On the Philosophical Implications of Shelving Books or, The Time I Reorganized the Cook Books at BookCourt

An employee of the Strand bookstore sorts the books in this Feb. 21, 2007 file photo in New York. The Strand is one place you could go to find out if your books have anything more than sentimental value. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Two years ago, I was working at BookCourt in the wake of a particularly crazed holiday shopping season. The store was empty in the way all of New York feels emptied out in January and July, and I spent several Sunday night shifts tidying unmussed shelves, listening to Sharon Van Etten on repeat. It was in this period, whether out of boredom, frustration, or a drive to find professional purpose, that I decided to rearrange the cookbook section—a vigilante mission I’m only now copping to, in this essay.

It’s important to note that, even outside of the holidays, most bookstores would look like a hoarder’s living room after an earthquake without the industriousness of booksellers. So much as a busy afternoon means books stacked sideways and face-down, the alphabet in shambles, but a good bookseller can shelve a book with one hand and organize overstock with the other, all while recommending a good starter Pynchon.

Cookbooks in particular are prone to orphanhood, pulled off the shelf by the half-dozen then left in a stack on the floor next to the couch. There are worse offenses than cookbook abandonment, but stray cookbooks leave especially heavy lifting for typically unmuscular booksellers, particular when General Cooking is organized by primary author and you can’t find where it says who wrote Cooking Light. For this and other reasons, what the section needed was an organizational overhaul—something less entropic and easier to browse.

At the outset, cookbooks were sorted into eight basic subsections: baking, healthy, French, Italian, Middle-Eastern, Spanish/Mexican, Indian, Mediterranean, and “general,” a catchall. This left fad diets dubiously under “healthy,” and a handful of Jewish cookbooks tucked in awkwardly at the end of Middle-Eastern, a collateral Zionism I found troubling. The section’s basic structure, I determined, was not sufficiently nuanced for the breadth and variety of cooking instruction on offer. (Cookbooks, after all, are the number-one best-selling genre in the US.) I laid out what I considered a thoroughly sensible system of organization, in seven sections: reference, general, celebrity (including restaurants), baking, cooking method, special diet, and ethnic/regional/national (alphabetical by demonym). We printed labels and re-stocked each book like elves, toiling while the children slept.

Even my improved system retained some holes—for instance, ought Mark Bittman to be shelved in general, reference, or celebrity? A case could be made for all three, but I settled on reference, partly to stick it to his “Everything” and partly because a true celebrity cookbook has a photograph on the front. Alice Waters landed in celebrity, but under “C” for Chez Panisse—a restaurant with celebrity of its own, at least at the cross-section of Brooklyn foodies and independent booksellers gone rogue.

In less than a day, the system was dismantled, either by the owner or the general manager. Our labels were torn off, and the section returned to a state even more primitive than where it started: general had swallowed healthy and baking, and Italian was tacked onto the tail end of Mediterranean—not wrong, but not helpful, either. Like an extreme faith, organizational logic necessarily denies the validity of any other system.

A system of organization, whatever its parameters, should render case-by-case choices obsolete: A book either is or is not a true-crime thriller, does or does not contain fiction, was or was not written by Agatha Christie. But in practice, every organizational schema is a doomed attempt to blanket chaos with order, and only more so the grander its ambitions. It may be possible to draw a sensible line delineating science from nature, art from design, autobiography from memoir, or war history from American history from Native American history, but to do so is to suggest that any one exists independently from the other. The clear lines bleed and become wobbly.

This may seem an unnecessarily deep philosophical hole to fall into at the question of where to shelve a roman à clef, but it is the essence of a slippery slope, and one easy to start down while staring at a wall of mystery books at 9 pm on a Sunday night with not a soul in the store, wondering what constitutes a mystery per se, and whether we ought to be shelving Gillian Flynn next to Tana French, and what about Patricia Highsmith? This is the bedrock of reason beginning to crack.

At such moments of ontological weakness, it occurs to the bookseller that there are any number of defensible methods of organizing books—by size, by color, by weight, by publisher. Most would be nonsense in a bookstore expected to function any way other than conceptually, and of no use to anyone not ordering books by the yard. Even alphabetical order can become a fragile exercise at the very briefest departure from the systemic norm; whether you believe the Divine Comedy belongs in poetry or a designated “classics” section (another pitfall), Dante should be shelved not under “D” but “A,” for “Alighieri.” But of course he isn’t, and never will be.

