Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Weeding the Biographies

I spent yesterday weeding the biography section in the library. It hadn't been done in years and the shelves were getting so full that it was hard to put away books -- full, I should add, of volumes that in many cases no one reads.

Our biographies seem to fall into two categories. There are the gigantic, 800 page tomes that relate every possible detail of their subjects' lives and families. And then there are the slim 40-page books for young readers about famous scientists or musicians or whatever.

Many of those 800-pagers were old and yellowed, and frankly unappealing. What high school student, for example, wants to launch into a gigantic 30-year-old biography of Baudelaire? And some biography subjects are just a little too obscure -- like Jane Boleyn, sister-in-law of the famous Anne. I don't want to seem anti-intellectual, but who cares?

Then there's the stuff that's out of date and needs to be replaced. We had books on Marie Antoinette and Mary Shelley, but they were both at least 40 years old and sadly decrepit.

Some people's legacies have been re-evaluated over time. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, is still considered a great architect, but his personal life has been the subject of recent scrutiny. We need a new biography that addresses his reputation for womanizing.

The slim volumes, on the other hand, are also ignored, because nowadays, good cursory biographies of most famous scientists, explorers and musicians are available online. Kids just don't check out those skinny books anymore.

So basically, I pulled a heck of a lot of stuff. Maybe a quarter of our biographies overall.

I saved the newer ones that are still getting read, and the classics -- like Robert K. Massie's "Nicholas and Alexandra," or Antonia Fraser's "Mary, Queen of Scots," or Billie Holiday's "Lady Sings the Blues." I still have to go through everything with my boss to make sure she's comfortable with the weed, but I think she will be.

I got so absorbed in the task that I worked all the way through lunch and into the afternoon. When I finally came up for air, it was 3 p.m.! I thought the clock was wrong, but no. I haven't lost track of time that significantly in ages.

(Photos: A shuttered pub in Richmond, southwest London -- reportedly one of the oldest in the area. Hopefully someone will reopen it!)


  1. When I was a teenager I liked nothing better than to hunker down with a biography of Marcel Proust or Charles Baudelaire. The latter is credited with coining the term "modernity" (modernité) to designate the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis, and the responsibility of artistic expression to capture that experience. In my view no school library is complete without a copy of the definitive Théophile Gautier masterpiece of 1915.

  2. It must be difficult to know exactly which ones to remove. I often look for books in the Library only to be told they do not have them any more and on thinking about it I suppose they have to keep making room for new books all of the time. When I can't get it at the Library I can usually find it on Amazon to buy.

  3. Weeding in libraries is a bitter sweet activity. We don't want to throw stuff away but it's not useful.

  4. It's an interesting task to go through biographies and weed out the ones that are no longer relevant. The subject of these books won't be forgotten, but perhaps a few unique observations and thoughts will. Still, it is a task that must be done.

  5. I haven't gotten absorbed by work like that in many, many moons.

  6. I guess I'm differing a bit because I have read all four of Robert Caro's volumes about LBJ and am anxiously awaiting the 5th. And I just read his slim volume "Working" while I wait.

  7. so much is on-line. and yeah what is the point in having 40 year old books that no one reads or even has read take up space. I can see how you would lose track of time doing that though.

  8. You were in "the flow state" (or "in the zone") - I love when that happens to me. It feels so productive and un-frustrating, quite unlike my usual state :D

  9. Honestly, you make being a school librarian sound like a serene meditative career, even with rowdy teenagers barrelling through.

  10. I agree with 37paddington -- to me, it's a sort of fantasy job! I have never been a reader of biographies, except for those editions I read as a small child. I do love memoir, though.

  11. YP: Well, you'll be glad to know that Théophile Gautier's masterpiece is not the book I weeded!

    Briony: It has been eye-opening to me how weeding is a constant process. But it makes sense, doesn't it? We're acquiring new books every day and they have to go somewhere!

    Red: Exactly. We just have to figure out what's useful and what's not.

    Robin: Well, it's not as though the biographies are being entirely erased. They're still out there, and someone who really wanted them could get them. We just won't have them in our little school library.

    Sharon: Me either! I was shocked!

    Catalyst: We have those Caro books, and I wouldn't dream of weeding them. In my mind, those count among the classics.

    Ellen: Particularly when it comes to biography -- you can get all the biographical details of almost everyone from authoritative sources online. What you lose that way, perhaps, is the narrative structure of a full biography, the context of events and the overall sense of a building life.

    Jenny-O: Yes! The flow state!

    37P: It's actually been pretty crazy for the past month or so, but it has its serene moments.

    Elizabeth: I love memoir too, though I've definitely read some bad ones. I should have weeded "Prozac Nation"! (But I didn't.)

  12. Heh---I recognize those sort of unwanted bios--they get donated to the thrift store, and nobody buys them.
    I just weeded my bios-shelf at the store:
    "Family Outing" by Chastity Bono, before he was Chaz; bios of Princess Diana, Kate Hepburn, Chicago mayor Richard Daley (two!), etc. They seem to breed and replace themselves instantly, however.

    The good ones sell fast--Caro's LBJ, for sure, and the "Nicholas and Alexandra" you mentioned came in recently and sold the same day!