Posted by: barn owl | March 8, 2008

Treeware Culture: Bookshelving Strategies and the Prelinger Library

A number of bloggers have been discussing their bookshelving methods (or lack thereof) and strategies; for example, here are posts from Coturnix, Chad Orzel, and Laelaps.

My house is rather small, by Southwestern US standards, and my living room and dining room are one space that’s open, over a counter, to the kitchen. My one TV is banished to the guest bedroom, so my living room/dining room is “decorated” with bookshelves. This is not an uncommon phenomenon amongst academic types who are not overly concerned with interior decoration, and/or who possess few display-worthy objets d’art. I tend to arrange a few knickknacks with the books, with a common theme, whenever possible.


Some of my natural history books, keeping company with stuffed chameleon and hippo
Photo: barn owl 2008

Last May, there was a fascinating article by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in Harper’s Magazine, describing the Prelinger Library in San Francisco. The Library, created and curated by Rick and Megan Shaw Prelinger, is “an appropriation-friendly, image-rich, experimental research library”, according to its own blog. There are a number of interesting philosophical, cultural, and legal issues raised in the article, and by the continued existence of such a small, independent public library, but for this post I’ll just stick with a brief description of the organization, as relevant to the topic of shelving books. As Lewis-Kraus writes-

….this collection is not about browsability per se but tailored and pointed browsability- browsability within a narrative structure and in service to some very particular ideas about the ownership of culture and the cultural frameworks of democracy.


Some of my bird books, with birdhouses and carved Bufflehead
Photo: barn owl 2008

Not all of the Prelinger collection is arranged with the agenda of “library as intellectual preserve”, however; the REGIONAL section connects to GEOGRAPHY (GENERAL), NATURAL HISTORY, and eventually EXTRACTIVE RESOURCE INDUSTRIES. This linked and highly contextual arrangement of books, periodicals, maps, and ephemera has its inspiration in the Warburg Library, associated with the University of London. Founded by art historian Aby Warburg, the Library is arranged on four main floors: IMAGE (art history, classical art and archaeology, modern art), WORD (literature, humanist and vernacular works), ORIENTATION (religions, philosophy), and ACTION (social history, political history, magic & science (!)).


Lewis-Kraus, Gideon (2007). A world in three aisles: Browsing the post-digital library. Harper’s Magazine 314 (1884), 47-57.


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