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Sunday, 16 November 2008


You are trying to make your bookcases "self-referencing" (for want of a better term) - no library I know of does that, they all use catalogues. In a day and age where it is slowly becoming natural to a) have a computer in the home and b) have it running 24/7, because c) you use it for receipes, as a dictionary, to get trading signals from stock quotes, why not have a catalogue on your pc? Index-cards (roto-something?) being the other option.

Catalogue your books with as many keywords as you see fit - for all I know some of the systems libraries use should be easily available for inspiration or design your own set - New York, 20th c., painting (general)... Then put your books wherever they go best, sort them by size or color of the cover, and write down the location. (e.g. x = number of the shelf, slash, y = n-th book from the left.) With an intelligent search tool with Boolean operators you can then look up "(New York AND 20th c.) AND NOT Madonna" and presto ;-) there you are.

But then again, the searching and resorting is half the fun, isn't it ...

At present, I've called a truce with buying photo books. I simply have no more space so I surrender. Until I can force myself to get rid of some of the books stacked to the ceiling in bookcases around the house, I will not buy another photo book. (Oh, sure. I've said that before. But this time I really mean it. Just like I did when I quit smoking about five dozen times before the five dozenth and first when it finally happened.)

To make matters worse, I'm also a recording addict. My collection of LPs were finally reduced to only about 500 or so when I bought a new amplifier that did not have a turntable input. Those albums are in a closet with the clothes I don't wear much. Another closet has the majority of my classical CD music collection (four deep and wide drawers full). The opera is on the top shelf of the same closet while the 100-150 CDs I like the most are near the stereo in another bookcase that's about 1/2 books and 1/2 CDs. Of the Godonlyknowshowmany jazz, country and ancient (from my youth) rock discs stacked two deep on five shelves, I probably only listen to a dozen on a regular basis. And there was an order to this madness at one time but it was so long ago, I've forgotten how it went.

One of the bookcases is dedicated solely to photo books. It's the tallest one and books are stacked ceiling high, covered with dust and teetering on the brink of becoming a hazard to life and limb. That's the bookcase that has had two shelves collapse under the weight of too many Avedons, Brassais, Cartier-Bressons, Evanses, Franks and etc.

I need to organize, I know. I need to clear up some space so the dust doesn't settle in so deep. Something's gotta go. After all, there's been a couple of new Elliott Erwitt books published recently and there are several Egglestons scheduled to come out soon. And, dammit, I need this stuff!

Interesting. I would really like to browse through your library for i would never have anything of this size (I move often). I sort books by the attention level they require and the kind of pleasure I would get out of them:
- New/unread books: Fun but risky-A bit of an adventure that requires efforts for the rerwards;
- Classics/Reference: Always good. The cosy choices when instant reward required.
- Give-aways. The majority of the books. Life is too short and space is precious. Some are really good, but only once - I give them to friends.
...I don't know how well it scales up, it never does.

Don’t bother to count the books. Be glad you have room for all those you want to keep. Don’t sort them by topics or any other intrinsic quality. Instead, sort them by how much you enjoy looking at or reading them. Keep your favourites, the ones you love most, the ones you keep on coming back to, on the eye-level shelves. Books are friends - good to have nearby. Less favourite books go on less accessible shelves. The bottom and the topmost being for those you can’t quite decide to part with. Lay really tall or really long books on their sides if they won’t fit any other way – it makes a good visual break and the books won’t mind. Enjoy the chance conjunction of unlikely neighbours on your unsorted shelves.

John, my heart goes out to you for the two difficult quests you're on. One will fatigue your mind, the other your soul.

I hope you come out of both a stronger, if not happier, man.

Dogman my friend,
The solution is not fewer books. The solution is more space.

And it could be worse--my friends Dan and Barb bought a house from the estate of an elderly woman who was a packrat. On the second floor they discovered an upright piano no one had known was there. It was *completely* buried under papers and books and junk and stuff.

