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.