Reading Through the Stacks: How Poetry is Classified in Libraries

Reading through the Oakland Public Library main branch’s poetry collection, book by book.

The way poetry is organized in a library is quite different from fiction. Fiction is often just organized by author’s last name. Some libraries separate (either physically with shelving or using a sticker or some other indicator) different genres, but most of the time you can find the book you’re looking for by looking up the author’s last name (unless it’s considered literature or is a new book….).

Poetry is different. It’s classified under literature and therefore falls under the purview of the Dewey Decimal system.

DDC (the c for classification) has several different areas for poetry:

  • 808.1 reading/writing poetry (also known as poetics) I’m reading books out of this section, but not writing about them individually. I can do a round up or best of at some point
  • 808.81 poetry anthologies
  • 811 American poetry
  • 811.6 American poetry in the 21st century
  • 821 British poetry
  • 831 German poetry
  • 841 French poetry
  • 851 Italian poetry
  • 861 Spanish poetry
  • 871 Latin poetry
  • 881 Classical Greek poetry
  • 890 – Every other world literature is stuffed into these ten numbers so…. browse carefully for poetry

Some of the Dewey Decimal Classification systems problems are easy to see from this list–by giving American and European literature so much space, the western and colonial viewpoint is pretty clear. There is not so much more poetry in these languages than any other–this is about giving space to the literature that was considered literature and was being actively collected and prioritized in the 1800s by white people.

The problem for me is pretty clear–poetry is everywhere! I started with 811, and I’m quickly working through towards the much larger 811.6 category. But this is clearly going to take a lot longer to comb through than I initially thought. And it’s going to get a lot less contemporary at some point. I’m tempted to stick to 20th and 21st century collections for the sake of this blog even though I’m interested in older poetry and have read quite a bit of it. Let me know what you think in the comments if you have an opinion.

But the next book I’m talking about doesn’t use any of these classifications (well it does, technically it’s 811.6). We’re talking about the books in the “NEW” section. This is one of my favorite places to browse.

Poetry doesn’t normally have the same waiting list/hold problem as new books. So you can often keep new books for more than one checkout period. And this is a great place to find contemporary poetry that’s been recently chosen to add to the collection, which means more diverse authors in more diverse styles. If you’re new to reading poetry, it’s a much smaller and easier section to browse and do some sample reading than going up against 811.6 to find something you like.

But I encourage browsing all around the nonfiction stacks. You never know what’ll jump out at you!

Do you have opinions on DDC? Have a favorite call number? How do you think libraries should be organized? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Smuggling Timbuktu’s Libraries: Preservation and Protecting Manuscripts Against Human Threats

By Unknown author – EurAstro : Mission to Mali, Public Domain,

Today I’m sharing a short paper I wrote for my preservation class on Timbuktu’s libraries. It’s basically presented here in its original state except for some images that I’ve added. For the class we were instructed to research a library disaster and the response to that disaster in an international setting. After some initial research, I remembered a book that I had wanted to read when it came out a few years ago and never got around to called The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, and I decided this was a perfect time to read this book.


In 2012, a collection of manuscripts that had gained international attention for their aggregation and discovery gained attention again, this time in a much more negative way. Jihadi fighters had seized the city of Timbuktu, along with territory that comprised two thirds of the country of Mali (Hammer 2016b). Jihadi fighters promised that the manuscripts would be safe under their regime, but the very fact that they had been mentioned at all was worrisome to librarians (Hammer 2016a). This spurred a daring plan to save the manuscripts by smuggling them out of the city. The story of what happened to save the manuscripts in Timbuktu is dramatic and chronicles a human threat to cultural heritage beyond factors such as environmental conditions and pests. This paper examines the effort to save these manuscripts on both a local and international level and places the event in its socio-historical context. Through this, we can better understand that international assistance from the preservation community during a library emergency is best focused by understanding and adapting to local conditions and encouraging leadership from local stewards. 