Mike J.

Excellent little article. A pleasurable distraction relating to a hobby that has so many enjoyable facets we can find distractions and enjoyment in.

*thumbs up*

Gosh, those dilemmas are familiar. For most of the last two decades my library grew organically, with books shelved by general category. Finding a specific volume was based on my mental map of where it was. Oddly enough this worked pretty well, at least when I only had a hundred or so photo books. Once the number started approaching 1000, though, it was no longer reliable. Worse yet, I've exceeded my available shelf space; now I also have to keep track of which extraneous floor pile a specific book might be in. Sigh. Sure, I plan to get around to cataloguing them all...real soon now. And with every day the prospect of doing so gets just a bit more daunting.

I'm also reminded of one of poet Donald Hall's observations. Looking over his own library, Hall realized he probably didn't have enough years left to re-read the Iliad again. So many books, so little time.

Official categorization systems that libraries use make sense where lots of people all have to be able to use it. It is normally not the best way for personal collection though.

What you should do if follow your first impulse, then make sure the books go back to the same place you originally decided every single time. When you sort them according to your own whim you will have an easy time remembering - you can just ask yourself that "where would I put that kind of book if I was me?" And when the spot is fixed it's easy to remember where the book is based on the place and based on the visual cues of all the nearby books. Making your library is just like designing a neighbourhood. You put shops and stuff where you think they go well together and you make the scenery varied (and fixed) so it's easy to navigate around.

If, for instance, you feel that the nude Madonna books belong together (sounds reasonable), then just put them together, in some spot on a shelf, and make sure they return to the same spot every time. A big metal-colored book like that will become a visual anchor for nearby books, so that you'll easily remember that "oh that small book about renaissance iconography is in that shelf area between the nude singer metal book and that other book with the thick, squat black cover."

John -
I have both experienced and witnesed the sadness that you alluded to. It may be true that time heals all, but sometimes it only partially heals.

Be careful what you discard. Sometimes the symbolism or the familiarity of things is more important than you know; and the loss of those things can rekindle anxiety or depression. If you get comfort from a particular book or object, hang onto it for a while. If something reminds you of your wife, keep it close for a time. And if you would like to talk, feel free to contact me. (Mike has my email)


A lovely piece, John.


Enter the books on LibraryThing with a reference to the physical bookshelf as a tag or multiple tags. Then you'll be able to tell exactly where a book is at any time by doing a simple search of your catalog. Plus you get the added benefit of a digital catalog that shows what you have, if you have duplicates, allows you to catagorize your books in various ways, and gives you an exact count of your books.

There is a solution for your problem with oversized books. Use an average shelf high, and most of the books will fit there easily. Put the oversized ones on the same shelf, but horizontally.


The French writer Georges Perec wrote a wonderful essay called "Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books".

I recommend it to John Camp and everybody who think of reorganizing their book collection. It will make the whole process more complicated, interesting and funny. It`s part of his book "Species of Spaces and Other Pieces".

A familiar dilemma, and for me, one from a previous life as a librarian. I have many skills in information management and both a professional and personal (and some would say a very sad) interest in taxonomies, categorisation and information relationships. However, I soon found that I have the capacity to remember where books *are*. My personal collections of books and other media are spread over several locations due to my itinerance. However, if I need something, I can 'see' it on the shelf, I don't need a number or category, I know exactly where to find it.

This has been true in several busy Central London reference libraries with millions of books as well as my collections at home - they don't even need to be 'ordered' on the shelves, I just add to the end. Maybe some sort of left brain right brain thing and I can see it won't work for everybody. I can even see the books and old LPs stored in boxes in the loft.

I'm so happy I don't have to spend any time (and it can be a *very* long time) managing a classification. I leave that for the people who pay me to do it :)

For many years I kept every book I ever bought and read. I moved quite often after graduating and all those physics and math textbooks and paperback edition novels were heavy to carry around. I ended up building lots of Ikea bookcases too.

