I suspect many of my readers will have no more problem than I do relating to yesterday’s NY Times story by Carole Braden about Kathie Coblentz, a cataloguer at the New York Public Library, and how she deals with her own large collection of books. (I couldn’t get a blogsafe link, so this one will expire next week.)

Her 16 bookcases – about 214 running feet – reveal no deference to John Dewey and his decimal system and varying degrees of respect for the alphabetical-by-author rule. Indeed, it seems she has grouped her books less by subject than by country of origin. Dust-free and with carefully cracked spines (a sign that books have been read, or at least leafed through), the books in Ms. Coblentz’s library are navigable to no one but her.
“Your system doesn’t have to be logical, it just has to work for you,” said Ms. Coblentz…

Nice to hear, since in my latest attempt at cramming too many books into too few shelves one bookcase has books on Greece and the Greek language followed by books on Central Asia and Iran followed by travel books. I think many of us can also relate to this anecdote (sparked by her recommendation on how to weed out a collection): “Nicholas Basbanes… confessed that he regularly gives books to charity sales, then drops by to rummage and buys back his own donations.” And of direct LH relevance is this: “Grouped by country of origin – Ms. Coblentz speaks or reads 10 languages – the collection includes 12 shelves of classic German literature and 14 of Swedish mysteries.”

Some of her rules I can only dream about following, since they would necessitate far more bookcases than I possess: “She never packs shelves tightly (strains the bindings) and does not ‘double shelve,’ or stack rows behind rows (keeps books from breathing and triggers looking-for-Goethe-in-a-haystack syndrome).” On the other hand, I’ve never heard my books breathing, and the bindings seem to have survived decades of tight packing. Another rule I suppose I could follow, but I’ll just take the risk of warping, since separation by size is just too weird for me:

To avoid the warping that results when tall books are interspersed with short ones, Ms. Coblentz has subdivided her categories by size, ranked 1 to 5; 1 is devoted to diminutive books including some Swedish tails, travel guides and comics.

And look: the piece even has a typo for our amusement!


  1. I suppose it wouldn’t be polite to express an opinion about Swedish tail, right?
    What a shame.
    Nice article Hat. I could just picture you cheerfully picturing her book-addled and tongue-troubled life.
    My shelving system is this: the books are where they are, and (perhaps because I don’t have too many), I know where they are when I need them. It’s the best and worst system of all.

  2. Sometimes I semi-conciously reach for the book that used to occupy certain slot on defunct shelf in my parent’s apartment 20 yrs ago, in a far away country.
    I have a mental picture of the color pattern of the rows on the glazed shelves in a vintage 1907 banker’s bookcase at my last dwelling left behind along with everything else I left behind.
    of your household collide…worst kind of lover’s quarrel.

  3. When cataloguing systems of your houshold…[omitted accidentally]

  4. Damagedgoods says

    I could not access the article, but size does matter. Big ones on the bottom shelf, little ones up top, if you live in a geologically active region. There was a 6.8-er a few years back and one of my sets-o’-shelves took a dive, because the center of gravity was too high. Fortunately the only book damaged was one I really didn’t need anyway…
    I’ve only got 3 or 4 hundred books so not much trouble finding ’em.
    I suspect that was supposed to be “Swedish tales”.

  5. I’ve only got 3 or 4 hundred books so not much trouble finding ’em.
    Well, that does make life easier. I have at least ten times that many, and half of them are behind the other half (and they keep changing places every time we move, which recently has been once a year), so I’m fortunate to have the kind of eidetic book-memory Tatyana talks about.
    Are you in California? I have to admit I miss California quakes. (And I do keep particularly big and heavy books on the bottom shelves.)

  6. I think I’m at around 900 right now, with only three bookshelves available at the moment. Rather than double-stack them, I just decided to box up a significant number of books I was pretty sure I wouldn’t need for a bit.
    My system is basically to sort by subject (roughly), with Russian fiction and other fiction being separated, then alphabetically by author inside each section. I put oversized books on the top shelf of the large bookcase, which is open at the top.