McNally Jackson Books, on Prince Street in Manhattan, organizes its literary fiction by author nationality—Bolaño in South America, Tolstoy in Russia, Zadie Smith in the United Kingdom. Biographies are alphabetical by subject, “except when the fame of the author exceeds that of the subject.” The Strand Bookstore, about a mile north on Broadway, sub-categorizes its history by era, and artfully cleaves essay collections and literary criticism into two distinct sections—a rare hospitality, even in New York City. At now-bygone BookCourt, independent publishers like New York Review Books, Melville House, and Europa Editions were once shelved in individual sections, the better to appreciate their careful list curation.

Such idiosyncratic filing systems may have edifying or aesthetic advantages, but the task of organizing books is one that grows in complexity the more one tries to simplify it. Jigsawing new, more delicately drawn puzzle pieces out of a given set of titles, however brainy, often creates more confusion than it erases, spiraling inward into subcategories of subgenres of co-authored anthologies that are impossible to browse.

This is particularly true of used bookstores, which are often at the mercy of their stock and subject to the organizational whims of the strange worms who become proprietors of such places. Another Country, an English-language bookstore in Berlin, holds a wall of books labeled VARYING DEGREES OF FICTION, while in the next room, a narrow shelf reads SACRED & PROFANE, where spine-cracked volumes of Michael Moore and E.L. James stand two books deep without any real clarity about what such a label means to express. An old meeting house in Deerfield, MA, once housed a sprawling used bookstore sifted into freewheeling categories like ECCENTRICITY, AUDACITY, AND UNCONVENTIONAL BEHAVIOR IN GENERAL, and a section on US history that warned politely, “Most of this case is shelved in rough chronological order.” Categorization is a fine science in these circles, and nuance a virtue; the oxymoronic “rough chronological” is the reasoned defeat of the veteran bookseller, hammering abstract pegs into concrete holes.

On Prince Street, Nabokov is shelved among his Russian compatriots, despite living much of his life as a Russian expatriate and writing his most famous work, Lolita, in English on a trip through the American West. And where does McNally’s biography section put Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Power Broker, about Robert Moses? In a bookstore in New York City, on a spit of land that might well have become a freeway onramp had Moses had his way, whose fame exceeds whose—and to whom? The simplest fix would be to shelve two copies, one under “Caro” and one under “Moses,” but this would be no solution—it would be an admission of organizational defeat. [source: Literary Hub]

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Posted in Books, Classification, Repeatable

The Library of Congress released a history of card catalogs


The Library of Congress has released a book on the history of the card catalog, appropriately titled The Card Catalog. This Vox article talks about what the author, Constance Grady, learned from reading the book. She describes the earliest known catalog, the destruction of the LOC collection during the War of 1812, Thomas Jefferson’s early LOC classification system, Melvil Dewey’s “insufferable efficiency,” and the modern art of cataloging.

Original article here: http://www.vox.com/culture/2017/4/21/15357984/card-catalog-library-of-congress-history

Heather Hill, LIS 653-01 Spring 2017

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Posted in Cataloging, Library

Smart Cities

In a world rapidly changing where technology is evolving almost more quickly than most individuals can keep up, it is only natural that curiosity turns toward how to use this wealth of new innovation to make our cities run more efficiently.

Charlie Catlett, Santiago Garces, Christine Kendrick, Michael Mattmiller and Ben Levine have launched a project that hopes to take this curiosity and turn it into real changes in how our cities run. From transit efficiency to environmental sustainability and beyond, this group is endeavoring to invent the city of tomorrow. To do this, they have launched MetroLab, an initiative dedicated to researching and implementing technologies to make our cities function more intelligently.


Melisa McCarthy- LIS653-02

Posted in Uncategorized

Cultivating Serendipity: A Visit to the New York Times ‘Morgue’

Jeff Roth is the last man at The New York Times morgue. When he started in 1993, there were 20 archivists. Today, he’s the only one left. The morgue is an archive of tens of millions of historical clippings from the paper dating back to the 1870s, as well as 5-7 million photographic prints dating back to 1905. To organize it all, they still use card catalogs – one for the news clippings, the other for the photographic prints.