About 15 years ago, I decided that was the end of that, and second-hand bookstores and libraries in my neighbourhood had a windfall. I kep the large format books and dictionaries though.

This has had a peculiar side effect. Because I am not good at remembering titles, I often buy the same books a 2nd time, sometimes a third. I am especially prey to the "Prey" novels (sorry for the terrible pun). Because the titles are similar, I have bought several of them more than once. This is good for JC, I guess, and good for some friends of mine who get their copies for free from me. For some reason, I bought two novels by Giles Blunt (excellent Canadian crime writer) twice each. So this time, I am keeping those around to increase my chances of remembering their titles and not buying them a third time.

I guess I could buy a pocket computer and keep a list of books I've read on it to carry with me when I'm in bookstores, but I know I wouldn't keep the list up to date.

Charles Shearer,
I know what you mean--I think it might be because you have a visual memory. I'm so visual in my memory that I recognize products at the store based on the look of their labels, but often can't remember the name of the product. (The practice of constant packaging redesigns is a pestilence to me.)

Here's a weird one--I still remember the organization of a record store I used to frequent in the '80s. I know where each composer's bin was and where some individual records are in the bin. And the store hasn't been there since the '90s.

When I was young, I could remember where certain passages were in books because I could picture them on the page, then "read" the page number in my memory. I could go right to the passage or quote. As my memory has gotten worse, I find I can't do that any more.

One problem of a visual-memory filing system is that you need to get used to putting something back in the same place it came from. I've never gotten the knack of that habit. Another problem is that the filing system gets worse with age! My memory is not what it used to be, like most other people with aging brains....

Mike J.

A more practical suggestion. Separate from the existential notion of shelf arrangement, hire an assistant to get all the books into a decent reference system, EndNote or something else. These now query the LOC master catalog so you all you need to type in is enough info to find the book in the catalog, and the program downloads the complete bibliographic record. There are two benefits of this: you know what you have and can link records to shelves if you want; and you can prove what you had if lose them to fire or other disaster. This second issue was brought home to a lot of people with Katrina.

For those who do not the money for an assistant or the inclination to catalog yourself, photograph the shelves and store the images (in whatever form) somewhere else that is not subject to concurrent disasters. Do it for all your other stuff, while you are at it.

If you really want to try and catalogue according to the Library of Congress system, the LC catalogue number and even the Dewey Decimal number are usually on the copyright page, at least for books from US publishers printed since the 1980s or so.

My wife and I are academics, so we have a lot of books--at least 4000 between us I'd estimate, and we've been moving around a bit the last three years, so things have been moving in and out of boxes and storage as we've been getting resettled and building more shelves. I haven't had time to catalogue, and I can usually find anything I need. My books are organized in categories that are relevant to my work, and then by author within each category. Even when I've needed something from storage, I could always locate the right box pretty quickly, though getting the box out of the stack could sometimes be a workout.

For those big folios that mess up the shelf arrangement, they either go on the top of the bookcase, or I have a few bookcases with a narrowly spaced shelf or two for laying those volumes flat.

Book sizing is a familiar problem. We have custom-built paperback shelves that are pretty much optimally efficient for paperbacks. Then adjustable shelves that are set up for normal hardcovers (in which there is more variation). Then the art books are on shelves in the downstairs living room (along with the display books and some cookbook overflow from the dining room). (The upstairs living room in our duplex is a dedicated library, with rows of shelves throughout the room.)

I'm amused at the idea of a few thousand books being a lot; it's rather average in my social group (science fiction fans).

Haven't gotten anywhere really yet in three tries at indexing over the decades. A big problem is keeping the index up to date with loans, and getting books put back in the right places.

I would never waste time cataloging my thousands of books. If I buy a dup - well, some adult child is happy to take it. Some 90%+ of my books are serious reading and not much fluff. I do, however, find my children quietly discussing on the side what they want someday from the collection. That pleases me greatly.

