Unpacking Your Library

Unpacking Your Library

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.’

If you are interested in reading any of the books and articles mentioned in this piece, there’s a bibliography here.

myVLF closed its website at the end of April 2021. A pdf of the original blog post is here:

If you want help or advice in managing your home library, feel free to get in touch. The easiest way is to book a free discovery meeting.

Farewell and Thanks to myVLF

myVLF

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.

Writing on their website The Blonde Plotters, Gwynn, Kelly and Deborah said:

“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.”

APDO Spring Clearing Week: Making Clutter Count

At the Bonhams Plath Hughes Private View for the London Bibliophiles in 2018.

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.”

I also drew heavily on Orsola de Castro’s recent book Loved Clothes Last: How the Joy of Rewearing and Repairing Your Clothes Can Be a Revolutionary Act (Penguin Life, 2021). De Castro has been at the forefront of the slow fashion movement since the 1990s. Her book is full of hints and tips on how to “mend, repair and rewear” your clothes, as well as facts and figures on textile recycling, and advice on how to declutter your wardrobe more mindfully.

Preparing for the Week

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:

The APDO blog shared several articles throughout the week, including one highlighting Caroline Rogers’s recently published research into clutter and wellbeing; Linda Cavellini’s interview of upcycling and sustainability expert Lynne Lambourne; and two posts bringing together advice from a range of APDO members – ‘Decluttering During the Pandemic‘ and ‘10 Ways to Donate Your Decluttered Items That You May Not Have Thought Of!‘ I was lucky enough to have a couple of tips included in the second one – using Recycle Now to find local centres for recycling clothes and The Great Diary Project for family diaries.

Overall

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.


Tidy Beginnings Pricing

Some people ask why we quote by project rather than advertising an hourly rate. It’s a fair question.

This description from colleague @organised.joy sums it up: when you hire me to sort out your books you’re hiring a quarter century of experience as a qualified librarian. Quoting by project means you don’t pay my expert fees when I’m not using that expertise.

Last week included a couple of mug sorting exercises with virtual clients, another shed tidy and helping to decide and carry out a picture hang. I love a bit of variety, and I love being able to sort the spaces around the books and papers – that’s how Tidy Beginnings started, helping existing private library clients with their non-library work too.

As a working class person I used to be terrified of services without set price lists. It took me years to realise that while some bespoke products had inflated prices, others were motivated by a desire to fit the project to the budget of the client, not the other way round. As a customer the most cost-efficient prices I’ve paid have been to businesses who work this way.

Originally posted to Instagram.

Tsundoku Feedback

Thanks to @ebblake for this lovely feedback on the first trial run for our Tsundoku experience – and for sending the beautiful picture of her tsundoko pile ready for redistribution to friends (posted here yesterday).

We promise clients confidentiality and never post pictures without their approval. It’s really lovely that Emily is pleased enough to have added her Tsundoku experience to her stories and shared it with us.

You can book a discovery meeting for help sorting through your own TBR. Until we advertise the experience as a package, it’s available at a massive discount to clients willing to try something new and a bit different. Our usual private librarianship (collection management with or without cataloguing) and professional organising (decluttering and restoring order to any room in the house) and virtual organising services are available too.

Originally posted to Instagram.

Client Photo: Tsundoku

Tsundoku.

The morning after: client photo.

“tsundoku, noun ... the practice of buying  a lot of books and keeping them in a pile because you intend to read  them but have not done so yet; also used to refer to the pile itself.” —  Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus.

Huge thanks to my lovely client for trialling a new experience I’m developing to help people get to grips with the size of their To Be Read shelf, and for sending me this photo of their tsundoku – the pile of books I helped them realise they wanted to read when they bought them, but which they aren’t actually going to read any time soon (or possibly ever).

These are all heading off to new homes and my client has half a shelf of usable space. More importantly, the weight of all these books is off their mind, and they have a personalised plan for the order in which they will read their remaining TBRs.

If you’ve acquired more books during lockdown than you’ve had time to read, you may be interested in Tidy Beginnings’s new experience, which we’ll be announcing soon.

If you are really keen to shed your lockdown book weight and happy to trial a brand new service, get in touch to find out more and book a hugely discounted pre-launch session. Contact details on webpage.

Note: client has contributed photo and approved the text. We offer a confidential service and *never* share before photos. Everyone knows what an overflowing bookshelf looks like.

Originally posted to Instagram.

Tsundoku Experience Coming Soon

Book pile and quote card.

Really excited to be trialling a new experience for people who feel they buy too many books. First run-through with a client today, so more details coming soon.

For now, here’s some #wednesdaywisdom from Marie Kondo:

“Tidying books is a powerful means of self-discovery. The ones you choose to keep because they spark joy reveal your personal values.” (Joy At Work, London: Bluebird, 2020, p. 38).

Originally posted to Instagram.

Budget Your Bouquets

Daffodiles and whote tulips.

Do you love cut flowers?

This week’s #tiptuesday is about refreshing an early spring vase.

The shops are full of daffodils and tulips at the moment, which combine beautifully. However, daffodils last longer and have a more upright habit than tulips, so when you create your display, budget to replace the tulips after about a week, when they have flopped. (Next week I’ll share what I did with the original red and gold tulips from this display).

Flowers are known mood enhancers and because they have a short lifespan they don’t end up being clutter or visual noise. 💐

Originally posted to Instagram.

Work in Progress: Keyboard Area

Keyboard with cables managed

Work in progress. We’re tackling this room in short bursts each week.

Really happy with how the keyboard area has worked out – with other small instruments near to hand. Hopefully it’s going to be easy for the client to maintain now everything is plugged in and the cables are managed so they can see where everything goes.

Note: client has approved both image and text. We offer a confidential service and *never* post before photos – everyone knows what cable tangles look like!

Originally posted to Instagram.

Screen Use and Eye Health

Carnations and gypsophila in a vase on my office windowsill.

How often do you look up from your screen?

For eye health, the 20:20 rule is helpful – every 20 minutes we should look up from our computer screen and refocus our eyes on something at least 20 feet away.

I know this – at one point many years ago I was even the librarian for a specialist online library for eye health – but I really struggle to apply it!

Over the winter I started putting cut flowers in my office, to remind me that spring was coming, and I’ve found them a real benefit in making me look up more frequently. The light catches them at different times, so I actively want to look at them – then I look out the window at the garden and of course that’s more than 20 feet away, because I’m upstairs!

Because the flowers change frequently, they’re always a new thing in my line of vision – and they won’t become clutter because they only have a short life span.

Do you have any tricks to look up and out frequently when at the computer screen? I’m always looking for new things to try!

Originally posted to Instagram.