Anne Welsh is a career-long cataloguer and a life-long writer. Following the success of Practical Cataloguing (London: Facet; Chicago: Neal Schuman, 2012) she focused on academic research and teaching before founding Beginning Cataloguing, which provides consultancy and training for institutions and, increasingly, to individuals preparing their libraries and archives and seeking an institutional home for them.
Our final Book History seminar before the summer break addresses a hot topic.
On Monday 17 May, Katie Flanagan will discuss the role of volunteers within historic libraries, and will ask how this affects diversity within the profession and where should the line be drawn?
Katie is a Special Collections Librarian and volunteers as Honorary Librarian at Kedermister Library, a 17th century parish library still in its original setting. A Chartered Librarian with 20 years’ experience working in historic libraries, she also has extensive experience both as a volunteer and managing volunteers.
This post republishes a piece which was originally commissioned by myVLF and published on their blog as ‘Unpacking Your Library: 10 Top Tips to Organise Your Bookshelves’, myVLF, 3 September 2020.
Whether working, furloughed or simply unable to go out and socialise as much as usual, Covid-19 has given many of us more time at home. Many people have been unpacking their libraries (to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase), building reading nooks and reorganising their shelves. There’s a great tradition of writing to help us in doing this, and especially on the impact that sorting through our books has on us.
If you want to know how to organise your personal library and bookshelves, here are ten top tips based on practical experience and from ten of my favourite books.
1. Be realistic about your storage space.
Almost no-one has enough space for their books. Good storage helps to keep books in good condition and can also guide organization. In Leah Price’s edited volume on Writers and Their Books (Yale University Press, 2011), which includes glossy pictures of the interviewees’ home libraries, Steven Pinker offers some practical experience: ‘My shelving consists of an enormous matrix of white cubes … They make it easy to categorise and find books, and they do away with the need for those awful things called bookends.’
2. If you do have enough space and budget to commission shelves, think carefully about what you need.
Fixed shelves are stronger, but less flexible over time. Most high-street store bookcases are designed for moderate or small homes – designing on a larger scale needs different inspiration. There are some beautiful pictures, as well as an historical overview, in Mark Purcell’s The Country House Library(Yale University Press, 2017), published for his former employer and custodian of hundreds of such libraries, The National Trust. In such large buildings, there are decisions to be made around how much space should be devoted to books and how much to other things. Should all the cases be flat against the wall, or do you want to create bays with your bookcases? Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone had strong opinions in favour of bays, which he installed first in his Temple of Peace at Hawarden Castle and then in St Deiniol’s Library (now Gladstone’s Library), which he established as a retreat from busy life for scholars and clergy (and is now a residential library and boutique B&B).
3. Your library will evolve over time.
That’s not only inevitable, it’s desirable. The fifth of Ranganathan’sFive Laws of Library Science (Madras Library Association, 1931), is that ‘The library is a growing organism.’ In Oscar’s Books (Penguin, 2009), Thomas Wright describes how Oscar Wilde’s library in London came to be his ‘Holy of Holies,’ although still a working library of only two thousand volumes, and with some of its books having had much less salubrious surroundings before. ‘Disorder seems to have been the keynote of his bachelor libraries,’ he writes, ‘one friend was horrified to find a precious volume among a lot of rubbish.’ Jonathan Lethem talked to Leah Price about how his bookcases in younger days ‘were tottering Rube Goldberg structures, made of bricks, milk crates, other books, and salvaged scraps of lumber,’ but now he has built-in wooden shelves everywhere.
4. You don’t need to feel guilty about getting rid of books.
In Phantoms on the Bookshelves(MacLehose, 2010), Jacques Bonnet summarised the fears of many book owners: ‘Whereas a collector frets obsessively about the books he does not yet possess, the fanatical reader worries about no longer owning those books – traces of his past or hopes for the future – which he has read once and may read again some day.’ I can’t read that phrase without hearing Fumio Sasaki’s advice, ‘Let go of the idea of ‘someday’.’ While I’ll never be a minimalist by any stretch of the imagination, the concept that everything I keep is costing me in terms of space and cleaning and maintenance has stayed with me since I read his self-help book Goodbye Things(Penguin, 2017). Certainly, I’d say don’t keep books for the reasons he says he did – to project an identity of himself as well-educated. Marie Kondo writes well on this in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Ten Speed Press, 2014), keeping books in her ‘personal Hall of Fame,’ giving the example of Alice in Wonderland, which she says she has ‘read repeatedly since primary school.’ Her definition of the purpose of books is quite narrow – ‘You read books for the experience of reading,’ – and is clearly focused on leisure. However, it’s usually easy to identify the books we need for work (our working library) and beyond those, we should, of course, keep the books we love.
