I Collector

Mimi Troll in one of my earliest outfits

So, December 31st, and all the books lying on my attic floor are still there. They have progressively accumulated since last January, and whilst I have every good intention of promoting them to their ‘proper’ place on the shelves, they remain where I first put them, in little huddles on the floor. The reason they are still resident on the carpet, where the Bad Persians spitefully spike their corners, is that I have no more room on my shelves.

I get older painlessly, endlessly absorbed with taking everything off one shelf, dusting, and believing that it will now be possible to squeeze more in than before. As I return the volumes I become distracted by something as I leaf through the pages, and time slips away as I engage with something I have owned for ages, but never focused on before. There is then the dilemma of whether a book should be in place A, with X Y and Z, or in place B with E F and G? Should my books on Lithuanian libraries stay alone in my attic with LIS related material, or should I unite them with their natural co-habitees of books on Lithuanian places, folk tales and cuisine (currently downstairs with travel, fiction and cookery respectively..)? Should my Ladybird book of ballet stay here with the other ladybird books or should I separate it from its same size siblings and put it downstairs with the other books on ballet? Maybe I should have two copies of these things..? No. Definitely no. There is no more room on my shelves.

In his book ‘The Library at Night’, Alberto Manguel devotes a whole chapter to ordering (The library as order). His dilemma in arranging his collection offers me some solace.

He writes that as a boy, he would decide:

… to place them by size so that each shelf contained only volumes of the same height.

But that

… sometimes this order would not satisfy me and I’d reorganize my books by subject: fairy tales on one shelf, adventure stories on another, scientific and travel volumes on a third, poetry on a fourth, biographies on a fifth. And sometimes, just for the sake of change, I would group my books by language, or by colour, or according to my degree of fondness for them.

Once a category is established, it suggests or imposes others, so that no cataloguing method, whether on shelf or on paper, is ever closed unto itself.

And  later, in adulthood, when creating his own library, he writes on the subjective and personal nature of the organization of private collections:

Why stash the works of Saint Agustine in the Christinianity section rather than under Literature in Latin or Early Medieval Civilizations? Why place Carlyle’s French Revolution in Literature in English rather than in European History, and not Simon Schama’s Citizens? Why keep Louis Ginzberg’s seven volumes of Legends of the Jews under Judaism, but Joseph Gaer’s study on the Wandering Jew under Myths? Why place Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho under Carson but Arthur Golding’s Metamorphoses under Ovid? Why keep my two pocket volumes of Chapman’s Homer under Keats?

Ultimately, every organization is arbitrary.

Not just me then.

Then there is LibraryThing – and the need to not only to add in all my books (scanning in the covers for the more ancient or foreign ones), but to devise a scheme to tag them all according to where they are on the shelves, and consequently to which category I feel they should belong. Although any electronic catalogue allows for the possibility of placing an item in more than one category by adding multiple tags, this does not help in my quest to create the ideal collection, in the ideal order, with all the books on the shelves. And sadly, on the topic of social networks for books, Alberto Manguel is silent.

But, dear reader, there is more to this prose than the story of how I maintain a collection of books rather than just a stash beside my bed. The truth is I collect quite a lot of things. I mean collect them rather than just happen to give them space in my house, because they are obtained specifically in relation to the other things which I possess. They are organized. I organize them. Endlessly, never to my complete satisfaction, and occasionally (designer handbags) to facilitate gloating. And there is never enough space to present my collections on the shelves and in the cupboards, in the way in which I would like.

I have been driven to contemplate my true nature as I read “An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World”, written by Frances Larson, in which she investigates his compulsion to collect just about everything. Whilst the word ‘obsessive’ is not mentioned, the negative consequences of Wellcome’s desire to collect ‘everything’ are painful to read about.

His marriage failed; his need to control not just the objects his buyers found, but any subsequent research ideas that ensued, caused significant friction between Wellcome and his employees, and perhaps most sadly of all, he collected too much. The process of collecting overshadowed the desire to learn from, or enjoy, the things collected. Most of his collection was in storage, destined to be partially dismantled after his death.

Wellcome believed that only a complete collection would be worthy enough to display, one which would truly tell the story of the history of medicine. He believed that by arranging the items in his collection, contrasting and comparing, making connections, previously unknown facts and understanding would be revealed. But in the meantime, he died:

… Wellcome ran out of time. The story that might have emerged from all his frantic collecting – the great history ‘of the art and science of healing’ that he intended to depict through his rarities – was never finished. The collection was never exhibited en masse, polished and consistent, as he intended it to be.

Yet, perusing the fantastic legacy that is now the Wellcome Collection and Library, it is impossible to say anything other than that Henry Wellcome’s activity was worth it.

So what about my collections? Well I don’t think I collect anything with a view to having everything. I think I first thought of this when attempting to compile a list of toxicology resources for my PhD – too many even a decade ago for the most ardent of resource collectors. My approach has evolved to aspire to a representative sample of what is available (e.g. LIS books, colored frock coats and SpaceNK products). After all, there is no more room on the shelves. And I doubt that anyone will consider my collections a legacy.

But I do enjoy being organized and I naturally form collections from the things I have. I have to put like things together and take great pleasure in thinking of ways to do this. My great uncle’s bible and his stereoscope, for example, may seem unlikely shelf sharers, and yet I place them side by side in the cupboard because they are the only things of his that I posses, and so even though I have other bibles, this particular one sits alone on a box of cards intended to generate 3D images at the beginning of the 20th century.

Sometimes I discover new things from arranging the old things. Recipes for example. All the cut out ideas from magazines and newspapers could so easily sit in a heap, good for nothing except artful clutter. Yet when organised according to savoury or sweet, and even crudely subcategorized, I find a pattern in the type of food I felt drawn to, and a renewed interest in cooking something nice to eat. And then who hasn’t enjoyed making playlists from all the CDs which lay forgotten in their rack, as soon as all the tracks are loaded onto iTunes – the software arranging the random pile of sound history into something new and attractive – hateful to those who admire the concept of an entire album, but smashing for those of us who only ever liked one track anyway. And the same for photos, and papers as well as books. What about all those old letters and postcards? Is there anything that cannot become a collection? Cleaning products, the contents of the fridge, knitting patterns, crockery … mmm  I can see where Wellcome had a problem – its all so interesting, placing like things together, establishing differences, seeing what is missing, and what has previously passed unobserved.

My earliest collection was one of books by Enid Blyton – and then when I was eight, I started to collect trolls (see Mimi above) – each named and dressed in clothes I designed and made myself. Easy to see where I came from.

But it is December 31st , and so before another year passes, I am going to the fridge to find cheese and champagne – and yes … the cheeses are stored according to country of origin… but no – I don’t collect champagne – I drink it as soon as it is chilled. Happy New Year.


Larson F (2009). An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Manguel A (2006). The Library at Night. Yale University Press: New Haven and London.