By Unknown author – Library of Congress online exhibition : Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu, Public Domain,

Timbuktu Library History 

Timbuktu’s literary heritage dates back centuries to the early modern period. For about two hundred years, from the late 14th to the end of the 16th century, Timbuktu had a scholarly Golden Age. Visitors to the region in the medieval period like the famed writer Leo Africanus noted that manuscripts were the most highly valued goods in the city’s markets (Haidara 2003). Singleton (2004) writes that creating and importing books was a high priority at the time, and was an important way to display wealth (p. 3). Books were copied by hand at an extraordinary rate, scribes were “writing an average of 150 lines of calligraphy per day–receiving their compensation in gold nuggets or gold dust” (Hammer 2016a, p. 39). Wealthy scholars amassed huge private libraries, encompassing thousands of volumes (Singleton 2004). At the back of copied books, scribes recorded their names as well as the name of the “proofreader, and vocalizer, a third craftsman who inked the ‘short vowel’ sounds” and often the patron as well (Hammer 2016a, p. 39). This colophon is a great help in cataloging the manuscripts and tracing their origins. These texts were written largely in Arabic script, in Arabic as well as local languages. The manuscripts were written on a huge variety of subjects encompassing everything from religious texts to medicine, science, magic, law, and poetry. Together, they help create a picture of a city that, for it’s time, was tolerant of many different people and viewpoints including more progressive texts on sex and women’s rights. According to the country’s ambassador in 2003, most of the world today perceives Mali as a poor African nation, but the manuscripts show that they are a country rich in cultural resources (Haidara 2003). The rediscovery of these manuscripts pushes back against a western tradition that believes that there was no history in Africa before colonialism by showing a thriving book trade and a lively and largely open and tolerant discourse on all manner of subjects. However, this Golden Age was not to last, and an invasion by Morocco in 1590 drove many manuscripts underground. Haidara (2010) believes that events like this one encouraged the people of Mali to hide their manuscripts, which in turn convinced Europeans who visited in later centuries that these texts simply did not exist (p. 261). Later manuscript seizure by French colonialists and Jihadi movements in the mid 19th century drove these cultural works further underground (Hammer 2016b). Generally there was a fear of external human threats in Mali, and it wouldn’t be until a local prospecteur went out to collect manuscripts from all corners of northern Mali that they would exist together in large numbers once again. 

Modern Preservation Efforts 

Examining the ongoing relationship that Timbuktu has had with human threats throughout its history shows that this threat to cultural heritage is far from unique, while the story of ongoing preservation efforts and challenges shows that the threat to these manuscripts is part of a wider context that encompasses everything from politics to regional climate to changes in archival practice. Abdel Kader Haidara began collecting manuscripts for the Ahmed Baba Institute in 1984, gaining skills as a negotiator and evaluator of manuscripts (Hammer 2016b). Haidara would become one of the most vocal advocates for the Timbuktu manuscripts, including his family’s collection for which he would build a private library with funds from the Mellon and Ford Foundations after the famous African studies scholar Henry Gates showed interest in the manuscripts (Hammer 2016a, 109). Support for the manuscripts continued to grow as the libraries multiplied. In a presentation to the Library and Information Association of South Africa, Minicka (2006) described how South African conservators and librarians were working with librarians and stewards in Timbuktu to deal with extreme local climate conditions (including low humidity, high temperature, termites and ubiquitous dust), training local workers and learning from local craftspeople. Some of the solutions they implemented challenged long-held archival practices when those practices needed to be adapted to local conditions. She describes preservation practices including cleaning and rehousing manuscripts, conservation work, preparing manuscripts for exhibition and using conservation to support the local economy by buying local leather and other goods. International exhibitions, like the one held at the Library of Congress in 2003, helped provide digitization resources as well as generate more interest in protecting the manuscripts (Hoh 2016). These different partnerships represented an international respect for local stewardship of local collections. In times of danger for the collection, this mindset would become more necessary than ever. 

Smuggling Manuscripts

The Al Qaeda aligned Jihadi groups in the region rose concurrently with the rediscovery and championing of the manuscripts in Timbuktu. Haidara, worried about the potential for both looting and deliberate book burning, decided that the manuscripts had to be saved, and began an operation to pack the libraries’ contents into metal lockers and scatter them throughout the city. The boxes were packed with short content lists, the first time anything like a full catalog had been attempted for these texts. Haidara’s and others fears for the manuscripts seemed to be vindicated by the destruction of Sufi saint burial sites throughout Timbuktu, and they began to smuggle the boxes out of the city to the capital of Mali, Bamako–facing danger at every checkpoint. Remarkably, they didn’t lose a single manuscript. There are differing estimates on the amount of manuscripts saved by Haidara and his team, ranging from 200,000 (PBS 2018) to 285,000 (Kottoor 2013), but Hammer (2016a) claims that nearly all of Timbuktu’s 377,000 manuscripts were saved (p. 422). This number may or may not include about 1000 digitized manuscript files that were also smuggled out of the city on a hard drive (English 2014).  About 4,000 manuscripts that were awaiting repairs were burned by the Jihadis in one of the last acts of their regime. Sadly these were not catalogued, so we’ll never know exactly what was lost, but remarkably the Jihadis never ventured to the institute’s basement where over 10,000 valuable manuscripts were safely stowed in the vault (Hammer 2016a, p. 420). This local, low tech endeavor that utilized metal lockers and donkeys, trucks and boats was supported by financing from the international community. This support now continues in the form of conservation efforts in Bamako. 