  7. Also, was the Dewey decimal system really John Dewey? I thought it was a different one… Wikipedia says Melvil Dewey.

  8. Also, was the Dewey decimal system really John Dewey?
    Good catch! It was indeed Melvil. Write the Times and make them crawl! (We should keep an eye on the Corrections section for the next few days…)

  9. I may have been impelled to develop my strong opinions about the essentially performative nature of literature in part to justify jettisoning several dozen cartons of books.

  10. John Emerson says

    I have my books organized by study topic. I don’t have enough shelves, so all of my most interesting books are stacked on the floor in topical piles.
    But let’s not kid ourselves. Even if I had enough shelves, I would still have these piles. The books I’m not reading would be on the shelves, reasonably arranged, and everything I’ve read in the last year or so or planned to read in the next year or so would be piled on the floor in stacks intelligible only to me.
    Problems arise when one book relates to two or more topics (Central Asia / origin of the state / Marco Polo, for example). My system would be as opaque as he one in the article to most people, though my less-used books are fairly reasonably organized.

  11. I am surprised but pleased to learn that there exist 14 shelves worth of Swedish mysteries!

  12. Problems arise when one book relates to two or more topics
    In those cases I have sometimes — briefly — considered the purchase of multiple copies.

  13. In my 11 bookcases (2 m by on average .8 m) I try to adhere to the system of the Swedish public libraries. I know at once where the books I use most often are located, so when going for some unusual thing, its place is rather well established relative others. I have a slight problem with Religion and Indology, though.
    Religion has a rather personal system, mainly following the course of the university courses, and Indology is split between linguistics (where, contrary to all systems, Dravidian languages [code Fxo] follow immediately on the modern Indian ones [codes Fpa to Fpdo]) in two cases; subcontinental religions in another one, and following religion quite a mess; AME religions [Cmd] seamlessly merging with AME culture/history [Koa] and literature; Indian geography/culture/literature in a fourth case.
    The worst mixture is the Chinese one-half bookcase. There’s everything there: Grammars, dictionaries, text books, art, realia, translations of modern literature…
    And after my last move, some five years ago, I haven’t unpacked my 6 cartons of fiction.
    And I hold a M.Chem.Eng.

  14. Ah, you put me to shame. My system, such as it is, is pretty simple: 3 bookcases worth of fiction in the bedroom, more or less alphabetized, with books stacked on top of the others and a rather large ‘pending’ pile on the floor; theory and criticism in the hallway, two bookcases, by school and subject; poetry in one case in the living room, filed by colour (go ahead, laugh), two more bookcases for history, art, biography, collections of letters, etc.
    It’s the magazines that are the scariest, really. I have no idea what to do with them, and I already have 15 years worth of back issues of the New Yorker in my storage locker. I just can’t let go…

  15. Dewey took Manila
    and soon after invented the decimal system
    that keeps libraries from collapsing even unto this day ..
    (John Ashbery, Memories of Imperialism)

  16. I’ve got around 2,000 books in a basement in canada and around 300 or so books here in Korea. Yes the heavy ones are on the bottom.
    I have no method to my book storage, but I always know exactly where any book is.

  17. Ah, but do you know exactly where each book came from? I admit this isn’t as surefire as it used to be, but until not long ago I could look at any of my books and visualize from what part of which bookstore the book came. I still maintain mental maps of long-vanished stores (beginning with Washington Heights in Tokyo, demolished for the Olympic Village in 1964). I can admit this, since I know I’m among fellow bookaholics.

  18. Wouldn’t it be nice to have Umberto Eco weigh in on this thread. He has a gargantuan personal library.
    As I’ve said before, I don’t see the need for one (yet); not with Columbia, NYU and the NYPL all within easy reach, not to mention the riches of the museum libraries + the depth of reference material available through the internets.
    It’s my modest (and completely accidental) contribution to the environmentalist cause.

