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Confronting Your Book Collection

While spring cleaning may be traditional, summer cleaning fits better with the academic cycle particularly as it tends to be a time of transitions: whether you are moving to a new institution, a new position, or just switching gears on a writing project, summer is an opportunity for addressing both physical and digital clutter. I’m in the midst of my summer cleaning now, but I’m at the point where things always fall apart: trying to reconcile my fixed set of shelf space with the number of books that followed me home from this year’s conferences.

Over the years of encountering fellow ProfHackers, digital humanists, and other tech-minded academic folks, I’ve noticed that many of us share a continued fondness for physical media. Sure, electronic books are great, and there’s annotation software, digital bookmarks, and even collaborative platforms that make it theoretically just as easy to use them for research…but I still have a rather impressive range of color-coded post it notes that are my go-to. And while I’m very fond of OverDrive and similar platforms for the occasional good summer novel, I can’t seem to resist the physical books that fill not just my office but most of the available flat surfaces of my house. Over the years attempts to cut down on the physical resources I retain have frequently been ill-advised: admittedly, I couldn’t have known as a kid that later I would regret not holding on to every game box and manual from the ’90s, but even in my more focused grad school days I’ve found books, comics, and games to be the only type of “clutter” that defeats every sorting mechanism.

The go-to expert on decluttering, Marie Kondo, addressed the challenge books present in her own book: Claire Kelley sums her advice up in a few seemingly easy steps. but it’s hard to translate them to academic books. Does an old theory textbook spark joy? Maybe for some of you, but I admit there are plenty of readers and collections on my shelf that leave me fairly cold. Perhaps the criteria of “usefulness” is more valuable? The problem I’ve had with that is I can justify absolutely any book as potentially useful. The pressure to publish can often pull a research agenda in many directions at once. So this year, I’m trying a tiered system: only books with a direct correlation to my current project get to stay on the shelves. Everything else is going into boxes or donations. I’m slowly cutting down on the physical media that is visible when I’m in my workspace, and through the process acknowledging that there are some topics I’ll never pursue.

There are a lot of inherent and problematic assumptions underlying material minimalism: Stephanie Land puts the movement’s class politics into perspective in her editorial. However, there’s also the reality of limited physical space. An office crowded with books that better suit a previous or imagined life of research can make it hard to focus on what’s important.

What are your strategies for managing (and letting go) of the physical media that occupies your research life? Share your tips in the comments!

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