Alphabetical, Subject, Photographer, or Size, How Do You Organise Your Photo Book Shelf

If like me you have spent your life collecting vinyl records and subsequently CDs you will be well aware of the importance of being able to find what you are looking for within a reasonable timespan, but also recognise the mindset required to instigate and maintain a system of order. I don’t have that mindset. I would be a useless librarian and an even worse archivist.

My intentions are good, my sense of consistency is poor. I start systems and soon forget the system, with the resultant chaos becoming a state of permanence. The choice of system employed by vinyl collectors seems to be a constant source of discussion amongst that community with judgements made as to the personality of the collector based on the system employed. I wonder if this is the same with photographers.

Watching a film on YouTube of photographer Alec Soth explaining and showing his personal photo book collection* I was struck by his choice of the alphabet as his system of storage and retrieval. It makes sense of course, it’s how libraries work within genre sections. It makes finding books easy, so why can’t I stick to such a sensible system?

Few of us have the luxury of a photo book dedicated room, let alone enough books to create a library the size of Soth’s. We may have an office where we store our photo books, maybe a bookcase or a shelf, whatever the space we have offers the possibility of a well organized system. I am lucky enough to have a shed to work from, but my books have overflowed from that space into my wife’s office, our dining room and lounge. Oh! And into a space under the stairs and our garage.

Despite this, or perhaps because of this, the system I have adopted makes little sense when it comes to finding the book I’m looking for. My system is based on size, colour and spine design. Choices which makes finding books more difficult, not easier. The look of the book shelf is more important in our home than its efficiency, I should add that my wife is the editor of an interiors magazine!

I cannot place all of the blame on her however, I am just as much to blame, as she is for the adoption of an aesthetics based system.

The weight of photo books is also a consideration. Ikea shelves rarely maintain their original shelf shape once a few key tomes are added to their structure, shelf-bend is an issue for most photo book collectors unable to afford the strength and elegance of a Vitsoe* system or the hand built strength of a bespoke book shelf.

Organised systems require investment in the shelves themselves. An over stock of photographers whose name begins with ‘S’ for example can easily destroy a shelf, and subsequently the system that requires them to be grouped together. Height, width and depth are also considerations when storing books by photographers keen to produce volumes that do not comply with accepted formats. I am constantly trying to find the right place for my copy of Richard Avedon’s Autobiography and cannot deal with the idea that it would also have to fit on the shelf for photographers whose surname begins with ‘A’.

Ensuring that your collection is not bleached by the sun, affected by damp and/or too close to a radiator just adds to the shelving decisions, but at this point where the books are kept is the least of my issues.

I am not a librarian by nature, although I am a collector of books, I spend the money I have on the books and not the shelves, I spend the time I have on looking at the books, not worrying about how they should be stored. It is an approach that works for me, just don’t ask me to find a specific book quickly or occasionally at all!

*Alec Soth: A Tour of my Bookshelf

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2022

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