Category crisis: how should I (re)organize my library?

library1John Fea over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home had an interesting post called “How do you organize your library?” a few weeks ago, and it inspired me to get serious about (finally!) reorganizing my library.  But, I have no idea where to start, or how to proceed, and unfortunately, none of the suggestions in the comments on John’s post were very helpful.  (One commenter left just one word, “KINDLE,” in the comments, rather enigmatically.  I know what Kindle is, but John’s question was more about the intellectual categories of organization, not how to manage actual physical books.)

When I started graduate school in 1990, early American history was neatly divided by geography into five categories:  New England, the Middle Colonies, the Chesapeake Bay region, the Lower South, and the Caribbean.  By the time I took my degree in 1996, there was another category added to the mix, “Atlantic World,” but astute readers will note that early American history was really in fact early Anglo-American history.  If students was interested in the history of New Spain or Brazil, they worked with Mexican historians and colonial Latin Americanists, not with the people who called themselves early Americanists.  (And–bien sur–no one was interested in New France!)  Although most of us were encouraged to read, think, and write about non-white peoples and non-English Europeans, it was expected that we’d confine our readings and research to lands under some form of English government. 

Nevertheless, the New England/Middle Colonies/Chesapeake/Lower South/Caribbean scheme is how I have organized my books since graduate school, with sections (and then later full shelves) also devoted to my books on the American Revolution, and the nineteenth century (since I was trained to teach up through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and I do that when I teach the survey.)  But since I was trained, early American history has moved from being divided into geographically and culturally distinct regions to more conceptual divisions that transcend geography and even macropolitical and linguistic borders.  This, in my opinion, is all to the good, and I’ve helped to usher along some of these changes in my own very modest way with my scholarship.  This dissolution of geographical and national borders is something that has happened throughout the historical profession, too.  Whereas once everything was filed neatly under histories of the nation-state, comparative and transnational history have confused these formerly (and deceptively) tidy categories.

librarywithcaptivesSo, my question is:  how the heck do I organize my library now?  I know it’s traditional to file books by the author’s last name, but I forget authors’ names all of the time, so I’ve found it easier to confine my searches to a designated topic area.  (I seem to have a near-photographic memory of the physical appearance of the books themselves–size, color of the cover, etc.–but filing the books according to size and color is a little too flakey for me.)  Should I throw away all geographical and chronological categories, and go with broad topics like “women’s history,” “history of sexuality,” “history of the body,” “slavery history,” “borderlands history,” “Native American history?”  These categories would leave a lot of my older books out.  Another issue is how the first four categories all bleed together, and how the last three categories do as well.  Most of the books I read and use in my teaching could be filed in at least two if not four of these categories.  This is what I love about our current moment in historical scholarship–the borrowing and the blending of scholarship in the past 15-20 years have totally transformed our fields.  But, it’s been hell when it comes to organizing my library.

I know I can’t be alone in this.  How have similar shifts in your fields changed your original field of study?  How have you coped with these changes when it comes to organizing your books?  Any and all suggestions will be most welcome!

0 thoughts on “Category crisis: how should I (re)organize my library?

  1. Category bleed is the problem, especially as everyone gets all interdisciplinary and transnational. My current system has some infelicities, but is basically this.

    Collection A: The dissertation shelves. Books used in the writing of the dissertation are organized by chapter, shelf one=chapter one, etc. Some problem with books that cross over chapters, but it doesn’t take too much time to scan up or down and find them. This organization also helps me think about my arguments and interlocutors, by chapter.

    Collection B: Academic/historical books not directly related to the dissertation. Organized alphabetically by author, with the exception of biographies which are by subject’s name. Now, you’re right that if you have a problem with remembering names, this could be a problem.

    Collection C: Books that normal people might like: readable fiction, comic books, detective fiction, art books. Out in the living room in no particular order.

    Collection D: Reference. Stacked next to desk.

    That’s how we do it hear. A friend actually got a label printer and did her home collection by LOC call number. But I think she was just trying to impress potential suitors.


