Our Personal Libraries and How We Use Them

Last week I watched The Booksellers, a documentary about the rare book trade in New York City. It alternates bits of history with interviews of book sellers and collectors (the two occasionally overlap). It got me to thinking about my personal library and how/why I acquire the books that I do. If you’re a scribe of any sort, you likely have your own collection. How do you use yours?

The History of the Library of Bart

I’m not certain at what age I started acquiring books and holding onto them, but I always had books in my room. I usually had a book in hand if I was going out anywhere, too. Sound familiar? Literary types incorporate books into their everyday lives. They’re almost as necessary as socks (and, in Florida, probably more so).

At first it was fiction, and then not everything. There were books I read once and knew I wouldn’t read again. That’s probably when I first started the decision-making process for when I would keep or offload books in my possession. Novels that had a serious impact on me or that I was likely to read again…stayed. A lot of science fiction from my high school years still remains in my collection. Still, the collection remained small, even in college, because I didn’t have a lot of room for bookshelves. Also, because textbooks were so expensive, I usually sold mine back to the university bookstore at the end of a term. There were books I wish I’d kept…in fact, I kept only one: a meteorology textbook. That would change once I finished school.

Once I moved into my own place after college, the book-buying and -keeping process began in earnest. I started reading books for my job or to educate myself about the job I wanted (space industry technical writer). Buying a bookcase made me feel like an adult somehow…a more serious person, at any rate. And while it might have horrified any self-respecting librarian, everything went onto the shelves in alphabetical order by author…fiction, nonfiction…I didn’t differentiate. In fact, I was to retain this “system” for over 20 years.

Unlike some of my more bookish friends, I was not so attached to every piece of literature I read that I kept everything. Occasionally there would be a purge of the shelves because they were getting crowded and I lacked space to buy another bookcase. I wouldn’t throw out the books (perish the thought!). Instead, the books I assessed that I would not read again would get packed up and donated to the closest library or dropped off at a used bookstore in exchange for cash or store credit.

This past year, as I started doing more serious research into space-related activities, I finally broke down and asserted a little more law and order on the collection. The fiction and nonfiction were separated and the nonfiction then broken out by general subject matter. However, because I am not the Library of Congress, nor am I an institution requiring the Dewey Decimal System, the books are still more or less in alphabetical order by author.

What’s in My Library

The fiction collection remains what it was when I started it in high school: the groove-hard of forgotten favorites, mostly science fiction (Clarke, Herber, Heinlein, Anderson, and Niven being the most frequent authors). Occasionally I want to read for leisure but don’t feel like or have the patience to go buy a new book (or, crazy thought, visit a library). The fiction collection is always there, ready to be visited like a group of old friends. There also might be a few books there that I bought but haven’t read yet. You just never know: I might be in the mood to try it at some point.

My nonfiction collection, on the other hand, is for reference. The categories, for me, are (more or less):

  • Space history, technology, and future hardware
  • Writing reference
  • Science and engineering reference
  • Philosophy and politics
  • History
  • Business and self-help
  • Biography

The space collection, obviously, serves as useful reference when I’m either trying to learn about my current work or trying to delve into a particular topic I want to write about. When I was at NASA, the most-cited book in my collection was Stages to Saturn by Roger Bilstein. Given my interests of late, The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin now gets more of my attention.

Writing reference books comprise guides on how to improve one’s fiction or nonfiction. Some of them are genre specific (How to Write Fantasy and Science Fiction, for example).

Science and engineering reference books, like that meteorology book I kept from Northern Illinois University provide information on technical subjects not covered by my space books but still considered interesting enough to have on hand.

My philosophy books are pretty straightforward, with a mix of ancient and modern thinkers holding forth on topics of interest. I have one book from the Medieval period (Aquinas), which remains unread. Maybe someday…

The history collection focuses on either specific periods of interest or general, big-picture histories like those of Arnold Toynbee. I read history to understand why people did what they did. On the whole, what I’ve learned is that people are no better or worse than they are now. Food for thought.

It might seem a bit curious to see business and self-help books grouped together. However, when you consider that a lot of my business has been human resources and training related, the connection becomes more clear. I often pick up books on topics like Servant Leadership or Emotional Intelligence or Knowing Your Strengths to improve myself on the job or among other people.

The biographies in my collection, of course, are stories about individuals who I find interesting or admirable. (Neil Armstrong and J. Michael Straczyinski are two, in case you were interested.)

How I Use My Library

It’s safe to say that my reference library is a working library. I’d be lying if some of it wasn’t there for show, but I still engage in occasional clearing of the shelves to keep the collection focused on books I find useful. What does useful mean?

I’m trying to call attention to words I might quote or need to remember later. Sometimes I’m arguing with the author in the margins. The books I keep get reread, dogeared, underlined, and scribbled in, though I know such habits horrify some of my book-loving friends. The thing is, they’re mine. I’m not defacing library books, for gosh sakes. 🙂

Sometimes I need to cite some of these books for a class or story or other deliverable I’m writing. I guess, when you get right down to it, my business on this planet is about improving myself  or helping others do the same. The books are there to help along that process. What does your library do for you?

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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