Image: Interior of a Library/Google Art Project
“What do I do with my academic books, now that I’m no longer a regular academic?” I’ve seen that question posed online, time and again, by Ph.D.s leaving academia for a different career. But this past summer, I asked that question myself — as I regarded the academic books and papers that sat unused on my shelves or buried in basement boxes.
In 2012, when I left my first postgraduate home in North Carolina, everything came with me to Chicago: boxes of academic books and papers, too many course readers, and a heavy file cabinet full of meticulously organized folders holding my dissertation research. I unpacked my books but rarely opened the file cabinet in the months that followed.
Now, four years later, I am no longer a traditional academic — I work as a grant coordinator in the digital humanities. We moved again, just across town, but this time, I wasn’t willing to bring everything from my old academic life with me. When I first started packing, I simply wanted to toss all of it. I’m not teaching survey courses anymore or, heaven forbid, writing graduate exams on subjects far removed from the keenest areas of my interest.
Dozens of books that I once had cherished no longer felt relevant to my life or my work. Books and papers are heavy, as any academic who’s ever moved knows all-too-well. I looked at my shelves, and suddenly all I could see were volumes I no longer read or consulted, sitting there, taking up space, refusing to make room for new ideas or new possibilities. The books felt like dead weight, holding down my shoulders as much as they did my shelves.
My initial impulse was to purge everything— give away all the books, throw the course readers in the recycling bin, erase the dissertation research by tossing it, too, into the bin outside my home. Instead I hesitated. Among those books and papers were some that still meant something to me, and that might someday be relevant again to my life or work.
So I started sorting. First, I organized the academic books into piles: keep, take to work, give to my husband (who happens to be in the same field), or sell. The “take-to-work” books comprised approximately two shelves’ worth of materials on late-19th-century America, the period most closely related to the grant that I administer. The “spouse” books were ones he didn’t own that were relevant to his work; he took them to his campus office rather than to our new home.
When it came to the “sell” pile, I was in for a rude awakening. I looked up each book on a BookScouter.com app that searches online used-book outlets to determine where to get the best price. I’d hoped to make $5 or $10 on each book, but slowly, the “no one is currently interested in this title” pile grew taller than all the others. If a book could be sold for $2, it was doing well. Soon I had two tall, wobbly stacks of books no one wanted, and a tiny pile of two or three books that I could sell for $2 each. It felt like a glimpse into the dustbin of academic history — depressing little piles of scholarship no longer relevant to their once-small audience.
I wondered: Is that all that academic work amounts to? Today’s hot academic monographs are tomorrow’s used-bookstore rejects?
After I’d dealt with the academic books, I headed to the basement. That’s where I kept all books and papers I hadn’t looked at since I packed them up in North Carolina. One by one, I opened the still-taped boxes marked “research notes” and “class readers.” Like the books upstairs, many of these items, too, felt like dead weight. I started sorting again, making new decisions:
- Old readings from my graduate courses (back before such excerpts went on Moodle or Blackboard)? Recycle.
- Book reviews I printed out for a historiographic essay I hadn’t thought about in more than 10 years? Recycle.
- Notes and printouts for a historiographic essay on Jane Addams, in whom I remain interested? Keep, and bring to work.
- Scribbled feedback from my adviser on a paper I spent months writing and rewriting, tooling and retooling, whose phrases continue to linger in my family’s lore, and which garnered feedback along the lines of “well-written” and “impressively researched”? Keep for sure, and repack.
I also opened boxes of personal memorabilia, and found I couldn’t throw away childhood photo albums, or the ones from college, or the ones from before my parents divorced. Those memories still shape me, hang with me. I began to wonder: How are those personal artifacts of memory any different from my academic memorabilia?
Looking through my academic books and papers, I realized that they, too, served as physical reminders of memories and hopes. Academia hadn’t worked out quite the way I’d intended. But as I sorted, I realized that I didn’t need quite so many artifacts of memory to remind me of the graduate-school dreams I’d once cherished. Yes, all of it really happened, but fewer papers and books would bring back the memories just as easily.
Armed with that new awareness, I pulled the plastic comb bindings out of the course readers, their sharp plastic points whipping against my fingers as I tugged. I recycled two milk crates’ worth of course readers, some of which had been moved to five homes over the course of 15 years. I filled paper bags with printouts, and tossed them into the recycling bin. Those records, at least, remain online, and don’t need to be schlepped from home to home.
As I carried the bags outside, I found myself thinking, “This should feel cathartic, perhaps even sad. I should feel like academia’s jilted lover, sitting by the fire, slowly feeding it photos of the beloved who spurned me, letting tongues of flame consume the memories.”
But I didn’t.
Instead, I found that I no longer needed a dramatic moment of catharsis, and that the emotions of anger, sadness, or even merely resignation had already dissipated.
Now that I’m in our new home, I realize something else: Cleaning the shelves and emptying the boxes makes room for new areas of growth — novels I now have time to read, and books on editing and writing in several genres. I still have several shelves’ worth of academic books at home, but my shelves also have room for books that speak to where I am now, and that’s a weight on my shoulders that I’ll gladly accept.