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April 25, 2005



We just had to pack up our house, including the books. Well, really they just had to be moved from room to room, so that at least one room is nice and empty for our sabbatical tenant. I was all for organising them (by topic, author, size, colour, whatever). But my wife hit upon the inspired idea of just grabbing handfuls, and taking them any old place.
So now Ladefoged's course in phonetics sits next to Elric of Melnibone. Hašek is next to Marx (will they get on?). Miéville is next to Proust. And the Handbook of Morphology is looming rather threateningly over Mr Muddle and his Gallic friends Monsieur Petit, Monsieur Glouton, and Monsieur Grincheux.
I think it'll do them all some good.

ben wolfson

Shouldn't the Stanislaw Lem go in "translations" anyway? Why do you have a section for translations? And isn't "nonfiction" here properly "everything else", since it doesn't include philosophy & lit-crit, which are not fiction?


And hence the rise of the informal use of "tags" (overlapping classification systems) instead of (typically mutually-exclusive) "categories," for a lot of web-based or electronic content...

But maybe there's a math problem here... instead of thinking, for any particular book, "what category should this go in," think of it like this:

Start by assigning, to each pair books, a number, some score of "similarity." Do this in such a way that the numbers are comparable, at least to you.

I suppose it'd be nice if these numbers formed some kind of metric (satisfying the triangle inequality, etc)... but that's probably too much to ask.

Anyway, once you've got the score, then what you really want (I think) is a mapping of the books to linear positions (that is, a shelving order) that puts "similar books" next to each other.

In other words, score a particular shelving by how well, or how poorly, the (1-D) distance between books on the shelves approximates the "score" you've assessed.

Then you just want to find the shelving that minimizes the approximation error (some kind of "distortion?") and ta-da! All done!

It's sort of like leaf-ordering on hiearchically-clustered books. I wonder if something like this wouldn't be relevant.

I have a feeling that, if you could constrain yourself to assign a real "distance" function as a similarity score, that'd help in finding a shelving algorithm that was tractable (could you use some kind of dynamic programming?) But I'm too tired to think this all through right now.

Haha, neato. Thanks for the stimulating post!


You're almost befuddled enough to be a librarian.

Currently, My wife and I have no classification scheme to our shelves, but then we have nowhere near enough shelves for all of our books. Odd for two librarians. But we're moving soon and oh, will the fun start!

Your scheme sounds pretty good. Ultimately, you just have to decide which category best describes the book, not describes it completely, universally and for all time.

Traditionally though, Lem goes in SF, Carrol in General Fiction/ Literature, AND Childrens, depending on the edition. For instance, Alice in Wonderland illustrated by Mervyn Peake is in Fiction, while the cheep paperpacks with the Tinneal Illustarations go in children's.


If you have more than a thousand books, you should use the LOC system.

ben wolfson

I hate the distinction "tags"/"categories". Tags name categories. The only difference is that an object can have multiple tags but only one (leaf-level) category.


Sure, the distinction between "tag" and "category" is dumb, of course...

Really, it's just the issue of "is your data a tree" vs. "are you using arbitrary sets, and operations therein" to describe your data.

Both have their strengths and weaknesses, I s'pose. The notion of multiple, arbitrary, overlapping 'terms' applied as tags to data is pretty mundane, when you have any familiarity or background in CS or machine learning or statistics.

Really, I'm just interested in the idea of an algorithm which takes your (possibly incomplete, possibly non-metrizable) scoring function and automatically determines the best "shelving order" for your books at home.

Better yet, I'd like it to see how I remove and re-shelve the books, and automatically recompute new similarity scores and shelving orders on the fly. Sort of a self-re-configuring Dewey Decimal System on speed. Machine Learning meets Library Science.

I have half a mind to write a little system to do this, this summer. Now all I need is a robotic arm to arrange the damn books automatically...

Jacob T. Levy

If you have more than a thousand books, you should use the LOC system.

For the love of Lucien why? LOC (or Dewey Decimal) are for collections that are spread out over vastly different subject areas, not clumped in a handful; for collections that will be used by anonymous future users, not by oneself; and (which is kind of the same thing) for collections that will be cataloged, rather than consulted useing the method of introspection ("If I were me-- and I am-- where would I have shelved that book?")

Shelving your own books has to do with both your relationship to your past self (when you first read a Lem book, did it feel like SF to you? Were you reading it because it was SF? Or were you reading it as part of a Polish literature kick? Or something else?) and to your future self (trying to second-guess where your future self will think to look for something). It's personal, not impersonal, regardless of how many you have.

