Roundtable on the Theory of Organizing Books

Following on from yesterday’s discussion on organizing books

John Clute

There was a Readercon panel this year — inspired by a very good panel at WFC in Toronto — about building a collection in a way both organizes its contents and makes those contents accessible as a presentation, as a kind of body English, of the meaning of those contents.

Any non-alphabetic organization of authors — ie sorting books by size (a la Harlan Ellison), publisher, date, place of publication, whether or not the book has been read yet, etc — needs, ideally, a book list/catalogue taggable with the location of each book.

And on and on it can go.

Paul Graham Raven

In an ideal world (one in which I’d had a little more free time of late), my fiction collection would be organised by format, then author or editor, then chronologically by title. My non-fiction collection, currently still in boxes in my mother’s spare room, used to be organised by a rough equivalent to the Dewey system, because working in libraries encouraged my inner taxonomist a little too much.

John Clute

I tried Dewey once, but as it is only of any earthly use above 100,000 or so volumes, gave up real fast. In any case it has a Utopian arbitrariness that is neither intuitive nor flexible. The worst thing one can say about a system of ordering books (or anything) is that you’ve got to memorize it before you can use it. Proper ordering systems must allow new users some chance of guessing right…

Mark Kelly

As I recall, the master library at Locus HQ in Oakland, which I visited (and slept in) several times before Charles Brown died, was arranged by author and then alphabetically, not chronologically. I follow a similar pattern as Locus HQ in integrating annual updates into the main collection.

Alas, my main library in the former dining room is filled to capacity, and in order to integrate the past couple years’ books, I have had to cull books that I’ve supposed I am never likely to read and that I’ve doubted will ever be collectable, and have consigned them to shelves in the laundry room or boxes in the garage. I haven’t found a useful/remunerative method of disposing of these yet. (Fran suggested eBay.)

I have many other books I suppose I will never get around to reading, but might be collectable, and these remain in the main collection. When anyone — including my partner — asks, I assure them that their value in the long run, should I get hit by the proverbial bus, will be worth having kept them around. The first editions of GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire novels, for instance.

John Clute

Mark: The problem with Charles Brown’s alphabetical-within-author sort (it is a problem shared by lots of professional libraries, like the Merril Collection in Toronto) is its failure to deal with series, which is to say its failure to deal with maybe most of the books published in the past decade or so. The alphabetical order of stacking, which is to say spread over a total array of titles comprising maybe 40 volumes, for Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun is 4, 2,1,3. (My own chronological-within-author is more complicated than that might seem, but intuitive to (my) eye: series instalments follow directly upon the first volume, which itself fits chronologically into the whole. Doesn’t always work, natch, but is a move towards a shelf being a body English of the corpus.)

Noting something pretty obvious here: that the more transparent (ie arguable in principle) a sorting is, the more hidden the owner: except for the kind of default fact that the owner is a geek. And the more NARRATOLOGICAL the sort, the more the owner is exposed to MERCILESS SCRUTINY.

Mark Kelly

John: Yes, the issue of sorting or listing series titles on shelves or in bibliographies is a vexing one; I’ve never cared for the bibliographic rules (those that SFE and ISFDB follow) that put ‘series’ titles in a separate section from ‘novels’, as if the components of series aren’t novels (or collections, sometimes; whatever). Thus a bibliographic view I’m beginning to roll out on, not actually yet formally announced or linked, that puts awards and other data in the context of a basic bibliography, where that bibliography aligns series to novels in a two-dimensional grid – the one example posted so far is Tim Powers. A draft page. I developed this format because I want to see a chronological list of an author’s novels, all the novels, first, with alignment to series secondary. Note the show/hide JavaScript link.

John Clute

Mark: Yeah, sorting by series in the SFE is not a free lunch, clarity-wise, and maybe one day, when a higher proportion of the bulk of the main job is wholly wholly wholly in hand, will provide a pure chronological sort. No space problem here, it could be a CHRONOLOGY LINK; but by no means a cut and paste.

In fact, for the first six months or so, did list chronologically. Reasons for breaking into series were partly to follow authors’ (and publishers’) intentions, and partly because of the hellish jumble created in the Comment Field when I (as I needed to) indicated series connections.

Will look at your model with interest and (because of the work involved if it turns out irresistible) deep apprehension.

2 thoughts on “Roundtable on the Theory of Organizing Books

  • November 29, 2013 at 10:01 pm

    That Tim Powers link is active but no longer displays the bibliography, sorry; it was a trial page, not yet built into the automatic steps for updating pages.


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