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?