My fiction is divided up by physical size of the books, which mostly but imperfectly tracks the distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction. When I was getting my bookcases built, I realized I could squeeze three shelves into what would otherwise be the space for two, if they were genre-fiction-paperback sized. But that means those shelves also hold all my Penguin Shakespeares, while big genre fiction like Song of Fire and Ice or Neal Stephenson books, or genre fiction I buy in hardcover like American Gods, ends up interspersed with literary fiction, which doesn't bother me at all.

I've got a separate nonfiction category for the likes of Lawrence-- the category being "things that my future self will think of as roughly 'travel writing' or 'essays other than literary criticism.'" Though, as I look at the shelf, it seems to really be "Bruce Chatwin, Jonathan Raban, Paul Theroux, and anything else that I happen to analogize to them."

rob loftis

I had a major breakthrough in organizing books when I realized that I don't have to alphabetize by the whole name in order to alphabetize. As long as all the A's come before all the B's, who cares if there are Ac's filed before Ab's?

Honestly, if it weren't for lowering my standards, I wouldn't get anything done.


I have quite a bit of books that fall into a category I call "history of philosophy". These books I shelve historically, w/ the oldest at the bottom right, newest at the top left. It's a bit tricky sometimes, when authors party over-lap in time, but generally works and is easy for me to find the books. In our philosophy dept. library we have a large number of the "cambridge companions" series. For several years I've been occasionally putting them into historical order, only to find them mixed up again. It was only recently that I'd realized that someone else had continually been putting them in alphabetical order. I don't know who this was, but I wonder if he or she kept thinking, like I did, "what crazy bastard keeps putting these books in random order?"

Doug M

I bet someone who paid attention to all the physics classes I doodled my way through could implement something like this: Affix colored, polarized/reflective stickers to all your books' spines to indicate their subject, their title's initial, and their author's last initial. Then hang some specially made pairs of polarized glasses on the bookshelf, so that when you dial the lenses for a certain title / subject / author, you see only those stickers shining whose books pass the filter.


Do I have a thousand books? That would involve counting them, wouldn't it? (Then, I could database them, and stamp them and stuff! True anality beckons, but is rejected like a crackwhore.)

Fiction goes alphabetically (because it's, ya know, general fiction), unless there is a large enough category to shuffle off to the side. It needs to be very large tho. I have two categories of fiction, one of which is 'general'.

Non-fiction by field, only in order if there is a clear enough distinction. (Really old computer hardware manuals, say, get their own little section, as do Unix books.) The history books are organized by year.

Translations are not broken out, no point to it. The 'Classics Library' books from the 50's get their own row tho.

['You should see my tools, all two or three tons of them.']

Jeremy Osner

Ash -- what kinda tools and are they organized? My carpentry workshop is without order and void, and I'm always looking for good ideas for how to put it in order...

Jeremy Osner

s/b "without form and void" of course -- count on me to screw up the clever reference.

belle waring

ben: I didn't make this clear above, but the "translations" category includes only translations of works in Latin and Greek.


We classify fiction by original language of authorship, and arrange from east (left) to west (right), and from north (top) to south (bottom). It makes things easy to find, though I do sometimes hesitate to buy books in a particular category if it would result in the need for reshelving.

More specifically, American literature is on the top of the far left bookshelf with one shelf of Latin American literature on the bottom. The next bookshelf has British (which is chronological until mid-20th C, then roughly alphabetical from mid-20th C on). Then there's a bookshelf with Scandanavian literature on the top, French in the middle, and Spanish at the bottom. Then Latin and Greek then have their own section for no really good reason. Then there's a big clump of Germany and central Europe, with a tiny section at the bottom for African. The next shelf over is all Russian. Then comes Middle Eastern and Asian.

Short books (in height not length) have their own short shelf, regardless of original language. Ditto tall books. Non-fiction is by topic.


If you've spent as much time in libraries as I have, you've memorized the LOC system (more or less), and it's a much more logical and accessible system than whatever High Fidelity bullshit Jacob is talking about above. That might work fine with numbers considerably under a thousand, records, or comics; but let's be serious here.


I dunno. I have over 2000 books, and I group them as the whim (and the capacity of my shelves) takes me. LOC? There's a reason I keep my history of Chinese technology books next to my Renaissance exploration books, and the Library of Congress system does not facilitate it.

(And fuck a bunch of High Fidelity. Wish they would let me bring spray paint on airplanes.)


I also divide fiction and belles lettres by language/country of origin: England, France, Germany, America, Russia seem to be the main ones. Within each, I organize by date of publication, so as to keep my timelines visual. I cheat slightly because I tend to keep authors together. Lewis Carrol is in my later Victorian shelf.

Then, I have a few thematic groupings: "theory," "theory/history of medicine/drugs," "history" (by period), "pre-modern stuff" (yeah, I do mostly stuff after 1660), and "fun genre reading" (trying desparately to check those out of the library).

Last, but certainly not least: Books I Think I'm Currently Working On. Those I cleverly store in big piles on and around my desk.

