This essay was originally
titled “Ask the Librarian...
a preamble concerning the ‘atmospheres’ of colour, height and subject”, and published as the introduction to the anthology The Libraries of Thought & Imagination, Edinburgh 2001.

The first collection of books that I can recall as a singular
accumulation—that is to say, a selection gathered together
as a ‘resource’ for a particular concern—was a glass-fronted
cabinet containing several shelves of books on the subject
of physical geography. This was housed in the corner of a
school classroom devoted to the teaching of the geography
curriculum, at ‘ordinary’ (11–16 year-olds) and ‘advanced’
(16–18 year-olds) levels. Open access to the books in the
cabinet was granted to those studying at the advanced
level, encouraged by the code, that “knowledge is not
remembering facts, but knowing where to find them”—an
endorsement of both the inquisitive motivation of the auto-
didactically inclined, and of the practical advisory role of
the librarian.

My own ‘use’ of the books in this small and specialised
annex to the main school library consisted usually of
‘flicking-through-looking-at-the-pictures’. As I recall (with
hindsight), most of the books were published in the period
from the 1940s until the 1960s, and while only being able
to remember a few particular titles, I can vividly recall the
tone and atmosphere that surrounded the collection (or at
least, my impression of the collection). Several titles were
from the Collins ‘New Naturalist’ series, mainly published
in the 1950s, with their (then) high-quality colour plates;
often of strange colour balance, curiously retouched skies,
and sometimes distressingly out-of-register printing.
There were books that dealt with the subject of ‘field-
work’, describing a didactic purpose and methodology of
observation ‘out-and-about’ in the landscape. Memorably,
one or two of these field study titles were illustrated
with topographical line drawings, where the line of the
landscape and the hand-rendered textual ‘legends’ were
wholly integrated. As drawings they sought to dispense a
particular function, acting as an aid to the understanding
and ‘reading’ of the landscape, as opposed to depiction for
artistic purposes—the brevity of these compositions more
like transcription than impression.

During the twenty-five or so years since I last examined
this collection of books, I have bought copies of many of
the titles for depositing amongst our own bookshelves,
not as a distilled memento of that selection, but as
separate parts of a broader and active personal collection.
For instance, books illustrated by Geoffrey Hutchings
(responsible for the line drawings described above) sit
occasionally next door to childrens’ books illustrated
by Edward Ardizzone—near contemporaries, but
draughtsmen of conflicting purpose. Similarly, whereas
titles from the ‘New Naturalist’ series would ordinarily be
placed within their own subject category—birds with birds,
botany with botany, etc.; my half-dozen or so are placed
together as a uniform group, the meaning and purpose
being that they represent and illustrate a particular historic
manner of publishing, both editorially (as a series) and
physically (as uniform objects). The coexistent, and equally
justifiable logic of both of these systems of categorisation—
by subject, or by type—suggests that there are, in effect,
always two (or more) possible versions of order using one
and the same thing. One of the ‘more’ versions being the
possibility of practical dis-order: manifest paradoxically
in the apparent order of a shelf of mixed-category books
arranged by height or colour.

I remember noting at an early age, that to search amongst
the shelves of the junior library for a book on a particular
subject, might present only an incomplete selection of the
available holdings; a further gathering of ‘oversize’ books
could be examined elsewhere. Certain areas of illustrated
non-fiction dominate these shelves: art, natural history,
regional geography, etc.; while fiction is published almost
entirely in ‘normal-size’ formats—apart from scaled-up
‘large-type’ versions for the hard-of-seeing, who usually
have their own exclusive library-within-a-library. The
practical reasoning behind this segregation by format, is
of course to avoid over-height shelving for under-height
books; that books of the maximum height would determine
the gaps between shelves, leaving irregular and wasteful
airspace above the more common, smaller formats.