5. Give yourself plenty of time.
Walter Benjamin’s essay, ‘Unpacking My Library’covers many aspects of book collecting, and is well worth reading in its entirety, as he takes us on a perambulation round some of his favourite bookshops in Europe. However, one thing that is clear is that it takes a lot of time – and you need a combination of strictness with yourself and allowing yourself enough scope to enjoy the memories your books evoke as you move them around. Benjamin describes a full twelve hours going through a relatively small number of packing cases, and even then says he found it difficult to stop.
6. Don’t think you have to set your books out like a public library.
‘The unpacking of books, perhaps because it is essentially chaotic, is a creative act,’ points out Alberto Manguel in his paean to his last library in France, Packing My Library(Yale University Press, 2018). He shares how he ordered his books ‘according to [his] own requirements and prejudices … A certain zany logic governed its geography.’ My current favourite quote about book arrangement is from Tracey Emin, who shared in Steffans and Neumann’s collection on Artists and Their Books (Yale University Press, 2017) that she has her ‘Star Trek annuals under the subject of travel, which a journalist once said was very optimistic.’
7. It’s OK to organise your books by colour and size and alongside other things.
Gladstone highlighted the gains to be made in space by shelving according to size. In fact, it’s bad for very small and very large books to be shelved next to each other as over time the larger book will splay over the smaller one and damage its spine. In Bookshelf(Bloomsbury, 2016), Lydia Pyne describes the presence of things other than books on shelves – bookends and ornaments, for example. So the first division is between books and what she terms ‘not-books,’ including also attachments like book ladders in larger home libraries. Again, think about any potential damage these categories of things could do to each other. Wangechi Mutu described her library to Matthias Neumann as ‘very artsy … I have a visual memory. So I know where my Flash of the Spirit is because it has a red spine.’ For her, organizing books by colour ‘make[s] them accessible through the visual of the spine.’
8. There is such a thing as too many books.
‘At best, I might know which room in the house a book mightbe in.’ Jill Lapore, interviewed in the New York Times expresses the experience of many booklovers. In response to Jillian Tamaki’s question, ‘What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?’ she replies, ‘People could find a particular book on my shelves? I sure can never find what I’m looking for.’
9. But you may prefer to organise your library for serendipity rather than retrieval.
Gary Shteyngart told Leah Price his books were ‘all over the place! … I want to be surprised every time I look at the shelves. Who knows where anything is?’ Gladstone, despite being a great classifier, admitted to giving perhaps undue weight ‘to determining in what company a book shall stand,’ preferring to place books by one author near those of others with whom they were sympathetic in their life outside the page. Manguel writes of the way that books ‘placed on a shelf shed their original identities and acquire new ones through random associations’ with their neighbours. Edmund White described a more organic approach to Leah Price: ‘I don’t have that many books and they’re not arranged in any particular order. I think for a while I had the Genet and the Proust books together, and they attracted other unrelated titles in French.’
10. Don’t worry.
In response to Jo Steffans’s question, ‘Do you ever feel like you have too many books?’ Tracey Emin said, ‘Yes, I do, but there are worse things to own.’ Philip Pullman confessed to Leah Price, ‘Every time I go into town I accidentally buy two or three books,’ which along with gifts have overtaken his shelf arrangement. ‘Now it’s just memory and guesswork that guide me to this pile or that shelf or that corner of the floor. I’m often delightfully surprised by a book I’d totally forgotten.’
No-one ever has enough space, nor enough time, for all the books they want to read, but don’t despair about your To Be Read pile. Juno Diaz described to Leah Price, ‘at least a hundred-book margin between what I own and what I’ve read.’ I’m not sure that I, personally, could cope with that much, but he describes it as fun, catching up with himself, ‘buy[ing] too much and the race starts again.’
As both a reader and a writer, I wanted to acknowledge the work of Gwynn GB, Kelly Clayton, and Deborah Carr in creating and managing virtual literary festival platform myVLF, which has sadly had to close its doors.