Jacob T. Levy

Them's foolish fightin' words, Jonathan; I couldn't be more serious, and the numbers involved are in the multiples of thousands.

Comparing library collections to my collection, I see two categories.

1) Those topics for which I've probably spent enough time in the library to know the LOC divisions, but

a) I have so many books that I probably need a different principle of division,
b) I have my own intellectual commitments about what goes where that don't map onto the LOC, and
c) I may even think that I know better in some objective sense than the LOC.

Here we're talking about my core academic fields. I'm often left thinking that the LOC division of materials in those fields makes no sense; at the very least, it makes no sense given the uses to which I'm putting the materials. In arranging my philosophy, political science, political theory, history, and law, the last thing I want to do is have to remember somebody else's categorization system.

I'm certainly not going to put Dworkin's legal theory books on the other side of the room from his political theory, or the philosophy secondary literature on Hobbes in a different location from the history secondary literature on Hobbes. It's already annoying enough that I have to trudge to different places in libraries for books that I think of as being relevantly similar. I'm not going to replicate the conditions for annoyance at home or in my office.

2) Topics and genres which I don't tend to access in libraries, and so have no idea what the LOC system is.

I've just never been a library-fiction reader, or at least not since fifth grade or so. I buy my fiction. So I literally have no idea how libraries arrange their fiction. (I presume it's mostly alphabetical-within-genre-and-language but don't know what they think the relevant genre distinctions are.)

But if I'm trying to figure out whether Lewis Carroll goes under children's literature, fantasy, or general fiction, what's the possible use of first learning and then trying to remember how libraries do it? What I want to know is where I'll look for it in the future, and that's children's literature, notwithstanding that Tolkien and Lewis are not.

This isn't High Fidelity; I'm not proposing to bore visitors with the tales of why a book goes in one place rather than another. I'm just trying to put them where I think they belong, which is both tied to where and when I read or acquired them in the past and where I think I'll think to look for them in the future.


Now, I'm just a poor grad student, and my books don't number over a thousand yet, but I reject all organization of them. Sometimes it takes me a minute or two longer to find something than it should, but then I get to brush across all the books I bought long ago and have never read and forgotten about. I fear the day that my books reach the critical mass where I get fed up and organize them.

Incidentally, my roommate is the son of two librarians, and it shows. When visitors ask how are books are divided up, I tell them his are the organized shelves, mine are the random ones.


The changes you're proposing could be made to the LOC system with very minor modifications. And its classification of primary and secondary literary works is, for the most part, quite straightforward (it has no truck with the ignorant category of genre applied to anything other than chronology and national origin, for example, at least in terms of primary materials). The type of material that gets shelved in the A section tends to be quite arbitrary, but I find that I have a lot of arbitrary-seeming volumes. It's seems appropriate for the Onion collections to be first, for example.

Even if I hadn't worked in the library as an undergraduate, I'd know the rough categories of the LOC system. I think it's about time to learn them. If you don't know the system, it will enslave you.

Jacob T. Levy

The changes you're proposing could be made to the LOC system with very minor modifications.

My modifications demand merging BJ, JC, K200s-400s, a chunk of HB, the E200s and E300s, and smatterings of D into the same place. By the time I've done this, why is what I've done usefully described as modified LOC? Why on earth should I describe it to myself that way?

D doesn't separate out intellectual history as a category at all, so I can't even systematically describe the modification in LOC terms. What I can do is: file intellectual history with history of political thought, leaving a default category of "other European history." This lets me keep my Hobbes secondary literature together, at the price of dismembering the D category. I find this price trivial.

If you don't know the system, it will enslave you.

That's silly. As I said, I don't know the system for fiction, and remain blissfully free of it. How will it enslave me if I don't need it and don't care? I do know the system within my academic fields, and find it irksome, so refuse to let it enslave my office.


What do you mean, it doesn't sort out intellectual history? Are you familiar with the D16 family? How about C? How about CB161 (for the history of the future)?

You must not create your own system, or you will be enslaved by another man's. Blake pointed this out, among others.

Jacob T. Levy

I'm now getting the feeling that I've been playing into some complicated joke on Jonathan's part, or that I'm just being twitted for the hell of it without noticing the game, so I'll stop now...


At least it was a *complicated* joke.


Ha -- this must be going around. I blogged about rearranging our books a week or so ago. I shelve 'em so I can find them again but if I died, it might not make any sense to the person cleaning up my estate!


I began with a system inspired by the one at Rainbow Books in Madison. Then, for years, I maintained separate shelves for philosophy/social theory and history/sociology. But that broke down too. Now it's basically poetry, novels, non-fiction, plus a few special categories: cooking, Marx/Engels, practical books on organizing, impractical books on organizing, music, and statistics.

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