Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Unpacking my library

I'm finally mostly unpacked, one of the last tasks being the organization of my library. I actually have fewer books to unpack this time than when I moved five years ago, since hundreds of books now reside in my on-campus office. However, without all my Early Modern books and my teaching books and my theory books (and with many more rooms in my home!), the task of ordering and bestowing the remainder is even more of a puzzle.

We don't have a room that can serve as a dedicated library, and I've taken a smallish room--the beautiful, sun-filled sleeping porch--as my office. My books might all fit in there, if I crammed bookcases against every available wall, but that doesn't seem to make sense; aside from the size of the room, there's no point in having Don DeLillo and August Wilson, much less Helen Fielding, hanging out in my workspace. In theory I could keep leisure reading in one place and scholarly reading in another, but that division isn't absolute. Is the Odyssey research, or leisure? How about Jonathan Swift? Or the Romantic poets (whom I hate, will not read for fun, will never need for my research, but need to keep as part of my library)? And what the hell do I do with my collection of books on jazz and Old Hollywood? Or my two dozen books on contemporary religion?

Since I'm by nature an organizer and a systematizer, I'm haunted by the belief that there's some perfect way to organize my books: easy and rational but also intellectually coherent. I know that this isn't so--and that whatever I do with my books, within a few months I'll be accustomed to where everything is and the underlying organization won't matter--but I still want to do things right.

So I sit on the floor, surrounded by books, interrogating them: what are you? How do you matter to me?

The organizational method that I continue to find the most satisfying is chronological. So with the exception of a few special or set-aside collections, everything else gets mixed together: literature and history, philosophy and social science, starting with the writings of the ancient world and continuing up through last year's best-sellers. The idea is that my bookshelves will chart patterns of intellectual and aesthetic development, influence and response--and for the most part they do. Still, chronology doesn't solve all my problems. Should Gibbon go next to Catullus, or next to Johnson? Does an author with a long career get all his books shelved next to each other, or should they be interleaved with those of his earlier and later contemporaries? Should national groupings be respected? (It might be reasonable to interleave works of Early American literature with those from 18th C. Britain, but what about continental Europe? Should Choderlos de Laclos and the Marquis de Sade really be next to Charles Brockden Brown?)

It's a pleasurable task, though, for exactly these reasons. I enjoy finding six totally dissimilar novels published within a year or two of each other, and thinking about the different issues and movements they're in conversation with. I like seeing which patterns emerge, and what different patterns I can create if I shuffle authors into a slightly different order, or place them in the context of an epochal event like WWII.

But then, that's how my brain works; I may have a rage for order, but I'm more a lumper than a splitter.

How do the rest of you solve your book organization problems?


Sisyphus said...

Oooh, did you paint it that lovely periwinkle-type color from your blog template? Love it!

Since my books are all loud paperbacks, I do a color-coordinated organization scheme.

BTW, have you seen this?


Carin said...

I am currently paralyzed with indecision and can't decide where to start with the disposition of my books, because I can't decide where things are going to go. Two major quandaries: now that I've left academe (but still have some lingering projects from my old life), do I displace my old subject from its habitual place within spinning and tilting distance from my desk chair? My new subject is dominated by glossy books, even coffee-table books, the sort of things that others might be interested in when they visit, so perhaps they should go near comfy chairs and in more public spaces, even though they pertain to current work.

Then there's the living room conundrum: I have very, very little space for bookcases in my living room and none in my dining room. Which tiny sampling of my books will represent me on the small living room bookcase to guests who walk through the door and sit down for a drink? My usual strategy has been to put a selection of books there that seem to represent best who I really am: historical fiction, books on dance and opera - books likely to spark happy recognition of shared interests when people visit. Given the space limitations, I'll probably do that again.

As for the arrangement of the books within easiest reach of my desk, I've traditionally arranged them concentrically: core and most specialized subjects mid-level and center, expanding into adjacent subjects in a sort of outward spiral.

I love the color of your study, btw :-)

Flavia said...


Ha! I hadn't realized that, but you're right that the color of my office is awfully close to that one color on my template. (Carin: it's truly a blue--Benjamin Moore's Summer Blue--but it does verge toward purple, esp. when seen from Cosimo's office, which is a bright sky blue.)

And yes, Carin, we're having that problem too. I think the living room will contain literature from 1960 onward--as you say, the stuff that invites conversation--but right now my favorite bookshelf, the one that runs from about 1890 to 1957 and contains everything I most love (Conrad, Woolf, Waugh, Nabokov, Mary McCarthy) sits on the second floor landing. Walking past it makes me so happy. But I wonder whether it belongs somewhere else. . . ?

