It’s time to quit being librarians.


I love libraries. I respect, admire, and sometimes envy librarians. This is because I adore books and all the knowledge and personality preserved in them. So many hours I have spent wandering the open stacks, not even with a particular goal in mind but letting serendipity strike with a book or book cluster that catches my eye.

But it’s 2017. I don’t keep a library card file any more: I keep a database.

This summer, I had the revelation, lowering as it might seem to you, that I had, not a problem of librarianship, but of warehousing.

This applies not only to the nearly one thousand tree books I own (fiction not included), but to the twice or thrice as many ebooks I’m trying to corral, as well. After all, if you can’t lay hand to it when you want it, it’s the same as if you don’t have it.

(Yes, I have read every treebook, many of them several times. Ebooks, about a third of them have been read. More will when I can find what I want!)

A library, like our beloved public and collegiate ones, needs to contain about every subject on Earth and beyond, and needs to cluster ideas, subjects, or topics for the wanderer or researcher. So the pocket-sized book is filed next to the lap-breaker if that’s how subjects go. Only sometimes are big folios put on the Oversized shelves.

We, at home, whether we have walls of books or a terabyte drive, are rarely collecting every subject, and we don’t have to suit bunches of strangers, just ourselves. Especially as researching writers, we need to pretend we have technology that allows us better access to our collected knowledge.

Now, obviously, if you have a mere hundred books you can put them all in one bookcase and have them all available at a glance. Over this, they tend to start sprawling and separating. Mine are cookery in the kitchen, railroading with the model layout, and everything else in the office and bedroom. The office has basically nine book spots, if we include the bag with music books by the door. The bedroom has two 6×3 bookcases. Doesn’t sound too bad until you try to find a paperback you last read six years ago.

So the first step is to find out what you have by making a card catalog database. Remember my series on using programs you already have or can get free or cheap to do everything those fancy “writing notebook” programs do? So you ought to have a db program and a writing/text/word processor program.

One of the fields in the db should be “Location”: this lets you track down the book of interest, especially if you have small or medium-sized books two deep on your shelves.

Your first instinct is going to be mine, which is to cluster by subject on the shelves. Did it for years, down to inking the Dewey number on the spine. Then I found myself pulling them together by project (one of my db fields), which means the books out of Costume, Cookery, Militaria, Theatre, and Travel Guides got broken up. Because I’m not a bunch of different researchers. This is a private library, where I read all the books, and use them in a particular way.

Problems arise when one book, like Transport Down the Ages, needs to go in three different projects.

What is SKU?

Now I’m using a warehousing method called SKU. It requires a computer, which is why it’s a recent development. It allows random filing of the physical objects, because the computer can find which bin has the right size washers out of all the washers, bolts, nuts, screws, and nails in the warehouse. They don’t have to be filed by type, then size, for humans to remember and figure out.

This means you can group books by size, which improves storage no end. Unlike a bookseller’s warehouse, we don’t have thirty cases of one title, that we hope will be trickling away. Instead, we have one copy that will probably stay with us for life (I have one pair of books from when I was first learning to read). So we need permanent storage with access, not temporary deposits.

This size system means all the books in a set, like an encyclopedia or Conway’s History of the Ship, will tend to stay together because they’re exactly alike in size. Right next to Conway, though, will be a bunch of North Light painting books, and then some on doll houses and vegetable gardening, that are that size. I can put a back row of biggish tall books with a front row of mass-market paperbacks (The Gold of Tutankhamen, How to Stay Alive in the Woods, Ski the New French Way) and see the back titles a bit. The subject doesn’t matter at all.

Your database form might look like:


Because the db can sort by author without it being the top field, you will find this handier when pulling ebook info off the Internet Archive page where title comes first. For your own use, you want to see the date of origin near the top.

Location comes last, because you can always see the end of a paragraph (in the printout), rather than it being lost in the middle muddle.

Now, yes, this can be work. It took me a couple of months of weekends (I was in a viral fog and incapable of anything creative). I found 10 CDRs of research ebooks, that were already db’d, had died and I have to find new copies of everything on them. (Hm, maybe I don’t need the weak ones.) I also began with the advantage of an out-of-date database of the treebooks and a partial of the ebooks. Like any large clerical project, you just give it the time you can and chip away at it.

The results have been worth it. The bookshelves hold more. I know my ebooks better. Things I had found and forgotten turn out to be delights. I can actually put my hands on things.

When I want to consider books by subject that I have at home, not new ones at the public library, I can look at them and recall where they are by sorting the db. That’s also how I pull up the ebooks on the terabyte. For the times I don’t have electronic access to the database, I have a short form printed out, sorted by title (the main way I remember things) with a few that I do remember by author (Boucher, Hill & Bucknell, Campbell).

Making a bibliography for a project or period gets easier. I Find by the Subjects field and mark them for that Project. Then I can sort them by project to see which ones I need to read or review.

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