Organising a personal library is hard. Even for librarians.
I moved here a bit over two years ago, but with one thing and another, I was busy in ways that made it hard to sort out my personal library for a long time. Since December, I’ve spent part of two vacation weeks sorting out my books, including the second week of July.
I’m delighted to say they’re all on shelves now in some semblance of order that pleases me, and entered into LibraryThing. I’ve got a bit more work to do, but I’m now at a stage where I can work on it in much smaller pieces that fit into my day to day life.
One of the things I was thinking about while I was doing this was S.R. Ranganathan, who in 1931 wrote the Five Laws of Library Science. These are like ‘laws of physics’ not ‘laws of the United States’, which is to say they’re concepts for understanding how things work or should work, so we can create practical models that work with our physical and intellectual world, not against it.
All of which makes me want to talk about organising a personal library, and how this librarian does it.
One reason these are so popular is that they are stated very simply. (Though they have a lot of room for nuance and discussion.) Here they are:
- Books are for use.
- Every reader his / her book.
- Every book its reader.
- Save the time of the reader.
- The library is a growing organism.
So how do those apply to a personal library? How I apply them may be different than how you apply them, but here’s some food for thought.
1) Books are for use.
When applied to institutions, the idea behind this law is that books should be available. Ranganathan was familiar with libraries where books were chained up, could be used only after extensive application processes, or only by people who could provide certain kinds of references. That’s a very different model than most public libraries in the United States in the 21st century.
For personal libraries, I think this is a great place to apply the core Marie Kondo question – does this thing bring you joy? Is it actively useful? Or are you keeping it for other reasons?
I don’t think people should get rid of books if they don’t want to (minus actual health and safety or practical reasons like moving or moving into a much smaller apartment) but it’s definitely good to think about why we’re holding on to physical objects.
My personal library these days is about 400 print books, and over 600 ebooks. (I got rid of a lot of print when I moved from Minneapolis to Maine, for reasons that are obvious if you think about moving print books.) These days, I mostly read print in the bathtub – I’ll come back to that – and ebooks everywhere else.
Here’s what I chose to keep in print:
Books with specific sentimental value. Not just ‘a friend gave this to me’ but things where the book itself has a lot of specific resonance. 1066 and All That which I remember reading with my father. Books he wrote.
Books I want potentially want to lend (or at least let someone look through). Lending ebooks doesn’t really work (both logistically and legally). This means most of my Pagan books are in print format.
Books where the print format works better for me. A large book of illustrated stories about the constellations. Cookbooks. Herbalism books.
Books without an ebook version. For obvious reasons, since this is the only way to have that book.
Books that had an ebook version, I made notes about, and have been slowly adding titles back to my collection as my budget allows if I want to replace a copy. There are places I made exceptions (I have a complete set of Dorothy L. Sayers novels in print, because my brain wants to read them in print.)
Your decisions might be different! That’s to be expected, because I bet you use your books differently than I do.
One other part of books being for use for me is that I’m hard on the physical objects. (With a few exceptions of rare and hard to replace books that have particular value – I’ve got a first printing of the Charles Vess Book of Ballads, for example – that link describes the second printing.)
I read in the bath. I read while I’m eating. I dogear pages. (Only in my own books, all of these.) I want the books to be something I use, not something I worry about damaging. I take reasonable precautions, of course, and sometimes I have to replace a physical copy. But normally it’s the content I care about deeply, and the physical item is the way to get that.
2) Every reader their book.
In large libraries, this rule guides librarians to look at the entire community they serve when deciding what books to focus on. (Since basically no library can buy – or house – everything. It’s also a rule about not judging people by what they want to read.
Back around the turn of the 20th century, there was a significant movement in public libraries in the United States to have libraries focus on morally uplifting literature – things that would ‘improve’ the reader. If you’ve walked into a public library recently, you’ll see that’s not true these days. But librarians still argue about how much libraries should focus on books versus movies and dvds. If they should be collecting video games. If certain genres (romance, or genres tightly associated with particular communities, like urban fiction) should be part of the collection.
