Is a Historian’s Library an Archive or a Living Thing?

This week I purged my bookshelves. As a Ph.D. historian, it initially felt like a risky move — somewhere in between disowning my former self and cutting out part of my brain.

In the end, though, I think the effect will be closer to pruning a big, old, tangled shrub so that it has some energy and breathing room to send out new growth.

When I moved with my family to a New Jersey suburb a decade ago, I clung to every last one of my books. I was committing for the foreseeable future to a life as an independent scholar, and I was moving back to the area where I’d grown up. I would no longer be part of a college community, and if my childhood experiences were any indication, I was likely to be judged on my decorating skills more than my writing and lecturing skills. My books were my promise to myself that I could continue to prioritize my scholarship even if it meant I was a lousy homemaker. Most of my books lived in two giant IKEA bookshelves that lined the entire living room wall facing the front door. “This house contains every book written in English on the history of abortion and contraception,” they announced to my visitors, daring them to ask about my work. I had no professorship, no title. I felt like my books were my personal history, my identity, a testament to my expertise, and the justification for my complete lack of interest in spending my time on home renovation projects.

When I became visually impaired from multiple sclerosis five years ago, things shifted. My walls of books no longer made me feel masterful; they made me feel overwhelmed and frustrated. Scanning bookshelves searching for something was one of the tasks that made me feel most disabled.

At the same time, I had a second book manuscript well underway, occasional speaking invitations, and a position as a regular contributor to Nursing Clio. I knew in no uncertain terms which research I most cared about, and I was sure it was important. I have heard that this kind of self-confidence often arrives in one’s 40s, and at 42, it was certainly true for me. As I enjoyed telling my equally-nerdy children at every opportunity that year, “after all, I AM the answer to life, the universe, and everything!”

My book purge actually began with some easy, lightweight pruning last year. I had read Marie Kondo’s popular guide, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, mostly because I was sitting in the public library procrastinating on revisions, and Kondo’s book was propped right above my library carrel. I picked it up because it inspired me to muse whether a tidier living space might make my visual impairment less exhausting. It wasn’t so much what Kondo said about books per se — books are a different kind of object to someone who works with them than someone who reads them on occasion for pleasure — but I was inspired by the idea that it was ok to take an object that was objectively nice but not a good fit for me, thank it for what it taught me, and pass it along.

The books I found easiest to donate were the books I had on my shelf out of guilt. I knew I really should read them. They would be good for me. Some were written by colleagues, or mentors, or famous people in my field who I ought to follow more closely. Others had been highly recommended by friends and scholars I admire. Still others I had bought for graduate school classes, and never quite got around to reading. But Kondo told me that I could donate any objects that did not “spark joy” when I held them, and it was pretty clear to me that guilt was more like the opposite of joy. I thanked the books for representing some of the many great books I will never have time to read, and donated them so that they can go back into circulation, and hopefully become beloved by someone else.

I made a Word file called “Books I Used to Own,” and listed titles and authors just in case I ever need to remember what was there. It is my backup plan for those situations where I might wish I could scan my bookshelf for “that book on theories of practice, or something, what was it?” I feel more sanguine about this backup solution than I might have even a few years ago, because now the images of the covers of most books are online.

“I thanked the books for representing some of the many great books I will never have time to read, and donated them so that they can go back into circulation, and hopefully become beloved by someone else.”

What was hardest about giving up that first batch of books was that it required an honest reckoning with my altered circumstances as someone with a visual impairment. Each book is now more of a time and energy investment. I can’t skim. Badly-structured writing is much more of a problem. I can no longer “take a glance through” a book the way I used to. I am now of necessity much choosier about what I read.

This week’s further purging was more emotional. It included large piles of books I had actually read all the way through. As a historian, I can’t help feeling like some part of my brain is stored in my library. To give away my physical copies of those books felt like it might be self-inflicting amnesia.

But trimming away some of that tangled old growth — books on dance history for a project I had decided not to pursue; grad school books on the history of physics that I don’t anticipate referencing — made the core parts of my library much easier to see.

I own a large number of books on the history of women’s health, the history of medicine, the anthropology and sociology of the body, and American women’s history, and most of those will remain, but they are not my pared-down library’s entirety. Joining them are some books that form a different kind of core, the center of my identity as a scholar. For example, I kept the books from a freshman moral philosophy course, because it was my first engagement with that level of intellectual endeavor. Prof. Tim Scanlon told us that he would not tolerate straw men: a good philosopher puts the argument she wants to critique in its best possible light, and then demonstrates why it is inadequate, before advocating her own solution. It is that earnestness of intent and approach that epitomizes good scholarship to me. I may never open Nicomachean Ethics again, but it symbolizes honorable work, so it will stay on my shelf.

Other books remain because they represent specific intellectual breakthroughs. I kept a couple of books on Martha Graham because in writing all those margin notes, I realized that I truly had something to say about the history of the body. Most of my science studies books were thanked and boxed up for donation, but I kept Harry Collins’ Artificial Experts because in writing a paper about it, I realized just how problematic any attempt to create a single definition of what makes a person “really human” and therefore distinct from an artificial intelligence was likely to be, no matter its good intent.

I am sure I have made some mistakes in my donation pile. I already paid far too much and went way over deadline waiting for the delivery of a book I had donated in my first purge, which I re-purchased when I realized it might have some key history for one of my Nursing Clio essays. But I also know I have done the right thing. A future historian might regard a deceased historian’s career as the sum of all the books she read and the papers she wrote, lined up on shelves and filed in chronological order. But I am not my own archivist. While I am living my scholar’s life, my collection looks to me much more like one of the precious, tenacious, old-growth shrubs on our nation’s older campuses: to grow and thrive, some of the older parts need to be trimmed to make way for new shoots.

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4 Comments

Jimmy Wilkinson Meyer

Oh, I’ve been putting off doing the same thing. Thanks for the nudge.

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Sujay Kentlyn

Love the shrub-pruning metaphor, which also reminded me of neural pruning. I’ve been through the same process recently, triggered by multiple house-moves over several years. It feels like an un-tethering, which is both liberating and disorienting. Now when I buy a new book, I don’t have to decide which part of my library to shelve it in, which kind of gives it permission to be itself and speak to me with its own authentic voice, not be contextualised or pigeon-holed into a pre-existing intellectual trajectory. Scary – but I like it!

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Arleen Tuchman

Beautiful essay. Thank you so much sharing. I’m definitely inspired to think about what my books mean to me and why.

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Kirsten Sword

Beautiful! And an inspiration to do some pruning of my own. I very much relate.

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