“You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Bookshelf…”

It wasn’t until after I moved in with Mr. Dormouse that I realized I had become my mother and had married my father. Like my mom, I am a former English major–although our concentrations were different–and my husband is a philosophical minister in the same vein as my dad. This combination didn’t become readily apparent to me until we unpacked our personal libraries into our new apartment and joined them. It was at that point that I realized two things: 1) the mother/father/history and family repeats itself thing and 2) we were going to need more bookshelves.

Only in our case, it's the bookshelves that need to be bigger and the monster is anthologies and biblical commentaries.

Growing up in Africa, we were positively drowning in books–a lovely way to die–and we tended to be the go-to family when other expats ran out of reading material. Our book collection spanned the width of our living room and spilled over into the schoolroom–my sister and I were homeschooled out of necessity–my dad’s office, and onto all of our headboards. Folks, this was a sizable collection, and we lugged it all over the continent of Africa.

However, in spite of what a royal pain in the neck it was to transport these books everywhere we went, I am more than grateful that we owned such a large and varied lot. If not for my mother’s own love of books, I would have had access to classic role models like Jo March or Anne Shirley. I may never have heard of Bilbo Baggins, Lucy Pevensie, or Stuart Little. So yes, moving books around sucks, but not having access to books is unthinkable. (I realize and am well aware of how privileged and blessed I was to have had this sort of childhood.)

Currently, Mr. Dormouse and I have enough books to easily fill six full-sized bookcases, and we still have random books stashed on bedside tables, the top of the toilet tank, and on desks. Our biggest problem with our joined libraries is that when we moved in, our books went on shelves willy nilly and we have yet to organize them into any semblance of order. We’ll do it later. We’ll think of a good system next week. Our procrastination and excuses know no bound!

In spite of this, I spy a glimmer of hope on the horizon. It is quite possible, although not yet confirmed, that Mr. Dormouse and I will be moving to the city. If that is the case, I would like a plan of attack when it comes to our library moving to a new home. This way, we can have order instead chaos and maybe be able to find a damn book when we want to read it.

Here is where you come in, Persephoneers. This is my plea for suggestions on how to organize our books. What methods have used or are currently using to organize or catalog your volumes? Have you ever developed a personal lending library? How do you decide which books stay in your possession and which ones go?

By Dormouse

Bilingual (and a half) white girl who spent thirteen of her formative years in Africa. She is a writer, mentor, coffee drinker, wife, cat owner, language lover, photography dabbler, aspiring speaker, and a lifetime student. She keeps her writing going over at

32 replies on ““You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Bookshelf…””

It’s fun to read that others have odd ways of organizing their books as well.

My books are organized by the ones I like the best (which is very directly correlated with how often they’re read, which means they’re more accessible, rather than on a shelf that’s half hidden by a dresser or stuffed under the bed), then by height and then by thickness; the only thing that overcomes that is series.  Once I put my books in a place I have a high tendency to remember where I put them, so the organization is based more on aesthetic look (and my various organizational issues) than needing others to be able to find them.

For getting rid of books I have a series of questions and a bag: 1. Why did I buy this?  I’ve read it and liked it, I needed it for class or it looked good off the shelf?  2. Did I like it?  Have I read it?  Will read it (again)?  3. Was it a gift someone might actually look for or ask about?  4. Do I have more than one copy and only need/want one copy?  If it comes down to taking them out of the collection I put them in a bag that’s bound to resell at the second hand store, which sits there long enough for me to change my mind if I want.  It’s kind of like hanging your hanger the wrong way to see what clothing you actually wear in a year.

My base rules for keeping books:

1. Favorite authors–never give them up!
2. I haven’t finished the whole trilogy, series, etc. and I want to
3. Memories/sentimentality
4.  Can I someday pass them on to someone else in my family (my niece is going to be getting a big ole box of books come the new year!)
5. Did I like the book on the first read enough to read it again someday?