Another segregation, in the larger public libraries is the
‘stack’, a sometimes mysterious holding of older titles,
again arranged subject-by-subject, but often requiring
permission to be examined. It is as if both an historical and
a geographical boundary exists between the holdings in the
stack and those currently in the main body of the lending
library. Given that in most public libraries there is an
optimum number of titles that can practically be available
at any time, and as new titles are acquired, the notional
break-off point moves chronologically forward. Books that
I examined in the stack of my local town library in the
1970s, that had been published in the 1930s and 1940s,
would now have been joined by titles from the 1960s and
1970s; then part of the active lending library. The notable
difference between the stack and the current, is therefore
one of age—that the books in the stack contain old or
out-of-date information, now superseded by newer
publications on the same subject held elsewhere. Books
on outmoded subjects would certainly be found in the
stack—technical works about radio involving glass valves,
for instance; or books on geology and earth science
unwittingly absent of any mention of ‘plate tectonics’
—while the majority of books required no justification
or excuse for having been published thirty or more years
earlier. However, with the problems of differentiating that
which is still definitive or current from what is not, this
demarcation and grouping based on publication date is
the most logical and reasonable slimming-down method
for an expanding holding of titles.

Very few people would divide their own books into pre-
and post- a particular publication date; and very few
people—apart perhaps from professional librarians—
arrange the books in their homes according to the Dewey
Decimal System of Classification. Further, unlike a public
library, very few people actually possess collections of
books that range across the scope of subjects defined by
such a complete system. The most common, the average
domestic collection of books, is probably imbalanced
towards fiction and novels, and these might be arranged
alphabetically by author; or chronologically, as read (the
earliest sometimes separated as a personal ‘stack’); or
by publisher (the old orange-spined Penguin, the green-
spined Virago) or genre (crime, horror, romance, etc.); or
not arranged particularly at all. In addition, a non-fictional
interest might form another grouping that would demand
a practical placing within the house—recipe books, for
example, housed separately in the kitchen or dining room;
and if extensive, by country or course: Indian, Italian,
soups or desserts. Likewise, erotica might find its most
comfortable location in the bedroom, while the lavatorial
reader is a niche-genre of its own.

In this house the bookshelves in the downstairs front
room accommodate books on art, history, literature,
music, philosophy, etc.—broadly cultural subjects. While
in the back room, there are books on birds, gardening,
geography, weather, etc.—the natural world, as such. The
division is as much practical as it is thematic; the quantity
of books divided with the bulk (and also the bigger, but
not necessarily ‘oversize’ ones) in the front room. However,
the classifications described above are not always definite
—there being no need for them to be—and therefore
anomalies and what might seem to be misplacings are
many. Because it is a house, for living and working in, and
the books are for using day-to-day, rather than a library or
an office primarily for study or work, there is no imperative
for a system of ordering and grouping beyond a familiar
active use. For instance, a public library will usually
separate the titles of local interest into a ‘local studies’
section, whereas our ‘local’ books are by subject, whether
they are to do with topography, or architecture.

Upstairs, in what purports to be an office, there is another
accumulation of books and printed material that is shelved,
or piled, without any obvious logic or arrangement:
source material, and books of miscellaneous subjects that
are of particular interest in terms of design and format
and production; catalogues and lists; typographical
specimen books and material samples; dictionaries and
other reference books. Common to this type of singularly
practical, but seemingly haphazard collection of material,
is the ability of the owner—or home librarian—to locate
anything almost instantly.

A further distinction is often made between the already
housed and the freshly acquired. In a public library new
books will initially await the procedures and devices of
registration, to then be shelved and labelled for a short
period as ‘new acquisitions’. Domestically, the new and
as yet unread might be grouped together, in some cases
perhaps as ‘trophies’, but generally in anticipation of being
both started—and finished. The book-laden coffee-table
presents a complexion of the owners current interests,
inasmuch as an entire collection offers a compounded view
of previous interests—an historic complexion; although
parts missing by ‘de-acquisition’ will present a manipulated
and partial view. (It is an unusually stable individual that
chooses to consistently resist the temptation to pare at
an accumulation of books—to adopt a policy of complete
acceptance of all past reading.) Consciously or not, the
ownership of bookshelves is a constantly active licence
for addition, arrangement and removal—the processes of
editing inherent in the making of books themselves.