Ongoing Conservation

In 2018, the situation in Timbuktu was still not safe enough to return the manuscripts to their rightful places in the city (PBS 2018). The manuscripts had been consolidated in Bamako, and dehumidifiers were helping control the humidity in the much wetter region. According to a PBS News story (2018), by this time international aid had helped local staff digitize 20% of the saved manuscripts. Some of the books are still in hiding in Timbuktu, which means they are not getting the conservation care that they may need. Russo (2017) wrote that the collections’ transport to Bamako in metal chests and their deposit in inadequate storage facilities meant that preservation was urgent, and gained international attention (41). She writes that the main activities being carried out by various staff members were inventorying, urgent preventative conservation, digitizing, reconstructing or refurbishing library buildings, and improving access to the collections (Russo 2017, p.42). She argues that special collections ultimately require more mediation than regular library collections, but that special collections can become more socially inclusive places to share and access knowledge (p. 47). To this end, the University of Cape Town and one of the major German funding contributors, Gerda Henkel Stiftung, partnered to create the Tombouctuo Manuscripts Project, which works to train young researchers from a variety of disciplines who are interested in the collection to improve their language, writing, and research skills along with other outreach and conservation efforts. Russo (2017) explains how German aid has been used to build up local leadership and knowledge, further advocating for a partnership between countries that has been evident throughout the modern history of the documents. This aid and partnership will continue to be essential for the preservation of the manuscripts.


Centuries of human threats to the manuscripts means that the survival of these texts has been hard won. Immense local efforts and international financing has helped realize the potential of these documents to rewrite the history of Africa as a place with a thriving literary history long before colonial rule. Human threats in the form of ideology and theft constitute a huge risk to cultural artifacts, especially in countries with unstable governments. The international preservation community came together in 2012 and continues to provide aid and encourage local agency over these documents. Life and limb was risked to protect these precious documents, and through ongoing preservation and research, they will finally be able to tell their stories.


English, C. (2014, May 23). The book rustlers of Timbuktu: how Mali’s ancient manuscripts were saved. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Haidara, A. K. (2010). An overview of the major manuscript libraries in Timbuktu. In G. Krtli & G. Lydon (Eds.), Trans-Saharan book trade : Manuscript culture, Arabic literacy and intellectual history in Muslim Africa (pp. 241-264). Leiden: Brill.

Haidara, A. K. [Library of Congress]. (2003, September 3). Timbuktu manuscipts (sic) and the efforts to maintain the desert [Video file]. Retrieved from

Hammer, J. (2016a). The bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu: And their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts [eBook edition]. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Hammer, J. [US National Archives]. (2016b, April 25). The bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu: And their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts [Video file]. Retrieved from

Hoh, A. (2016, October 24). 333: A film on the manuscripts of Timbuktu.

Kottoor, N. (2013, June 4). How Timbuktu’s manuscripts were smuggled to safety. BBC Magazine. Retrieved from

Library of Congress. (2003). Ancient manuscripts from the desert libraries of Timbuktu. Retrieved from

Minicka, M. (2006, June 15). Safeguarding Africa’s literary heritage: Timbuktu rare manuscripts project [PDF document]. Retrieved from

PBS News Hour. (2018, June 27). Preserving the priceless manuscripts of Timbuktu [Video file]. Retrieved from

Russo, M. L. (2017, January) Contemporary librarianship and special collections issues: a case study in manuscript collections of Timbuktu and other Malian cities. 8(1), 39-49. doi: 10.4403/

Singleton, B. (2004). African bibliophiles: Books and libraries in medieval Timbuktu. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 39(1), 1-12.