All trade paperbacks are given away or utilized on Paperbackswap. Others I didn’t like or like enough to re-read are given to friends or donated to a literacy organization here in Chicago.

As for organization…my absolute favorite authors have their own special shelf(ves)…all the rest are alphabetical by title (i’ll remember a title long before remembering a one off author). I used to have them by genre, but that became to confusing for my detail oriented brain (Is Princess Bride romance, fantasy, comedy???)

There you have it…a simple system for an overworked brain.

I do believe I know the feeling! My partner recently moved in with me and I am dreading purchasing yet another bookshelf. Between his English major-ness and my grad school-ness, we have quite the collection. My books take up three full-sized and two half-sized bookshelves, and I’ve already started stacking books! Did I mention I just moved into my new house in May and had to purchase another shelf then? Now the partner needs space for his books, and I’m trying to figure out where I can fit another shelf into the decor. If I have this many books at 22, I’m going to need to purchase another house for my books by the time I’m 40…

We have a relatively massive collection of books. And we do weed them! They just seem to keep growing.

Our primary shelves are organized on the ROY G BIV system, according to color of the book spines. I know this may not seem very ‘organized’ in the truest sense of the word, but I have a very strong visual memory and can easily recall that the copy of The Hobbit I’ve been putting off reading is faux gold leaf, and is in the yellow section of the shelves. Also, it says ‘The Hobbit’ on the spine. So that’s helpful.

I keep all my writing resources and my crafting books in my office — writing by my desk, crafting by my sewing table. My husband keeps the books he might be currently referencing in his office. We have a table to keep the library books on, and ones that are getting returned are put on the window shelf above the table.

Have you ever developed a personal lending library?

Books that I regularly recommend to people I try to pick up at the library book sale so I won’t get upset if it doesn’t make its way back to me. Which is why I have 4 copies of ‘The Gift of Fear’, ‘Snow Crash’ and ‘Devil in the White City’, ‘Dark Adapted Eye’, etc.  Otherwise, I have to pretty much assume I won’t see my books every again. (I was able to retake a good number of my books when my brother moved by volunteering to help him pack.)

I organize my books by location, theme/subject matter, and then size.  I thought I also organized by author but thinking about it now I realize that I do not.  Series’ are grouped together – generally in order – but otherwise, content and theme are the most important details for placing two books side-by-side.

All my favorite books are on the bookshelf by my bed and are basically organized by size.  My second faves are on the bookshelf my guests see and are organized by theme and size.  My third faves are on the huge bookcase in the music/library room.  Also in that room are the overflow books which are stacked and leaned against various things in the same organizational format but have no bookcase home.

I can’t help it.  I just keep buying books.  And asking for them for Christmas.  And my birthday.

The one time I managed to successfully move my books without chaos and with organization, I boxed them up by type/category and then unpacked them right on the shelves.  I only pulled this off once, however, because moving always starts with good intentions and ends up with throwing crap in a box just to get it done.

Here is where you come in, Persephoneers. This is my plea for suggestions on how to organize our books. What methods have used or are currently using to organize or catalog your volumes? Have you ever developed a personal lending library? How do you decide which books stay in your possession and which ones go?

Organise books? What is this ‘organising’ you speak of? I grew up in a house where there was at least one bookcase in every room (and hallway, for that matter) and i’m loving that our house is quickly heading in that direction. However. Organisation. I was always aware of a loose organisation system; reference, non-fiction, fiction, childrens and so on. But otherwise it was a given that if you wanted to get a book and didn’t already know exactly where it was, you were in for a fun night looking for it. It’s pretty much the same system here, with the main separation being by size because the whacking great bookcase in the lounge was built specifically to handle big books (oh yes, having a joiner custom build a bookcase is a deliriously amazing experience).

And as for getting rid of books, I had the best luck when I was rearranging everything. When in doubt, I would ask myself “Do I want this badly enough to figure out where it goes?” Anything that didn’t make the cut got donated. When it got hard, I would think about how my old books could make someone else’s life better and it helped me get the boxes out to the car.

