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How to Organize Your Library

“The acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone. Not even both factors together suffice for the establishment of a real library, which is always somewhat impenetrable and at the same time uniquely itself.” – Walter Benjamin

0. As material objects, books take up physical space. This should be obvious to anybody who has ever encountered a book, and should be particularly evident to any individual who has encountered a whole collection of books. From these observations logically follows another important fact: the larger the quantity of books the more space is required for their housing. And this matter is only further complicated should a person decide that they not only want to have a large quantity of books, but that they also – the audacity! – want to be able to find specific books within the larger collection without having to expend significant effort. Thus the efficient solution of packing all of the books into boxes and stacking the aforementioned boxes in some manner of storage facility is, for many people, simply untenable. Large libraries stand as useful examples of how one can store numerous books while still making it so that one can find the actual book for which one is looking at any given time; however, the organization strategies deployed by many libraries are simultaneously boring and overly complicated. Few people endeavor to organize their personal libraries using the Dewey Decimal System or using Library of Congress subject headings – what follows are suggestions of several other tried and triumphant ways for organizing your personal library.

1. At the outset it is important to gather some information – even if the figures are not exact regarding the nature of your personal library. One needs to know: a) how many books there are that need to be organized, b) how much available shelf space there is for all of the books from a), and lastly c) what is the approximate rate at which more books are added to this collection. Hopefully the answers to a) and b) are relatively in sync and should the answer to c) indicate that the collection grows with alarming speed than one should reconsider b) accordingly. A good organization system is one that can be used to stabilize the disorder of a current collection while still anticipating that the collection will grow in the future. The initial survey is essential as it will indicate which types of organization work and which do not – it will also guide your thinking in terms of what will be needed in the not too distant future. Do you need more shelves? Do you have books that need to be returned to their original sources? Do you need to hire an exterminator/exorcist to clear up an issue related to your books before you proceed? Or, do you need to obtain several dozen new books in order to justify organizing the books the way you want? If one does not answer a), b) and c) at the beginning than one is likely going to have to reevaluate the process half way through. Granted, doing so can still yield satisfactory results.

2. Before going any further it is worth listing several methods of organizing books that are not recommended. You are, of course, welcome to experiment with these methods – but you do so at your own peril.

  • Putting books on the shelf with their spine facing the wall;
  • Inventing your own complex numbering system and then demanding that your local library adopt it.
  • Making digital scans of all of your books and then discarding the original books;
  • Hiring a psychic or feng shui expert to organize your books for you;
  • Figuring out the astrological signs of your books’ authors and organizing the books according to the authors’ star signs;
  • By the number of words in each book (fun, but time consuming).

3. Alphabetical order is a strategy employed by many large bookstores – and many small bookstores as well – it is an easy and efficient way to organize books that generally makes it pretty easy to find the volume for which you are looking at a given time. It is also a thoroughly boring way to organize your books. It is really quite uninteresting. Many people select alphabetical order based on their perception that this will be a rather simple way to organize books. After all, once selected, this organizational method makes it seem as if there is no need for further questions. Incorrect! At the very least one needs to decide whether they will put books in alphabetical order based on the author of the book or the title of the book. For those leaning towards the alphabetical arrangement but loathe to make it too obvious that the books are arranged in that order it may be worth going for a modified version of alphabetical order wherein the letter picked for the purposes of order is not the obvious letter. Putting books in alphabetical order based on the last letter of an author’s name or the second letter in a title helps make a shelf look more oddly arranged than it would otherwise had one gone with straight up abecedarian order. Granted, this relies upon the organizer being able to remember the last letter in an author’s name – and this is quite challenging seeing as many authors are in the habit of adding several silent letters to the end of their names out of the perception that a longer last name appears more distinguished. Case in point, all of the letter’s in Dostoevsky’s name after the “t” are actually meant to be silent.