As well as attending many online events there, I was fortunate enough to gain a paid commission to write a blog post for them in September 2020, giving 10 Top Tips to Organise Your Bookshelves. I’ll republish it on the Beginnings Blog now that myVLF is, sadly, no more.
“When Covid-19 hit our world, we worked flat-out holding as many events as we could and supporting hundreds of authors with their book launches, as well as helping many physical book festivals to reach new audiences … Unfortunately, the huge workload in running so many events, resulted in us not being able to concentrate on our own writing careers. We live for writing and so regretfully we have decided to close MyVLF so that we can reconnect with our author careers and families.”
Currently reading Chris Oliver’s Introducing RDA: A Guide to the Basics After 3R (ALA Editions, 2021), and surprised to see Practical Cataloguing in the Hybrid Environment advertised on the back cover.
Gustavo made the point that as well as stepping away from the codex form, the 955,000 Exhibition cards moved away from the sequencing of the artists’ book. Lippard included a title page and bibliography, but the cards are unnumbered and contain an instruction to shuffle them, so each time we encounter them, we do so in a different order. On Monday, we saw Gustavo moving through the cards to find these “standard” bibliographic details. If sequencing is a defining feature of the artists’ book as a form, what are Lippard’s cards?
The glib answer would be documentation, but actually, they are not, quite. In March 1969, Lippard wrote to a range of artists asking them to participate “in a large exhibition at the Seattle World’s Fair Pavillion, opening Sept. 4, 1969, it will also go to three other museums on the West Coast.” In the end, the submissions led to exhibitions in Seattle (‘55,087’), Vancouver (‘955,000’), Buenos Aires (‘2,972,453’) and Valencia, California (‘c.7,500′). Lippard took the titles from the cities’ population figures, and described how “Each of the catalogues consist of randomly arranged index cards designed by the artists themselves.”
Gustavo described how the cards are, in fact, more than catalogues. As we can see from Lippard’s original invitation, she asked conceptual artists to supply her with instructions she could “execute with the help of friends and volunteers,” and her intention was always that “projects can be changed for each city … (cards will probably be added each place)”. Cards were most definitely added, and given that she assured artists they could “tell me how you’d like what information and reproduction on your card”, it’s clear that the cards themselves are artworks constituting part of a larger artwork that is the 955,000 Exhibition.
Gustavo highlighted other artworks from Chelsea’s collections, and given that we planned this talk during lockdown when we thought it may have to be more conceptual itself, it was wonderful to see shelves of artists’ books over his shoulder in the special collections room, and even better to see him turn the pages, unfold the posters and, indeed, shuffle the cards of the printed matter he’d selected for us.
Image: shelves glimpsed over Gustavo’s shoulder at Chelsea, over my computer screen (which clearly needed a bit of a clean – sorry).
Our general seminar for May will be led by Beginning Cataloguing Associate Binni Brynolf, on the ever-green topic of ‘Systems Matters.’
Binni has worked in libraries for more than twenty years, mostly in systems and team leadership roles, and is currently employed as a Digital Resources Librarian.
They have a track record in selecting and implementing new library management systems and over the years have established strong relationships with software providers, and in the seminar they will discuss the things we need to consider when choosing, designing or updating our library systems in order to ensure all our services are accessible and inclusive.
As lockdown continues to ease, I’m grateful to Yvonne Lewis for this testimonial from the bespoke training I designed and delivered to staff at The National Trust.
“Anne designed a day’s cataloguing training for the National Trust. She worked with a small group of hand-picked property staff with considerable experience of object cataloguing on our bespoke library and museum system. Anne provided workbooks to take them through the fundamental principles behind book cataloguing and basic MARC fields. Everyone also worked through several examples, with a few tricky ones thrown in to show how judgement can still be required when dealing with your institutions needs from the catalogue.
The team had a lovely time on the day. Many questions were asked and answered. Anne also provided an element of post-training support to deal with those odd questions which always come up once you’ve left the building. Using the new trainees as fully as we would have liked has been paused due to COVID-19. We are hoping to re-start cataloguing projects slowly in 2021/22 as circumstance permit. Once we have seen how successfully the training has been, we will be considering when and how to extend the programme.”
The National Trust has its own bespoke library management system and catalogues using AACR2 in MARC, across both modern and pre-1950 books. I’m grateful to Yvonne not only for this testimonial, but also for briefing me fully on their LMS, which can only be accessed on-site, and supplying me with screenshots of the entry screens to add to the workbooks. I’m also grateful to HQ staff for printing the workbooks so that I did not have to carry them into Central London alongside my suitcase of example books for trainees to catalogue.
