Home Libraries: Where Is That Book?

It’s one thing to be unable to locate a book on the shelf or find it hiding out like the proverbial “snake that would’ve bit you” on your desk. It’s another dilemma when you can’t remember which library to look in… Let me explain and hopefully you’ll get a chuckle out of my troubles this past week.

Usually, I have a list of books waiting to be picked up at the local library and another list or two started for resources to access at research archives. No big deal. I don’t need to own every book that I reference or need to read once through. Well…that is until trying to do research during a pandemic when local libraries are closed or offer limited access and many research archives are pretty much out of reach (at least for in person visits) until an undisclosed point.

I get it. And I try really hard to not complain. So in the past few months I’ve started building a library I never thought I’d build. An e-book collection. And that, my friends, is dangerous.

I still prefer to hold a book. I find it easier to visualize and remember where things are on a page and place sticky tabs for quick reference. So I’m not clearing my shelves or stopping support of the print book industry. But some of these e-book options have been a life-saver.

The trouble starts when I have to go back and reference something that I read. And it starts with trying to remember if it’s on my Google bookshelf or my Kindle bookshelf. Or if I downloaded it as PDF and it exists somewhere on the hard drive. Yeah, I don’t remember most of the time and probably need to come up with a much better process. Then, when I’ve found the book, I have to take a guess at which digital page I need to look at. Maybe I digitally bookmarked the page. I click to the bookmarked tabs. Yikes – apparently I bookmarked every other page, and they aren’t sticky notes of different colors to remind if it’s for battle, camp, humor quote, or Civil War food.

Now…a word in favor of e-books: most are searchable and really good with that function! I could not remember where the information was about the lizard that crawled in the officer’s bed. Search “lizard” and – boom – got it! Probably better than a printed book and index which likely wouldn’t have lizard indexed as an important story. (Okay, it’s not really THAT important, but it’s funny.)

A few “volumes” on my Google shelf.

I have grown my “to-read” list and shelf in Google Play significantly since I’ve discovered there are tons of Civil War related books that are digitized, in public domain, and FREE in their archive. But this becomes a dangerously great “rabbit hole.” For example, I had some curiosity about Brook Farm the other evening and wanted to find some resources on the Transcendentalist community in Massachusetts that had ties to some abolitionists and Civil War era philosophers. Fifteen minutes later I had identified the recently published books that I’ll want to read, but I also found about half a dozen digitized and in public domain that I could read instantly. Using the search function on the books, I quickly found some humorous, eye-brow raising, and useful anecdotes about one of my research subject’s youthful escapades. Now, certainly, more research and evaluation should follow to see how reliable this old 19th century writers were and how much they should be trusted.

Another challenge has been making myself slow down and come up with a good way to keep track of the e-books I’ve saved or referenced and how to pull information from them in a useful way. Still working on that, but getting better now that I have accepted I might be using e-books in this fashion for the rest of my research days, even when traditional archives reopen.

Yes, I love my shelved books that line my living room and have started encroaching on the dining corner. But I’m also thankful for the option of e-books and using them as references when traditional archives are far away or limited.

Now…if I could just remember which digital shelf I assigned that memoir to at 11pm last night…

What do you like about e-books? What do you find challenging about them in the research process?

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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3 Responses to Home Libraries: Where Is That Book?

  1. Archive.org is one of my favorite sites for out of copyright ebooks. What a wonderful resource! I probably have hundreds of books downloaded from this site. Since I am downsizing my personal library as I grow older, I have tried to use Kindle versions for copyrighted books, but they are usually unsatisfactory as they don’t include page numbers, which are critical when you need to cite the work in your own own book or article.

  2. Grant Welty says:

    Have a large number of hardcover and e-books. Downsizing, so am purchasing more e-books these days. Created an Access spreadsheet on my PC listing all hardcover and kindle books. This helps me manage them as I found I was unknowingly purchasing titles I already owned. And I can add columns to the spreadsheet for any nuggets of information about each book. On my Kindle I have the books organized into collections such as “Regimental Histories” or “Battle of Antietam” or “Ulysses S. Grant” etc… A book might qualify for multiple collections. While not ideal in the context of what you are seeking this approach is helping me stay better organized and informed as to what I have. Finding the best approach and refining how to get there is a continuing work in progress.

  3. I found out very early in my studies that e-books and audiobooks for non-fiction will NOT work for me and any research effort. I downloaded Shelby Foote’s Civil War Narrative series in audio format, thinking that it would be a lot easier for me to listen to them in the car than trying to read those monsters myself. I realized quickly that the bookmarking feature was not going to help later down the road. Luckily, a set of used copies were available online. I discovered the same for “Hard Tack and Coffee” and “Company Atch”. I now have the physical copies for reference. I tried to get through the e-book version of Mary Chestnut’s diary, but the footnotes were distracting on my screen, so I bought that paperback as well. In all, I think e-books work for some people, but I need my color tabs. Fiction is a whole other animal and I’ve got scores of that on e-book and audio.

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