  19. Good catch! It was indeed Melvil. Write the Times and make them crawl! (We should keep an eye on the Corrections section for the next few days…)

  20. On another note, I just got to the end of the article, and I came across this:
    But she prides herself on occasionally bucking her own guidebook’s suggestions. Surveying her shelves to make room for the orphans, she unabashedly revealed books in which she had written notes (don’t do that) and one that she had borrowed from a friend and forgotten to return (don’t do that either).
    Don’t write in books?! I suppose I was ruined early when I read H.J. Jackson’s Marginalia at Renee’s urging. I can’t stand not to mark in my books. Especially theology, which is too hard a subject not to require annotations. 🙂

  21. This thread actually inspired me to attempt to enumerate the books in my art studio. I came up with a rough total of 1470. 1470 clay-coated “coffee table”-type art books. It’s a wonder my house doesn’t tilt more. I used to be able to remember not only where each one of my books was purchased, but also all the plates. Nowadays, I rarely have the time to pore over my art books as repeatedly and extensively as I used to, so I remember them (and categorize them) by artist name or genre. I understand that Alistair Cooke used to file all his books on US history, politics and geography by fitting them into a giant, imaginary map of the United states on a wall of shelves. I’ve always felt an affinity for this system, but unfortunately, since my collection spans the globe, if I were to attempt his method I’d have to undertake a massive purchasing program for books on marine biology to bulk out the two-thirds area of my imaginary ocean.

  22. Don’t write in books?!
    I had the same reaction. But then I remembered that she’s a librarian. Still, I’ve never understood this particular “rule”; what’s the point of owning books if you can’t make them your own? And to take the an obvious situation, if you find a mistake, do you really want to leave it there to fool others, or perhaps yourself if you’re not as observant next time you read that page? No, no — I prefer not to use a pen, for all sorts of reasons, but not write in books? You might as well ask me not to think.

  23. what’s the point of owning books if you can’t make them your own?
    Oh, I don’t know do not hurt what you love?
    So many people worked on each particular book, considering everything – font, margins, illustrations, layout – and you ruin it, with your remarks. Want to make a note – insert piece of paper between the pages – asid-free, of course.

  24. Tatyana,
    I never make notes in my books. Anymore. But you should have seen my high school chemistry book… My sister inherited it, and she’s now a chemistry teacher. I often insert little scraps of papers to mark interesting pages, but I really should start inserting neatly annotated squares when needed. One exception would be my uncut copy of part III (of four) of Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. (1806), originally belonging to the Schül.-Bibl. Königl. ???. Putbus. I won’t ever part with that one or mutilate it in any way, because of the front page stamp: “Geprüft. Keine Beanstandigungen. Kommission zur Säuberung der Büchereien”. I can’t read the date of the stamp, but it should be 1947.

  25. I didn’t see a proper response to this query, so here goes:
    Dewey Decimal is named after Melvil(le) Dewey, not John Dewey who was (I believe) no relation. The librarian Dewey also tried to jumpstart spelling reform, which is why he started out life as “Melville” and ended it as “Melvil.”
    I own no Swedish mysteries, don’t live in New York, and shelve my books (not as many as you’d expect) in boxes and higgledy-piggledy on any flat surface in sight. So sue me.

  26. I actually own a Swedish Western novel and a Norwegian crime novel (both from the English). Genre fiction is sort of fun to read in languages you don’t know to well, since you can often guess what the book should be saying. I’ve also done this in Dutch and Catalan.

  27. do not hurt what you love?
    But I don’t look at it as hurting, just as leaving my mark. My mother always said “Books are your friends,” and I think of them that way — but I don’t leave my friends unmarked, it’s just that you mark your friends’ memories and hearts. Books don’t have such, so you can’t turn to a book and say “Hey, what was that interesting thing you said about Plato that got me thinking about the transmission of ideas?” But you flip through and (if you’re me) you find a discreet vertical line or a sentence or two, always in pencil, and you can retrieve your thoughts. I don’t think my books object. They like their fonts and illustrations, but I think they like the interaction as well.
    The librarian Dewey also tried to jumpstart spelling reform, which is why he started out life as “Melville” and ended it as “Melvil.”
    By Jove, what an interesting bit of trivia! If I’m ever at a dinner party (among people who would appreciate it, needless to say), I shall trot it out for admiration, giving proper credit: “a Cataloger once told me…”
    I’ve also done this in Dutch and Catalan.
    Hey, do you have any Dashiell Hammett in Catalan? I’ve got La clau de vidre.