Individual different libraries come to different decisions about these things, and how they do that is a topic for other posts.
For me, it means that I think about what books fill out my collection. What does this book bring me that isn’t already here? “Something amusing to occupy me that’s similar to other things I’ve liked before” is a perfectly fine reason.
Knowing how a book I’m considering relates to what I already have and don’t have yet helps me make better choices. (And since I’ve always read more than my budget entirely supports, this is important!)
3) Every book its reader.
This is the flip side of the second law. This means that every book that someone wants to read has a place in the library, even if a relatively small number of people want to read it.
For me, this is a reminder in my personal library that it’s my personal library. The books that are there make sense to me, for reasons I don’t have to defend. (Though I do choose to keep my main LibraryThing account private for a variety of reasons.)
In a world where there’s often a lot of performative norming, especially on social media, this is a pretty powerful concept.
We’ve probably all seen the discussions where people are shamed because they’re reading something from a problematic author, or not just reading things from authors valued particularly by that community or group, right? And how poisonous that can get sometimes?
I definitely believe in thinking about what I’m reading and why I’m reading it. But I think that is – has to be – my own call.
Sometimes I find myself doing what I’ve come to call processing reading, where I find myself reading certain kinds of stories, for an extended period of time, as I try to work through particular emotions or reactions or situations. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious why I’m stuck on a thing, but sometimes it isn’t. (And often, during my witchcraft training, this would happen and it would take me months to figure out what my subconscious was working on!)
Letting other people control what goes into my head has never worked well for me. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Especially for something as personal as reading.
4) Save the time of the reader.
Applied to larger libraries, this has to do with things like signs and catalogs and information about how to find books.
In my personal library, I come back to “When I want to find this book, where am I going to look for it?”
I normally group my physical books by genre and subgenre because those are the things I’m most likely to remember about a book or want to look for a book by. Here’s some examples of my current shelving:
- Stars : astronomy and astrology, because I have some books that are about both.
- Ritual technology : magical and ritual techniques – though not ‘how to write a ritual itself’
- Rituals : which is the shelf for collections of ritual works, and larger ritual structure discussion.
- Fantasy – historical : my classification for fantasy in mostly historical settings.
- Anthologies : because they tend to be cross-genre but I’ll remember that it’s an anthology.
- Embodied life : books about being in a physical body, with all its quirks. (Cleaning, health, exercise, etc.)
In my current shelving, I also thought about making sure the books I’m likely to want to grab most easily are convenient for that – my cooking books are in the shelf nearest the kitchen (on the other side of the wall in the living room), and in my bedroom the physical copies I keep but don’t read often are in the bit of shelving that I have to move something to get to.
5) The library is a growing organism.
This last law is about remembering the world changes, and we should adapt with it. In libraries, the approaches (and books, and materials) that were great 20 years ago are no longer sufficient. We’ve got new technology, different needs, communities the libraries in are changing.
In my personal library, it’s a reminder that this book that was hugely meaningful ten years and two moves ago might not be a thing I need to hang onto forever. It’s a reminder that a book that I love can have some serious flaws (and that means some things about whether I should recommend it to others). It means I should look at what I’m doing periodically with my books (and other sources of information) and make sure that’s still working for me.
And on a practical level, it means I should think about how much space I have for shelving, and what I’m going to do about that. In my current apartment, I have a bit of expansion space, possibly, but in other places shelf space has been so limited that I definitely had to watch how many print books I brought home. Some people have a “One book in, I have to get rid of another.” (Yet another reason I love ebooks.)
What does it all mean?
There are hundreds of different ways to look at organising a personal library, whether we’re talking about print books, or ebooks, or videos, or bookmarks, or podcasts, or any of the many other possible formats. Having a guide like Ranganathan’s laws helps me remember what really matters most when I’m making decisions.
It’s not a quick and simple checklist (I’m working on one to help people with these questions!) On the other hand, five rules are pretty easy to pin up and put somewhere obvious.
How do you apply these concepts in your own library? Leave a comment, use my contact form, suggest what you do on Twitter.