4. Be honest with yourself: there are some people you like to sit next to more than others. Really, you do not need to be embarrassed by this fact. Now consider the following: might some of your books not have similar preferences? The obvious retort to this is some variation of “balderdash! Books are inanimate objects without any preferences of their own!” This is true of most books (it does not include cursed books, those possessed by an eldritch intelligence, or e-readers planning for the robot uprising). Nevertheless, one way to approach organizing your books is to think of which titles, or the author’s of which titles, would be comfortable being pressed up against each other on your shelves if the books actually were capable of having preferences (which they are not). Bookshelves do not permit books much private space, and texts are packed up even closer than the people on the morning subway. Thus, the least you can do for your books is to consider what books they might like to be next to. Did those two authors despise each other? Perhaps you should not place their books side by side. Did those two authors have a long friendship that ended abruptly? Consider placing the books near to each other – but not too near – as the authors may have still periodically thought fondly of one another. Did the author of this non-fiction book rant and rave about the worthlessness of historical fiction? Consider not placing that author’s books next to your historical fiction. Approach your bookshelves as if they are a table you are arranging for a large gathering – you would be a bad host indeed if you purposely placed foes next to each other and ex-lovers right across the table from one another. True, in the case of the dinner party such inartful arrangements could result in interesting discussions or renewed ardor – but remember that your books are not going to start talking to one another while you are out of the room (really). They will not mend tarnished friendships or renew a long dead courtship, show your books some consideration. Now, will this be an easy way for you to find the books you’re looking for at a particular moment? Probably not. But why should the arrangement of your books be all about you?

5. Size and color are methods of organizing books that are generally considered as falling under the heading “aesthetic arranging.” In truth this is a method of organizing books that can, if properly done, look quite nice although it can be rather rubbish for the purposes of actually finding books. After all, it may be easier to remember the author or title of a book than it can be to remember that a book had a red cover or what its exact measurements were. This method of organization leans heavily upon judging books by their covers and then grouping books accordingly. To group books by size is often a necessity based upon the height of shelves, and can give collections a nice uniform look by keeping the tops of books in nice simple lines – true this means that the tops of books will not have a jagged cityscape like profile, but if you are the type of person who likes the jagged cityscape like profile than that is an easy way of knowing that organizing books by size is not the strategy for you. Displaying books based on the color of their spine can create an amusing sight, but legion are the collectors who thought this would be amusing and then found themselves buying mountains of random books solely based upon the color of the spine. When seeking to make a bookshelf resemble the color wheel what is one to do upon realizing that one has more red books than green ones? More yellow ones than violet ones? More green ones than…you understand where this is going. Generally speaking, to group books together based on the color of their spines sounds like a fun idea but it is difficult to make this work in final execution. And yet collecting books based upon the color of their spine or their size can result in expanding the collectors horizons by making them obtain many titles that they would not have otherwise considered purchasing. Granted, the danger with such book acquisition schemes is that the collecting of books for such arrangements often results in books not being purchased to be read, but being purchased as they are red.

6. For purposes of organizing your collection, it is advisable to not use the following things as shelves:

  • refrigerators;
  • ovens;
  • dishwashers;
  • bookshelves in other people’s homes;
  • bookshelves in other libraries;
  • cardboard boxes;
  • bathtubs;
  • trash bins.
  • the hold of a ship resting at the bottom of the ocean.

7. Many a book collection includes several titles that are not actually meant to be read. It may be that these books are very old and fragile, that they were purchased as part of an aesthetically appealing set, or that they are cursed. Such titles pose a particular problem. How does one arrange these books so as to make them visible while still ensuring that the books remain unmolested? The easy retort is that a person will know which of their own books to not actually touch and therefore leave them be, but what if you should have a guest at your abode who is unaware that reading from that eye-catching grimoire will unleash an unspeakable eldritch evil? It is best to think of such books as requiring organization separate from the organization for the rest of the collection. These books need to be singled out for special treatment. One may want to place them on the top shelf – or the top of the book case – to make it so that they are simply difficult to reach; one may want to invest in a book case with a glass front that locks so as to be able to display the books without running the risk that they will be casually handled. Also, one may wish to reconsider the choices being made in one’s life that are resulting in accumulating stacks of books that hold inside of them the key to loosing horrific creatures upon the world. All of this is simply to say that special books will require special methods of organization, and you would do well to keep this in mind before you decide to collect rare books, art books that are designed to be displayed together, or begin dallying in the occult.