Bookings for in-person training is brisk – so far we have both paid and pro bono workshops booked in through to April 2022, and we are open to more. You can book a discovery meeting at https://calendly.com/annew-discoverymeeting or contact email@example.com if you want to start a discussion.
Last week was Spring Clearing Week, an annual campaign run by the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers (APDO) to raise awareness of the need to Spring clear before we Spring clean.
This year, the theme was Making Clutter Count, and, since books are – of course – never clutter, I chose to focus on clothes and textile recycling. I was really inspired by the RSA’s new report Turning the Tide: Public Attitudes on Plastics and Fast Fashion, which found a gap between our desire to reduce the use of plastics and petrochemicals in our clothes and our awareness of how much we are actually consuming. It calls for “new measures to turn the tide, including a tax on virgin plastics used in clothing; a ban on marketing petrochemical-derived clothing; and a commission to prepare for the future of fashion.”
As well as reading these two publications, on the build-up to Spring Clearing Week I tried out various apps to see whether I wanted to recommend them to people on Instagram. In the end, on Friday I chose to highlight @thredup, a survey you complete to find out how sustainable your wardrobe choices are; @goodonyou_app which provides information on how fair clothing brands are; and @30_wears, which allows you to photograph and diarise your use of each of your clothes. Apparently most women wear most garments only seven times before disposal, so, as its name suggests, the app aims to encourage them to up that to thirty wears.
I also did a lot of surfing the web (including APDO’s own recycling and donations hub for members) to try to find out which charities were still able to collect items for donation despite the Covid restrictions. It’s really important to do due diligence on charity bag schemes, as some collections made door to door actually give very little to the named charity. Some collectors are more conscientious than others about trying to have clothes reworn before looking to have them scrapped for recycling. And, clearly, the best route for anything containing plastics and petrochemicals is for it to be used to the point of destruction before being scrapped and repurposed.
During the Week
The APDO colleagues who run our Twitter and Instagram accounts both primed members in advance to be ready to take part in their #APDOClutterChallenge (links to Twitter – the Insta challenge was completed through Stories which is, of course, more ephemeral). Colleagues shared a range of resources, some of which were new to me. My favourites (in no particular order) are:
This was the first APDO campaign week to take place since I became a verified member, and it was a great learning experience. I’m sure that some of my clients picked up tips directly from following the #springclearingweek hashtag on Twitter and Instagram, and all my clients will benefit from my own increased knowledge on how to make their clutter count. It was also a fantastic way to gain an insight into the things that my colleagues are most passionate about clearing out and organising – there are so many different people looking for help with so many areas of their houses that it’s really useful to know who has expertise in particular fields. Of course, the APDO Directory lets anyone search by particular specialisms, but there’s niche and then there’s niche … you can search for photo organisers, but not for librarians or archivists, for example.
Now I’m looking forward to National Organising Week in November … and, from a CPD point of view, to the APDO Conference next month.
Image: Photo taken by Daichi Ishikawa at Bonhams Plath Hughes Private View for the London Bibliophiles in 2018.
As well as packing the Library, a lot of Jacqui’s recent work on extending RUSI’s asset register, which originally was focused on fine art, but now includes a much wider range of materials.
This range was increased recently upon the discovery of a “secret” (previously unknown in recent times) cupboard containing some wax seals, as well as candlesticks and some binding tools.
This isn’t the first sent of items to be “lost” by RUSI. In the 19th century, despite spending its acquisitions budget only on military models for teaching purposes, the Institute received so many donations from across the British Empire that its public museum became a popular attraction in London’s burgeoning tourist market. Objects were listed in its original documentation under the headings Ethnology, Natural Science and Military. It came as no surprise to Jacqui to read that in its sale in the 1860s many of the materials were bought by Augustus Henry Lane Fox, who later changed his name to Pitt Rivers and whose collection was foundational to the Oxford Museum.
Jacqui is investigating the RUSI Museum and its history as part of an AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Westminster. She is currently researching whether the museum’s objects can be seen as “an authorized biography of Empire.” Her results should be significant in terms of the decolonization work that is so important for us to understand our national past and its impact on the wider world and, indeed, Britain’s own citizens.