by Erik Y. Adams
Like many people, I’ve been reading Marie Kondo’s charming book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Coincidentally, we’re going through another round of downsizing our print collection at my library. We’ve used all the usual metrics for deciding which books to keep and which to recycle (frequency of use, cost of maintenance, contract bundling, etc.) and are now faced with hard choices. Can the “konmari method” be of use as we try to decide what to put in the recycling bin?
For the two or three people in the world who have not heard of Ms. Kondo’s little green book, it can be briefly summarized as “throw away the stuff you don’t love”. Her focus is on the home, and she has a specific order for attacking the items that clutter our lives. But for all items she uses a single method and a single metric: when deciding whether to discard an item, you should take it in your hands and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” If the answer is yes, you should keep it; if not, you should thank the item for its contribution to your life, and send it on its way. (She’s very serious about thanking things for their service. To my American sensibilities this seem silly, but I’m a big fan of doing things exactly as recommended at least once, so I press on.)
There is a section devoted to books, and some of her advice will resonate with librarians. She flatly states that keeping a book that you have never read but think you might need “sometime” in the future is a form of self deception: “I’m afraid that from personal experience I can tell you right now, ‘sometime’ never comes.” She specifically mentions that this applies to old school textbooks; keeping a foreign language textbook because you think at some time you will want to brush up on English or German is a lie.
Ms. Kondo also recognizes that sometimes a person can make a mistake. You may discard a book only to realize later that you really do have a need for it. She recommends buying the book new but reading it immediately and feeling no regrets.
Any book that survives the filtering process will automatically be more valuable. The reason her method of tidying up is “life-changing” is because if you do it right, when you are done, you will only be surrounded by items that give you joy. On the bookshelf, she envisions a library that is a personal Hall of Fame: the books you read and refer to over and over. She states that there are very few books that people read multiple times, and when tidying is done, you will only have those books left.
In my house, this means that college copy of Plato’s Complete Dialogs is doomed for my local public library’s used book store, while Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men will live forever on my bookshelf and get read at least once a year, bringing a smile to my eye every time I see it sitting on the shelf.
Which brings us to the U.S.C.A. Like many law libraries, we have a full set of West’s United States Code Annotated and a full set of LexisNexis’s United States Code Service. Years ago, it made sense to have both as they were popular and the differences in content were occasionally useful. Even though we have access to both versions electronically, we have attorneys who insist that we keep at least one print copy. But the cost of keeping both is under scrutiny as we continue to trim the fat from our budget. In terms of usage, cost, and contract bundling, they are roughly equal. If we lived in an environment free of consequences, I would say discard both and force people to go electronic, but that would ruffle feathers. So we have to make a choice: which copy of the U.S. Code do we keep and which do we thank and retire?
If I were to follow Ms. Kondo’s method precisely, the first step would be to take all the books off the shelf and put them in a pile on the floor. She states that books on the shelf are dormant, and must be brought back to life to truly be judged. I think my attorneys might object to me making a mess, so instead I take the first two volumes from each set and place them on the floor in my office. I then take each volume in hand, and ask myself the key question: Does this spark joy?
Ms. Kondo says that this process takes practice. I’ve had some practice at home, and I think I know what this whole “spark joy” thing is about. With Plato and Terry Pratchett deciding, what to keep and what to discard became pretty simple. But, if I’m honest, none of the U.S. Code books or their ilk are particularly joyful for me. Maybe that’s because I shifted to electronic when researching the U.S. Code a long time ago. Strictly speaking, going by my internal joy meter, we should get rid of both. I haven’t decided if I want to pitch this methodology to my library partner, but I am sure it would be an interesting conversation.