Only 1-2% of the photographic prints have been scanned. Why? First, sheer numbers – there are far too many for one man to scan. And, second, decades-old prints are fragile – they may not stand up to a scanning bed. Roth’s job is to pull historical information and photographs for reporters and researchers, as well as catalog and organize the collection. The photographs end up being scanned on an as needed basis.

The Times morgue speaks to many of the challenges archives face: small staffs with an overwhelming number of items in their collections to catalog, organize, maintain, and digitize.


Photo: Stephen Hiltner, The New York Times

Lauren Baker, LIS 653-01, Spring 2017


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Posted in Archives

Doomsday Vault for Data


Tucked away on the remote Norwegian archipelago Svalbard exists the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, aka the “Doomsday Vault,” which houses the world’s most important crop seeds. Up until recently the vault was in relative isolation among its arctic surroundings, but as of last week the vault has a new neighbor. The newly launched Arctic World Archive aims to provide a secure long-term data storage option for everyone from governments to private individuals, to keep their data safe. The archive is run by Piql, a Norway-based preservation company whose focus has been to “challenge the industry standard within image and display technology.” The Arctic World Archive is located deep within a mine where the temperature ranges from 14 to 23 degrees with just the right amount of humidity, which, according to the archive’s project manager Katrine Thomsen, are the ideal storage conditions for the data that it contains.

While the archive’s design and security are high-tech, the format of the archive is entirely analog. Data submitted to the archive for storage is printed onto rolls of ultra-durable photosensitive film. Once the data is printed onto film, the rolls of film cannot be edited and are not susceptible to hacking and other types of cyber attacks that digital data susceptible to. Piql describes the process of converting data to film as “carving the data into stone.” Aside from being located within a demilitarized zone, The Arctic World Archive is located at such a depth that Piql claims that it is impenetrable to even a nuclear attack. According to Piql, retrieval of the data is easy:, you simply scan the film using one of their scanners or magnifying lights much like using a camera, and you get your data back. According to NRK―Norway’s National Public Radio―film allows for long-term preservation which NPK claims to be at least 500 years, with Piql claiming the potential for data storage up to 1,000 years. The Arctic World Archive currently houses important historical documents from the National Archives of Brazil and Mexico but welcomes data in many forms, including text, images, sound. According to Thomsen “in the long term our solution is much more affordable than other digital storage solutions.”


Ryan Marino, LIS-653-02, Spring 2017

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Posted in Archives

From Fine Art to Fishing Poles, the Most Surprising Things Libraries Are Lending Now

When the writer Deborah Fallows toured smaller and midsize communities in the United States in 2016, she made sure to make the same stop in every city and town: the local public library. Libraries were never just plain old book-lenders, she learned, and they certainly aren’t now. Most provide residents with internet access, educational opportunities, and even refuge during times of meteorological or civic crisis. They use their archives to hold onto local history, and their programming and decor to reflect a vision of the future.
A town or city’s Main Street or Chamber of Commerce reveals its body politic, writes Fallows, but “the visit to the public library reveal[s] its heart and soul.” These days, many of these hearts and souls are full of unexpected stuff—including stuff that, if you want, you can take home with you for a few weeks. In the spirit of civic introspection, here are some of America’s most surprising current circulating collections, from art to umbrellas. [Read more]

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Lost in space: the most captivating images from Nasa’s vast archive

NASA has released its Image and Video Library into the public domain. Useful to researchers and students alike, the library contains more than 140,000 files from 1920 to the present. Check out the most popular of these spectacular space images here.

Lauren Baker, LIS 653-01, Spring 2017

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Posted in Library, Open Data

Stanford researchers map fear and happiness in historic London

A group of digital humanities researchers at Stanford has analyzed the text of about 5,000 British novels published between 1700 and 1900 in order to create an emotional map of London based on how geographic locations were described in the books.

