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Is it time to de-clutter your ‘to-be-read’ pile?

I’ve just spent some of my Christmas holiday reading books about how to clean you house. I have always enjoyed housekeeping tips, much in the same way that I enjoy productivity tips generally. Anything that helps me manage my life is great. Plus, I am endlessly fascinated by other people’s strategies, values and feelings about how they do their most basic things–whether that’s cleaning the bathroom, reading their email, having thoughts, or writing a thesis. Everyone is so different, and yet we are all facing the same tasks.

I read a lot of books over the break. How to Keep House while Drowning: 31 Days of Compassionate Help by KC Davis, Unf*ck your Habitat: You’re Better than your Mess by Rachel Hoffman, Organising Solutions for People with ADHD: Tips and Tools to Help You Take Charge of Your Life and Get Organized by Susan C. Pinsky. But the one that I wrote little love hearts in the margins of, to my surprise, was Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which I have finally got around to reading.

Kondo’s comments about not needing to keep all those old seminar notes, books you have already read, and things you are going to read but haven’t got around to yet, caused some people to react negatively. But those comments are, correctly, made with the caveat that if you are a scholar you might actually need to keep a lot of these things for your work. And as a researcher, you probably do need a lot more reading material around than most people.

However, I sometimes talk to people who are pinned down by the weight of their papers and books. Old-school academics who need to retire, but can’t deal with their filing cabinets of papers, are an obvious example, but many of us are in the same situation if we just have a look at our digital files. We have piles of print outs, or bags of library books, or bulging EndNote libraries that make us feel discouraged, guilty, confused or tired every time we consider them. If that’s you, then you need to de-clutter your ‘to-be-read’ pile, and its twin, the ‘I have to keep this because I might want to cite it someday’ pile.

I don’t necessarily think there’s a perfect size for our scholarship collection. If you want to be told you should ‘only ever have three things on your to-read list’, go and listen to a Cal Newport podcast. I’m interested in having a reading collection that allows you to do the work you need to do.

The right number should be inspiring, not overwhelming. You should be able to look over your reading list, and always find what you are looking for. If you are always hunting through stacks for ages to find anything, you have too much clutter getting in the way of efficient and joyful work. When I’m lacking inspiration, my reading pile should be full of wonderful options that I just can’t wait to engage with.

Back in the 1990s, getting hold of a journal article was hard work, so it made sense to save grainy photocopies ‘just in case’. It’s never been faster to reaccession something that’s available digitally, so for most disciplines I’d recommend cutting more than you think you should. Even books are now regularly available as ebooks, through interlibrary loan, or cheaply bought second-hand off the internet. However, if you work with out of print books, artists’ catalogues, or anything that isn’t replaceable from your library, then obviously you want to be more careful about deaccessioning those!

There is no need to hoard articles you don’t actually want to read, but feel like maybe you might one day. Or to cling onto things you read years ago, like a dragon on a glittering bed of pdfs. Having a bookshelf or a lot of pdfs in your cloud server is not scholarship, and it isn’t a personality. It’s just having a lot of paper. We don’t care if you own a lot of papers, we care about what your critical and expert opinion is of what you have read, and how you are using it to advance knowledge. Kondo writes: “But when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or fear of the future” (p. 210). You are the researcher you are now. it’s okay to clear out the library of the interests of who you were a decade ago, or who you might one day be.

You might also want to make a small archive of sentimental items–maybe some undergraduate study books or gifts from supervisors or offprints from your own publications. Sometimes sentimental items act as talismans or portals, connecting us to our why, to our community, or to our confidence and growth as a scholar. That is a powerful reason to keep them, and to literally touch base with them when we need to remember who we are and what we are doing here. Books and articles that help us connect to the researchers we are, or that help us to carry out the work we are doing in this phase of our career… they are things we are using.

Storage takes up valuable resources–not just shelf space and Dropbox fees, but also the time and brainpower you need to wade through it to find the information you are looking for. Reducing storage will free up space and brain-space that you can devote to high-value or high-use material. So it makes sense to make space for the researcher you are, and the research you are doing by decluttering your reading pile. I’ve previously talked about needing to carefully curate your ‘personal reference library’ or Handbibliothek, but in fact, collections management is required for any working library, what librarians call ‘weeding’ or getting rid of books. Out of date work, material you no longer need, stuff you kind of just have sitting around… it can, and should, all go. Your own collection of books and articles is not trying to replicate the National Library or the whole Web of Science, your collection is a specialist collection for one working researcher, you. And your collection should be making your research easier, or more fun, or helping you focus.

Okay, okay, you are convinced it’s time to weed your library, delete some journal articles, put some paper in the recycling bin… but, like what do you do? I loved both the library weeding links and Marie Kondo’s book because they have a straightforward but profound set of steps to actually do the thing.

How do to the thing:

  1. First, you need clarity about what your reading pile/digital library is for. What is your current area of research focus? What are your research goals that are being met by reading?
    Take 10 minutes and write down what you think your research is doing at this stage of your career.
  2. Go through your collection, and pick up your key texts (the classic books, the foundational theory, your favourite scholars, the awesome articles, the work you need to debunk).
    Put these together in an easily accessible place, this is your ‘hand library’ or ‘personal reference library’. Sometimes this is a pile on my desk, sometimes it’s a single shelf on my book case, sometimes it’s a folder on my computer, but make it easy to identify and to use!
  3. Now it’s time to weed. Use a strategy recommended by school librarians, who similarly need to run medium-sized, focussed libraries for specific cohorts to learn in.
    a. Pick a section. Your whole library is probably too big. Start with one bookcase, or one folder.
    b. Go through each item and quickly decide:
    i. is it mouldy, smelly, illegible, a broken link, a corrupted file?
    ii. is it out of date, to the extent that you wouldn’t creditably cite it in your work?
    iii. is it something you have not used in years?
    iv. is it something that is just as convenient to get from a repository when you need it?
    c. If any of the answers to question (b) were ‘yes’, deaccession the item. You might make a note of what you removed, or thank some sentimental favourites for their service.
  4. Stop! This is hard work, so you need to take a break.
    Note what you did today, and plan what you will do next time.

If your collection is huge, it could take a few weeks to trawl through, so pace yourself. It’s less important that you make the perfect decision, and more important that your collection is 80% useful.

Personally, I have to go through my research library regularly, as projects come to an end, or get started up. I like to have about a dozen things in my to-be-read pile: I like to know there is plenty to be getting on with, I like to be able to pick and choose what I’m in the mood to read next, but I also like to be able to see myself finishing it one day! Books that I read and don’t think I’ll use, get handed off to second-hand book stores. I would clear out the bookcases about once a year. I don’t mind keeping material I’ve been reading over the last 15 years, because it can take that long for my bigger projects to percolate their way into being. But sometimes I come across a whole trove of material for a collaboration that fell through, or a project I was only going to do if I got a grant (and I didn’t get the grant) and it feels delightful to consign that to the dust-bin of history.

So there isn’t a right number of texts, or a right amount of time to hold on to them… but there is the right number for you, for now, for here, for the work you are doing. Know who you are as a researcher, what your research is, and match your reality to what’s in your ‘to-be-read’ and ‘to-be-cited’ piles.

What’s your strategy for not getting lost in too much reading? Does your reading pile give you joy? Is your working library supporting your research? Join the conversation over on Twitter @ResearchInsider

Photo by Christa Dodoo on Unsplash

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