Tombouctou Manuscripts Project. (n.d.) Projects. University of Cape Town. Retrieved from

Why Do Libraries Get Rid of Books?

This is an example of a weeded book from Awful Library Books

There is always a lot of controversy when public libraries (or really any libraries) get rid of books. In 2015, the Berkeley Public Library chief resigned due to controversy over weeding books. This was due largely to his behavior and attitude around removing thousands of books, but there are many stories about community members being upset about book removal and disposal including outrage over finding books in dumpsters or being pulped all around the country.

Weeding is the term used by libraries for removing books. I really like this term because it suggests that a library is like a garden, and you have to make room for the plants you want by removing the plants you don’t want. This is an act of cultivation, not of destruction. Some of the books removed by libraries are so old and not relevant any more that they are almost an embarrassment. Sometimes they’re really funny. If you want to see some great examples of weeded library books, check out the blog Awful Library Books.

So why, when it’s so unpopular do libraries get rid of books in the first place?

  1. Space. Libraries are trying to buy books that their patrons will want to check out, but there is only so much space in the library. Some books will have to go so the new books can be purchased.

2. Circulation numbers. Libraries will buy many copies of a bestseller when it’s gaining popularity, but five or ten years down the road there might not be a need for 10 copies of the same book. Similarly, a book that no one is checking out isn’t earning its spot on the shelf.

3. Condition. When books are damaged or look too worn they are removed and either replaced or removed entirely.

4. Merchandising. It may seem weird to think about the fact that libraries have to think about things like shelf appeal since no one is buying anything. But psychologically people enjoy browsing more when the shelves aren’t too crowded and when the titles feel relevant and not old or outdated.

How do librarians choose which books to get rid of?

One method involves evaluating books with the MUSTIE criteria. This means getting rid of books that are:

M misleading (books that aren’t giving factual information)

U ugly (no one wants books that are stained, falling apart, or unattractive)

S superseded (there’s a new, updated edition)

T trivial (there’s no merit for this book)

I irrelevant (there’s no need for this book in the community)

E elsewhere (it’s easy to get this book online, from a partner library, etc.)

What do libraries do with books they’ve gotten rid of?

I think this is the area that causes the most controversy. Choosing how to get rid of a book is really important. Many libraries sell the books they’re weeding at a Friends of the Library store or similar used bookstore. They’ll also use this as a place to sell books that are donated to the library that can’t be used in the collection. Proceeds from sales go back to the library.

Some books aren’t sold though and they are discarded in other ways. They can be used for craft projects, recycled and turned into new books, and sometimes they are thrown away. This is often what has to happen with books that are beyond saving, like books that are water damaged or moldy.

Personally, I think weeding is vital to the library process and makes collections feel more relevant and visually pleasing, but books should be disposed of responsibly because they are a community investment. I am of the opinion that a physical book, though a wonderful thing, is wonderful because it contains information whether it’s a great story or a great recipe. When the information is no longer useful, I think the book is also not useful anymore.

What are your thoughts on libraries getting rid of books? Let me know in the comments.

5 Bucket List Libraries to Dream About Visiting

One of the worst parts of the pandemic for me has been the limitation on travel and even travel planning. I apparently spend a lot of time researching and planning travel, even for short trips, and all that has been put on hold. My husband and I are really privileged that being cooped up in our studio apartment is really the most challenging part of pandemic life. We know many people who have lost their jobs or have had their hours cut or their lives entirely disrupted. But I am still dreaming of all the places to go and things to see, and when I saw that Rick Steves had written an article on beautiful libraries worth traveling to, I knew I wanted to draft my own bucket list.

As you probably know if you follow Rick Steves, he concentrates mostly on European travel, so the libraries he picks like the Bodleian library in Oxford reflect that. He also seems to have a thing for the baroque–libraries that are almost cathedrals in their own right that glitter with gilding and smell of spicy, dusty histories.

Interviewed by American Libraries magazine, he had this to say about libraries “For me, libraries are the great equalizer. Everybody goes into the library, whether they’re powerful or not, whether they’re rich or not, and they realize, man, there is so much out there. We’re so little compared to all that there is in this time and place that we live. I like that dimension of libraries.”

Without further ado, here are some of the libraries I’m dreaming about visiting someday.

The Bodleian Oxford, England

image credit:

Thomas Bodley’s library was opened in 1602, and if it looks familiar that’s probably because it’s been used as a set for films like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s closed right now, but they have some online exhibits available for perusal here on Tolkien and advertising in the 20th century.