One problem I have found with cataloging systems for books is when you have a 1 subject collection, under the Dewey system all of my books would have the same number ;-)

"Now, if I could just figure out what to do with the thrice-cursed Madonna books."

Put them with the Annie Leibovitz books and call it good.

To those who suggest a catalog, I can only say that this might work for others, but I simply don't have the patience to do it, and I'm not really sure that the library is big enough.

Hendrick: I do like the idea of a "self-referencing library," so I plan to steal your phrase for it. When I get an idea that I want to look at something, it often isn't specific. I'm currently reading a huge three-volume biography of Picasso, which made me want to look at some things by Matisse, Picasso's great rival. When I went to browse the Matisse books, I noticed a book on Modigliani, who is also prominently mentioned in the Picasso book, and wound up spending most of my time with the Modigliani book. Serendipity is valuable.

Also, though a have a couple thousand books on art and photography (including the "how-to" books) that's not really so many that I don't know generally where to look. The problem is when some things slip your mind -- that is, you find a nice selection of stuff on Cezanne (I have ten books) but forget you also have a Cezanne book in the "how-to" (Techniques of the Masters: Cezanne) and another in the "Modern Art" section. ("Pioneering Modern Painting: Cezanne and Pissarro.") That's where a key word list would help, but as I said, I just don't have the patience. It would take days. As I write this, I've just replaced the "Pioneering" book in the Cezanne area, though I might move it back.

As for laying books on their sides, that is a solution, but I hate to do it, though I still do it for a few. (I have a Diego Rivera book from Taschen that is 17 1/2 inches high, too big even for the oversized shelf, so I have it on its side.) But, they seem to get crushed when they're stacked that way. It's like they can't breathe. The bottom book somehow seems to get flattened and dried out.

Ed -- Thanks. I dealing with it okay, and the only reason I mentioned my wife was because part of the book problem was disentangling the collections. Still not done with that.

Robert -- Everybody should have several "Prey" duplications, IMHO, in case they suddenly need to give one to a friend, or in case of emergency. 8-p. Seriously, I do the same thing, all the time, with art books -- especially in the"Half-Priced Book" stores, when I see a book that strikes me as unusual. Hans Memling was a fifteenth century northern European painter who profoundly influenced people as recently as Grant Wood (in American Gothic, among other paintings.) You just don't see books on Memling. However, Parkstone International issued a nice book on him a few years ago, and I've purchased three so far -- I kept thinking, "Have I got that one? Boy, if I don't, it may not be here when I get back..."

David, you suggest that having a few thousand books is average in your group, science fiction fans. I know about that -- I'm a thriller reader, and for years I'd read two or three thrillers a week, and then keep them. I'd also buy thrillers that were no good, dump them after the first couple of chapters, but keep them anyway. A few years ago, I took a couple thousand hardcover thrillers and god-only-knows how many paperbacks to Goodwill. I no longer keep them unless I'm almost *sure* that I will re-read them -- it's almost like a technical or inspirational library, or maybe both. Right now, there are about 400 books in that collection. "Collect," by the way, is the right word for some of this -- and I no longer do that. All of my books now are what I consider a working or study library. I just no longer have space to keep things because they complete a sequence, or because I collect books on one guy.

I'm going to e-mail Mike a photo of what the library looked like when I finished it. Maybe he'll put it here, if that's possible. [I just posted it as an "addendum" to the post --MJ] The book order is not quite right yet, but it should give you an idea.


I have a friend who organized her book collection by color of the spine. I laughed until I realized that it actually worked. Of course, it depends on how you look for your books. If you have a visual sense, but forget names like I do, it should work well. However, I can imagine times when you would like to find a book by subject, the color referenced system would require you to remember the dominant color, or search Amazon for the book, and cross reference against their picture.