  2. Given your description of the acquisition of your books and their topics as developing (even transforming) across time, Historiann, the logical organization would seem to be chronological, by publication date! And, another plus, new books are easy to shelve: they go at the end.

    My own shelves here in the office, I’ll admit, still have a large number of books in the pot pourri category, as Alex Trebek might describe it.


  3. Ours is beyond arcane (and there are slightly different versions for home and office, but I also keep different collections in the office than at home.) Also complicated by shelf heights — we have some shelves that are relatively low. We have primary sources all together; then we have (for early modern England) a social history section, divided by family history, popular culture etc; Then political history divided by periods; biographies; puritanism; literature & history. Then there is European history; European women’s history; Atlantic history, etc.

    The real problem is that when we moved we got the books into roughly the areas they belong in, but never finished organizing each shelf in the area. When we’re really settled it will be alphabetical within the subject areas.

    And, of course, since we have just moved we are often trying to figure out exactly where a particular book might have ended up. Like you, I tend to say, oh, the book looks like x.


  4. It sounds like you are interested in conceptual categories (classification) mostly instrumentally, as an aid to finding specific books (location)? The two are not inherently related in any way, though most institutional libraries are indeed organized in such a way that they are. Libraries of individuals don’t tend to have the same goals or constraints, of course…


  5. How about according to quality, or how you judge the thesis?

    A. Really outstanding
    B. Not bad, something to work with
    C. debatable, maybe something there
    D. total crap

    After all, you may not remember author’s name, but you probably remember that you loved or hated it…

    Would also lead to some great conversations with people who enter your office/home library

    Them: “Oh, I notice you have [author x] in your library. I really liked her book.”

    You: “I have her filed under “total crap.”


  6. Quite a mess here, made worse in that I teach world history and was sorta trained along those lines. So I have a bunch of geographical groupings–Europe, Germany. Then I have some thematic categories—British Empire, general Empire, world. All of The Americas are lumped together on a big bookcase but I never got around to breaking the shelves down into Anglophone/Latin America. I try to put things that overlap near each other—eg, if India is directly below British Empire, I can skim both shelves easily regardless of where I decided to put Bernard Cohn’s Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge.

    Except, wait, did I put Cohn down in the theory group along with my Subaltern Studies Reader which is all about India?

    Then I have some functional groupings for use when developing syllabi/lectures—all textbooks (except the oversize ones) for when I just need a fact, reference books, atlases, collections of edited primary sources, individual book primary sources.

    It’s going to be decades before I decide alphabetizing within these categories is worth my time.


  7. I do a mixture of thematic sections and geographic sections, but the hardest part for me has been decided what category trumps another category. For instance, I’ve decided that if it deals with African-American women (as with Glenda Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow, women trumps African-American. This is mostly because I have more African-American history books than women’s history books. So, if you can figure out how to decide those matters, a lot of the hard stuff is done, I think.


  8. Category bleed is the problem. I have the older categories, and the newer ones, so I have many. This interfaces with another problem, bookshelf size … some of my books are of necessity organized by size. Mostly I keep moving them around, the active areas being organized by what project I’m using those books for now.


  9. When I volunteered to move offices two years back, the prospect of a wall of uninterrupted shelving, five shelves running wall-to-window, to hold my collection was a big incentive.

    I’ve kept some of the original organizing principles which was to separate books into teaching fields. My books are arranged into the following major categories:

    – Ancient Near East
    – Primary sources, continental European, ancient to early modern
    – Medieval Europe
    – Early modern continental Europe & world
    – Early modern Britain (40% of the shelf space and sub-divided in Tudor and Stuart periods with groups for biographical or geographic focus as well as religious, political, economic, social and educational themes)

    On the shelves that hide behind the door I have my modern history books, my journals, my dress history and gender theory or survey books — these are small enough subcategories that they can fit in the semi-hidden place.

    References works, copies of my publications, pedagogical books and picture books are on the small set of shelves that line the hallway/door wall. There’s even some empty space I currently use to display framed photos, though that might be sacrificed as the collection grows.

    At home, however, my books get shelved willy-nilly. Ian Gentles’ work on the New Model Army sits between a volume from the Cambridge Ancient History and a colleague’s book on Chile & the Nazis.


