Thursday 30 April 2009

For Book Lovers, Booksellers and Librarians

One of the stranger items on my bookshelves is a little 48-page duodecimo volume, bound in red cloth and dating (at a guess) from the 1920s, called My Duties As My Own Librarian, by Arthur H. Jenn and Edward P. Gray. Subtitled For Book Lovers, Booksellers and Librarians, it features on the cover a line engraving of an elegantly dressed, notably humourless chap in wing collar and bow tie, standing at a desk strewn with books and papers, which he is firmly bringing to order.
The first section of the book, My Library And I by Edward P. Gray, contains this stern but true dictum, 'The problem of putting in order and, what is of the utmost importance, keeping in order, your stock of books so that any volume required can be found easily and at a glance is not so easy of solution as you may think.' Tell me about it... Inspired by the 'methodical, neat and easy way the ordinary public library staff appear to do their work', the author sets about organising his library into its various subjects - Religion, Philosophy, Fiction, Art, History, Mucky Books (OK I made that one up), etc, and assigning to each subject area a letter. You see where this is going? Next thing you know, our man is busy arranging works within these categories alphabetically by author's name, and then - yes - listing them all ('this I found intensely interesting') on index cards, once again on a classified system, arranged alphabetically by subject, and within subjects alphabetically by author. Next he sets off in quest of a well lit room to house his library. It must have large windows, in which 'for all practical purposes clear glass is most assuredly the best'- he thinks of everything. Equipped with plenty of adjustable shelving, he sets to work - but what to do with quarto and folio volumes? Why, our man creates a 'parallel library' of large books, leaving book-sized blocks on the main shelves to indicate where to find the relevant quarto or folio. Ingenious no? With some remarks on the care of books - 'I invariably keep a calico duster handy and give the covers of the books a light rub over before replacing them' - the use of the bookmark and the repair of loose and torn leaves, Mr Gray retires from the scene, and Mr Jenn interjects a short chapter on cataloguing and classification, before one 'J.P.' provides the concluding section, Myself As A Bookseller.
'It does not look well for an assistant at any bookseller's,' writes JP, 'not to know a little about a book that may be asked for. It sounds the doom of that bookseller where the assistant confesses in his own splenetic fashion that he "doesn't know".' Aah those different times... Then there's the vexed matter of top shelves. 'I am not antagonistic to top shelves for the keeping of books, but I used to regard them as something that made my blood run cold.' Well, quite. It seems JP still has issues, as we soon learn that 'lately I have had my top shelves taken down, the walls thereabouts repapered, and I have in consequence improved the position of the shop'. I'm not sure I understand that, but he seems pleased with his bold move. With some concluding remarks on assistants - 'I tell my assistants that they are my representatives, and that what they say, and what they recommend, is precisely as though I myself were standing in their shoes' - JP takes his leave and this curious little book ends.
I trust this has awakened your inner librarian and you are all reaching for your index cards and your calico dusters, and eyeing those top shelves with icy distaste.


  1. Sound advice indeed.

    However, the business of removing one's top shelves puzzles me. Whenever I remove one of my top shelves (wretched things!) I find, much to my chagrin, that the next shelf down has somehow transformed itself into a top shelf, and my troubles begin all over.

    Does the book perhaps offer any tips on resolving this issue? I have considered turning the whole bookshelf upside down, but I fear I would then need to invest in an upside-down stepladder in order to reach the bottom shelves, and that alas, is beyond my current budget.

  2. Had it been Written today doubtless it would be called Libraries for Dummies.
    On the subject of libraries and therefore books and knowing y'all place great store by them, what would you say was the correct way to store them. Vertically one has to crick ones neck, horizontally they are easier to read but that smacks of Bromley & environs.
    Or a combination of both, considered very working class in polite circles.
    Spreading about on coffee tables of course is the exclusive province of Lexus owners.

  3. A friend of mine who's a reference librarian but spends some of her time working as a cataloger arranged her books at home by color. I have yet to see what it looks like. But she's happy with the result.


    Title is "The Society for Librarians who say Motherfucker'.

  5. I just bought this book for my librarian brother for his birthday as part of my personalised 'Librarian Gift Pack.' Also included - a librarian mug, an enamel 1960s librarian badge, and 'Tales from a librarian' by Tori Amos.

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