8. According to Tristan Tzara, “To Make a Dadaist Poem” one should:

“Take a newspaper.

Take some scissors.

Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.

Cut out the article.

Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.

Shake gently.

Next take out each cutting one after the other.

Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.

The poem will resemble you.

And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.” (Tzara, 39)

A somewhat similar line of logic is employed in arranging your bookshelf along Dadaist lines – this is sometimes also referred to as the “chaotic” way of organizing books. However, and this is very important to note, this method does not in any way involve actually cutting up your books and the intention here is not to advise you to take scissors to your books. To organize your books in this fashion you will need a very large bag into which all of your books (all of them) can be placed or a very large room on the floor of which all of your books can be dumped. Before you begin selecting you should either gently shake the bag or get somebody else to come into the room and mix up your placement of the books. Close your eyes (or put on a blindfold if you have a tendency to peek) and pick a book, now place that book on the shelf, now close your eyes again, pick the next book, place it beside the first book – repeat until there are no more books on the floor/in the bag. Your bookshelf will now resemble a Dadaist poem. Indeed it can even be read as a Dadaist poem from one title to the next. Will you be able to find the book for which you are looking? Nope. But this is more entertaining. This is also a great thing to do to a meticulously organized friend’s books if you are looking in on their cat while they are out of town. They will not thank you – but the cat will likely enjoy watching you rearrange the books. It is true that this type of arrangement may lead to people demanding an explanation of the organization, but in such a case you can simply quote Tristan Tzara:

“I won’t explain myself because I hate common sense.” (Tzara, 4)

9. When it comes to organizing books a person may find that they are bound up by the limitations imposed on them by the size of the space in which they are living. Even if a domicile has floor to ceiling bookshelves in every room a point may be reached at which they simple run out of space for installing more shelves. And yet a lack of shelf space rarely keeps an individual from accumulating more books. Thus a person may find the need to make the very most out of the space which is available to them. In this situation, books stop resembling books and begin to resemble jigsaw puzzle pieces for which the edges of the shelf represent the puzzle’s frame. If there is empty space on a shelf than it is space that can be filled with a book – or it goes wasted. Of course this can be particularly challenging as books come in less random shapes and sizes than puzzle pieces. Which books should be placed flat horizontally? Which should stand vertically? Which small books can fit in the diagonal space that has been opened up? For many people such an arrangement begins to look cluttered, while for others it is a testament to the efficient use of space. This is a method that can work in modified accordance with a number of the previously mentioned organizational systems – first arrange the books in a simple way, and then rearrange that shelf in such a way that maximizes the usefulness of every nook and cranny. You may not know exactly where on the shelf a given book is, but you will still know what shelf it is on – which is better than nothing. And with rents the way they are – can you afford not to use every inch of shelf space? Think of this method as cost efficient.

10. Large libraries, that ostensibly serve some permutation of the public, feel obligated to organize their books in a way that makes it easy (or at least possible) for things to be found. You should not feel that you are under any such commitment. It is good to be able to find the book you are looking for – but it can be just as good to find other books instead. Besides, you can always rearrange your books again.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. (New York: Schocken Books, 2007). – the quote at the beginning of this piece appears on page 63 in the essay Unpacking My Library.

Tzara, Tristan. Seven Dada Manifestoes and Lampisteries. London: Calder Publications, 2003.

More Advice!

How to Avoid Ruining a Book

How to Sleep in a Library

How to Read a Large Book on Crowded Public Transit

Image Note – the beautiful picture of a library at the top of this post is by Ralf Roletschek. It was posted on Wikipedia under a GNU license.


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

19 comments on “How to Organize Your Library

  1. Lunar Euphoria
    August 6, 2015

    My collection is organized in horizontal stacks (piles) chronologically…looking for a book is akin going on an archeological dig.

  2. Blogueuse Pro
    August 6, 2015

    Merci pour ton blog, hyper sympas es très bien réaliser 🙂

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  9. Ellen Mandeville
    May 14, 2018

    Well. Reading this was much more entertaining than actually organizing my books.

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This entry was posted on August 5, 2015 by in Books, Librarianship, Libraries and tagged , , , , .

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