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How to Create a Library Organization System

Updated on August 18, 2016

When I recently moved into and re-vamped my new apartment, I knew that one of the first things I wanted to do was turn one of the bedrooms into a library. But I had no idea where to start! I knew I wanted to make things easy to find, visually pleasing, and easy to keep in order. I also knew I was a book-hoarder who constantly found herself living amongst piles and piles of new acquisitions. So I embarked on creating a unique organizational system to help put my personal books in order.

My newly organized library!
My newly organized library!

Step One: Take Inventory

I didn't take a literal inventory of my books, but for those who may have fewer books or more specific needs, creating a spreadsheet where you list all your books may be helpful. I mostly just strived to answer a series of questions which would get me more familiar with my book collection.

  1. How many books do you have? (This can be approximate) Going into this, I thought I had about 150 books. It turned out that I had closer to 600 books! Figuring out exactly how many books I had better helped me determine how much space I needed.
  2. What kind of books do you have? If you have mostly fiction, alphabetical organization by author may be helpful; however, if you have mostly non-fiction, a subject-based organizational system may work out better. Try to get an idea of what kind of books dominate your collection. I turned out to have a relatively equal number of fiction and non-fiction books, which was convenient as I was able to split these two broad categories into separate bookshelves.
  3. What purpose do your books serve? This may seem obvious: you read them! However, different libraries have different functions and thus a different flow. If you do a lot of research, your library will look different than if you simply read for pleasure.

Which books do you have more of?

See results

Step Two: Get to Sorting

Start to sort your books into categories based on your answers above. Below you'll find descriptions of my categories, as well as how they're organized within that category. This isn't meant to be prescriptive, but simply to show one way of working through this problem.

Fiction

Divided into two categories:

  1. Already read
  2. Unread

Within those categories, these books are alphabetized by author.

Nonfiction

These books are divided into several categories. Within these categories, they are clumped by subject.

  1. Poetry
  2. Religion
  3. Philosophy
  4. Politics
  5. Literary Theory
  6. Gender Theory and Feminism
  7. Biography
  8. Memoir
  9. Essays
  10. Science

My Zelda-inspired research shelf (The card in the middle is a print of a painting by Zelda herself!)
My Zelda-inspired research shelf (The card in the middle is a print of a painting by Zelda herself!)

Step Three: Re-evaluate

After I began sorting my books into the categories above, I realized that I had a couple of "special" categories of books that I wanted to keep together. These were as follows:

  1. Books about my research topic: I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on Zelda Fitzgerald, and I have many books about modernism, post-modernism, Zelda and Scott, and Ernest Hemingway, as well as many texts by both the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway that are related to my topic. As I'm working on revising this thesis, I wanted to keep these easily accessible (not split up among fiction and non-fiction). As such, I selected a center bookshelf that was reachable from my desk chair for these books.
  2. Signed books: I have about ten signed copies of books from various events. I decided to display these prominently in the living room as opposed to putting them into the bookshelves with the rest of my books. (Which will prevent me from accidentally giving away my signed copies!)
  3. Books I'm currently reading, or books that I want to read soon: Because I tend to be reading many books at once, and am always thinking of what I want to read next, I decided to find a dedicated spot in the entertainment center in the living room to put my "on deck" stack of books.

Another re-evaluation I had to do was related to my height. I'm about 5 feet tall, and as a result cannot reach the top shelves of my library. Luckily, this one had an easy solution: my partner is about ten inches taller than me (and less of a book hoarder), so I gave him the top shelves for his books!

My display of signed books (topped with a hat from the Strand bookstore in NYC)
My display of signed books (topped with a hat from the Strand bookstore in NYC)

Step Four: Keep It Up

If you're a book lover, you will inevitably get more books, whether as gifts or through your own lack-of-willpower in the bookstore (or the airport, as happened to me this past weekend). Don't simply leave these books stacked around your room! Add them into your organizational system as they enter your life. This will help you keep things organize, as well as make you realize when your system may need a tinker (as when you're going through a series-reading binge and you need a place to keep all your Harry Potter books together).

As the picture below proves, this is easier said than done (my birthday was last month!).

Stack of acquisitions from my birthday that still need to be shelved (oops!)
Stack of acquisitions from my birthday that still need to be shelved (oops!)

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