I have been through many book organization systems; for a while I was doing them by color, I’ve done by author, year of original publication, title, and the entirely unhelpful “how does this book make me feel?” method which seemed to be particular to the two days I was sorting the books and didn’t allow room for nuance between the rigid determinations of various moods.

After Mister and I moved in together all that went to hell, and now they’re pretty much piled higgledy-piggledy everywhere (double-stacked on shelves and scattered about the house) until further notice. Any attempt to organize them will be met with frustration and potential eating of books by the dog. She likes the antique ones best.

I’ll reorganize once we move into a larger space and can afford more shelving. In the mean time, at least it’s a happy chaos – or, as you say above, a lovely way to die.

The Battle of What-To-Do-with-All-the-Damn-Books has been raging in our house for years now and has only intensified with the addition of children and all of THEIR books. I was also an English major and am currently in library school. My husband is an avid comic collector / historian, about to begin work on his MFA.

We have 6 full size bookcases, 4 smaller ones, my daughter’s entire headboard is covered with books, and there are boxes and boxes of books packed up.

Only in the past year or two have my husband and I been able to look at our books with a critical eye and say “Meh, do we really need Couplehood by Paul Reiser?” NO. Do we really need 3 different editions of The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings? YES (we have 2 children, that’s a set for each and a set for us). We started weeding out the crap (and my apologies to anyone who loves the literary stylings of Paul Reiser), but the problem is…there just isn’t that much of it. Sure, there are the couple’s Christian devotional books and umpteen “Chicken Soup for the ____’s Soul” books that my well-meaning mother-in-law has purchased over the years. And there are some items that we didn’t realize we’d duplicated, so we can give the extra copy to my brother-in-law (who was also an English major) or to a friend. But for the most part, ALL of these books are the ones we want to keep…the ones we want to have on hand when civilization implodes and the crazies burn the libraries…or when the day comes that you CAN’T purchase new physical copies of older books.

Anywho…how are they organized? Loosely by subject. My husband’s art reference books are all together, my beloved English classics are together. We have a section on British history; a general reference section; Greek/Roman history and mythology; poetry; women’s studies; sci-fi, fantasy, and modern fiction are together by author within their respective genre, and accompanying materials, such as companions or literary guides are shelved along with them. Older paperbacks (such as hubby’s extensive collection of Robert E. Howard/Conan) are shelved together, rather than with their corresponding subjects in hardcover.

We contemplated cataloging them and assigning Library of Congress call numbers (not a big fan of Dewey), but I get enough of that at work/in school. I recommend trying LibraryThing, if you haven’t. You can do all sorts of neat stuff with it…adding notes to the records for your books (such as location!) and tagging them with subjects or personal notes (we buy a lot of books from used/vintage book stores, and we like to keep track of where things came from). Just going in and creating a database of what you own may help you decide how best to organize it.

There’s also some free open source library software out there (such as the LibLime Koha ILS) but I really don’t know much about that.

My books are almost all in storage right now until we find a more permanent living situation, and I miss them. A ton of my old books are still at my parents house, which is wall to wall books. One entire wall of the living room has built-in shelves my Dad made when I was a kid; the opposite wall has a few more; there are bookshelves lining both hallways; books in my and my sister’s old bedrooms; books in storage. I’ve only got about 3 bookcases worth at the moment, largely due to being able to borrow books when I worked at a bookstore or donating/selling/gifting books I knew I wouldn’t read again. And my husband doesn’t read much, so he only has about half a shelf worth.

My old system was organized by category and respectability. Pretty books and classics were at eye level, with trashy novels and beat up sci fi paperbacks at the bottom. I had a shelf for science and nature, one for politics and sociology, and one for humor and miscellaneous reference. I had a separate old cd shelving unit that had a ton of Georgette Heyer books sorted by what I’d read and what I hadn’t, but an overly inquisitive baby ruined that system when she decided they all looked better on the floor.

Ok, just to forewarn you: this isn’t so much order as it is organized chaos.

