Sunday, 19 June 2011

Building a personal library

By Aurora @ Island Dreaming

This week I finally got around to buying and putting up the shelving that I have needed for far too long. The books that have been stacked in various corners of my house collecting dust are now lined up neatly on accessible shelves. The prolonged lack of suitable book housing has done me some favors. In a burst of enthusiasm for minimalist living this year, I got rid of a lot of my books. I was forced to think long and hard about whether the books I owned represented who I now was - did they provide me with the information I needed now and for the future I was planning for? Most of my old geology textbooks didn't make the mark, whilst most of my DIY and craft books are ready to take their place on the new shelves.

I grew up in a house where to discard a book was sacrilege - they were the most valuable possessions you could own - an attitude which led to indiscriminate book collecting. When I walk into rooms full of books, I often wonder if they are there to genuinely educate and refer to, or to give the impression of scholarliness, or a message about who the owner is.  If most of those books were not read, or read more than once, its a terrible waste of a resources. This is not to say that having a range of books on a breadth of topics not of immediate relevance to you is a bad thing - indeed, if you have children, you will do them a great service by letting them read widely and explore the world through books. Reading books is still a great pleasure, but I feel now that there is a limit  to the amount of chaff I am willing to store in my own home.

The internet has revolutionized the way we access and disseminate information in my lifetime. It is a mine of useful information - but it is just that, a mine. You have to put a lot of time, energy and discrimination into finding good resources. Because of the sheer quantity of free information it is possible to accrue with a few mouse clicks, storing and using that information can be a further challenge. I use a blog reader to read blog feeds and bookmarks in my browser for other web pages. I then go through and purge the bookmarks on a regular basis, or print/write out the gems that I genuinely need to remember.

And then of course there is personal experience. We live in a culture that is far too dismissive of personal experimentation in favor of deference to paid experts. I think personal journals, blogs and scrapbooks are important resources - whether you keep a general one about your life, or topic relevant ones. Every author, even when trying to provide a generalist overview, ultimately colours their writing with their own experience - not a bad thing itself, unless as is all to often the case, the work is held up as a benchmark, a gold standard that everyone else should be following. Keeping a record of your own experience - including, most importantly, all of your failures - is one of the best references you can have.

I am now working towards something more personal. I have a few generalist books - basic gardening techniques, a basic sewing book, a crochet stitch dictionary, a few very different but well thumbed cookbooks. But I no longer collect reference works indiscriminately - I don't need four books that repeat most of the same basic information but might contain the odd gem of wisdom that may or may not be useful to me. Instead I am building up scrapbooks of information directly relevant to me - tips pulled from library books, newspaper clippings, internet searches and personal scribbles of our experiences. I have reacquainted myself with our local library, instead of heading straight to Amazon - the three week loan period is just the period of time needed to work out whether a book is a keeper or not.

So far, my own folders and notebooks include -
  • A notebook of recipes we use on a daily basis.
  • A gardening journal of successes, failures, notable weather events, planting dates and yields.
  • Brewing and wine making records and recipes.
  • A file of craft patterns, doodles and stitch techniques, inspiration and DIY instructions.
I feel I will have achieved something when all of this information is truly mine - when my own observations and reflections, ideas and projects outnumber the printouts and  clippings from experts - when I have applied the knowledge, evaluated it and learnt from it. I also look forward to having something to pass on to our kids, something they can build on in their own lives if they see fit.

Do you have a library? What are your priorities when it comes to collecting information - and how do you organise it?


Harold Shaw Jr. said...

I use Evernote to keep track of the kinds of things you are talking about. It works well, I can put webpages, create notes, pictures and just about any electronic file up there.

I just went through the first part of my book purge (posting about it later) too. I had three criteria for keeping the ones that I kept

1. Have I read it yet (we go to a lot of book sales / used book store) and buy books we think we might like.

2. Will I read it again

3. Does it have utility. Like you I am changing a lot of things in my life (simplifying) and the changes are making me review what I need to keep.

The initial purge had us take over 70 books to the local animal shelter for their book sale.

Now I just have find out which books are out in the garage that I need to look at and decide which to keep.

Just gotta keep simplifying.


Robert said...

I've got umpteen feet of reference books that I'm never going to read from cover to cover - I can't honestly say that I've ever 'read' many of them in any conventional sense - but they do get referrred to regularly. I have occasional purges of stuff which I'm not likely to use.

trashmaster46 said...

Ugh. Moving from a four-bedroom house into 560 square feet will provide an opportunity to... reevaluate the book collection. Then moving in with your husband and MIL who've already filled the house to the gills will provide additional opportunity to get rid of your stuff because there's nowhere to put it.

Patty said...

I love what you've said about keeping notes, journals, scrapbooks of your own experiences, and referring back to them for what works and doesn't work for you. I think it's important to gain some basic information and then not be afraid to try new things.
I recently started raising goats for milk (eventually). Before I acquired my two does I read everything about raising goats that I could. If there's one critter that brings out the "expert" in everyone, it seems to be goats. I can't possibly follow everyone's "expert" advice. There are way too many conflicting "always do/never do's" I'm finally starting to loosen up and trust my intuition a bit more. It feels good!
Thanks for your post.

becky3086 said...

Well, I believe I have to have a hard copy of everything so I won't keep anything just on the Internet (these latest power outages have shown me definitely how useless that is). I have lots of book and I think it is important to have a wide range even if you aren't using the information now, it may be information that you can use later. I too, however, go through mine from time to time and get rid of some. I have about 5 big book shelves now of books that I believe I "need" or will want to read again (in the case of the fiction books).

CallieK said...

I couldn't live without my books. I am a voracious reader, both fiction and non and I own a small library's worth of books. I do purge occasionally but since I normally re-read books I seldom part with many. Currently there are 5 floor to ceiling custom made bookshelves as well as several smaller bookcases which are full to overflowing. It's a nightmare to move them all but worth it to me.

Dmarie said...

I tend to donate books to the library when I don't find myself reading them often, but lately I have been buying some gardening, canning books to keep. the just in case books! ;)

Rosa said...

My library looks a lot like yours - except you can't read the spine of my Emery, it's been taped up a lot - and I've got an old Webster's Unabridged I can't quite let go of, despite the existence of the internet. And no crochet books - instead I've got one knitting reference, and a giant book of How to Do Everything from the '70s.

I got rid of many linear shelf feet of books a few years ago, and I'm glad - our reference shelf is reduced to just a few books you can tell we use because they're full of notes, plus a TON of biking maps. The rest is fun reading, and kids books.

Aurora said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Patty - too much information can be a huge problem. I found this especially with gardening, if you are a novice, then too many sources of advice can cause you much frustration (and in my case procrastination!). Better to read one thing, give that advice a try and then build on that attempt.

Rosa - Emery's book is useful even in the UK and gives the basics of just about everything you could want to know 'just in case', as DMarie put it!

Limo said...

This is good idea considering the increasing percentage of dementia and Alzheimers in the community.