This is the season for the Marquette library to send out the obligatory “please return or renew your loans” e-mail. Generally, I’m content to just login, select all my books, and hit renew, but lately I’ve been feeling as if my life is being consumed by library books. They are everywhere — piled up in front of my computer monitor, holding my study door open, occupying my shelves and the floor of my research carrel in the library. Driven mostly by a sense of morbid curiosity, today I logged in to my library account at Marquette to see how many books I had checked out. The answer:
Now, this is neither terribly shocking or offensive, given that I am currently in the midst of writing a dissertation. Others, I’m sure, are far worse off. Even so, having this many books checked out at once makes me somewhat nervous. For starters, the more you have checked out, the easier it is to misplace something and incur a fine, and I am not a fan of paying fines. Perhaps more significantly, I find that having this many books checked out at once leads to a sort of “fog” in the process of research: as I sit in my study or carrell surrounded by piles of books, many of which I can’t even remember checking out, I cannot help but think I’m missing something. To try and clear this fog, I will on occasion play what has become (for me, anyway) a sort of game.
The first step is to go through my shelves and try to determine why I have what I have, whether I actually need what I have, and whether I need to keep it on hand for reference. Many of the books I have currently checked out (probably 20 or so) are reference materials that I consult on a fairly regular basis. I need these, and I know that I need them. They stay. This leaves roughly 80 that are unaccounted for. Included in this latter group are books that were consulted for chapters that are already done, books that may have looked relevant for subsequent chapters, and books that at one point looked interesting, for whatever reason.
The second step is to go through this larger pile, one book at a time, and weed. Several books reveal themselves instantly as irrelevant for my current research. This morning, for example, I discovered on my shelves a copy of D. C. Parker’s Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible (riveting, I know). I checked this book out last year, after I saw it at SBL. I read the first couple of chapters, and then got busy with other things (a baby, to name just one). Because it is entirely unrelated to my current research, I made a note of it in my “books to read” file, and I put it in the pile of materials to be returned to the library. It will be there when I have more time. Others are books that I have already accounted for in the dissertation but have yet to actually return to the library. They go back too. The rest, admittedly, are not so easy.
These, I put into a “skim” pile to be evaluated. The process of skimming a book, as I understand it, should take no more than 10 minutes. It involves, basically, reading a book through the table of contents/index in order to determine whether there is anything of immediate value to your project. I skimmed two books before I left the house this afternoon: Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans’ James the Just and Christian Origins, and John Painter’s Just James: The Brother and Jesus in History and Tradition. As my dissertation is on the Proto-Gospel of James, I’m sure both made sense when I checked them out. In the process of skimming, however, I found that Chilton-Evans was hardly relevant for my purposes. A fantastic book, to be sure, but uninterested in matters pertaining to James in Christian Apocryphal Literature. Painter, on the other hand, was peppered with valuable little snippets and insights that, at the very least, would make for some interesting footnotes. Having discovered this, I opened up the dissertation file and went through the various sections in which Painter’s work contributed to my own. I netted about 100 words in the body, as well as about 8 footnotes. Not bad, and now Painter can go back to the library. He will be there waiting for me if I need him.
30 or so books made it into my skim pile this morning, and I intend to peruse each of them over the weekend. Some, I’m sure, will end up in the “reference” pile, and will stay on my shelves until the dissertation is finished. Others I will be able to simply return to the library, having discovered that they weren’t what I thought or hoped them to be. Others still, like Painter, will yield some valuable insights that can be accounted for quickly, at which point they can be returned. The hope is that, come Monday, I’ll be able to log in to my library account and see a number closer to 60. That will, in turn, give me an excuse to check out more books from the library, and in another two weeks I will have to repeat the process. Such is life.
If you’re reading this, I’m curious to know A) if you take note of or care how many books you have checked out from your library, B) if you have a record that you’re particularly proud of, and C) if you have a process for weeding unneeded resources.