Personal library: What do you need?

What’s in your library? And maybe more to the point, what are you going to add to your library in the future? How do you use it?

These are all questions that can help you figure out how to manage your personal library more effectively. Today’s post is going to look at them in more detail.

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

Why think about this?

Library schools talk about how a library should learn about and provide resources that fit the community it serves – but each community is different. So we take courses, as librarians, about how to do that better. One common course is called something like Collection Development or Collection Management, which is a rather boring label that is really about something much more interesting.

My Collection Management professor was fantastic (thanks, Dr. Lesniaski!) and I still think about what I learned in that class multiple times a week, more than a decade later.

One of the things he focused on was the idea that what makes a library more than a random collection of items is that it’s built on relationships – and specifically, the relationship between a given item, the other items in the collection, and the people who use it.

That’s a concept that applies well to personal libraries, though it’s obviously a lot simpler when you’re only thinking about a small number of people who use the collection.

When I’m looking at my own collection, it helps me ask questions and make choices (and it also helps me figure out what things I maybe want to focus on adding next, or what things I could find new homes for.)

What do you have?

It’s good to start with a few questions that have to do with your physical reality. By that, I mean both the physical objects, and how you access the digital ones.

1) What kind of items do you have?

Some people want all the print. Some people have switched to ebooks but have some print items. Some people buy CDs or vinyl or DVDs. Others have moved entirely to digital formats.

Different kinds of items need different kinds of management, so having a list of what broad categories of things you’ve got is really helpful as you start thinking about how to manage it.

This is also a good time to think about content – what kinds of books and items are you wanting to keep. Are you pretty sure you’re going to want to keep them long-term, or are they things you may read and then be done with? Most people have some of both.

Do you have books you keep for sentimental reasons? A lot of booklovers do. On the other hand, they can be tricky to manage: sometimes they take up lots of space or are in poor physical condition (enough that they’re hard to read – or if you have allergies or insect issues, they may really not help.) That can lead to some hard choices. The first step for all of these questions is being aware what you have.

2) Is that possibly going to change?

What you have right now is probably working okay for you – but maybe you know things are going to change for you. (Or maybe you’re really not happy with what you’re doing and this is why you’re reading a series about personal libraries.)

Maybe you’re shifting into more digital stuff because you’re traveling for work a lot, or have a baby (and you can read on a digital device more easily than holding a book open while feeding them.)

Maybe your physical surroundings are going to change – if you’re planning a big cross-country move, or are looking at downsizing the space you live, or taking on roommates, your physical collection can be taking up a lot of space, and you may want to make sure you really do want to keep all of that (or move it).

Of course, it goes the other way – maybe you’ve finally had time to refinish the attic library space in the house you bought a few years ago, and your books can come out of boxes and live on shelves. (Like friends I know. So envious of that space.)

3) How do you feel about how things are working right now?

Maybe you feel pretty good about it, but you’d like better ways to manage some things. Or a way to put things on shelves in a way that makes sense to you.

Or maybe you feel overwhelmed by it – you don’t know where things are, you feel like there are some things you’re never going to use, but you don’t know how to sort through them.

You don’t need to figure out the answers immediately, but knowing how you feel about this, in general, will help you make better-informed choices.

4) Do you lend things to other people? Or borrow them?

Some people do and some don’t.

If you do lend things, you probably want some method of keeping track of that (if for no other reason than knowing that you can’t find that thing because someone else has it right now.)

If you regularly borrow things (from the library, from other people) you might want to set aside a shelf to keep them on, so you know where they are and can return them easily.

5) Do you have any specific storage needs?

Often, this can be very driven by the physical space we’re in. I’ve had more than one apartment where I had really limited space where shelving could fit. My current apartment is more reasonable, but it was a good reason to keep my shelving needs as minimal as I could for a good 10 years of my life.

If you have mobility or other health issues that mean bending over or working with materials near the floor can be a problem, maybe you don’t want to use shelving close to the floor. In my current set up, the books I use least live down there.

6) Where will items be used?

Sometimes this is obvious – the cookbooks are probably going to be more use close to the kitchen then up in the attic, and the books about crafting or art might live well near the art supplies.

Sometimes it’s a lot less obvious, in which case you can start thinking about other questions, like how much space different areas have, and can you shelve a complete set of books about this thing there, or do they have to go in this other location if they’re going to all be together.

7) Do you expect to add new titles? Where?

Why does this matter? Shelving! If you keep adding more print titles or other physical media, you need somewhere to put them.

If you know you’re going to keep adding physical objects, you probably want to plan that into your shelving – both in terms of having space to put things and in terms of how you arrange what you have right now. Digital items, obviously, don’t have the same kind of impact.

What I do

(This is not what you should do. This is what works for me right now, and is an example of how to think about different pieces.)

I currently have three sets of those 4×4 square shelves from Ikea – they’re a little weird for shelving books (they’re deep) but they work great for mixed materials. Also, the cat loves taking over the top of one of them to look down at me from a high place. I have two in my bedroom space, and one in the living room.

