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.

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.


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.

Top Organising Product

For National Organising Week 2020, APDO shared Professional Organisers’ ‘Top 10 Organising Products’, and, unsurprisingly, the No. 1 choice was “Boxes you already have”, and their blog post asserts, “the right organising product in the right place can make a big difference to storage, efficiency and aesthetics.”

Here’s a recent reuse of an existing storage vessel in a client’s home, which has worked well for them both practically and aesthetically:

APDO Directory Entry

APDO is the UK’s membership association for decluttering and organising professionals, and its directory offers the public a way to Find An Organiser. As well as my own specialisms in digital organisation, virtual services, public speaking and training, you can find organisers who work in areas including interior design, home staging; and working with people with hoarding behaviours.

APDO also provides information on what to expect when you book a professional organiser. As they say, “Finding the right organiser for you is a personal choice so it’s probably useful to speak or meet up before you start working together.”

I’m always happy to hear from potential clients. You can book a free discovery meeting from the link on the Tidy Beginnings page.

Tidy Beginnings Open for Bookings

Tidy Beginnings is open for bookings. An extension of my cataloguing work, it offers easy-to-access private librarian, professional organising and decluttering services.

Find out more here, and book a free discovery meeting to see if I’m the right fit to help you with:

  • decluttering your home
  • tidying up your workspace
  • organising your books and papers
  • moving – house / studio / after retirement (N.B. Not a removals service – we can help you plan, pack and unpack)
  • creating an inventory
  • preparing materials for sale or donation
  • cataloguing, where a finding aid and / or fuller inventory is required
  • any other activities you might expect from a private librarian, archivist or professional organiser
APDO logo

A verified member of APDO, the UK’s membership association for decluttering and organising professionals. APDO sets standards, provides professional development and supports the growth of the industry.