Organizing Our (Analog) Library

The acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone.  Not even both factors together suffice for the establishment of a real library, which is always somewhat impenetrable and at the same time uniquely itself.

–Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”

[This is a guest post by Jonathan Sterne, an associate professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University. His latest books are MP3: The Meaning of a Format(Duke University Press) and The Sound Studies Reader (Routledge). Find him online at and follow him on Twitter @jonathansterne.--@JBJ]

Over the winter break, my partner Carrie Rentschler and I spent a few days organizing our library.   For humanist academics who spend so much of their time engaged with books, we don’t really know what the hell we’re doing in terms of organizing them, and I suspect there are more scholars like us than not.  

Our library had been a chaotic mess for years and we’d recently run out of room for books in our condo.  We moved from Pittsburgh to Montreal in 2004, then moved apartments in 2007, and Carrie moved offices last year.  The result has been a slowly decaying edifice of systematicity.  Categories that made sense in Pittsburgh in 1999 or whenever we last thought about it had long ceased to work.  Now we have digital book (and article) collections, the digital books are easy–organized by author and name, and often OCR searchable.  The analog books, well, as Benjamin knows, that’s an old problem.  And I still like the analog books better, except when I’m traveling.

A brief search online yielded little in the way of help.  There’s Library Thing, of course, which is great on the book geek front but seems less helpful in the putting books-on-shelves part of it.  There’s also the reality that neither of us will take time to log every new book we get in a digital database before shelving it.  Wayne Bivens-Tatum has a lovely post on organizing his research life, but it focuses on research tools and materials, and largely leaves out the question of putting books on shelves.  Some über nerds (I use the term with reverence in this case) actually use the Library of Congress system, which I love in libraries but again can’t manage maintaining.  This thread on the Chronicle of Higher Education Forums was similarly enlightening to the degree that every system seems idiosyncratic.  We could find nobody that had a really easy and portable system for home users.  An informal poll of friends yields accounts of home libraries organized by size and shape, color, date of acquisition, and dozens of other arbitrary measures.  

We decided to organize by gross categories, alphabetical by author (or title if there is no clear author).  We chose to go with big categories.  This means if a book is ambiguous and could go in more than one place, you only have to look in a couple places.  It also slows down the browsing process as you encounter a broader field of associations, which is also advantageous.  This also seems like a simple solution for over 2000 books.  Although in a way this skips at least a hundred years of information-science-know-how, we couldn’t really find a system that would be easier for two busy people to maintain and more intuitive to use.

The categories are idiosyncratic to us, naturally.  Everyone has to make up their own if they’re not going with more precise library classifications.  There’s a huge potential for overlap, but because we think a certain way and do certain kinds of work, we should be able to find things without too much trouble.  You will, obviously, need your own categories.  If you don’t happen to be married to someone in a different subarea of the same field, you will also have a different experience. Nevertheless, here are ours, structured by our book-buying habits and research interests:

  1.  Theory (with a capital T): this includes all those translated authors imported into the English-speaking world as “theory” even if they’re not, standard works of philosophy, Marxist theory, feminist and queer theory, some literary theory.  (A large portion of the feminist theory books reside in Carrie’s office at school).
  2. General Social Sciences (more accurately, social thought): sociology, anthropology, economics, non-psychoanalytic psychology, etc.  A large group of older social science books, some from my father’s collection, live in my office at school for now (we are not routinely referred to Talcott Parsons).  Carrie’s amassing a big collection on the history of social psych that will eventually wind up here.
  3. Space: architecture, geography, urban studies.  This is a smaller section but we often look for these books together.
  4. Cultural Studies and general humanities: histories appear in other categories, but this is where general histories go (also historiographic theory, just to keep it with histories of history), along with our rather vast cultural studies holdings, art history and visual culture, literary criticism, books on politics and culture, interpretive journalism of some kinds, etc.
  5. Communication and Media Studies: pretty much every iteration of our home fields can be found here–communication theory and intellectual histories of the field, media histories of all kinds, media theory, what people are now calling media archaeology, journalism, advertising, public relations, rhetoric, and so on.  Film and TV Studies used to have its old section in the old system but we decided to collapse it into the bigger category for better browsing.  This and “theory” are our biggest and most shared sections.
  6. History and Philosophy of Technology, Science and Technology Studies, New Media: this category probably makes no sense to anyone else, but it works perfectly for us.  Although there’s some overlap with #5, these books all have a certain flavor to them.
  7. Sound: the library’s half mine, so what did you expect?  There’s also a rather large overflow from this section in my office at school.
  8.  Bodies: Trauma studies, disability studies (yes, we know that’s a problematic pairing), critical studies of medicine and disease, death. Carrie’s got tons more trauma books at school.

I keep all my popular music studies books at school along with dusty social theory.  Carrie keeps all her books on crime and violence at school, as well as a large feminist studies and feminist media studies collection.  We bring home stuff for current use and then bring it back.

Smaller sections:

  1. A few textbooks that we’ve taught or cribbed from.
  2. Pedagogy, style manuals and academic career guides, etc.
  3. A shelf of books that have portions written by us.
  4.  Shelves of “in use for current writing and teaching projects” right next to our desks.

This is not exact science.  There’s a lot of intuition.  ”Formative” authors for us, like Marx or Foucault, have all their books grouped together regardless of subject.  Donna Haraway is in #6, though she could be in 1, 4, or 5.  We split up Lewis Mumford and Henri Lefebvre depending on subject matter.

Of course we have smatterings of other books.  Another bookcase and a half is taken up with books more like those in non-academics’ home libraries: art books, travel, nonfiction, fiction, poetry, how-to, reference, manuals, medical, foreign languages, etc.  We did not touch the cookbooks (which live in a separate space).  

Let us not speak of the cookbooks.

To organize the library, we started with a large part of our collection having spent a couple months in boxes — a side effect of getting new shelves.  We guessed at what books would be essential for end-of-term writing projects and kept those out.  The rest went into hiding until it was time to reshelve. Once we had the categories, we cleared off every table in the place, and pulled books out of boxes, organizing them by subject.  We’d then alphabetize and shelve by subject, and also pull from the books we’d kept out and add them as appropriate.  It took us a couple solid days, and will clearly require some fine-tuning.  But the basic system is WAY better than what we had.  Already it’s working: I can find books very fast, and usually there’s a book nearby of interest that I hadn’t thought of to go with it (example: I’m pulling Raymond Williams off the shelf to see what he says about color, and there’s Gilbert Seldes nearby–right!).

Having just dropped a lot of money on massive new bookshelves, I secretly fear that I will find the perfect e-reader for academics, libraries and publishers will actually work something out to make large volumes of old material available digitally, and the need for the shelves will be obviated.  Then the historian of intellectual property in me kicks in and I realize this is unlikely in the near future.  Regardless of what happens in the next few years, our new library is a huge improvement over our old one.

Photo “Library” by Flickr user Stewart Butterfield / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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