One and a half of them have print books, the other one and a half have bins for clothes, space for jewelry, and various other items. Two squares have sheet music. Some of the books (mostly the mass market paperbacks) are double stacked.

As someone who’s Pagan, my Pagan books live in the bedroom, because it means there’s less chance of odd conversation if someone comes in to do work in other spaces in the apartment. It hasn’t been a huge problem for me, but I know of people where it can be. Family who don’t approve, or friends of friends, that kind of thing. In my case, it also means they’re handy to where I actually do ritual stuff.

The cookbooks are right next to the kitchen, and my herbalism books. I also decided, in general, to put the non-fiction out there, and the fiction is on the shelves in the bedroom.

The ebooks are managed in Calibre (more about that in an upcoming post).

All my books are catalogued in LibraryThing (more about that, too), and I have separate collections for print and ebooks, so I can tell immediately where things are.

At this point, I add new print books only occasionally (maybe a dozen or two a year, in a variety of areas) and I continue to buy some titles in ebook I have in print, so I’m still sometimes freeing up shelf space.

Next time

I’ll be talking about one of the most emotionally complex questions for people who love books – letting them go from our collections. (And yet, why that can be a really good idea.)

Personal libraries: Background

I think about personal libraries a lot. The questions about a personal library obviously are somewhat similar to a library than many people use (how do we know what we have, how do we store it in a way that makes sense, how do we find things on the shelf).

And yet they’re totally different in others, because the choices we make don’t have to work for lots of unknown people.

So, over the course of a few posts, I’m going to talk about:

  • What my personal library’s like
  • Some things I’d like to improve
  • Useful tips for getting a handle on your library

And I’m sure more as I start writing and realise there’s this thing I want to talk about.

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

My personal library

So, one thing you should know is that I read a lot – on average over 100 books a year.

I am weirdly superstitious about talking about specific lists of what I’ve read in any detail (I feel like this gives a very intimate look into the inside of my head and steals my soul) but it’s usually about equal parts fiction and non-fiction, with a side of Pagan-specific material.

The fiction’s mostly a mix of fantasy and mystery, with a dash of romance. The non-fiction is mostly popular non-fiction. I’m fond of books that talk about a single subject (microhistories) or dive into a given place or time or situation.

The second thing you should know is that I’ve done three long-distance moves in my adult life. Books are annoying to move long-distances, and also heavy.

I’d already begun to move to ebooks when I did the second of those moves.

For one thing, I read really fast. It used to be that on any trip, my bag would need to be half books, to keep up with my reading speed. This was both heavy and awkward. And there was always the question of “I’m going to this thing, and I might be waiting for half an hour. Will I run out of book?”

These days, I have six hundred books that sit on my phone, and I can swap what I’m reading on the fly. I usually have a print book around too (in case of technology issues, for reading in baths, etc.) but it’s one per trip instead of half a dozen or more.

I do most of my reading on screen now. I still love a physical book, but my actual practical set up means I mostly read them in the bathtub or at work (where we use print heavily, but also digitized versions)

A little history

When I did the move from Minnesota to Maine in 2011, I looked at my print books and thought about what I really wanted to move. (Especially when I wasn’t sure what my apartment was going to be like for shelving: I rented it sight unseen.)

I made the decision to move things in a few categories:

  • Pagan books (for reasons explained in a moment)
  • Books where the physical object had meaning, not just the text.
  • Books I reread regularly not yet available in ebook versions
  • Books that would not be readily available (either via the public library or used book sources) if I decided I wanted them again.

I got rid of almost everything else. I got down to about 220 print books, if I remember right – a dozen boxes sent media mail across the country.

I kept the Pagan books for two reasons. One is that I wanted to have copies I could open up while working with someone, and let them look at. (With some friends, I’m willing to lend, too.)

The other was that replacing that part of my library would be very challenging – many of the books don’t have electronic versions, or they’d be unsatisfactory since it would be a pain to look at diagrams or illustrations of particular aspects or charts. So, print it is.

(I have bought some since in electronic version for various reasons, but not many.)

The truth is, there’s a lot of books where laying hands on them again later has not been all that hard. I’ve had a couple of regrets of things that went to used bookstores, but only one or two.

In a lot of ways, I found it freeing – books are tremendous things, but they can carry a lot of weight in our head. The weight of memories, the weight of expectations, the weight of emotions.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is set that free, and let it transform into something else.

If you want to try this yourself, there’s a low-risk way to do it. Look at your shelves, with the guidelines that I’ll be talking about in the next parts of this series, and put books you’re not sure about in a separate box, somewhere that you can get to but that isn’t right on your shelves or the easiest to get to.

See if you get things out of that box in six months. Or a year. If not, maybe that’s a book that could find a new home.