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Honestly? My books really aren't organized. To the extent there is any system, it's by size. (I have cheap Target folding bookshelves, so the shelves go from bigger to smaller, but even if I had uniform-sized shelves, I'd organize by size.) Within that, they're roughly grouped by genre (housekeeping/organization books, health/exercise books, scifi, modern novels, that kind of thing). I do try to keep authors/series together, but I think my Harry Potter may be broken up because the first two are wee paperbacks, and the last three are massive hardbacks.

However, I have WAY FEWER books than any of you guys do now, because I sold off/got rid of TONS when I moved to this state. So it's not hard to find stuff!

Carin said...

I think a landing is a great place for conversation-sparking books. I have extremely fond memories from when I was little of a friend's house whose stairs were completely lined with bookshelves. I rarely made it all the way up to her third-floor room without sitting down to read something.

RLB said...

If all else fails, you could always try the Library of Congress system! I try to use it myself with my books, at least generally (I don't go through and identify the exact call number of every book I own, but it at least lets me group things and gives me an order to work with). I also have that small "on-display" shelf that has to represent me to visitors, as it seems many of us do.

It is a fun process, isn't it? (Or is that just my librarian impulses talking?)

Flavia said...

RLB: well, like I said: I'm not a splitter. I really do want to integrate most of my subject areas--for one thing, my books tend to fall into just a handful of mostly related subjects, but for another I really want to see the conversations among those subject areas over time. So chronological order is the best way for me to think about intellectual & cultural history.

But for a different kind of mind or a different kind of collection, organizing by subject area (LC or not) would be a great solution.

Digger said...

My books currently (at least, the ones not in boxes) are organized by broad topic. Where topics overlap, their clumps are kept close to each other, if not touching. I do have some limitations because of bookcase weirdness, so my "oversize" and "undersize" shelves are also organized by topic.

Topics I'm not currently working on, or that fall into categories of "secondary topics" are kept in less accessible places -- tippy top shelves, or in the shelves by the floor. Right now, all my books are in my office/bedroom. I'm moving next month to live alone in My Own Place for the first time in oh, 15 years or something.

I will also find myself sitting in the middle of the room wondering where and how to put them all, I'm sure. Though my place will be too small for a display bookshelf; it's more of a "do I have enough walls for my bookshelves"?

life_of_a_fool said...

I love your office!

Your book organizing scheme is stressing me out though. We do not choose the same method (to each her own, of course). I have mine roughly split into work books and fun books. Fun books are in the living room, and used to be alphabetical until I ran out of room and started stacking them on top of one another and teetering on the top of the bigger bookcase. And the stack in the bedroom. And the stack at the top of the dining room built-in.

The work books are in my home office, also alphabetized, except for the four teetering stacks that are on my desk and nearby. And, except for methods books, which are in their own section.

I love the idea of a staircase lined with books. Also hallways lined with books.

Fretful Porpentine said...

What is this "organization" thing of which you speak?

Flavia said...


Oh, I'm a huge fan of alphabetical order! Until midway through grad school that's how I organized all of my books, and I still mourn it, a bit: it's the easiest, best method when it comes to immediately depositing or retrieving something. I organize most things in my life alphabetically (my file folders, of course, but also every set of quizzes or homework assignments I receive). But it's harder now for me with books, since I've been trained to think historically and in terms of eras and movements. Maybe our post-1960 shelves will be alphabetized, though...

Susan said...

My system is broad-ish categories, and then alphabetical within them. That is, in the areas I have organized. Everything is in the categories, but some are more organized than others. I'm slowly going through them. Trash reading is in the bedroom - I don't want others to see how low I go. British history is by rough period, (Tudor, 18th or 19th C, etc.) Women's history is it's own section, though the overlap is always a problem, decided somewhat arbitrarily. I think in history, it's easier to find things that way: I'm more interested in the books on Puritanism all being together than in chronological order. (even my novels and collections of sources are in alphabetical order.) I'm about to start moving books around, so that "current research" books are in my office, and not in my husband's old office. The living room has both office overflow and general interest. The children's book collection is in the guest room, and my child friends know where to go!

Books that are primarily for teaching are slowly migrating to my campus office, and I'm planning to have a few shelves that are rotating for my current courses.

The other wrinkle is that a few of our shelves are short, so some sections get divided by book height!

Susan said...

P.S. I love that color!

Flavia said...


That's a good thought. I have not admitted in this thread how incoherently organized the books in my campus office are: I have a huge section on Milton and a huge section on Shakespeare, and smaller sections on the other authors I work on a lot (and separate shelves for theory and teaching-only books)--but I've never figured out what to do with everything else. I try to keep primary sources separate from secondary ones, and have vaguely tried to group the primary sources by chronology and/or genre, and the secondary sources topically (e.g., ones that deal with book history, religion, gender), but that's pretty unsatisfying and I reorganize those shelves regularly.

