Personal collections

No links post this week, as I’m travelling, but there’ll be one next week. In the meantime, I’ve been working on weeding through my bookshelves and thinking about what I want as a ‘collection’ in library terms. (The realities of job hunting right now mean that there’s a reasonable chance a move will be involved. So I’m sorting through books and weeding out stuff I no longer need to own, on the theory that if I move, it’ll be useful, and if I don’t move, it’ll still be useful.)

My starting point:

– I currently live in a little tiny house with limited bookshelf space. (To the point that the childhood books I adore but rarely reread live on the top two shelves in my pantry, which are too tall for me to use for kitchen storage without a ladder.) Everything I own therefore needs to pass the ‘do I love this enough to make room for it?’ test.

– Realistically? There is this thing called the Internet, and this other thing called the Library. I own very few reference books, because the Internet does most of what I need in a far smaller space, and I own very little non-fiction in general because the library is likely to have what I want. (Exceptions noted below.)

What I own:

Reference: A small reference collection useful for the kinds of questions easier to work with in print than online. (Greek lexicon, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phase and Fable, that sort of thing.)


  • books which would be very expensive to replace but that are in formats I am affectionate about or sentimentally attached to. (The Riverside Chaucer, several gorgeously illustrated books on the history of the book, etc. etc.)
  • A very few college and grad school textbooks that remain reasonably current and useful, in subject areas I’m likely to want to reference at home. Or if not current, at least a reasonable starting place (A classic in this category is Grout and Palisca’s music history text book, though I forget which edition I have. A number of other music books, as well.)
  • cookbooks I refer to regularly (though I usually start by checking them out of the library first to see if I like them.)
  • a few pieces of classic literature that include annotations of usefulness (I have a number of the Penguin editions of various Arthurian legends pieces.)
  • and a few miscellaneous non-fiction books that I come back to regularly and enjoy rereading for pleasure (The Mummy Congress (mummies) or Honey, Mud, and Maggots (where modern science and folklore around healing and remedies coincide), or Color: A Natural History of the Palette (color))

These are about a fifth of my shelves.


  • Books I re-read at least every 2 years or so.
  • Genre series where the library has proven unreliable in keeping copies of everything …
  • … or which I want to read at 3am when I can’t sleep (or I’m sick, or any other thing that makes it unlikely that the library will be very useful.)
  • And a small collection of fiction that I don’t necessarily re-read very often, but when I want to read it, it’s for a very specific reason, and I like to have it handy.

These are about half of my shelves.

Religious non-fiction (and some fiction):

(For other people, this might encompass books about a hobby or a very specific interest, too.)

The library is not a good and reliable source for a sizeable amount of the material I referĀ  to in my religious life: often copies would only be available via ILL, and even then, not very reliably (since my home library right now is the biggest public library system in the state: chances are decent that if they don’t have it, it’s going to be hard to come by, as we’re talking ‘books for members of the religion’ not ‘academic discussion of the religion’, which would be easier to come by from university sources.)

So, I have copies at home (both of books I like and recommend, and a shelf that a friend of mine labelled ‘Books of Ill Repute’ where I like having certain popular but problematic titles handy. It’s a lot easier to say “On page 50, I really disagree with the assumption that…” and “This section in chapter 3 is really muddy and poorly explained: I’ve heard people interpret it this way, and that way, and this other way.” if, in fact, you have the books in front of you.

I do the least weeding here, honestly – because I never know which of these books is going to be useful or not useful, and in which circumstance. (And because replacing them would be more expensive and complicated in many cases than replacing, say, a genre mystery series I decided I do want to keep.)

I’ve also gotten (through the kindness of a friend) a number of copies of items that are now fairly hard to come by (small press run books in the days before Print on Demand), and I figure I ought to keep them until I find a specific better home for someone to make use of them.

So, mostly, I look for whether I’m going to want to refer to a book repeatedly, whether it fits a hole in my existing collection, andĀ  the quality of information before I bring it home, and after that, expect to keep it (though I do plan to do a little bit of weeding here, as there are a few things that probably don’t need to live with me anymore.

(These, if it weren’t obvious, are the rest of my collection.)


I am very odd in that I shelve by sub-genre in fiction. All my historical mystery series are together. All my urban fantasy are together – near, but separate from – my high fantasy, and my historical fantasy (my term for books clearly in the fantasy genre but clearly in a world closely influenced by our history – Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series, or Guy Gavriel Kay’s books.

Within those, I go by place within series (usually chronological internal to the series, rather than publication date), and then by ‘where does this fit on the shelf’ (so my authors are not always in alphabetical order, since for some series, they’re all paperback, and in others, there’s a mix of mass market, trade, and hardcover editions.)

In the non-fiction, I group by general topic (and in the religious materials, by subtopic).

In an ideal world with more shelves for bookshelf space, I’d have the space to spread everything out, and to go alphabetically by author (and then by place in series) and so on, but until then, I make do.

Tracking things to read

Tracking books I’ve read is much easier – I’ve played with various options, including a nice straight plain text list, but I’m currently using GoodReads, because it’s got the nicest integration with WordPress in my opinion. (Just take a look at my sidebar…) But tracking what I *want* to read is a lot trickier.

Like most avid readers, I usually have a long list of books I want to read. But those lists can get complicated.

  • Some books aren’t out yet.
  • Some I want to get from my library (most)
  • Some I’ll need to buy (things not readily available from my library, or just plain books I want to own.)
  • Some might be out of print.
  • Some are going to be very popular, and I’m going to sit on the reserves list at the library for quite a while.

And most importantly, I want to read a wide variety of different kinds of books: when I’m looking for something new to read, I try to keep a balance between them. My basic categories include genre reading (fantasy, science fiction, mysteries), non-fiction, professional reading, books related to my religious interests, and I don’t like the list of one type of reading complicating finding titles of other types. Also, I sometimes have the “I want to read a mystery…” moments and don’t want to wade through dozens of other entries to find the mysteries.

There’s no really great solution for this. I’ve looked at various discussions – this discussion from the Unshelved Answers site on tracking books to read and this one from AskMetafilter on tracking books to read are both focused on tracking books already read, but include comments on tracking things to read as well. I’ve played with a few of the iPhone/iPod apps, and find them useful, but a bit cludgy: it takes me a long time to enter and move data around, and I read enough books that that’s problematic. (The one I like best is BookCrawler, though, if you’re looking…)

But I think I’ve settled down into a spreadsheet – in my case, in iWork’s Numbers, which I prefer to Excel when I get the chance. I have one page for fiction, and one page for non-fiction right now, but may split those out in other ways later.

My columns are:

  • Title (the thing I’m most likely to remember about the book, personally.)
  • Author (because it is also useful)
  • The publication date, with conditional formatting I’ll explain in a moment
  • Genre
  • And a brief notes field

The publication date is the trickiest one for me. I often hear about books a good while before they’re coming out, sometimes long before I can put a hold in on them at the library. Likewise, there are times I want to focus on recent titles (especially those that are getting a lot of conversation right now) so I can join in discussions about them.

My publication date column is therefore set up so that I can tell at a glance how recent a title is. I divided things up into books more than 5 years old, books 1-5 years old, books 3-12 months old, books out in the last 3 months, and books not yet out. This way, it’s easy for me to see what I might want to go and request at the library (or go and get from the bookstore.) and an idea of how long the reserve list might be. I can easily sit down once a month and add a reminder in my task management program for forthcoming books once they might be in the system, too.

Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

More about my job and a day in the life

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