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Keeping Track

December 26, 2009

Christina writes: The two most common questions put to book collectors by those who consider just one shelf of books to be quite a library are: ‘Have you read them all?’ and ‘Are you sure your floors can bear the weight?’ Following closely behind these are: ‘Can you remember the titles of all of your books?’ or ‘How do you keep track of them?’

When I lived in England, I used a typewriter to make lists of my Tolkien collection (books by and on, calendars, tapes, etc.), leaving space in the chronological list of works by Tolkien to add new editions of frequently republished titles. I also typed lists of associated material – on and by the other Inklings, books on children’s literature, fantasy and science fiction – but my lists of fiction (adult and juvenile) were handwritten.

The twenty-foot container in which my possessions were transported to the USA in late 1995 was two-thirds filled, mainly with books. Most of these had to stay packed, stored in our garage, until Wayne and I had redecorated several rooms and assembled new bookcases to join those already in the house. We had decided that I would not look for a job until we had got the house and collections in order, so for the first year or so, while Wayne was at work, I learned to use word processing software and spent much time listing our combined collections so that we could quickly check what we owned. As we discovered duplicates or different editions of the same title, we considered which, if any, should be discarded. All apparent duplicates were looked at very carefully, and in the process Wayne found a few new variations in works by Tolkien. We kept duplicates where each of us had received a copy signed by the author. We sometimes kept more than one copy of a work where different editions offered extra attractions (such as cover or interior illustrations or a significant introduction) or for personal reasons: Wayne’s paperback copies of books by Diana Wynne Jones, for instance, would have ceded place to my hardback copies had he not felt an attachment to the copies he first read, and especially to their cover art. Once we had sorted our discards, I made another list, mainly Tolkien items which we offered for sale to subscribers to my magazine, The Tolkien Collector.

Some of our children's books

Although our books are divided and shelved according to various categories, sometimes these overlap, and we have to decide where a book should be placed by the priority given to the category. For instance, our collection of children’s books cedes titles to collections devoted to Tolkien, Pauline Baynes, Arthur Ransome, and Maurice Sendak. Similarly, all editions of the Narnia books are in the Pauline Baynes collection and not with C.S. Lewis in the category ‘Inklings other than Tolkien’. The size of our Tolkien collection means that it is divided into several subsections, some clearly defined (by Tolkien, translations, calendars, etc.), others less so. If every book on children’s literature, fantasy, fairy-stories, medieval literature, and so forth which included references to Tolkien had been shelved with books ‘On Tolkien’, the really significant books would have been overwhelmed. Therefore we decided that unless such books included a substantial chapter or essay on Tolkien, they would be shelved in the more generic categories.

These decisions affected how we compiled lists of our collection. Basically, one list is devoted to Tolkien and contains mainly anything listed in Wayne’s J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography (1993), strictly according to the references given therein, plus 1993 and later publications (with a few exceptions) added in date order, noting where relevant publisher, date of publication (or if not clearly specified, date purchased), hardcover or paperback, with or without dust-jacket, and the reason for buying (e.g. a change of dust-jacket or resetting of type). After the subsections following the Descriptive Bibliography (‘Books by J.R.R. Tolkien’, ‘Books edited, translated, or with contributions by J.R.R. Tolkien’, ‘Contributions to Periodicals’, ‘Published Letters and Excerpts’, ‘Art by J.R.R. Tolkien’, ‘Miscellanea’ (including recordings made by Tolkien), and ‘Translations’), this list continues with all other items in our Tolkien collection other than books: calendars, postcards, posters, jigsaw puzzles, art inspired by Tolkien, readings, dramatizations, films of his works, music inspired by his works, documentaries on cassette, CD, video, or DVD. We also record here our holdings of all magazines, since most of these are wholly or partially devoted to Tolkien (before our marriage, I had accumulated a substantial collection of Tolkien fanzines), and even some of the non-Tolkien magazines to which we subscribe, such as The Book and Magazine Collector and Locus, occasionally have sections on Tolkien.

Everything else goes into a second list, alphabetically by author, or by title if no author is given, with the publisher, date, and format. We only record exterior or interior art when we are particularly interested in the artist, including Pauline Baynes. However, we have also annotated a copy of the list we compiled of all of Pauline’s published work known us, to indicate what items we have in our collection, and otherwise where we have photocopies, photographs, or slides. At some point, we need to create separate lists also for books illustrated by artists of whose work we have formed particularly extensive collections, such as Gennady Spirin and Lisbeth Zwerger.

When new books or other items come into the house, I carefully insert dust-jackets in archival covers. If any books have specially delicate bindings or dust-jackets with cut-outs, they go to Wayne so that he can cut a mylar wrapper (I am not good at cutting straight!). Then I add the new titles to the appropriate list. We used to print out these lists (as well as lists of our audio-visual collections) and carry them around with us whenever we were likely to visit a book or music shop. When, a few years ago, even printed on both sides in small type, these reached almost two inches in thickness, we bought a PDA to which we transfer the lists. The result is lighter and occupies much less space.

Image: Part of our collection of children’s books.

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