Insider Research Tools: the ‘Handbibliothek’ or personal reference library

This is the first in a new series of less well-known insider research tools. Of course you know about the things that your library- and department-run training sessions on, but what about the more personalised tools that make a difference?

This post is about the ‘Handbibliothek‘ (German: hand library), that part of the library where frequently-used books are shelved easily ‘to hand’. If you have ever worked in a ‘Reading Room’ of a large public or university library, you will know the design–encylopedias, dictionaries, indexes etc. The more specialised the library or research centre, the more specialised the volumes in this room are. At your writing desk, you will therefore build a personal Handbibliothek that will be exactly calibrated to your individual research project.

Now most of you won’t have much experience in building a reference library. You may have used big research libraries, small special collections, browsed major research repositories and databases; and you probably have a collection of personal reading material at home. The personal reference library is different.

A university library or repository needs to have a wide range of resources and topics that are interesting to the full spread of potential users at every level. They need to organise these collections in a way that makes sense to anyone who comes in, even if they only visit occasionally. The collection will often have been started decades (or centuries) ago, and is planning to be useful for decades in the future. These collections are run by teams of highly-trained professionals.

Your personal reading collection is both a practical collection of things you will want to read in the next few months, and a collection of childhood books you loved, books that changed the way you understand the world, books you aspire to read one day, and books whose fandoms are formational communities. There are no rules for these collections, people can have them because they look pretty, because they have emotions about the books, because it’s too hard to sort it out, or because other people like them.

All of these collections can be physical or virtual. I have both a personal reading collection on bookshelves and a collection in my Kindle. At the university I access both a physical reference library and a collection of databases and journal articles accessed online or on PDF. My personal reference library also includes websites, saved books and articles, print outs, and paper books.

How then do you work out how to build your personal reference library?

  1. There is only one reader. That reader is you, now. What books, databases, articles and reference tools are you using for this project?
  2. A Handbibliothek is high use. If you aren’t using that resource every few weeks, it can go back to the stacks.
  3. The most obvious way to organise the resources is by use. Which resources do you use most often? Make them easiest to access. Which resources get used together? Arrange them together.
  4. You may need to rearrange the collection regularly as the project progresses. Your editing resources may be different from your analysis resources.

Thus we see a Handbibliothek is a small, high-use, task-focussed collection with a single user.

This is not the collection you use when doing a literature review. Nor is it the collection you use when you are sitting down on the sofa to take a break. These are the resources you want to have in your tool belt, that you carry with you, that you always have to hand.

It can be tempting to think of digital collections as having zero weight, so you can always fit the whole internet in your pocket. But that pile of potentially useful PDFs is a mental pile that is getting in the way of your digital Handbibliothek. Instead, have a folder or bookmark for resources you actually use all the time, easily accessed. Store everything else separately, and regularly update what’s in your bookmarked favourites and high-use folders.

Because it’s your own Handbibliothek, you don’t have to include the whole of a book or resource either. Where you refer back to the same three or four pages, it may be worth extracting those pages, printing or photocopying them and having them to hand. Where you only use a tiny sliver of a website, make your bookmark a ‘deep link’, directly linking to the specific page with all the filters already set up.


I store my Handbibliothek on my laptop, where I also write; and in a pile or small bookcase right next to my desk. I need to have the resources ‘to hand’, so it is only a break of a few second to look something up and keep writing. If I need to stand up, then I will disrupt the flow of thinking and writing too much.

I therefore clearly distinguish between research reading, and quick references. When I need to read widely or deeply, I will still often go and sit in the library, even if I’m accessing articles and books online. In 2019, I spent weeks in Cambridge on research leave, looking at archives, physical books not available in Australia, and online resources. The time and place helps me turn from writing or admin to reading and thinking. Not being able to read in the library is one of the things I’m missing about lockdown research.

But right now, I’m translating and editing, and I have a beautifully streamlined Handbibliothek for that. What resources are in your personal reference library?

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

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