A Library or a Fire Trap ?

Second Word War poster (catalogue reference INF 13/288/21)

Second Word War poster (catalogue reference INF 13/288/21)

Despite meteorological indications to the contrary spring should be springing soon. Days are definitely getting longer and the annual (and fleeting) desire to clean has come upon me. This must  be embraced and actioned promptly as it will so soon pass. Most of the year I concur with Quentin Crisp who stated that after the first four years the dust doesn’t get any worse 1. So, loins girded, I have been through the spice cupboard, consolidated the three half jars of cumin and ditched those annatto seeds. I have taken to the wardrobe finally admitting that tangerine flares are not coming back and I will never lose enough weight to wear that scarlet velvet wrap dress. But one area is sacrosanct – the bookshelves.

I say one area but in our house we have a fairly relaxed attitude to bookshelves – we do have bookshelves of course, loads of ‘em. I have doorways blocked up with bookshelves, but there are also desks, bedside and occasional tables and dressers which form cosy nests for homeless books and the floor of course – any untenanted floorspace within 50 yards of a bookshelf is fair game for overflow. When it all gets too much and the cats can no longer find the feed bowls I do some rigorous weeding and re-homing but it hurts and I try to avoid it.

My partner whose attitude to books is less acquisitive has several times suggested implementing a one-in-one out policy. Ridiculous – how could that work ? Would you sacrifice Jane Eyre for Oryx and Crake or Freud on Food for Joan Haslip’s biography of Elizabeth of Austria? Who feels qualified to decide? How do you know what you will want to read next? Without a very large pot of valium one’s tastes and emotions fluctuate from day to day or even hour to hour – you may be feeling cerebral or inquiring one minute and the next just crave the comfort of a childhood favourite.

I have decided in lieu of a clear-out we need a redefinition. It is not just my book collection, it is most certainly not just a firetrap (how could anyone even suggest such a thing?) it is a library and as such deserving of respect, preservation and, dare I say it, development. The OED defines a library as “a large organised collection of books for reading or reference, for use by the public or a specific group”.

Mine is unequivocally a large collection. It is definitely for reading and reference and certainly used by a group albeit a somewhat select one. Whether you could consider it organised or not is a potential bone of contention. The cookery books (there are only around 800 of them) are organised – there are sections for cuisines of various countries,  on canapés, on fish and meat cookery and even a small seldom visited section in a dark corner on the upstairs landing with low-fat and diet titles. The rest (don’t ask, I’ve never counted, I fear it would reflect badly on me) no, not organised as such. They sit where they fall, they jostle happily together. Georgette Heyer’s Regency Buck snuggles against Germain Greer’s Female Eunuch, Janet Frame’s To The Is-Land is flanked by Ted Hughes Birthday Letters on one side and Joe Landale’s crime thriller Mucho Mojo on the other – heaven knows what they talk about… It’s not that I don’t know better – I trained as a Librarian; the rigor of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules was drummed into me. In the past I have briefly toyed with categorization-author, title, subject or geographical setting. My friend Jane even tried sorting by the colour of the covers for a while.  But I confess I do enjoy the element of surprise in the “au natural” approach, the joy of serendipity when seeking a little something to read before bed. It has its downside of course, when you are searching for a particular title to loan a friend which you know is here somewhere, oh but the joy of the hunt.

I find the best libraries and bookshops have an element of this perfect disorder hidden behind their seeming logic. And I have found one of the very best The Library at Innerpeffray. If you have not been next time you are In Scotland I urge you to visit.  Nay I would go – further travel north specifically to visit. It is just outside Crieff follow the signs for Innerpeffray, keep going – even when you drive through what seems to be a disused chicken farm – persevere – and at the very end of the road down by the river there it is.

The Library at Innerpeffray

The Library of Innerpeffray was set up around 1680 by David Drummond 3rd Lord Madderty using his private collection of 400 titles (clearly somewhat of a lightweight but allowance must be made for the price of paper in the seventeenth century). It is the oldest free public lending library in Scotland and although it no longer lends (this stopped in 1968) or indeed is free (but the best fiver you ever spent) it is a truly amazing place. The collection has expanded since the founding but the originals are all there Foxes Book of Martyrs, Holinshed’s Chronicles, Sir Francis Drake’s Atlas of the World and here is the rub (be still my beating heart), you can browse them – not through glass, you can take them off the shelf and actually hold in your hand something printed in the seventeenth century, you can turn the pages and examine the illustrations. Every booklover should go. Indeed if your ancestors hail from that part of the country it would also be worth examining their borrowing record which is continuous from 1747-1968. Borrowers had to fill in the book with name address and profession, originally they also signed a promise to return the item but this fell out of favour in latter years. I wonder why? Did readers become more trustworthy? Imagine gaining an insight into what your ancestors were reading.

So I wish you good luck with your own spring cleaning. Any judiciously weeded books can be distributed amongst friends. I would advocate taking to the charity shop but in my experience this frequently results in one returning with as many volumes as one takes down.



  1. 1. The Naked Civil Servant (Jonathan Cape, 1968)




  1. Nancy Elkington says:

    Thank you for this wonderful commentary! As a book lover, acquisition officer and chief librarian for my household, I heartily agree with everything you said and therefore shared it on my Facebook timeline for other like-minded bookish friends to enjoy.

  2. Jane Elderfield says:

    We have the same issue in our small house, shared by three generations of book lovers.

    Purge? Get rid of books? Reluctantly, I sometimes do– by putting them in boxes to go to the next charity book sale. Then I can always take them back again before they go. The other tactic is to send them to a second-hand book store, where I will get credit, to be used for MORE BOOKS!

    When the family groans over the overflows of books, we quote (in chorus) this ditty:

    Books to the ceiling,
    Books to the sky,
    My piles of books are a mile high.
    How I love them!
    How I need them!
    I’ll have a long beard by the time I read them.

    (From a book of children’s rhymes called Whiskers and Rhymes, by Arnold Lobel, Scholastic Books, 1987. Thanks, Arnold.)

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