  10. I am spending much of my day cleaning my office and reshelving books, so imagine my delight to see this topic. Judging from some of the comments, I seem to break my books down into fewer categories than some of the other individuals here. I have around a dozen shelves devoted to traditional “early America,” which is mainly Anglo-America to around 1820. I then have several shelves devoted to “Atlantic history,” which includes early modern Latin America and Africa. And I have two shelves devoted to English history. Within the categories, I just go with alphabetical order.

    I have considered previously being more idiosyncratic in my organization, especially since I don’t believe that there really is such a thing as “early American history.” Given that all of my work covers the period before 1760 and that the book I’m finishing pretty much ends in 1730, I’ve long struggled to figure out what the early republic has to do with my intellectual interests. When I subscribed to the Journal of the Early Republic I could only bring myself to read articles there(very occasionally) out of a sense of professional guilt. That sense has now passed.

    But realizing that the old arbitrary classifications are truly arbitrary has actually convinced me to stick to them. Otherwise there really would just be chaos. It does help, I suppose, that I can remember the books (most of the time) by author. The biggest problem I have is when I have several books by the same author. (Quick: in what book did Jack Greene lay out his model for how British colonists “mastered” colonial space in North America? Did Perry Miller discuss “criolian degeneracy” in length in the first or second volume of _The New England Mind_? Those are the kinds of questions that really stump me.)

    And Eduardo–your suggestion may be tongue in cheek, but I have actually met a scholar who just might organize hir library in such a fashion. I was chatting with this individual in my office at the old Early American Studies Center at Penn while finishing my dissertation when s/he started perusing my library. I was thereupon given capsule evaluations of the various books (no good, no good, wrong, overly simplistic, etc–one book that won the Pulitzer was deemed “ok”) grilled as to why I would even own many of these books, given their (low) quality. I suspect this scholar has a library with very few books in the “A” range, some in the “B” range, and the overwhelming majority in the “C” and “D” range.


  11. Yikes. I deal with this every time I get on an organizing kick. There’s general European, drilling down to specific periods (WW1, Interwar, WWII, Cold War) and then country specific. Then there’s regional: Eastern/Balkan (that’s my field). General to specific by country – since I do Yugoslavia, it rapidly degenerates into a mess. Then there’s the whole world history mess: I also do ancient, so…

    Within categories, I don’t bother alphabetizing. It’s either ancient or modern. Ancient with the other ancients, modern with moderns. I’m the only one that can find things.


  12. I have been unmasked! I am, indeed, a flake. Being a visual thinker, a graduate of an interdisciplinary program, and a material culture scholar I do organize by color and size. And what I found when I first decided to use color as a guide is that book designers tend to use color to code certain categories but that these color codes changed as fashion change. In the 1980s, for example, works on domesticity as culture were cad in dusty pink/mauve. World on the environment have alternated between green, brown, and black and white.

    The issue for me is one of access, because I don’t necessarily need to pull a book on the shelf for its subject but rather for an image, or for its use in writing a lecture or thinking about one aspect of the book’s topic in relation to a larger theme. But what I need for research and teaching I pull and place on a shelf closer to my desk. (We won’t mention the stacks of books on various floors.)

    Good luck, Historiann!

    What’s fun about having a color-coded office is that visitors sense that something is different but it takes them some time to discover that something–if they figure it out at all!


  13. 1. Books that I keep referring to get a central shelf.
    2. Books that aren’t all that good I ship out.
    3. Then there are library books to read first, and then if they are really good, I buy a copy and put it on the central shelf.

    It seems to work.


  14. Totally intuitive in my case. Once in a while things sort of migrate into what might look like order, but this is really evanescent, like cosmic dust. Keeping them off of the *floor* is the bigger challenge. Bigger still is having books at two ends of a medium-sized state and always needing one that you can’t find quickly at either end. This is about the only thing that makes Kindle sound interesting to me. I saw my first Kindle on Saturday, coincidentally, on the counter of a local diner in front of an adjacent customer. I had to squelch an impulse to see how it would look covered with a spilled cup of hot coffee! Bad.