The researchers’ method involved first mapping references to geographic locations using a technique called Named Entity Recognition to label words and phrases found in the books to a map. They then took the 200 words surrounding the geographic references to come up with 15,000 passages that were then given to volunteer taggers to read and assess for positive, negative, and neutral emotions. The taggers’ identifications were then corroborated by codings from graduate students and a sentiment analysis computer program. They took the most extreme emotions – fear and happiness – and mapped those to their locations.

The study bears some interesting results:

  • It reveals the discrepancy between reality and fiction. While the population of London expanded from 600,000 in 1700 to 4.5 million by 1900, the geographic sprawl of the population was not reflected in fiction until 1850.
  • It suggests how the authors and, by extension, their readers thought about particular places. Most readers at the time were middle and upper class, and the study reveals a strong bias for negative emotions being associated with impoverished areas and positive emotions’ association with wealthy areas.
  • Fear was often associated with unnamed places (“a dark alley”), while happiness was tied more with specific place names frequented by the upper class (“the Savoy”).

The study notes that its results were not entirely unexpected, but they mark a revealing way to quantify and map emotions in literature.

Images from: https://litlab.stanford.edu/LiteraryLabPamphlet13.pdf

Lauren Baker, LIS 653-01, Spring 2017

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Posted in Books, Classification

Learning to Think Like a Computer


Advocates of “computational thinking” are working to give everyone, especially college students but sometimes even children, the opportunity to learn how to code as a basic life skill. “Learning to Think Like a Computer,” an article in this Sunday’s New York Times, highlights a number of programs at major universities designed not for Computer Science majors, but for arts and humanities students who may be able to gain useful skills that can then be applied to their field. The article also notes the College Board’s new Advanced Placement class in Computer Science Principles, and even a toy used in a kindergarten class that teaches 4 and 5 year olds the basics of programming without them realizing it.

One student interviewed insisted that all of the skills he might gain from learning to think like a computer – “critical thinking, problem solving, analysis, and making logical arguments” – are also inherent in the humanities. But many others disagree. According to Dr. Jeannette Wing, a former professor at Carnegie Mellon, “Computing practices like reformulating tough problems into ones we know how to solve, seeing trade-offs between time and space, and pipelining (allowing the next action in line to begin before the first completes the sequence) have many applications.”

It would be hard to argue that knowledge of computer language would not be beneficial in many fields. But is it critical, or just another way to reinforce the existing curriculum?

Pappano, L. (2017, April 4). Learning to think like a computer. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/04/education/edlife/teaching-students-computer-code.html.

Posted by Meghann McKale, 653:01 Sp17

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Innovation & Design @ Sony Square, NYC

Last week, I was waiting for one of my dearest friends, Katie, to get off from her job at Sony.  The Sony headquarters is in a beautiful building facing Madison Square Park and has an exhibition space on the ground floor.  While waiting for Katie, I checked out the exhibit, Innovation and Design, which prompted me to “Experience the innovation, technology development and importance of design through Sony’s products over the decades.”

What an amazing thing to see! Among the many products Sony has put out over the years, there were also exclusive products only released in Japan I had never heard of.  There were demonstrations of size by arranging walkmans and audio recorders next to each other chronologically; products that were too ahead of their time to be profitable, that would now make great “vintage” or “cult” presents; and an interactive aspect of Sony gaming devices hooked up to TV’s of their era with seats and invitations to “go ahead and play!”

The staff in the exhibition space were friendly and gave me a myriad of information about the vintage products, and the new Sony products that mimic some of those earlier designs.  The exhibit contained many devices, to name a few: audio recorders, audio players, video cameras, digital cameras, video game consols, televisions, radios, robot dog toys for children, and personal gaming devices.

For some of these products, it was clear why they were unsuccessful on the market—and in seeing the development and evolution of others shed light on some of the aspects of Sony technology that are just plain great design and have been altered and adapted throughout time, but always keeping enough of the original design in mind that they were well-received by the public.

I was so amazed, and surprised by this extensive archive on display in the Sony building!  It was great to look at new devices, remember old ones, and learn about some products that came before my time.

-Kelsey Gallagher, LIS-653, Wednesdays 1130-230

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Posted in Archives, Knowledge Structures, Museums

by Hugh McLeod

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