John Fea over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home had an interesting post called “How do you organize your library?” a few weeks ago, and it inspired me to get serious about (finally!) reorganizing my library. But, I have no idea where to start, or how to proceed, and unfortunately, none of the suggestions in the comments on John’s post were very helpful. (One commenter left just one word, “KINDLE,” in the comments, rather enigmatically. I know what Kindle is, but John’s question was more about the intellectual categories of organization, not how to manage actual physical books.)
When I started graduate school in 1990, early American history was neatly divided by geography into five categories: New England, the Middle Colonies, the Chesapeake Bay region, the Lower South, and the Caribbean. By the time I took my degree in 1996, there was another category added to the mix, “Atlantic World,” but astute readers will note that early American history was really in fact early Anglo-American history. If students was interested in the history of New Spain or Brazil, they worked with Mexican historians and colonial Latin Americanists, not with the people who called themselves early Americanists. (And–bien sur–no one was interested in New France!) Although most of us were encouraged to read, think, and write about non-white peoples and non-English Europeans, it was expected that we’d confine our readings and research to lands under some form of English government.
Nevertheless, the New England/Middle Colonies/Chesapeake/Lower South/Caribbean scheme is how I have organized my books since graduate school, with sections (and then later full shelves) also devoted to my books on the American Revolution, and the nineteenth century (since I was trained to teach up through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and I do that when I teach the survey.) But since I was trained, early American history has moved from being divided into geographically and culturally distinct regions to more conceptual divisions that transcend geography and even macropolitical and linguistic borders. This, in my opinion, is all to the good, and I’ve helped to usher along some of these changes in my own very modest way with my scholarship. This dissolution of geographical and national borders is something that has happened throughout the historical profession, too. Whereas once everything was filed neatly under histories of the nation-state, comparative and transnational history have confused these formerly (and deceptively) tidy categories.
So, my question is: how the heck do I organize my library now? I know it’s traditional to file books by the author’s last name, but I forget authors’ names all of the time, so I’ve found it easier to confine my searches to a designated topic area. (I seem to have a near-photographic memory of the physical appearance of the books themselves–size, color of the cover, etc.–but filing the books according to size and color is a little too flakey for me.) Should I throw away all geographical and chronological categories, and go with broad topics like “women’s history,” “history of sexuality,” “history of the body,” “slavery history,” “borderlands history,” “Native American history?” These categories would leave a lot of my older books out. Another issue is how the first four categories all bleed together, and how the last three categories do as well. Most of the books I read and use in my teaching could be filed in at least two if not four of these categories. This is what I love about our current moment in historical scholarship–the borrowing and the blending of scholarship in the past 15-20 years have totally transformed our fields. But, it’s been hell when it comes to organizing my library.
I know I can’t be alone in this. How have similar shifts in your fields changed your original field of study? How have you coped with these changes when it comes to organizing your books? Any and all suggestions will be most welcome!
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