My method for shelving books goes by the content and size, so I have all the computer science books near each other, then they move onto the brain (neural networks of computing is the crossover point), then to the body, then medicine, health, puzzle books, investing/business, moving to philosophy and literature, and then fiction, which is also arranged by subject, but not as much. This is arranged from the bottom to the top of the bookcase, and the bigger books are to the left side of the category. Within the category, they are arranged by what seems to fit near each other (for example, the book about how the brain works is right next to the book about how the body works) and by color/look. Yes, you read that right. Color.

Color is most easily seen with all my fiction books, because I have so many. Basically, one of the colors will be seen in the book next to it. Except where there are series, because those are all together, but they usually look similar. So basically, I might have a book with a black background next to a book with a dark grey background and green words, next to a blue and green book, but I will not put a yellow book there. The yellow book would have to go near a red or gold book, or a book with yellow writing on the spine.

That’s my system (such as it is). I hope you find one that works for you!

I’m a fan of genre sorting. I have a whole lot of books from college, so those all get grouped by which class I read them for. The whole collection gets grouped by genre (sci-f, fantasy, science, history, fiction). I put my favorite genres at eye-level, so it’s always super easy to grab Harry Potter or Discworld. Textbooks and yearbooks go on the bottom shelf because they weigh the most. There’s a bit of bleed-over because I don’t have the same number of books in each genre (My vampire shelf is overflowing onto my YA shelf). Within genres, I tend to organize by book size, because I think it’s prettier. Since I’m fairly visual, it’s also easier for me to find books that way. My friends have a hard time figuring out where a given book is, but it all makes perfect sense to me.

I have a really hard time getting rid of books. If I really hated a book or don’t see myself ever picking it up again I’ll donate it. But if there’s even a chance that I’ll want to reference it in the future it stays.

I’ve been bouncing around the idea of sorting all of our books by last name within subjects, but then I would end up with having books from classes not together. For example, I want all my Chaucer books together because that just makes sense for when I want to reference that time period. Also, I think it’s most important that Mr. Dormouse and I be able to find things, even if our eventual system confuses everyone else. :)

I think organizing by last name tends to not make sense for personal collections. Some books just belong next to each other for reasons you can’t quite explain to anyone. And alphabetical can have some strange consequences.

Once, my best friend’s fiance decided to be helpful and alphabetize their books. She came home and her Julia Child cookbook was next to Ender’s Game while the two calculus textbooks she owned were on different shelves. She couldn’t find anything for weeks. Ultimately the organization just has to make sense to you.

I don’t have advice on how to organize your books, but I *do* have something to say for those people who have or know kids that don’t have access to a lot of books:  Dolly Parton has a charity that sends free books to kids every month until they are 5 years old.  The trick is that you have to be in an area that is serviced by the charity, and I don’t know how they determine that – it may be based on the economics of the area, now that I think about it, because it wasn’t available when we lived in a higher income area, and it *is* available in our new town, which struggles more economically.  But that might just be coincidence.

At any rate, you just have to prove that you live in that area, and BAM! your kid gets a free book every month.  So far we’ve gotten two, Thomas the Train Engine and one about a pig that lives with dogs.  It is pretty amazing.

I used to have my bookshelves organized by fiction/nonfiction, and then by topic area under nonfiction (politics, math and stats, religion, sports anthologies, etc). Within the fiction section and the subsections, they were arranged alphabetically by author and title, unless it was a series in which case it would go by series order instead of title order. And the fiction section had a YA subsection on its own shelf.

I say “used to” because when the Mister and I moved into this house, he thought I was taking too long to put the books on the shelves, so he just threw everything on there in no particular order, and all of our books are intermingled and with no sense to them. Ah! Fortunately, we are in the (LONG!) process of converting our double back into a single family home, and when we’re done making the upstairs kitchen into a library, I will painstakingly arrange everything in an easy to use order! We may need to add a science fiction paperbacks subsection to the fiction section, though, since the Mister has so many of them.

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