Thursday, February 28, 2008

Rules of Shelving

LibraryThere's a weirdly interesting discussion going on about how to shelve books on a few blogs. It started on the arts side, where one suggested methodology is to only display books that you have actually read (the "pretentious git" strategy). A dissenting voice argues that instead we should display books we would have read had we been the kind of people we would like to be (the "pseudo-intellectual poseur" method). Appearances seem to trump usefulness for these people.

Over in the real world, we have the put the books where they are used strategy, and the put them anywhere but categorize and alphabetize them approach. Either is more or less sensible, and geared towards making their use practical for the owner, not about making some kind of statement to the world.

Me, I have a rather pragmatic, operational approach. If you try to organize too much your system will inevitably break down and you'll feel guilty about not having your books in order any more. Better to be lax about organization - the end result is the same and you can avoid feeling bad about it. Hereby my four rules of librarianship:
  • Put books about the same kind of subject close together. Not the same subject, necessarily, but books sharing a methodology or approach to things. That way, when you're looking for info in some book, you can get inspired to broaden your search in related works.

    As a corollary, put all easy-read and favourite fiction together. When you're about to leave for somewhere and scrambling for something to read on the way, or looking for something to read in bed you don't want to run around looking for inspiration all over your home. And if you're the kind of person to read in the bathroom you especially don't want to be wasting time finding a good book.

  • Put books back in the same place. Our memories work much better with visual and spatial information than with abstract facts, so it's much easier to remember seeing a book in a particular place, with a specific cover, surrounded by particular other books, than to remember how to find it in some abstract shelving system. Just think of how often you can't quite recollect the exact title or author but you do remember the size, the color, the cover design, and perhaps even the overall layout of the page you're looking for.

    The corollary is, do not put lots of books with the same cover design next to each other; you'll have the devil of a time trying to remember what those books are. Visual variation is good.

  • Piles of books are fine when you're currently using them. Yes, that includes having book piles on or under the kitchen table, and yes, "using them" includes having used them the past week with a firm intention to get right back on it this weekend. The document pile serves as the short-term memory of a project. The order and composition of the pile tells you what you were doing and reminds you what you should be doing next.

    The pile is good. Embrace the pile. Love the pile.

  • Oh, lastly, Don't put foodstuffs, money, receipts or other stuff among the books. You forget you put it there. Finding forgotten money is fun, but searching all over your home for some receipt or other important document is not. Food will inevitably be forgotten and grow stale, mouldy or both. Trust me on this.

Not a perfect system - the "piles are good" thing is not generally accepted by everybody in our household for instance. Feel free to post any good ideas you're using.


  1. Herr Morén -

    What do call the antithesis of the "pretentious git" method - the displaying only the books you have not read?

    Once I have read a book I shelve it in the chill, dark hallway, leaving only unread books in the warm and well-lit living area.

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