Not the Library of Congress

Surprisingly, to anyone who has ever seen my desk, I actually quite like things to be neatly ordered and systematic.  I don’t usually achieve the perfection I aspire to, but it doesn’t stop me from trying.

One place where my semi-realised dreams of organisational efficiency are manifested is on my bookshelves.  I’ve been thinking (on and, mostly, off) about this for a few days since somebody asked me what system I had for arranging my books on the shelf (just after I’d directed them to a particular book by referring to the colour of its cover).

As a keen bibliophile, I have quite a few books (I haven’t counted them, but it’s certainly into the thousands).  In order to have any hope of finding any given book that I may be looking for in my collection, it’s necessary to have some kind of system for organising them.  In general, I like to try and arrange my books along roughly thematic lines.  For instance, all my poetry books are on one shelf, my Welsh language books are on another and my graphic novels more-or-less all together somewhere else.

There are sometimes problems caused by the refusal of books to sit nicely within a single tightly-defined category.  For instance, do I put my Welsh poetry books with my other books in Welsh or with the rest of my poetry books? (The answer, at least for most of them and for the moment, is that they are on my poetry shelf; similarly my Welsh translations of Asterix and Tintin books (one apiece, so far) are with my other graphic novels; a few others are collected together with other books in their subject area but most of them, including all the prose fiction, are together in one place.)

Another constraint is the physical size of the shelves. It’s sometimes necessary to put my bigger books on a given topic on one shelf and the smaller ones on another shelf, since I don’t have enough big shelves to accommodate all my books (actually, I don’t quite have enough shelves at all for all my books, but that’s a different issue).

Within a given subject area, I like to try and group together all the books by a single author, or in a series, but otherwise I don’t generally try to go for anything like alphabetical order.  Occasionally, if I’m feeling extra organised, I might do something like arrange all my poetry volumes in roughly chronological order, but such a level of organisation doesn’t usually last very long.

My book filing system may not be anything like as sophisticated as the established library cataloguing systems such as the Dewey Decimal system (used in most British public libraries) or the Library of Congress system (used by all the university libraries I’ve visited and, presumably, also by the Library of Congress), but it is certainly adequate for a library of my size.  It also leaves open some space for the philosophy of serendipity practiced by my PhD supervisor.  He steadfastly refused to institute any kind of ordered filing system for the vast quantity of books and papers crammed into his office, claiming that even if he was unable to find the paper he was looking for at any given time he would be almost certain to turn up a few forgotten gems while looking for it.

These days, of course, my dead-tree-edition books are only part (though, for the moment at least, still the major part) of my library as I now make fairly extensive use of e-books too, mostly on my Kindle.  Apart from not taking up physical space, which is at a premium in my small bungalow, they have the benefit that I can put each book into multiple categories in my collection rather than having to decide which of the candidate shelves to put it on and whether it will actually fit there.  Also it means I can take several hundred books with me whenever I go on holiday, rather than having to decide which few to take and how many I can get away with and still leave space for other useful items such as clothes and food.