Books Do Furnish A Room

I spent Saturday with Matt, my long-suffering partner, bar-code scanning and organising the majority of the physical books in our flat.

There were a few reasons for doing this.

1) We couldn’t find anything and it was impossible to know what we had: the number of times one of us had said, “I’m sure we’ve got x but I don’t know where it is” had been increasing exponentially, and it was definitely now quicker to buy another copy or an electronic version than it was to sift through all the other books.

2) I wanted to have remote access to a list of all the books we own. I’m an obsessively completist reader with a terrible memory: once I find a fiction author whose work I like, I tend to read everything they’ve ever written and everything about them in fairly short order, but still be caught out when standing in a bookshop, unable to remember exactly where I’m up to in a sequence, or which books I have or haven’t read.

3) I’ve started making a searchable database of my cookery books (more of which shortly).

4) In some way, I want to feel ready – when the time comes – to just hit a button and upload all of these books to a Kindle.

What did we find?

We found about 30 books that don’t belong to us, about 10 duplicates (if you were wondering how many times can one person ready “Americana” by Don DeLillo and not remember it’s the same book, the answer is “three” ), and a further 150 or so that we don’t want or need, which are now bagged up, ready to go to book heaven.

Some books waiting to go to the second-hand shop

That left 1,062 others, which are now distributed across five book cases and separated into 16 categories. Fourteen of these categories are (for the time being) organised by alphabetical order of author, with the exception of one or two, which are organised by subject, as that seemed to make things easier to find.

We scanned all the books using Delicious Library. This cross-references each ISBN against the book’s record in Amazon. We had probably around 20 pamphlets and booklets and very old books that were unfindable in the database, and – depending on how much energy we had at the time – we may or may not have those entered by hand.

I then did a (very hurried) first pass at categorising the books we had scanned in Delicious Library into “shelves”. These shelves more-or-less equate to the categories we shelved the real books into, but not quite – partly due to laziness, but also because, without following a strict taxonomy, categorising things on a screen feels different to categorising physical objects. In real life, for instance, we have a shelf of “feminist theory”, which is subsumed into “theory and essays” in Delicious Library, and we also have a motley end-of-shelf selection of oddments and children’s books that I haven’t categorised at all. It’s partly because there’s an imperative to put the physical books away, so you have to make a call one way or another, whereas the records can sit, idly uncategorised, without really getting in the way. Also, where we happened to have biographical or theoretical books about a particular author, in real life we shelved that book alongside the books they had written – a nuance that doesn’t make sense in Delicious, where there’s no need for these arbitrary clusters, as you can keyword search the entire library.

Some real bookshelves
The same books, in Delicious Library

Looking at the stats, there are 1,062 books in the library as a whole but only 1,048 on the shelves, which means that I either let my eye run over 14 titles or couldn’t decide where to put them. For now, each book is only shelved once in the virtual library, although it might be more useful to, at a later date, tag them across multiple shelves. However, while we still have the books available and categorised on the physical shelves, that doesn’t seem like an imperative. Finally, I uploaded the 1,048 shelved books to a new Library Thing profile, where they sit untagged but searchable by keyword.

So, what have I learnt?

Matt’s taste is a lot more plural than mine. As I mentioned, I have a sort of monomania and will read exhaustively by and about a single writer, whereas he tends to read around a subject more deeply.

“W” takes up a disproportionate amount of space in our fiction shelves, including fairly thorough runs of Edith Wharton, Dorothy Whipple, PG Wodehouse and Virginia Woolf.

Of 1,062 books, only 39% are straightforward Fiction, with Crime and Thrillers representing an additional 6.9% and Poetry and Drama another 14%. This leaves 41% non-fiction books scattered over 13 categories. Of these the largest categories are Theory and Essays, Cookery, Music, and History and Culture – although “Theory and Essays” and “History and Culture” are very badly defined and almost interchangeable.