  28. I have two books by Bill Ballinger. Ballinger was translated into at least eight languages, including Finnish.

  29. Allan Beatty says

    My nonfiction books are distributed among two large shelves, one for sciences and one for humanities. No doubt it would horrify the Enlightenment scholars who came up with the term, but the humanities include religion. Linguistics is also on the humanities shelf, BTW.

  30. So, LH, have you ever erased your pencil marks?
    Oh, well, I suppose it’s still better than highlighting the paragraphs with poisonous yellow marker…Shudder.
    Also, shouldn’t it be the other way around: your friends are leaving their mark on you and not you on your friends?
    Otherwise it suspiciously smells (sorry) like marking the territory to me.
    Or may be it’s just an aftertaste from years of mandatory reading Lenin works, with his usual “NB!” and “ignorant” and “criterion of truth”, etc. on the margins, painstakingly recorded by devoted scholars…

  31. My collection is not that big (<1000), and is still sadly mostly packed away, but I’ve often felt irked by the conflict between the desire to sort by subject, and the occasional need to sort by size; and also by the annoying property of certain books to fall into two categories.
    My partial solution is to sort by subject, but within each subject to sort by size. The necessary constraint is that where sujects adjoin, sizes much match (roughly: large with large or small with small), so that the profile of the whole shelful is undulating. Two-category books can then be accomodated by making sure their two categories are consequetive, and putting them in the interface (this determines the local direction of size sorting, too). It has obvious limitations, such as how to deal with subjects that contain books which cohabit more than two other categories…. But it’s never given me major problems. Also, large categories usually require some more clever subsorting than by size; in that case, it makes sense to break it down into subsections, but to group them all together (putting more strain on the method of placing two-category books, but sometimes sacrifices need to be made… I give preference to books I don’t remember well or haven’t read, since I’m least likely to know where they should be).

  32. “Pathetic human race! Arranging their knowledge by category just made it easier to absorb. Dewey, you fool! Your decimal system has played right into my hands.” (The Giant Space Brain on Futurama). That’s why I always store my books haphazardly to prevent alien invasion.

  33. Also, shouldn’t it be the other way around: your friends are leaving their mark on you and not you on your friends?
    Of course it goes both ways. But I’m not answering for my friends’ book-marking practices.
    And the Lenin thing certainly helps me understand your feelings about marginal notes!

  34. The librarian Dewey also tried to jumpstart spelling reform, which is why he started out life as “Melville” and ended it as “Melvil.”

    He also changed his surname to “Dui”, but this doesn’t seem to have caught on.
    I’ve no moral objection to marginalia – indeed, rather like the idea – but almost never write in books myself. I just never seem to have anything to add. Besides, most pages don’t take ink or graphite well.
    I only own 483 books so far, but have so little space for them that I’ve considered shelving by size – the wasted space this would eliminate should allow me to insert a couple more shelves.

  35. I think it was in an Utne reader where someone said that his epitaph would be ‘he ran out of shelf space…again’

  36. I had a fire in my study last summer & lost most of my non-fiction books (about 600 volumes). Small fire, but smoke damage ruins paper.
    The task of assembling a new library is daunting. Insurance covers about 30%. What to replace first? What about a book you’ll never reread, but that had an impact on you in the past, so that you would not have tossed it out?
    By the way, a librarian once told me that Lenin’s wife wrote a monograph on the political implications of cataloguing.

  37. …a librarian once told me that Lenin’s wife wrote a monograph on the political implications of cataloguing.
    I didn’t know this! It turns out that Nadezhda Krupskaya was a librarian .
    She apparently was behind the centralization of the libraries in the Soviet Union, and, with her huband’s help, set up 50,000 public libraries throughout the USSR. She also helped recruit women into librarianship, which took the field out of the control of men.
    Hmmm. Thanks, Melissa.

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