Personal libraries: building a collection

Part of building a personal library is figuring out how to build a collection. I’ve talked about some of this already, but this time, let’s focus on it.

A hidden bookcase opens out, revealing a room behind. The bookshelves are full of leather-bound books.

What does your collection need to do?

Some people are lovers of books as physical objects – seeking out physically satisfying volumes and taking care of them.

Some people see their collection as a map of their history, keeping books they loved or that meant a lot to them.

Some people are authors who use their personal collection for research, inspiration, or to keep up with their field.

Some are people who reread a lot and want to have the books they reread handy at 3 am on a Sunday. No waiting, just reading.

Some have interests specialised enough that it’s tricky to get a lot of materials from the public library (this is true of a lot of Pagans who read a lot: libraries only have a fraction of the material in our community.)

Some people travel a lot, and maybe they need ebooks so they can take things with them. Some may need other formats because they can’t read print (or do it easily) so they may build a collection of audiobooks.

All of these things suggest some different ways to approach a collection, making a collection, taking care of a collection. It’s worth sitting down and figuring out what that is for you, if you’re thinking about managing your books.

What are your limitations?

We all have them, when it comes to collection of physical items. (Well, I assume people reading this do.)

We don’t have infinite space or budget for new books – and if you happen to (lucky you!), you still don’t have infinite time to read them in. We all end up making choices that fit our situations.

For some of us, that’s about space: we can store this many books easily, but not two times that many. Or we can store this many books in a way that’s easy to get to, and these other books in a way that’s less accessible.

Sometimes (often!) it’s about cost. I know my book budget can never keep up with the list of books I’d like to own and read.

It may be about time, or about how lasting an interest might be, or about knowing you’re likely to be making a major move in the near future.

We can’t plan for all of these things, but we often do have a sense of which ones might be relevant for us in the near future.

Do you have a focus?

There are all sorts of different kinds of ways to focus a collection. Like I said above, a collection can be a history of what you’ve read and been interested in. But often, we end up building collections based on other things.

Lots of authors build up a collection of books that they use in research or for inspiration, or that relate to places or times or people they’re writing about.

Many Pagans I know build a collection related to their specific interests in their religious path, spiritual or magical practices, or deity work – precisely because these books may not be widely available. They are often not a thing we can get from the library, and in many cases, there may be small print runs of niche books, or things only available by special ordering or backing crowdfunding, or very small press runs.

If you do have a focus, you may want to structure things in a certain way, either physically or virtually. For example, if you’re collecting books for a writing project, you ideally want to store them somewhere that’s accessible when you do your writing. Books you want to keep but are less frequently needed could be stored somewhere a bit less handy.

How do items relate to each other?

This is probably the most complex part of building a collection – figuring out how items relate to each other.

If we’re talking about fiction, it’s sometimes easier to see each work as a unique story of some kind, but in a set.

We may collect everything by an author, or everything in a series, or everything set in a particular setting. We may collect across a broader genre. Or we might make a point of reading or collecting books that have gotten (or been nominated for) major awards in whatever particular genre we’re interested in. Or they may be books that have something else in common – interesting point of view characters, or types of worldbuilding, or uses of language or structure.

With non-fiction, it can be a little more tricky to figure out what’s unique or compelling about a particular book. Sometimes it’s really easy to tell – we find that book that exactly fills the research need we had or is about precisely the topic we’re working on.

But at other times, it’s more complicated. There are dozens and dozens of books about some topics – how do we know what ones we should get? Or which ones we should keep?

1) Sometimes you just want a book.

That’s fine if you’ve got space. Get and keep the book, if you want!

2) Currency

Are you working on a topic where having current information is particularly important? Topics that change fast, like technology, medicine and health information, or recent historical events can be more of an issue here than, say, the history of Ancient Greece or the fashions in Colonial America.

3) Classic nature of the text

There are some books that are just classics in their field, or so overwhelmingly influential that if you’re working on something related to their topic, it’s worth keeping them around, just because so many other books in the field are at least partially in conversation with them.

For example, Boyer and Nissenbaum’s Salem Possessed is a classic work about the Salem Witchcraft Trials that suggests a particular cause for the trials. More recent authors have suggested others – but a lot of authors are still in conversation with Boyer and Nissenbaum about it. (And for good reason!) Also, it has some handy maps. If I were doing work on this period, I’d probably want to keep a copy handy.

4) Well-sourced summary

Classic works are well and good, but sometimes you want something that’s a well-sourced summary. For topics where there are a lot of books, you may find a couple of these for major topics to be well worth the investment. They can anchor your understanding of what’s going on, and the really good ones will point you at useful primary and secondary sources.

These usually work best if they’re relatively recent (the past 5-15 years, depending on how fast the field moves), but sometimes there are just delightful books that do this that are older. You’ll likely know them if you find them.

5) What does this add?

Now we’re down to ‘what does this add’. This is where some evaluation comes in – and also that question of how books are in conversation with each other. (I say books, here, but it works for other things and formats, too.)

What does this thing add that other things similar to it don’t do?

  • It gives a great historical grounding before the thing it focuses on.
  • It talks about the thing through periods of time.
  • It has a focus like looking at gender, class, race, or specific communities.
  • It comes at the topic from a different point of view from other common works.
  • It’s by someone with key expertise in the field.
  • It has a new structure for talking about the topic, or great examples or exercises.
  • Everyone’s talking about this one!

And of course, the big one, which is looking to fill a gap in your collection. Maybe you have a great set of books that cover a lot of aspects, but you don’t have one about clothing in that era, or cooking, or how households worked.

For example, when I look for new books in the ‘intro Pagan materials’ categories these days, I do sometimes pick up books that are getting a lot of buzz. But I also look to see what books are doing that’s different – maybe that’s a new way of structuring what they’re talking about, or exercises I find intriguing.

With books that are a step more advanced and specialised, I start looking at what’s not already in my library, that’s interesting to me (or potentially interesting to people I work with.) That still leaves a lot of books, so then I prioritise by

How do you figure some of this out?

Read reviews! Reviews are imperfect things, but for non-fiction, especially, you can often get a sense of what’s going on in the book by reading a cross-section of reviews. Even people complaining about things may be helpful. Classic books in a field will likely get some mentions of that, and if there’s a bunch of reviews, they may also mention novel or particularly interesting things.

Two and four-star reviews tend to be more helpful than one and five-star ones, but any review that’s got details can be helpful in calibrating what a book’s good for. And the basic information can help you find out a lot about where a book’s coming from (what the author’s background is, what their other interests are, etc.)

Making use of ‘read inside’ features (or sometimes Google Books will get you content on older books) can also be really helpful, especially if the reviews make comments about the writing style.

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