Amateur Librarianship

Stamp: Catalogued on LibraryThing

The Final Shape of My Library

Notable Non-Acquisitions

To begin with, some fail. A couple of weeks ago I put out a request for recommendations. Most of the suggestions I ended up with came face-to-face from family members, but two dudes on Twitter also chimed in. They suggested two books – The Dice Man and All the Light We Cannot See – that sounded interesting and thought-provoking, and one – The Screwtape Letters – that is a longstanding favorite of mine.

I didn’t get any of those books. I looked for them, but either I was looking in the wrong sections, or the stores were just plumb out. This was especially weird in the case of All the Light We Cannot See, which as a recent bestseller and generally huge book should have been somewhere in Barnes & Noble. (Actually, d’oh, I just realized I was looking for it in general fiction instead of in the bestsellers antighetto. I may have missed out on it just by failing to think like a bookstore.)

(About The Screwtape Letters: I gave away my latest copy because it had these icky, whimsical illustrations that made me unwilling to open it. I thought I’d be getting a new one for Christmas, but something in the hints-and-wishes machine must have broken down.)

Why, you ask, can’t I just acquire these good books at my leisure and add them in then? Because I planned to freeze my library at the start of the project, and I’m sticking to that plan. Pointless rigidity, missed opportunities, and the enforcement of a creeping sense of failure are what this project is all about.

The Last Additions

I originally thought I might be opening book-shaped Christmas presents until Epiphany (hence the mention of January 6th in the intro post), but as it turned out, I got my last two on the 30th and 31st of December. One was City of God, from my father; the other was Karmen MacKendrick’s Divine Enticement, from either my grandmother, my uncle, or my grandmother and my uncle (this could stand to be cleared up, though they would tell me it doesn’t matter).

One Blank Space

Finally, one book that I consider part of my library isn’t actually in my hands yet. It’s The Private Life of Lord Byron, which is being got up by subscription (or “crowdfunded,” as the kids are saying these days) and which I reckon will be published some time during the course of this project. I signed on a good long time ago, and as far as I’m concerned the copy that I shall have is already “mine.” Imagine, if you like, a little block of wood on my shelf, holding its place.


I have 263 books catalogued now – so, including The Private Life of Lord Byron, 264 in all. This divides neatly into a 3-year reading plan, 88 books a year. So a year from now, I hope to have gotten as far as Cathedrals of the World.

I’ll probably be doing something about my very dirty metadata in the future, so classifications may change, but for now here’s the breakdown of books by Melvil Decimal class:

  • 2 in the 000s
  • 9 in the 100s
  • 49 in the 200s
  • 12 in the 300s
  • 11 in the 400s
  • 2 in the 500s
  • 9 in the 700s
  • 158 in the 800s
  • 9 in the 900s

(I never read novels and yet like a quarter of my library is novels. Go figure.)

I’ve already entered some 200 of these books in my Goodreads account. I’ll get the rest done, eh, sometime.

Stamp: Catalogued on LibraryThing

Postscript Re: Tagging

I guess my real problem with the whole tagging thing is that I think of it in terms of obligation. By using a tag once, I feel that I have made a committment to use it on every book it applies to – and a parallel committment to keep the tag pure by not letting it touch books to which it does not apply.

This is bullshit, of course. But nobody was ever reasoned out of bullshit.

The Objectivity Syndrome

This also explains something I didn’t end up covering in my previous post: the tempation of the objective tag.

My previous-previous tagging system (before I bloated it up and then decided to torch it) was minimal and mostly objective. Sample tags: Spanish, bilingual, women poets, sff. And the majority of books didn’t have any tag at all.

It worked pretty well and will probably be the basis for the re-tagging I plan to do tonight.

But combine objectivish tagging with a sense of obligatory comprehensiveness, and you have a problem.

