Welcome to Shhh…Secrets of the Librarians, a new series (inspired by our long-running Secrets of the Book Critics) in which bibliothecaries (yes, it’s a real word) from around the country share their inspirations, most-recommended titles, thoughts on the role of the library in contemporary society, favorite fictional librarians, and more. Each week we’ll spotlight a librarian—be they Academic, Public, School, or Special—and bring you into their wonderful world.
This week, we spoke to Dev Aujla, the founder of New York’s Sorted Library.
Book Marks: What made you decide to open the Sorted Library?
Dev Aujla: I wanted to create a space where people would be encouraged to look across genres to answer the questions they were pursuing—a type of search that is less directed than we’re used to. I wanted visitors to experience non-linear thinking. Sorted Library does this by creating small reading rooms that are full re-creations of famous creative people’s libraries. They are copies of the books they used, and lived with and visitors to Sorted Library create collections of 3-5 books from within these libraries. You don’t know what is in the library before you come so it is really impossible to plan and you are forced out of your genre fairly quickly.
BM: What book do you find yourself recommending the most and why?
DA: One of my personal favorite writers is Roger Pol Droit. He wrote a book called 100 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Living that really brings you outside of yourself and has you doing unexpected and wonderful things, noticing the world and ideas in your day to day. I can’t recommend it enough. The format and sentiment was a big inspiration for the book that I wrote called 50 Ways to Get a Job but it is impossible to top his work.
BM: What is the weirdest/most memorable collection a member has curated?
DA: I like the breadth of collections that are created. There is a collection I like that explores the relationship between the sidewalk and the city from the concrete slabs of New York to the mosaic-like stones in Athens which features Jane Jacobs and Christa Woolf that I think about regularly. There are also collections created solely based on the cover which really bring interesting books together—breakfast themed covers featuring Anthony Burgess The Wanting Seed, Roger Rosenblatt Making Toast, and Anka Muhlstein Balzac’s Omlette. The collection that I mention the most though would be ‘Books Sometimes Used to Justify Shitty Behaviour’ which features Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity and Walter Isaacson’s Innovators. So true.
BM: Did you create your own collection when you started the Sorted Library? What was it called? What did it consist of?
DA: We do these trips to estates and private libraries around the world and create collections there and the first collection that I created was on a visit to the Kunstbibliothek Sitterwerk in St Gallen, Switzerland. They have a 20k book art book library organized in an idiosyncratic way and were a big inspiration when I was starting Sorted Library. When I was there I created a collection called ‘On Models’ that was all about different ways of conceptualizing a project before you commit that still leaves room for the idea to change. It included artist books from Noguchi, Cy Twombly, Fred Sandback, Fischli and Weiss and a few others including Warburg’s L’Atlas Mnemosyne, and The Architectural Model by Scheiddeger & Speiss.
BM: What role does the library play in contemporary society?
DA: Libraries help tie us to the context that we exist in. Technology is re-training us to rely on the first answer that shows up in google searches, or our feeds, as an objective truth. Libraries are an antidote to this. They provide access to the context and complexity that even the most simple google search can’t deliver. They are so important! I like to look around the room and think that each one of these books was at a minimum two years of someones life work (and often much longer) and to be able to browse, experience and have all theses lives and work as the basis for my own thoughts—what a privilege. A privilege that is available to all of us for free at our local library.
BM: Who is your favorite fictional librarian?
DA: I fell down the rabbit hole of reading and reading about Fernando Pessoa this past year. He created dozens of imaginary characters (heteronyms) that he embodied and wrote as. Some of these characters had libraries that existed in real life and when they went through Pessoa’s estate they found copies of books with inscriptions and short messages from one character to the next. I love it. A librarian that existed just on the border of fiction.
Dev Aujla runs the Sorted Library, a small independent reading space in New York. He is the coauthor of Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money & Community in a Changing World. His most recent book is called 50 Ways to Get a Job: An Unconventional Guide to Finding Work on Your Terms and was published with Penguin TarcherPerigee in 2018.