Thanks, Mr Dewey! (I think …)

Bookshelf, by Alex JohnsonAs you know, librarians live to create order from chaos.

Over the years (centuries) that libraries have been in existence, librarians have developed and tested dozens of different ways to organise books and information on shelves.  Different libraries use different systems, and for different reasons. Here at Christchurch City Libraries, and at many other public libraries and school libraries, we use the Dewey Decimal System for our nonfiction books.

Not in fact named for the middle of the three nephews of Donald Duck, but designed by Melvil Dewey of Amherst, Massachusetts in the 1870s. It was initially published in 1876, with the second edition of his by-now-copyrighted system arriving in 1885, under the eye-watering title Decimal Classification and Relativ Index for arranging, cataloging, and indexing public and private libraries and for pamflets, clippings, notes, scrap books, index rerums, etc.  (Note Mr Dewey’s somewhat unusual approach to spelling – another of his passions!)

I love people who are passionate about things, and use that passion to create something new.  And I do love Mr Dewey and his system. I also LOVE that apparently before Melvil started his masterwork, many libraries had a shelving system based on the height of the books, and the date they were acquired. This would have been very handy for the customers who frequently arrive at the desk here in the library, saying things like, “I can’t remember what it was called, but it was a really big book, and I read it about 5 years ago.”

In my madder moments (and yes, there are a few), I think about how I would go about rearranging the library shelves if given the opportunity.  There was a trend last year for arranging your home bookshelves by colour, which led to some amazing rainbow-type displays.  I have friends who organise by personal ranking, or how many times read, or completely (but purposefully) randomly.

And I think about how Mr Dewey would cope with today’s subjects – things he may never have dreamed of having to choose a number for, like one of my personal non-fiction faves: the Zombie Survival Guide, and the always-contentious sections on religions, self-help and how sugar (or carbohydrates, or CFCs, or coffee) is the enemy. It always makes me glad I am not the person who decides which books end up in the Fiction (made-up) versus the Non-Fiction (true stuff) sections of the library.

How about you? How are your bookcases organised at home? Do you separate paperbacks from hardbacks? True stories from made-up ones? Award-winners from pulp fiction? How would you go about reorganising the library if you had absolute power over the shelves?  And what “non-fiction” subject or title have you been surprised by recently?


Cover: Anne of Cleves
The discarded bride

In with a chance to become the fourth Queen of England, Anne of Cleves could have saved herself a whole heap of bother had Facebook  existed in her day.

For starters she could have cut out the middleman artist, posted her own selfie and just sat back and waited for King Henry VIII to take one of three possible actions: click like, make a comment such as “LOL”, or unfriend her on the spot (today’s equivalent of beheading).

But no, in the 16th century you had to go and get your portrait painted. Pity the poor artist, Hans Holbein the Younger, caught between his plain subject, an out of control King and a punishing time frame.

But Henry was quite taken with the portrait. It was Anne of Cleves herself whom he loathed on sight. Referring to her as ‘that Flanders mare’, he is reputed to have claimed she did not look English enough. And if you want to know what that means, read The English Face – which Oscar Wilde dismissed in just  four words (the face that is, not the book):

Once seen, never remembered

The Royal marriage was never consummated and was finally annulled. But the portrait lives on, as portraits tend to do.

Cover: A Face to the World
Your own self portrait may not look as good as this!

There is so much human drama in this little bit of history and whichever part of it piques your interest, the library has the book for you: books on portraits, King Henry VIII and social networking.

You may even be tempted to paint a self portrait. Be warned though that nothing will drive you to substance abuse faster than attempting to make a painting of  yourself, cutting as it does to the core of the disparity between how you think you look and what the rest of the world may actually be seeing.

But my absolute favourite book of faces is a book on moko tattoos called The Blue Privilege – The Last Tattooed Maori Women : Te Kuia Moko  by Harry Sangl. This art book is rare for me, in that I devoured all the paintings with my eyes and read every word with my heart. It truly is a taonga.

And were it ever to crop up on facebook, I’d go the whole hog: like, comment and share.