At first I refused to make tags for things that seemed obvious:

  • I didn’t make a Kierkegaard tag because all of the books I would have used it on have Kierkegaard as the author.
  • I didn’t make a Shakespeare tag because all of the books I would have used it on (with the very squidgy exception of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead) are catalogued under 822.33.
  • Likewise, I didn’t make a Bible tag because all the books I would have used it on are in the 220s and are shelved right next to each other.
  • I didn’t make a masochism tag because all the books I would have used it on have “masochism” in the title.

But when I did expand the tagging, these were some of the first ones I added. The very thing that made them redundant also made them easy. But their redundancy created a sort of chargeless numb zone within a book’s Tags field, which seemed to call for more tags to bring it alive.

Stamp: Catalogued on LibraryThing

I’m Bad At Tagging

Here’s the thing about LibraryThing. I love their tagging options. I enjoy browing tagmashes. I enjoy looking into my tag mirror. I enjoy poking around other people’s profiles and admiring their extensive tagsystems.

What I don’t enjoy much is tagging my own books.

The trouble, I think, is that tagging does too many things, and optimizing for one screws up the others.

The Solipsistic Approach

For example, I could focus on the characteristics of my own books – this one’s a hardcover, that one’s a softcover, this one is inscribed, that one cost between fifteen and twenty dollars, and that one over there has an old library sticker that doesn’t reflect the classification I’ve assigned it. This might be handy, but to me it feels bad because it doesn’t contribute to LibraryThing’s tag ecosystem: it doesn’t add universally applicable metadata about subject and genre – the same metadata I so appreciate when other people add it.

The Seemingly M.O.R. Approach

So I could focus on subject and genre. But this runs into lumping/splitting problems. If I want to separate out my crime fiction, for example, that seems easy enough. Night and Fear is crime. The Long Goodbye is crime. But what about Lord Peter? To me, that’s outside the crime genre: it’s mystery. The Long Goodbye is mystery, too. But Night and Fear isn’t.

If lump these two closely-related genres together, do I (misleadingly) use only the name of one genre or the other? Or do I (clunkily) go with something like “crime and mystery”?

If I split them, what do I do with The Long Goodbye? Do I pick only one tag, or do I assign them both? The latter seems like the natural approach – in fact, the great thing about a tag system is that it lets you build up meaning accretively from just such discrete scraps of data.

But combine those two tags with enough other scraps of genre and subject (PI, murder, Mexico, alcoholism, friendship, noir) and the whole thing bloats. While each individual tag may still be valuable, the book’s tag fingerprint as a whole is just the ground-chuck version of what might otherwise be a decently written blurb.

Another Problem With Tagging By Subject

Where do you stop? I mean this two ways. Where do you stop in terms of the subject’s importance to the individual book? And where do you stop with the proliferation of subject tags in general?

In my previous tagsystem (I recently dismantled it), I had tags for “cinema” and “psychology.” It happens that An Incomplete Education has chapters on both of those subjects. But I was loth to apply the tags, because that would give a misleading impression of the book’s contents: since I wasn’t using, frex, “art history” or “political science” as tags, I’d end up tagging An Incomplete Education the same way I would tag something like From Caligari to Hitler.

This could be solved through dilution: creating tags for art history, etc., so that An Incomplete Education had a tag for each chapter. But, since I have few or no other books on those subjects, this would leave me with a wide-and-thin tags page, full of tags that only apply to one or two books.

That isn’t technically wrong, I guess. But I don’t like it. For me, part of the aesthetic value of a tag system is the opportunity to view my own books by tag, to contemplate what, say, my three books on masochism (which are catalogued under three different MDS headings) have in common. A one-book tag doesn’t provide that pleasure. So I’d like to keep such tags to a minimum.

Don’t Even Get Me Started…

…on whether The Screwtape Letters and Marius the Epicurean should be tagged as novels or not.

One Last Thing

Just to show you what a poopsie-bell I am: I briefly considered populating my tagsystem by manually cloning my tag mirror. Remember that in case you’re ever tempted to listen to anything I say.