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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Lost libraries

The Boston Globe recently published a very interesting article, Lost libraries : the strange afterlife of authors’ book collections by Craig Fehrman. The article discusses the various fates of authors' libraries, most often after their death: rarely are they preserved intact in an institution, but are most often broken up and sold. The resources to keep an author's library intact are most often beyond even the largest institutions, but what is lost is what Fehrman calls, the author's "intellectual biography," embodied by the example of what we've learned from Melville's heavily-annotated copy of Paradise Lost, among other author's notated copies of their books.

The article also mentions what can be lost during an author's lifetime--many do not keep all of their books, or a record of their reading.

Are you an author? A researcher? Have you thought about this?

I've written before about efforts to reconstruct catalogs of broken-up libraries on LibraryThing, but since then I have learned a few things about just what a flexible tool it can be. When I had first heard of LibraryThing, I thought, "Why would anyone catalog their own books, unless they own a huge collection?" But since then, I've learned about many more of its features, that allow a person to track their reading and books--not only the ones they own, but ones they don't own, and ones yet to be read.

What makes all this possible is the Collections feature. When you set up an account on LibraryThing, which you can do for free, you have a choice: you can make your profile public or not. You can keep your profile and collections completely private, if you wish. Once you've set up your account, you can create collections, and one book can be in more than one collection. So, for example, if you are working on researching hulls, you can have a few collections such as:

  • Your Library
  • Read but unowned
  • To read
  • Hulls

And a book can be in more than one collection. So you can track your reading--your citations--by, for example, adding books you've heard about and want to read in your "To read" collection, and after you've read them, you can easily edit the collection(s) a book is in. So one book that you borrowed from a library for your project on hulls could then be put into the "Read but unowned" and "Hulls" collections, and you can note in the book's comments field your own notes about the book. A book you buy on hulls can go into "Your Library" and "Hulls." If you later sell that book, but still want to track the citation, change it to "Read but unowned" and leave it in the "Hulls" collection. Adding books is incredibly easy, with over 600 sources for importing records, easy keying and editing, and if you find you want to download your catalog, you can export it easily in multiple formats.

You may never get to the point that you've actually cataloged your library--you may simply use these features for tracking the citations of various projects, or books you'd like to read. If you've ever had a great book recommended to you and then forgotten who mentioned it, or stood at a bookstore wondering if you already own a copy of the book in your hand or not, LibraryThing may be just the thing for you.

And if you try it, check out the pirate interface, one of many languages available.


Buck said...

I'd forgot about this. Now I'm going to give it a try. Thanks for the link!

Heather said...

You're welcome, Buck--hope you find it useful.