Coming next

Future parts of this series will talk about:

  • Building a library as a collection
  • Dealing with works we’re sentimental about.
  • Organising books on shelves – theory and practice
  • Simple cataloging approaches

Organising a personal library: 5 ideas from Ranganathan, applied

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.

Card catalog drawers with different drawers of slightly different woods. Text reads: Personal Library: 5 ideas from Ranganathan, applied

 

Ragnathan’s Laws

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:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his / her book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. 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.

Transcribing magical texts (and an intro to digital archives)

Image of a large old-fashioned library of dark wood with a high arched ceiling. Text on image reads: "going digital : transcribing archival materials"

Transcribing magical texts

If you’re me, about half a dozen people mentioned an article from Atlas Obscura about a project transcribing magical texts for the Newberry Library in Chicago. (And then most of them followed it up with this being how movie plots get started and/or Buffy the Vampire Slayer references. I find the predictability of my people very reassuring, honestly.)

The project is interesting in itself (and the Esoteric Archives project it links to has a ton of historical materials about magic and related topics.)

But above and beyond the content, I’m always delighted to see interesting catchy articles that talk about the amazing things going on in archives these days.

Bonus tip: Atlas Obscura is a long-running website that highlights quirky or interesting history. They started as a tiny little two person blog back when, but in the past year or so they’ve started doing longer detailed pieces, many of which are fantastic intros to new resources and hidden gems.

A brief pause for a technical note

Here is where I should note that I’m a librarian, not an archivist: there’s overlap between the two, and we share the same professional degree. But the trained archivists I work with have a whole lot of training on topics like preservation, and digitization, and how you label archives materials that I don’t have.

That said, I work really closely with our archivist, and I’m very grateful she exists, because she knows all this important stuff I don’t know. (And she’s glad I exist, because mostly she’d rather work with the materials than answer reference questions, and I consider reference questions the most fun thing ever, even the ones I’ve basically answered a dozen times before.)

Here’s what I didn’t really know before I got my current job two years ago, and started working a lot more closely with an archivist:

  1. There are all sorts of tools for making materials available. Ok, I knew this part. Just not the rest of the details.
  2. Some of them are things you might use as an individual (like Flickr) but there are other tools that make digitizing entire books feasible in a very short period of time, compared to what it used to be (scanning or photographing each page.)
  3. The Internet Archive (and some other places, but many archives use the Internet Archive for a variety of reasons) makes it easy to upload entire books (that we can do this with, so things out of copyright and/or things an institution can give permission to make available.)
  4. For books with print text, they also do optical character recognition on the test, producing a machine-readable and machine-searchable copy of the text. This text isn’t perfect, but it works pretty well for many common uses.

To give you a sense of what this means, my predecessor had a painstakingly indexed list of all student names mentioned in our annual reports. Done by hand, over months, and it only has the students, so finding information about teachers or staff or other kinds of people associated with the school was overwhelming to search.

I can, with about 15 mouseclicks and keystrokes, load a volume of our annual reports, search across multiple years for a given name, and then click to the places where it’s been found. It takes maybe two minutes, depending on how quickly pages load.

Handwriting is hard.

Here’s the thing. Computers are pretty good at figuring out printed text. But they’re really lousy at handwriting. Especially any handwriting that is at all quirky. (Like your average Renaissance manuscript.)

That means that for handwritten manuscripts, you can make the images available fairly easily, but that’s not always a lot of help to researchers – it can be very time consuming to figure out what’s there (and if it’s worth the effort to spend more time on it), and of course, not everyone has the skills to read various forms of handwriting. (The term for this is paleography, and it’s something historians often learn as part of their degree and education.)

Also, some of these people had truly horrendous handwriting for their time period.

(At work we have a 20th century collection that includes handwritten notes from someone associated with a major historical figure whose handwriting has baffled at least half a dozen researchers. We currently have a couple of volunteers who are the world’s experts in deciphering this particular person’s handwriting, and we’re really sure the transcriptions they’re working on are going to reveal new and interesting information people do actually care about. Plus a lot of other random things like what the dogs and garden were up to – we’re mostly not transcribing those.)

Finally, of course, untranscribed or undescribed images aren’t accessible. They’re not available to people with visual impairments, and they can be tremendously hard to access for people with learning differences like dyslexia. Or just plain people who struggle with other people’s handwriting.

Want to transcribe things?

There’s probably a project out there for you. If you don’t want to transcribe these magical manuscripts, check out the Smithsonian Digital Volunteer program (which has people transcribing field notes, manuscripts, and related topics) or the National Archives Citizen Archivist project (documents in the US national archives collections) or there’s a long list from the Folger Library of other projects over here.

What’s particularly cool about this is that you don’t need to be anywhere near the collection, and you can do as much or as little as you like. You usually don’t get to choose your topic, but if you’ve got a particular passion (and can commit a bit of time) try contacting an archive that deals with your topic and asking if they need help. They may not have a snazzy online set up to do it yet, but they might be delighted to send you images and ask for a text transcription.