving individuals on and off the list. (Publications and think tanks won’t care, but some individuals do.)
  • Follow your list via a tool that lets you filter the tweets for only those that contain links, which spares you a great deal of chatter you aren’t interested in. Twitter’s own tool Tweetdeck does this, once you add the list as a column. Click on the blue icon at the top right of the column to expose its preferences and choose “Tweets with links” in the “Showing” dropdown:
    Tweetdeck column showing "tweets with links" filter

Most information conferences now create conference hashtags as a matter of course. In Tweetdeck, you can search for the hashtag and add the search results as a column; the column will update as new tweets containing the hashtag appear. I recommend setting Tweetdeck column preferences to exclude retweets while following a conference hashtag; otherwise, the repetition rapidly becomes irritating. Following a conference hashtag works wonderfully for small-to-medium conferences, but you should expect hashtags for large conferences to be absolutely overwhelming. A few of the largest create followable session hashtags, if you are inclined to research and then follow them.

Hash discussions such as #mashcat and #critlib connect professionals for an hour or so for a lightly-facilitated themed discussion. Date and time for a hash discussion will be circulated via Twitter in advance. At discussion time, the facilitator will tweet one question every ten minutes with the hashtag; participants answer (again, with the hashtag) and discuss with one another. You can follow the discussion via a Tweetdeck search column, as with any other hashtag. Several hash discussions collect and post the discussion on Storify, so you do not have to participate to benefit.

Mailing lists

I rely much less on these than I once did, and I eschew “discussion” lists altogether. Too many such lists have become sordid echo chambers where the same half-dozen people repetitively and tiresomely shout down everyone else. Such lists waste your time and attention; reclaim it! Unsubscribe from lists like this immediately and without regret.

I do follow a few helpful low-traffic lists focused on question-and-answer interactions in my particular niches. My suggestions for keeping mailing lists tamed:

  • From your work email account, only subscribe to workplace-internal lists. For other lists, use an outside account. This simplifies your professional life should you change jobs.
  • Filter all mailing-list email out of your inbox. I filter all lists on my work-external email indiscriminately to the same folder, but at work I filter my department’s must-read lists to one folder and all other lists to a second folder. By all means add a “mark as read” action to a list-filter rule if you prefer to scan lists on your own time!
  • For lists you rarely-to-never post to, switch to “digest” mode, which sends you much less email and facilitates quickly scanning the email you do get.
  • For lists you do not receive in digest mode, filter unproductive list posters straight to the trash.