The Long View 2003-09-16: Why Alexandria Burned

I too have a problem with books. According to my LibraryThing account, I have 729 books shelved in the library, with another 117 kids books in the house. I have re-shelved my entire library recently too, so I know exactly what John was talking about here. I ended up mostly trying broad themes, and trying to keep all of an author's works together no matter what genre they were.


Why Alexandria Burned

Many of us have been buying books for years. The collection suffers from changes of residence and basement floods, but we learn that the number of books is a measure of entropy: it either stays the same or increases. Eventually, we start calling the collection a library. Later, some of us reach a point where we think about organizing the collection. At any rate, I did. An otherwise worthy professor of communications advised me that the only sane way to do it is by hiring a cataloging service

To that I say Ha.

It was just a weekend project, almost. At sunset last Friday, all the shelves in my apartment were bare, but every other flat space was covered by books, often to some depth. By Sunday morning, the unshelved books were reduced to two rows, each 25 feet long, along the walls in the hall. Monday took no more than a bit of clean-up work. You can do it in two or three days. You bet.

Because of this exercise, I have gained new insight into the dark art of library science. I now appreciate that librarians must grapple with the most profound questions of epistemology. More important, the physical aspect of shelving made me suspect that librarians must all be Clark Kents: people who do deep knee-bends for a living should be approached with respect.

* * *

I should not exaggerate the problem; I had only about 1,200 books, after all. That's a third more than I thought I had, before I did the math, but they would fit easily into a single room (I have them in two). What surprised me was that I could not find anything online about organizing a home library. There is some assistance for professional librarians, of course. Predictably, there are many expositions of the Dewey Decimal System. However, although the Dewey categories are helpful and intuitive, they are more than you need. More important, the system does not easily accommodate the special subjects for which people accumulate private libraries in the first place.

I also took a look at the system used by the Library of Congress. It is too cunning to be understood. Naturally, there are more specialized systems, but none of much use to me.

* * *

You will find it helpful to draft a floorplan long before you touch actual books, with descriptions of the subject categories set out by the places the books will go. As you amplify and correct this chart at odd moments, it will quickly become a veritable Memory Palace, a map of the whole intelligible world as you understand it. Run off elaborate hardcopy of the plan just before you begin reshelving. You will find this beautiful document comforting as you gradually cross out all the super-fine distinctions, leaving general subject-areas you can actually use. Getting books by the same author next to each other on the shelf is half the battle.

These are the categories I came up with. Within each category, everything is alphabetical by author unless otherwise indicated, or unless I could not read the author's name on the spine:

NORTH ROOM

Reference
Includes atlases, chronologies, dictionaries & grammars (all languages) oversized books, literary theory, stuff about spelling reform, graphic novels if I had any, and personal journals.

Metahistory
Models of history, theories of history, eschatology, future studies, books with titles like "The End of X" unless they are obviously Fiction, and histories of whole civilizations.

Biography
In addition to biographies, this includes autobiographies, memoirs, letters, and Classical histories that are written as biographies. Wherever possible, this category is alphabetical by subject.

Politics & Art
Political science, polemics, aesthetics, culture-wars stuff, conspiracy, and art, unless the art is very graphics-heavy, in which it is Reference.

Science
The physical sciences, mathematics, programming, actual program disks, parapsychology (theoretical), manuals, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, folklore; if the last three are influenced by Jung, they are Occult.

Religion
Holy texts, texts about holy texts, theology, apologetics, stuff by C.S. Lewis that is not a novel, atheism.

SOUTH ROOM

General History
National histories, particular wars, intellectual history, everything Paul Johnson ever wrote except Intellectuals, which is Biography.

Occult
Magic, mythology, New Age, parapsychology (practical), evil Nazis, except Francis Parker Yockey, who is Metahistory, under the name Ulrick Varange.

Anthologies
Collections of short works by various authors. Lots of very old science fiction.

Poetry & Plays
Includes verse novels. Well, one verse novel.

Fiction
Novels, short stories by individual authors, non-fiction essays by individual authors that are not about anything in particular.

* * *

The wonder is that, in the midst of all this reorganizing, I seem to have lost only a single book. Indeed, the most disconcerting aspect of the project is just the opposite. Before I started, I had very little extra shelf space, so I cleared off the tops of all but one bookcase to use as shelves, and relocated some periodicals I had been keeping on shelves. Despite the addition of linear footage, however, there are now only a few inches of spare space in both rooms combined. It was like the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.

I have no explanation for that, as for so many other things. At least now, however, if I find an explanation, I will know where to put it. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site