  15. historymaven raies an important point about color coding. I have several shelves on Latino lit/culture and they are as colorful as a Mexican restaurant. Bright orange seems to dominate. By contrast, my nineteenth century American (U.S.) shelves tend toward the blueish, darkish tints. And then there is the Cuba section, in which the bright colors of the Caribbean struggle against the blueish, darkish tones of imperialism. Or is that mimicry of some sort.


  16. Rather than describe my own shelves (the ever-expanding sections on African women and on Mozambique, while I try to cut back on some of the other areas of African history that I simply do not have space for …), I want to recommend a couple of books about owning books.

    First, Anne Fadiman’s essays in _Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader_ are all simply wonderful. I liked one, “Marrying Libraries,” about how she and her husband merged their libraries (what do you do about duplicates?), and another about Gladstone’s book _On Books and the Housing of Them_ – yes, that Gladstone, better known as British prime minister. And she has an essay that begins: “It has long been my belief that everyone’s library contains an Odd Shelf. On this shelf rests a small, mysterious corpus of volumes whose subject matter is completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which, upon closer inspection, reveals a good deal abut its owner.” The whole book is utterly charming.

    Second, a more technical but fascinating study of the history of libraries, Henry Petroski’s _The Book on the Book Shelf_, which begins with scrolls in ancient times, and includes an appendix addressing the question, “How can we arrange the books on our bookshelves?” – in which he includes 25 different schemas from the obvious (author’s name, subject), to the less so (color or size, read and unread), and more.


  17. I colorcode too! I can almost always remember what a book looked like, even if I can’t recall the author or title. So if I keep all the red books, blue books, green books, tan books, white books, etc. together (and sort by size–another visual cue), I can usually find what I’m looking for pretty quickly. Exception is the shelving next to my desk, which of necessity is limited to books related to current projects, and references I use very often, and my own pubs (so I can look up page numbers or whatever).


  18. Many thanks to all of you for sharing your various schemes for organizing. Mark K. is correct that I am “interested in conceptual categories (classification) mostly instrumentally, as an aid to finding specific books (location)–it’s not the filing that’s so important as the ability to find them again once I’ve filed them.

    One thing I’ll add to the discussion of the color-coded library (and thanks, Clio B., for the lovely, surreal photos of that art exhibit!): because colors are either in or out of fashion, color-coding a library might also be a means of ordering things roughly chronologically. My book has a currently-fashionable pale khaki spine, but soon it will look as frowsy and as out-of-date as all of those late 60s and 70s books with the aqua-tinted covers.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s nothing to be done except to exapand the number of categories I use in shelving. So, in addition to “New England/Middle Colonies/Chesapeake/Lower South/Caribbean,” which is an organizational scheme that still makes sense for most of the books published before 1995 or so, I’ll just continue to add new categories. (I didn’t mention that I’ve long had a separate shelf for Native American history and for women’s history, so to those I’ll have to add borderlands, history of sexuality/the body, perhaps historical biography, environmental history, etc.)

    The advantage to building on my current scheme is that I won’t forget where I’ve shelved my pre-1995 books (since they’ll stay where I’ve kept them for 19 years). I might have trouble remembering where I’ve put more recent books, but it’s not altogether unpleasant to get lost and rediscover old friends or titles I’ve forgotten about, on my hunt for le livre juste. (Unless, that is, I’m madly trying to prep for class or finish an essay and can’t find something I know I own!)


  19. What a fun thread! At home, there is no organization, except the dictionaries are in easy reach of the computer. In the office books basically organized by teaching and research projects. The articles are similarly organized by project, in a file cabinet or as a pdf on the computer (I have been trying to keep track of those with refworks and now zotero, but that is an endless struggle).

    Nobody else can find anything, but I can usually track down the book I need.


  20. I organize books chronologically. other categories are too difficult. I have a bunch of 17th c shelves (and earlier) to pre-rev; Amer. Rev. shelves; and 19th-20th c together because I don’t teach those courses regularly. I have a couple of Atlantic history shelves and some women’s history shelves. Latter trumps all other categories.


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