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Revisiting Your Bookshelf During the National Book Festival

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This is a guest post by Rachel Gordon, Visitor Services Specialist in the Library’s Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement. 

Books and family heirlooms, many collected on the family’s overseas trips, at the Miller House…; Carol M. Highsmith, photographer, 2016; Prints and Photographs Division.

As I wrote my recent blogpost on bookplates, I began thinking about our personal libraries.  Many of us have eclectic collections made up of volumes we’ve bought, been given, or otherwise acquired. Some may be left over from long ago projects, or from school and college classes. Our books reflect our interests, from mystery novels and celebrity biographies to hobbies such as cooking or gardening. Some remind us of things we meant to do but never did – like the how-to manuals on calligraphy and landscape painting I can see on my bookshelves as I write. Our libraries chart our family histories and mark the stages of our lives. Childhood favorites bring back memories before you even crack the spines.

Categorization and organization are essential for managing any book collection, but they can be a challenge. The most well-known method is the Dewey Decimal Classification system (DCC), used by school and smaller, public libraries today, and supported by the Library of Congress’s Dewey Program. Invented by Melvil Dewey in the 1870s, the DCC revolutionized libraries, replacing unwieldly and inefficient systems that constantly needed adjusting as collections grew. His solution was to use letters and numbers to organize books by subject. Dewey was an idiosyncratic and obsessive man, whose mania for organizing and efficiency was clear from an early age.  As a boy he even reorganized the family pantry alphabetically. He looms large in the history of American libraries and librarianship, although some of his actions and attitudes have led to a more clear-eyed and critical assessment of him in recent years.

Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, on display at the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress acquired Thomas Jefferson’s library in 1815, which was organized according to Jefferson’s personal classification system.  His books replaced the collection destroyed by the British in the War of 1812. Find out more about the purchase of Jefferson’s library and how he arranged it here.

The copyright law of 1870 required materials registered for copyright to be deposited with the Library and as the institution grew, Jefferson’s main categories of Memory, Reason and Imagination could not accommodate the million and a half volumes that made up the Library. Lack of space compounded the problem, as this image  and this photo illustrate. Several alternatives, including DCC, were considered; when none proved satisfactory the Library decided to create its own method. The Library of Congress Classification (LCC) was the result. It’s a system now used worldwide by large institutions.

Perhaps your books are haphazardly balanced in piles, like Harry Houdini’s, or more tidily shelved like Thomas Edison’s or George Gershwin’s. However you arrange them, the back to school, post-summer vibe of September is an ideal time to go through your books and consider how to organize and display them. We’re unlikely to need either the DCC or LCC to cope with our personal libraries, although we can take some inspiration from their categories (the letters and titles of the main classes of the Library of Congress Classification are listed here). Or, use your own creativity to arrange by color, alphabetically, by theme, age of reader, read vs. unread, placing books on their sides, grouping authors or series together – the possibilities are many.

The author’s reimagined bookshelf.

So, take all the books off the shelves. This may seem daunting, and for a while it’ll look as if you’re creating a great deal of mess rather than organizing, but it’s a good idea to give both books and shelves a good cleaning. Impressive amounts of dust can gather behind rarely disturbed volumes! The Library’s Preservation Directorate offers recommendations for handling and storing your books. As you sort, it’s a good idea also to cull your collection – we probably all have outdated volumes taking up valuable shelf space, and you may find new favorites you’d like to add during this year’s National Book Festival! An easy way to pass them on for others to enjoy might be to leave them in one of the Little Free Libraries that now dot many neighborhoods, like these examples in Kentucky, Colorado, and New Mexico, photographed by Carol M. Highsmith, whose work is preserved in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division. Then rearrange everything according to your chosen method, after which you can sit back and admire your beautifully curated collection. Once family members have marveled at the display, be sure to explain the new system so they can help maintain it. Enjoy your library’s new look!

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