It’s All in the Cards: How Organizing My Library Is Helping My Brain

Harper Paperbacks, publisher of What Jonah Knew by Barbara Graham

Jonah, a seven-year-old boy inexplicably recalls the memories of Henry, a missing 22-year-old musician. Jonah’s mother, Lucie does everything she can to be loving and attentive, but she can’t stop Jonah’s night terrors or his obsession with his “other mom.” When Jonah meets Henry’s mother, Helen while on vacation, all hell breaks loose. How does Jonah know so much about Henry? Is this child Helen's son come back to her? Or just an unsettling coincidence? Together, the two mothers set out to make sense of the insensible.

Note: This post mentions mental health and suicidal ideation.

Recently, a childhood dream of mine came true. No, I did not become besties with Soleil Moon Frye or win a lifetime supply of Lisa Frank stickers. I got a card catalog!

Orange cat sitting on a card catalog; photo by Liberty Hardy
Farrokh’s new favorite spot in the house.

I am a self-proclaimed library brat, meaning I was raised in a library. My mother was a librarian, and I spent a lot of my days there. Most of the time you could find me reading on the whistle seats. (Whistle seats look like yoga mats, if the yoga mat swallowed the last person who sat on it.) But before I could lounge around and read, I had chores. My mom would have me do tasks that she and the other librarians didn’t want to do. Like putting plastic on hardcover jackets and filling out index cards for the card catalog, which I HATED. And shelving books and adding the finished cards to the card catalog, which I LOVED.

I loved those things partly because I love putting things in alphabetical order. (Or “alphabetical because I I in love loved order partly putting things things those.” See?) And since I was young, I dreamed of having a large library of my own and a card catalog to keep track of it.

One thing that is great about book lovers is that we all have a common love, but we’re all so different in our approaches. Some people use the library exclusively, some people buy books and then give them away. And some people are like me: we want to have as many books around us as possible and have made peace with the fact that we one day might be crushed by stacks of books. (I have already been given a concussion by a hardcover art book, so I am on notice.)

Having a large personal library is a dream that I have only recently been able to achieve. Up until eight years ago, my living spaces were all extremely small. Now, I have rooms dedicated to books, and it fills my heart with joy. If I had to do one thing over, I would go back and mark down the books as they started to come into my house. Because I no longer am able to keep track of all my books. They have taken over!

open card catalog drawer with many cards and alphabet tabs; photo by Liberty Hardy
Starting to catalog my collection!

I alphabetize my books by title, because I am more likely to forget a book’s author before I forget the title. (Sorry, authors.) But my brain isn’t what it used to be. My old catchphrase-slash-memoir-title was “I Have It But I Still Need To Read It.” Now it’s “I Think I Have That Around Here Somewhere?” or “I Am Pretty Sure I Read That?” I really needed to figure out how to catalog my books, I really wanted to do it, but life has been so busy and distracting. Also, it would cut in on my reading time, lol.

Now let’s talk about hard stuff for a minute. The last several years have been a lot. A LOT. I have experienced a lot of joy, but there has been a lot of tragedy too. I am so fortunate that I found a therapist I love, but a few months ago, I found myself at my lowest point.

I had COVID, and I was really sick. It was a disheartening and frightening experience. It had me really scared. I was questioning everything about my life, and wondering what I wanted to do with my life when/if I recovered. I found that I didn’t have the answers I thought I was supposed to have, which really upset me. I don’t have a bucket list. All I could keep thinking about were books, how there were so many I still wanted to read, and how much I love reading.

It took me several weeks to recover, but between my illness and the world, I was still feeling really down. My thoughts cycled from “everything is terrible, I should have as much fun as I can right now!” to “everything is terrible and I should plan for the future” to “nothing matters and I should walk into the ocean.” Around and around and around, all day. (I’m telling you this because it’s important to be open and honest about depression and mental illness. You are not alone.)

And then a magical thing happened. A friend reached out and offered me her card catalog. It’s a retired one, from a library in Maine. She won it in an auction, and I have been coveting it for years. The idea of marking all the titles of my books down and organizing them just like in an actual library like I grew up in has always been a dream of mine. I loved opening and closing all the drawers when I was a kid. I loved the skewer that runs through the middle of them to keep all the index cards in place. Replacing it in the drawer was like making a library shish kebab. I have always wanted one!

orange cat with its lower half sticking out of an open drawer of a card catalog; photo by Liberty Hardy
Filed in the cat-alog under ‘M’ for for ‘menace’.

My friend needed the space in her house, so she said I could have it. MY DREAM CAME TRUE. I had some people help me retrieve it and get it in my house. (SHE LARGE.) I named it Agnes, after a cool librarian my mother worked with, and she is the envy of the literary internet. I immediately set about cataloging my library. Nothing too fancy on the cards. Title, author, genre, format. I split them between fiction and nonfiction. I have been writing them all by hand so I can only get through about 80 or 90 a day before I get a cramp. I’ve filled out about 800 so far and used up three pens already.

And I noticed something amazing happening over the last few weeks. I spend less time doom scrolling on the internet. My resting heart rate has dropped several beats. My mind is no longer constantly yelling “DOOM” at me. And looking over all these books has reignited my already considerable love of reading. And it’s not just about getting every book I own down on a card, although that’s awesome. Working on this project has given me the permission I was denying myself to step away from the chaos and the sadness. It is something I have control over in a time when I feel so helpless. I have an achievable goal, and it’s one that brings me so much joy. I am so grateful for this gift, and this chance to find peace. I wish something like this for all of you, readers. Or, “all for I like of readers something this wish you.”