When I took a course in Special Collections in library school, one of our assignments was to take a dusty old box of papers that had been donated to the library at some point and try to make sense of the contents, but we were not to impose our own sense of order. We could open envelopes and flatten the letters inside but could not throw away the envelopes, even those that seemed to contain no important information. We were to remove staples and paperclips, which could rust and damage the paper. We could shake the dust and the dead spiders and the rotted rubberbands out of the folders.
We were to leave the materials in whatever order they were in, based on the assumption that the owner had made conscious decisions before filing them away in this box. We were not to re-arrange anything, either chronologically or alphabetically. We were to catalog each item, assigning it some kind of arbitrary accession number, which would be cross-indexed at a later date with other items in the collection. At the time, I thought we were giving far too much credit to the original owners, believing they had done more than simply stash things away in the closest box available. I thought about my own boxes of letters and cards, journals, old school papers, photos, receipts, cancelled checks; what a jumble some of them would seem to anyone who might later try to discover their underlying order.
I was reminded of this as I began cataloguing the second shelf of books on the oak bookshelf in my bedroom. I bought the bookshelf at a yard sale in Lexington, Kentucky, when I was in library school in my early twenties. We paid $100 for it, which at the time was a whole lot of money. It seemed very elegant, a shelf worthy of a fine collection of treasured books. It is still one of my favorite pieces of furniture, although it is hidden away in the master bedroom rather than standing in the living room where it possibly belongs. The bookshelf is dark oak, 48” wide and 53” high, with two sets of four shelves. Originally it had two glass doors, which were removed when the glass broke in one of them; the doors are currently in the basement awaiting the day when I can get a new piece of glass cut and locate the hinges (or buy new ones) to re-hang the doors.
Where the first shelf held mostly poetry books, the second shelf held only a few volumes of poetry, along with a wild variety of other books in no apparent order: a book of English grammar; an illustrated “field guide” to Irish fairies; the Tao Te Ching; the Pilgrim of Tinker Creek; a book of essays by David Sedaris; a couple of writing books, including one called The Weekend Novelist; a book of exercises for the Royal Canadian Air Force; several contemporary novels; Alice in Wonderland; a book by Jeff Foxworthy that my dad gave me when I turned forty called You’re Not a Kid Anymore; a translation of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight by J.R.R. Tolkien; a book and CD from my mom called I Hope You Dance; and The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels.
After I had entered all the titles and pertinent information into my database, I decided I would impose some order to this mess. I thought I would interfile the poetry volumes from this second shelf with the ones from the first shelf I had catalogued, alphabetically by author’s last name. I planned to do the same with the fiction and nonfiction, as I moved on through the rest of my shelves of books. But as soon as I began to shift the books around to make room for all the poetry books—the first part of the alphabet on the first shelf, the second part of the alphabet on the second shelf—I discovered the obvious organizing principle I had completely missed: The second shelf, it turns out, holds only short books, the ones that will stand straight on a shelf that is less than 8 ½” inches tall.