Monday, June 24, 2013

Where's that Book? On the physical locations of knowledge

Many years ago, my then wife – whose academic specialism was similar to my own – decided that it would make sense to merge our book collections. When I got home from work, our two libraries had been unified, and arranged alphabetically by author. I experienced this as a negative change, I felt lost, ignorant, almost lobotomized. I took the rearrangement as an act of mild aggression, although I admitted freely that this was not at all my wife's intention. From her point of view, she was making it easier for both of us to access our complementary book collections. She was being tidy, logical, orderly. From my point of view, I had lost the ready mental association of book with spatial location, that was integral to the way I habitually remembered references.

For me, the act of remembering academic matters often goes as a rapid internal dialogue, something like this: “Ah yes! So-and-so said something about this. Now what was it exactly? Hmm.” Then I would turn from my desk towards the shelves, thinking, “With the books on topic X. Top right, at about eye-level.” In my mind's eye, my attention roams to the spot on the wall where the book was located. Then I would get up, fetch the book, and find the passage I was after.
In my spatial memory, the phrase “books on topic X” need not actually refer to a subject location. It could be books of a certain colour, especially if a series were all printed in the same style of binding. Or books of a certain size, or that I bought or was given at a certain time. The arrangement of books on my shelves was – and is again – mostly subject-wise, but there are exceptions. But this doesn't affect my ability to remember spatially where books are. As long as the books are where I put them in the first place, then I can rapidly and efficiently find them again. 

The distress I experienced when the books were put into somebody else's logical order was a very real reduction in cognitive power.

I have experienced this several times since then, especially when moving house or office. Physically displacing my personal book collection results in a loss of bibliographical and cognitive control. That control is never quite recovered, in spite of attempts to reproduce the original arrangement of the books. Such a rearrangement is never quite possible. This is partly because the layout of the new storage space does not lend itself to reproducing the original ordering. But also because one's physical resources of energy and time do not allow for a full recovery of the original arrangement.

All this raises the broader question of books, locations, and memory. My own method of relating cognitively to my books is, I suppose, a pale version of the famous medieval European concept of the Theatre of Memory, so eloquently described by Frances Yates. [At this point, I recall that the Yates book is at above head-level on the second column of books in the next room. I fetch it, and write out the bibliographical information for the following footnote.]1
Further points for development:

  • On moving libraries, the Kern Library.
  • What is lost, what is gained.
  • Open access versus closed access.
1 Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (London, ARK Paperbacks, 1984). First published in 1966.

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