How to Organize Books

bookshelves lining the walls in every room of the house

Maybe it’s because I live in a bubble, the college-town-artsy-fartsy-why-doesn’t-everyone-think-like-we-do? sort of a bubble (as opposed to the just-folks-heartland-we-know-what’s-going-on-thank-you-very-much bubble).

But we have a contentious and incredibly polarizing election coming up, and in my particular bubble almost every day I hear, “If he wins, I’m outta here.” Maybe in your particular bubble you hear, “If she wins, I’m outta here.”

Perhaps they don’t really mean they’re literally leaving the U.S. But the question that always comes to my mind is, “How on earth you going to do that?”

Footloose and fancy free? It’s been a while. You’ve got a house full of stuff, an office full of paper, a storage unit (or two or three) full of more stuff and the basement, attic and garage are filled to the rafters too.  And in our particular bubble here in Boulder County, I’m willing to bet good money that books are a large part of your stuff. Kindles and other readers are all well and good, we often have those too, but we hold onto our books for dear life.

We often put books in a special category of their own, treating them almost like sacred objects.

Don’t get me wrong. I love books and I have plenty. At one point there were thousands and thousands of books in my home. I once casually remarked to my Dad that I was going to stop buying books until I’d read all the books I already had. “Oh, I hope not!” he said in dismay.

He was thinking of all the treasures out there just waiting for me to come across them in a library bookstore or a secondhand book shop. I grew up forever running to catch up with him as he strode across the back alleys and gritty streets of Manchester, doing the circuit of used book stores, finding gems to add to his ever growing collection and always making sure I got to choose a book for myself along the way.

But after packing countless boxes of books and then unpacking them move after move after move, I started to wonder why I was holding onto them all.

Was it because I was scared I’d never be able to read them again? Books are everywhere. The library, the bookstore, the Amazons.

Was it because I was scared I’d forget about them? Many of the books were “going to read” books picked up here and there and carted around without ever actually being cracked. Goodreads changed that for me – I keep a “shelf” of books to read there and can browse it anytime I’m wondering what to read next.

Was it because they were part of my identity? I guess I think of myself as a smart person who lives near an artsy-fartsy college town. Of course I love books and reading. But does that mean I need to maintain a branch of the Library of Congress in my living room just in case they ever run out of space in D.C.?

Were all those out of date textbooks on music theory and history there to prove that I went to college? The cookbooks I collected somehow as good as being able to actually cook?

Many of those books hadn’t been opened in years, if not decades. I’d loved them and wanted my kids to read them too. Yet to the kids, they were just part of the furniture. They’d seen the titles on the shelves their whole lives and had no curiosity at all about what lay within the dusty yellowing pages. They were drawn to their own books, their own finds, their own treasures.

homeworkPart of the joy for me had been finding those books myself, I don’t know why I thought it would be different for them.

Yes, books can bring connection, meaning, pure joy. There are a handful that I’ll always want to have near me. But there are many more that were either transitory pleasures, charming me for an afternoon and then dropping out of recall or belonged to someone I no longer am. I read everything Thomas Wolfe ever wrote and loved every word in my angsty twenties but I’ll never read them again. Same with those No. 1 Detective Agency books that were wonderful escapism for a few minutes when my babies were napping. Great, totally forgettable fun. I don’t need to keep a shrine to my previous lives.

How to declutter books

Gather your books. It helps if you have all your books in the same room. I know for many of you, that’s funny. But if that’s the case, it still helps to have all the same type of book together. So let’s do the Organize-Declutter-Organize dance. Bring all the sci-fi together, all the gardening books together, all the fiction in one room. If a category like fiction is too big, break it down. All the John Steinbeck here, all the Jane Austen there.

Assess the casualties. Pull out any books which are missing pages, severely water-damaged or otherwise unreadable. Take them to eco-cycle for recycling.

Pull out duplicates. Pick your favorite copy (most likely the one with the larger print) and set the others aside in your declutter spot.