JC: Makes sense that you're a thriller reader; it's rarely good when people aren't familiar with the area they're writing in! (Which becomes apparent in things like John D. MacDonald's SF books.)

I've gotten rid of SF and fantasy books a few times, and so far always regretted it. This makes me less likely to do so in the future, of course. However, it's not just a recreational library for us; my wife writes fantasy, and I'm an amateur student of the SF / fantasy field. So I sometimes need to refer to books I hated to go into detail about what, exactly, I hated in them :-).

Here's a link to the panorama of the upstairs library: http://dd-b.net/cgi-bin/picpage.pl/dd-b/SnapshotAlbum/data?pic=ddb%2020050911%20010-010-pan-014

Definitely a major problem, with a number of ingenious solutions. Hopefully when the task has been completed, John will heave a sigh of relief.

I too have recently done similar although my reason and method is different. Some three years ago was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphona, lost a kidney and a spleen and went on chemo, the latter which I continue with to this day and for some 18 more months.

As I am single, have no relatives that would be interested in my book collection which revolved around historical aspects of Canadian and foreign (not USA) railways as well a myriad of photographic books. I wrote monthly journals for a number of publications devoted to the rail fan, rail spotters groups for some 15 or more years. That era is past. I want to downsize, drastically.

Donated my entire collection of some one thousand books, save for maybe five or six to a reference library devoted exclusively to Canadian railways. A tax receipt shall be issued in due course.

My world has changed. At age 62, found many
of the books were dust collectors and had devised a tagging system some years ago which allowed me to see how often I had referenced or not referenced a volume. If it wasn't looked at for 24 months it was so noted. Those referenced in the last few months or so remained, everything else was shipped to the reference library.

And the shelves remaining have been donated to a local reuse centre. One less thing to be concerned about my future.

Dear John,

Running in the same circles as DDB, Paula and I have about 4000 books and about twice as many periodicals, maybe more. We always felt that if we were wealthy enough to have hired help (fat chance of that) we would have a part-time chauffeur and a part-time librarian.

That may not suit your needs, inclinations, or budget, but a part-time librarian might be a really good idea for you. Someone who came in only 10 hours a week would eventually have your collection indexed and ordered in a fashion that would suit you extremely well.

People skilled in library science are chronically underemployed; I don't think you have a lot of trouble finding someone who wanted a part-time gig one or two days a week.

If you don't know of such a person, I'd hook you up with Denny Lien,who's married to my former housemate. He is (was?) a reference librarian with UofM, and he is an avid book collector (makes all of us look like nothing). He would surely know of someone interested and competent. Either DDB or I can put you in touch with him.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

One personal library I have seen put the over sized books on the upper end of the bookcase on their sides, but put in extra shelving, so that the shelves were only 6 or so inches apart so that the pile(s) were only 3 or 4 deep, which made access easier and prevented crushing, also for some really large books the shelving stuck out a few inches to support the book.

Someone recommended a software product that lets me inventory my photo book library (as well as non-photo books). It helps me avoid buying duplicates, and helps me find what I own when I can't remember if I have it. It's called "BookCat." Available here: www.fnprg.com/bookcat/ [Note: PC only. —Ed.]

I don't have nearly as many books, but I've gotten back into reading comics and now that I have money to spend, I'm overflowing my (admittedly too small) book shelf.

I am NOT a visual person, so I organize most of my books by author and comics by title. I keep an up-to-date database of everything, though I haven't had to really use it to remember where I store everything (yet).

You say you don't have the time/patience to enter stuff into a catalog. LibraryThing sells a barcode reader that lets you scan the books directly in for $15.

However, if you have everything on easily seen bookshelves, I don't see much of a point cataloging locations. It'll be somewhere in front of you and if you look long enough, you should be able to find it.

Cataloging would be much more useful for storing books in multiple locations so you can find where you put a book you own without running all over the house (or town if you have an office).

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