Dokk1 Aarhus, Denmark

image credit: Dennis Borup Jakobsen

This is one of the most exciting new libraries in the world based on the idea that a library is a community center, gathering place, and hub for ideas–not merely a place for books. One of the features I love about this library is that there is a bell inside. This bell is activated by new parents in the hospital who can choose to ring the bell after the birth of their child. So every time you hear the bell ring, a new person has been brought into the community. You can take a virtual tour of the library, and you can learn more about the library in this Slate article.

Trinity College Library Dublin, Ireland

Does it get more gorgeous than a building that makes the books look like they’ll go on forever? The 18th century building holds the Book of Kells, a famous 9th century gospel.

Harold Washington Library Center Chicago, United States

image credit: Chicago Tribune

We were all set to go to Chicago this May with one of my oldest friends. Whenever I travel, I try to make time to visit one of the libraries, and I think a visit to this indoor garden at the Harold Washington library would have been just lovely.

Bibliotheque Mejanes Aix-en-Provence, France

Image credit: marlenedd on Flickr

This library entrance could not be a more perfect homage to the works inside the building. I love how whimsical this library is and hope that one day I’ll be able to go back to France and visit it.

Do you visit libraries when you travel? What is the most beautiful library you’ve ever been to? Let me know in the comments!

The Library of Congress or the Best Thing in Washington D.C.


I apologize (again) for being MIA last week. My fiance and I were in Washington D.C. visiting one of my best friends, and blog posts sort of took a back seat. If I’d been better prepared, I would have scheduled them, but I’m not that good.

Since we spent the better part of five days going over all the more well-known D.C. sites, I want to share my top five D.C. attractions with you, but before that, I have to take some time to express my love for the Library of Congress, also known as the largest library in the world, also known as whyhaven’tIbeenherebeforebecauseit’sbasicallyamagicalplaceonparwithDisneylandbecausebooksbooksbooksandmorebooksplusit’stotallygorgeous. I think the last one might be incorporated into the official title at some point.

We almost didn’t get a chance to go into this amazing building. Paul and I came down on Sunday to see it, not knowing that the Library was in fact closed. On Tuesday, just before our flight, we decided to go down again to see it. And it was so worth it.

The Gutenberg Bible (the first book in print) and the Mainz Bible (which is written by hand but looks nearly identical to its newer counterpart and took 15 months to produce) were on display. Jefferson’s personal library was also out to look at. If you’re interested, he organized his books by subject and by height. Though a third of over 6,800 volumes were lost in a fire, the shelves were filled in with similar books from the same era, the same books from different eras, and black boxes to represent the missing books. It was amazing.

There was also a display of some huge maps from the 1500s and artifacts from the Mayas. My friend, who is a huge map lover, was extremely happy.

We were also able to view the main reading room, which is a huge circular chamber in which there’s a ton of reading desks, via the overlook.

But some of the most amazing parts of the Library are the walls and ceilings and floors, which are inlaid with mosaics, have intricate stone carvings, have paintings and quotes about the importance of reading and knowledge. It’s a temple to reading.

And my other top picks for D.C?

  • My favorite monument in the city is Jefferson’s–it’s a place with presence and quiet even when you’re with dozens of people. It’s a place of hope for me as well, I look at the quotes on the walls and think about how our country was meant to stand for justice through change and progress.
  • Singing the “I’m just a bill song” while skirting around the Capitol Building
  • Food. D.C. has a great, if slightly pricey food scene. One of the more affordable highlights was a cream puff place in Georgetown called Beard Papa where you can pick your filling and it’s filled up right in front of you.
  • The Newseum is amazing and completely worth its high entrance fee. It’s all about media and journalism and has 7 floors of interesting exhibits.

Honorable mention:

  • The Smithsonian museums are always worth a visit–they’re free and they’re great. My favorite of the ones I’ve been to is probably the American History museum–though we didn’t hit that one this time. I just get a kick out of Dorothy’s shoes.
  • The Folger Shakespeare Library is right behind the Library of Congress. We didn’t get to spend very long in there because we only caught the tail end of the tour, but it’s worth reserving a tour. They have the largest collection of First Folios and an impressive art collection as well as various Shakespeare related artifacts. Next time I’m in D.C. I’ll be making a point in going there.