This weekend I’ll be building faux built-in shelves for my guest bedroom/library with my mom and it has me thinking about the best way to organize my books when I take them back out of their boxes to put them on their new shelves.
Diary of a Bookseller #18
There are a number of different methods of shelf organization, and I have, in turns, tried most of them over the years. Below I recount the five I’ve seen most frequently, and hopefully in the course of doing so, will decide which one to implement this time for my 1,000+ books.
Method 1: Color Coordinating
This one is pretty obvious – you put the books on the shelves in by color. Blue books go with blue books, red with red, etc. The order of the colors, however, is less obvious. While I’ve seen most in rainbow order, you can really do them in whatever order floats your boat – if most of your books are cool colors, start with purple and work backwards, or put your reds with your purples, your yellows with your greens, and your oranges somewhere in between!
Positives: Creates the perfect #shelfie and looks gorgeous on #bookstagram and everyone will tell you how beautiful your shelves are. You can choose to do color gradients, or any other color scheme that strikes your fancy!
Negatives: You won’t be able to find anything if you have a lot of books – you’ll have to make a map, memorize the color spine of every book (which is often different than the cover etched in your brain), and spend a decent amount of time looking for that one particular book you have in your brain to feature in your Insta feed.
Method 2: Size & Height
Sometimes bookshelves come with prefixed shelf heights that can be difficult to change, or shelves get stuck and when you want to reorganize, the books you want to put on a particular shelf don’t fit. Or, if you’re like me, you own a ton of vintage atlases that are all over a foot tall and you don’t have a great place to put them that doesn’t through your entire shelving scheme off. Enter size & height organization! In our old apartment we had a really nice mini built in shelf that was perfect for all of my husband’s mass markets which kept them away from my hardcovers – yes, I’m weirdly anti-mass market.
Positives: You can be flexible with how you organize within the sizes and can implement one of the other organizational methods into this one. This is also one of the best ways to organize if you have a decent signed copy collection – most hardcovers are standard sizes and you can easily shelve them all together.
Negatives: Without a subsystem of organization, you fall into the same trap of the color scheme – if you don’t remember the exact size of a book, it can be difficult to find it if you have a decent number of books. Also, if you don’t have any larger height shelves, stacking things on top of a bookshelf can be the only option for some oversize books.
Method 3: Genre (or Dewey Decimal/LOC/BISAC code)
This is my personal favorite, but also the most involved. The most straight forward way is to do it by age and then by genre. If you’re like me and used to teach middle school, or have children, you probably have books for everyone from young kids to adults. I recommend sorting by age first, then by genre. If you read historical fiction and your husband/partner reads fantasy, you have an easy way to get everyone to their books easily and will eliminate your partner pestering you to grab their book that they cannot find because they don’t understand why you sorted your books the way you do.
I, however, have always taken it a step further. As a former library employee, I learned the Library of Congress (LOC) call number system and almost every book has its LOC on the copyright page. If you’re a frequent public library patron, the Dewey Decimal system will be very familiar to you and it can be comforting to sort your own shelves in the same manner. And if you really want to challenge yourself (though LOC is a right piece of work to do right), you’ll want to look up the BISAC codes for your books (similar to Goodreads shelves) to organize by genre and even by subgenre. BISAC is my current organizational system, but it is difficult to maintain.
Positives: Genre is familiar and easy to navigate. You can set it up like your favorite bookstore or library and it can feel like a safe place. This is by far my favorite way to organize shelves.
Negatives: Initial set up and maintenance can be time consuming and challenging if you’re a Type A perfectionist and overly particular like me. If you don’t work in the book industry, it can be hard to find a reliable source for LOC call numbers and BISAC codes (if any of your books are missing them). Dewey, thankfully, is a bit easier to find thanks to all the public library databases in the world.
Method 4: Personal Favorites
This one is also a popular one I’ve seen – you have your most favorite books together in one place and sort your books based on how much you love them. This is a great system if you tend to hoard all books you’ve ever read, even if you didn’t like them. It’s less great if you only keep books you love, because then it’s like picking your favorite child in deciding which one comes first.
Positives: All your favorite books together all the time! This method can also be applied to other special books – some people keep their book club books separate, signed books separate, etc. which can fill in here.
Negatives: If you don’t have a ton of books and aren’t a book hoarder, there isn’t really much point to organizing this way. If you do, you still have to come up with a sub-system to organize the others.
Method 5: Alphabetical (by Title or Author)
This is by far the most straight forward method of organization, though you will get people debating over where to put number and symbol starting titles if by title, or debating if the “Mc” author should go at the beginning of the “M”s or after the “Mb”s. But other than that, it’s pretty simple: decide on doing it by title or author and shelve accordingly.
Positives: VERY easy to navigate and find the books your looking for, maintenance is also very straight forward and it works with any number of books from 5 to 5,000+!
Negatives: Series can be interesting to try to figure out how to shelves, particularly if you have kids series by multiple authors and you decided to sort by author. But overall, this one has the fewest negatives. So maybe I’ll do it all alphabetically this time… We shall see!