I have possibly thousands of recipes that are written on bits of paper, torn out of magazines or photocopied from books. I’ve been trying to sort these out for years. This hasn’t helped.

A few of my “collected” recipes

Searchable mind

Assuming I’ve read about 50% of the books that we own, I should know quite a lot of stuff. As I get older, my on-demand memory is becoming much slower to access (it generally gets there, after an hour or a day, but it can be tedious sending these slow queries out into the night). I would like, eventually, to be able to efficiently query the things I’ve read and come back with an answer to a specific question. This is different to googling: it’s looking through my store of acquired-ish knowledge and finding the thing that I want. In some ways, this is a step towards that.

At Christmas, I spent about a week cross-referencing recipes from all the Italian recipe books I own into a database. This took a long time because physical indexes tend to be non-standard (one man’s zucchini is another’s courgette, and descriptions of techniques and terminology differ from author to author), so I had to reclassify the recipes as well as physically parse each index. The reason for this is that I’d like to search the 70 cookery books that I own and just those books without having to open every single one and look through the Index. I don’t want Google to return every goddam BBC Good Food recipe first: I want a self-selected group of texts, that responds to my self-defined interests. In the end, I didn’t get further than about 7 or 8 books, but I’d like to return to this – or be able to purchase licenses from the 8 or 9 publishers responsible who have published these 70 books, so I can get searchable copies without having to purchase them again.


It will probably take me a few months or years to figure out whether all this scanning has any inherent value, or whether we’ll be able to keep it up. At the moment I’m feeling slightly smug and organised, which is nice (and unusual). But mostly, this has made me aware of how frustrated I am that the books I own or have read aren’t persistent objects that transfer seamlessly from the physical to the digital space. Scanning in some ISBN codes won’t solve that or give me a photographic memory, but it might make me more prepared as and when persistence becomes an option.

UPDATE – 10 September 

Just over a month has passed, and a few things have happened:

1) We’ve managed to keep the physical books on the shelves in more-or-less the right order. It would, of course, be quite an achievement to move over 1,000 books into different places in such a short period of time, but I’m surprised we’ve kept it up for this long, frankly. More to the point, there are lots of advantages to doing so: I can count at least a dozen times I’ve been able to put my hand immediately on a book that I was wondering about/wanting to check something in; I’ve found a few books I’d written off as long lost and actually been able to read them; it makes putting new (in fact, any) books away a lot easier, as they all have a place.

2) Bar code scanning is much harder. I would anticipate that we’ve had another 10 or so books come into the house in the last month. They haven’t been scanned and I’m not sure I could tell you what all of them were in order to retrospectively do the scanning. Ideally we need a system such as labels or tags (or library labels! The concept of which I find very attractive, but which – I imagine – may signal the end of my relationship) so that we know what we’ve scanned and what we haven’t, or the equivalent of an “uncatalogued shelf” – but in its own way, as we don’t live in a library with a librarian, that might be the beginning of its own sort of chaos.

3) We sold about 100 books to our local secondhand bookshop for the princely sum of £25, which works out at 25p a book. Also, the man in my local secondhand shop wasn’t all that keen on interwar female writers (which is a shame, as I am), so there will be a lot of Rosamund Lehman etc making it to a Barnados near you very shortly.


6 thoughts on “Books Do Furnish A Room

  1. Bravo and brilliant job!

    I started doing exactly the same thing several years ago. I started with Delicious Library and got through a couple hundred of our books. I then realised I really wanted to have access when I’m away from my computer and I wanted my wife to be able to have access and share in the workload so I started using LibraryThing. I then realised I wanted to be able to have access to my books when I was mobile (iPhone, iPad, …) and LibaryThing has no app and their web site was not optimised for that. I finally moved to GoodReads, which answers all of these needs, and I’ve been putting my books in there manually as I want to go over my reviews and my scores and such at the same time. Highly recommended for real readers like you!

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