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.