Recently I have been cataloging my personal home library, and in the process of doing so I’ve come across a lot of things I had forgotten were there. As a historian my library has changed a lot over the years. Books have come and gone out of my life, and far too many have come and gone without being read. I’m reminded of past projects I accomplished, past projects I attempted but gave up before finishing, and many projects that didn’t make it past the ‘buy a couple books on it’ phase. Having put some thought into it I think I have discovered why my library, and probably why many of your libraries, have changed over time.
Why Do I Have the Books I Have?
I love looking at book collections, especially ones that are not my own. It serves double duty as a kind of window shopping, but also as a window into who the owner is, or at least who they want, or at some point, wanted to be. The same, of course, can be said of my own library. I may not have read every book I own but I remember where I got it, and why I got it.
The better part of a decade ago I was more of a fiction writer. I was an active member of an online community, Alternatehistory.com. It was, and still is, the leading community driven website for self-published works of Alternate History. For those of you who might not be familiar, Alternate History is a genre of speculative fiction (usually placed in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of bookstores) in which a writer explores what might have happened had something in the past happened differently. On AlternateHistory.com I wrote and read a number of these stories, or “timelines”, and in all of them you can tell if the person did more or less research into the subject, and the better ones usually had more research put into them. In my desire to write the next great alternate history story I bought many books with the intent of using them as research material to give greater historical context to my work of fiction. However, most of these story/timeline ideas never got past that ‘buy a couple books on it’ phase, and the remnants of these aborted projects can be found scattered around my library.
Along the same lines as writing Alternate History stories a good number of books were also acquired for use in making videos for the YouTube channel, or for use in one of my podcasts. I have a sizeable Middle East history section, most of which was acquired with the intent to use in my narrative history podcast, History of the Modern Middle East. Most of them haven’t been used in the podcast, or even a video yet, but I have far more confidence in my intent to actually use them than most of my library. I’m less confident, though, in books I acquired for making videos, especially ones I procured a long time ago. More recent acquisitions intended for videos tend to get used, because I bought them for a project I’m working on now. The only problem with many of these books, however, is that they have not much use after I’m finished. So at least I can say that some books were used to their fullest intent.
While the books in my library are a kind of momento to past and current ambitions, the size of it tends to reflect how I’m feeling right now.
Does Size Matter?
Over the years my library has gone through periods of expansion and shrinkage, and these different states of my library have a tendency to reflect how I’m feeling about life at the time.
When my library is smaller for a prolonged period of time it usually means I’m anxious in some way. These times are usually marked by me going through my library and finding books I can take to my local used book store or Goodwill, along with a greater usage and purchase of digital books. Both of these habits are an attempt at downsizing the number of my physical possessions. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable with how many items I have just littering my home. Unfortunately this oftens has to do with the desire to make room for potential future acquisitions. However, it is just as frequently about me wanting to, or thinking about, making a big change in my life. Sometimes this is about changing jobs, or perhaps living situations, even if neither are realistically in the cards. In times like this, having fewer possessions is relieving, as though there are fewer things holding you back. But there are also times, like now, that my library is expanding.
Currently my library has expanded beyond the ability of my bookcases to accommodate it in a clear manner. I have observed two reasons why my library expands. One is my feelings toward the reliability of digital books. I was an early adopter of the Nook, Barnes & Noble’s e-reader tablet. I have multiple tablets and e-readers, all of them purchased from my local Barnes & Noble store. However in the last year or so there were rumors of Barnes & Noble discontinuing the Nook hardware, and although this wouldn’t have impacted my ability to access all the books I had purchased through the nook, it did foster feelings of uncertainty. On top of that there are also concerns over the legal status of E-Books, that being when you purchase one you aren’t actually purchasing the book, but rather the right to read that file. These types of concerns can lead me to expanding my physical library, however that is not the reason I do so now.
The bigger reason for me preferring hard copy versions of books now is how I do research. Before now, and unfortunately during school, I didn’t put nearly as much time into researching for papers, podcasts, or videos as I do now. For school I had the tendency to do more precise strikes when writing papers. I used the index in the back of books to find specific information to support a predetermined conclusion, and that was for school. When it came to videos I simply consumed a lot of information, and then wrote a script from memory, or sometimes I had the wikipedia page for a subject opened. However late last year (2018) I began to change how I did my research. I began to read entire books, and take notes on what I was reading. Groundbreaking stuff, I know. The style of note taking I do now thrives on physical books, but how I take those notes is another issue entirely.
How I Take Notes
I was never a good note taker in school, and I justified not taking notes while reading on my own because I was so certain that I was more of an “auditory learner” and therefore didn’t need to take notes. I wasn’t entirely wrong, but I wasn’t as good at memorizing all the information I needed as I assured myself, and did above average in school despite that. Starting with my video on Holocaust Denial, however, I began to take notes on what I read, and starting with the Exodus video I started keeping proper citations. This has changed my relationship with physical books. Around my office there are stacks of books with notepads on top or bottom of them; each stack representing a different project.
I will go into my local Starbucks with a book and a notepad and take notes for several hours before leaving. I find taking notes on physical paper while reading a physical book to be the easiest for me. When I’m reading on a tablet or my laptop I can get distracted with all the not-reading I can do. But when I’m stuck with just a book, a pen, and a pad of paper I can focus on reading and taking notes, and enter into a kind of flow state, getting way more done than would normally be expected. How I take notes for podcasts is similar, but without the notepad.
When reading for Podcasts I use these multi-colored tabs instead of a pad of paper. On each tab there is something from the paragraph I read that I was to emphasize, but the reason I do this instead of taking notes is because when writing podcasts I try to be expansionary because I don’t have to edit visuals. In contrast when taking notes for videos I try to summarize the information more, with a spattering of direct quotes. When writing a video script I try to minimize it because, quite frankly, making videos is more work than podcasts. So on top of the stacks of books and notepads for video projects, you’ll also find a stack of books with these colored tabs sticking out.
My library reflects who I am, who I was, who I want, or wanted, to be. Whether is bigger or smaller, filled with books I will never read, or ones that I will never read again, it will continue to be the staple of this historian’s work.