January 2012 | Nate Pedersen

Weeding the Collection

The New Year is here and with it the flurry of resolutions that usually include some form of de-cluttering.  Did anyone else weed their book collection over the holiday?  I sorted through mine, pulling out a few odds and ends to sell or give away and a few others to repair (with my very basic book repair skills).  I was interested, therefore, in this essay in the Independent.  Tom Sutcliffe, one of their columnists, weeded through his library over the holiday ("...a year of unrestrained growth and ill-disciplined browsing had steadily diminished its utility and pleasure...") and the act led him to reflect upon the role of the personal library in the age of the eBook. 

Sutcliffe came to some thoughtful conclusions,"This time round though I found that most of those old rationales for whether a book went back on the shelf or into the charity box weren't really functioning properly any more. The arrival of a Kindle and the internet had eaten into what had once been utterly routine judgements. Where once it would have been a no-brainer to keep one's copies of Walter Scott, say, this time round I hesitated."  Sutcliffe continued, "The canon, in short, now has less of a claim to physical shelf space than more obscure books."

And this, I think, is Sutcliffe's main point: much of the Western literary canon is so quickly and easily accessible via eBooks and the Internet, that physical copies aren't justifying their shelf space like they used to. In their place, however, the obscure, the interesting, and the unique continue to thrive.

I find this to be very true with my own library.  For example, I used to have an extensive collection of modern reprints of the classics - from publishers like Modern Library and Everyman - which I assembled to be representative of the Western canon.  But I've given away almost all of them now, excepting my very favorite titles.  My reasoning is similar to Sutcliffe's: most of these books are easily available online, should I need to reference them.  The shelf space, always a prime commodity, could therefore be put to better use. 

So what took their place?  More obscure books that aren't available online and are at least somewhat difficult to track down: my WPA books, my Rivers of America books, my American Trails series.  Out of print titles from some of my favorite authors.  Books I regularly reference for article research.  And books that I delight in as physical objects.  In short, my actual book collections.  It's interesting how the process of weeding the library brings these collections to light: the true character of your library is revealed by what you can do without.  And maybe that clarity is an advantage of the eBook age after all.

So, is anyone else going through the same process?