Maybe I will return to my old friend the alphabet!

Flavia said...

Oh, and no one's asked, but I keep my scholarly books in my campus office really just because it's a convenient warehouse (though I also think it's useful for my students to have some sense of the nature and scope of their professors' libraries). I don't write on campus, but I do most of my course prep there and I frequently want those books for that purpose. Esp. when I'm frantically trying to assemble a coursepack for my M.A. students.

When I'm working on a project and need some of my scholarly books, it's easy enough to bring them home for the duration.

Squadratomagico said...

It's fascinating to read everyone's different organizing preferences! I think I must shift stuff around more than most others. Because of space constraints in my home, and because (this will sound like heresy, I know) I don't like keeping lots of books on display in the more guest-accessible areas of my home, I have to have about half my book collection in my campus office. But, I'm always missing books and bringing them back home, then getting overfull and having to bring some in again. They commute.

On campus, I use a mixture of chronological and thematic organizations. Books that have actively been part of a research project stay in that thematic group, since I tend to remember scholarly books through the way I've footnoted them in the past. Others are in a rough historical order.

At home, I just created, for the first time as part of a renovation of my home study, an all-primary source shelf, which is further subdivided by country and author background. It's been fascinating to contemplate the books in this new grouping! All kinds of new thoughts emerge with new shelvings!

Squadratomagico said...

Oh: I, too, LOVE the color! So pretty with the verdant green outside!

Kendra Leonard said...

Oh, your office is lovely!

I try to do alpha by author for fiction, which is kind of spread around the house. For scholarly stuff that I use frequently, I keep most of it in my office and lump it by area. But I'm getting ready to move and am thinking of other systems, although I may well stick with this one--it works pretty well. The new house will have a dedicated library, which I think will be mostly for fiction. Misc NF will go into my spouse's and my office if I have room. I also catalogue everything in Library Thing, which then provides me with an alpha by author list.

Janice said...

At home I don't have many bookshelves of my own: they're my husband's rightful property since he doesn't have an office wherein to stash his books.

At work, I have sections devoted to teaching topics. Clockwise from the door: early modern continental Europe, gender history, ancient, primary sources (chronologically arranged), medieval, reference books and then look out for early modern England which takes most of two walls! Within those categories, books are arranged chronologically and geographically (i.e. all of my Frankish books are together, followed by the Norse & Viking books and then the Ottonians, the Crusades, etc.)

Bardiac said...

The blue is perfection! It's just sooo right there.

I'm really enjoying seeing how other folks organize. My method is totally idiosyncratic, but I can usually find stuff. And I don't have any public shelves in my house, really. But I'm lucky enough to have an office for work stuff, and a bedroom gets non-work books I love (mostly novels).

Renaissance Girl said...

LOVE the color. Holy cow.

Here: rough categories in my office (literature, criticism, classics) and then alpha. At home: however stuff fits on the shelves. I have the pretty rare books all together. My desert island books all together. Oversized. And then a bookshelf w/ research books. Within these categories, complete mayhem. The OCD in me is palpitating at the idea of LOC numbers. But I don't have time to do that.

Digger said...

I've often fantasized about LOC numbers, but like RG, just don't have the time. Plus, then putting books back on the shelf will become way more like actual filing (which I rarely if ever do)... and how do you LOC the books piled on top of the books on the shelf???

Flavia said...

This is all so interesting! Thanks for playing, folks.

I've played around with Library Thing, and would like to enter my whole collection--but, eh. Seems like work, and I dislike how often I can't find the right version of the book in question.

Andrea said...

When I was in grad school, I had books in every room in the house. Even the bathroom. This was in addition to a library/office filled with bookshelves. Now I have the luxury of an office so I have almost all work books at the office there I have a series of bookshelves composed of 6 squares so I shelve nooks according to subject in each cubbyhole. 1 cubby for film theory, 1 cubby for film history etc. Then at home I have bookshelves in the living room for all nonwork books. Organized by genre/subject, then author, then size. And one additional shelf by my desk for any work books that have migrated home.y fantasy - one room that is wall to wall bookshelves with a big wooden sleigh bed in the middle cause I would love to sleep in a library.

Scott said...

I have that edition of Pepys, too.

phd me said...

I love, love, love your office! One of these days, I'll have a "real" office in my house but I think it's going to take a move to a different domicile for that to happen.

My organizational system for books at home is rather slapdash. I have a huge bookcase in my dining room and small bookcases in the living room, bedroom and guest room/office area. I tend to group rather than organize: British classics on one shelf, historical fiction paperbacks on another, nonfiction on another. But as I add more books, I end up scattering them between the bookcases so any system quickly breaks down. And that just means I need a real library!