Pick favorites. These are the books that bring you absolute and utter joy. Remember not to confuse this with books you enjoyed, books you liked, books that were fun for an afternoon. These are the absolute keepers. If you had just one shelf in a one room studio apartment for books, these would make the cut.

Deciding about the rest of your books

Keep those you love, want and need as space allows. Make decisions about keeping books based on your life as it is now, not as it was and not as you wish it were. Maybe you want to be the kind of person who reads poetry in the twilight but in reality you love Twilight a whole lot more. No judgment, just be real about who you are. You don’t need to keep the props for an alternative life.

Where to donate books

If you’re not keeping it because it’s in poor, unreadable shape, either toss it in the recycling (paperbacks) or send it to eco-cycle.

If you think a book is valuable, you can try to sell it online. Remember that selling it means getting it out of the house, not setting it aside to sell on eBay “someday”. I promise not to say “I told you so” when you figure out your meager hourly rate. If you make a lot of money, you can tell me how wrong I was.

Take your collection to the Bookworm in Boulder to trade for store credit.

If you love library bookstores, take your collection there. Be prepared for them to save the books for their store or annual book sale. Most libraries don’t put donations on the shelves.

Don’t forget your local thrift store. Goodwill, ARC Thrift, and many others put the books right on the shelves here in town.

Ask local schools and teachers if they would like donations. Understand that they most likely will want new books rather than used.

Look for a “little library”: find one near you here.

Send it out into the world either officially through an organization like BookCrossing or informally by leaving it in a dentist’s waiting room or on a park bench. Be judicious about the books you leave, remembering that absolutely anyone of any age could pick them up.

You can also mail book donations to Books Through Bars, Books for Africa and Operation Paperback. Although you can save a little on postage by using media mail, this is a fairly cost-prohibitive option since books are heavy.

Once you’ve decluttered, it’s time to organize your books

organized bookshelfThe first step is to think about what your books are for. Yes, they’re for reading and referring to, but many people use them primarily to make their space look cozy and welcoming.

If that’s you, then approach the task from a design perspective and group them in the most visually pleasing way. Alternate upright with horizontal stacking until you find what looks best to you.

Don’t be afraid to leave spaces to add a beautiful vase or basket, a selection of framed photographs or whatever you think will add beauty to the shelf. You’ll find yourself grouping books by size, perhaps by color too. The overall visual effect will be what you’re after, not so much easy access to the books themselves.

Organizing strategies when you want to read the books not just look at them

If you love your books for their contents and refer to them frequently, then the best way to organize books is the one that means you can find any book you’re looking for.

Perhaps that means you go with the Dewey Decimal system, a highly detailed way of categorizing books common to most libraries. But most of us don’t need to run such a tight ship.

No matter how many books you have, the bookstore model is often the easiest to set up and to maintain.

What is the Bookstore Model?

Imagine walking into Barnes and Noble. You want to pick up a book on, say, beetles. So you’d head for the Animals section, and then you’d look for the Insects section. Most likely that section would then be organized alphabetically by insect. And if you had a specific author in mind, the books on Beetles would most likely be further organized alphabetically by the author’s last name.

At home, you’d only take that last step if it was important to you. Ask yourself which will be quicker and less stressful, maintaining a category in alphabetical order or scanning a shelf quickly to find the right book?

Using the bookstore model means you group your book collection into broad themes which make sense to YOU and your collection of books.

Now they’re organized, where do the books go?

The best place to keep books is right where you read them. Perhaps you start off everyday in your reading chair with a cup of tea  and a chapter of your favorite detective story. So the mysteries go in a pile or on a shelf next to the reading chair.

And you like to unwind by reading books about geometry while you take your bath. Geometry books go in the bathroom then.

Cookbooks might go in the kitchen if that’s where you use them. But they might also go in the family room by your favorite chair because that’s where you like to browse through them. Or they might be best in the laundry room, because you like to pick out the menu while you’re waiting for the dryer to finish up.

Like so many organizing projects, it’s a matter of putting things where you use them, not where you think you ought to use them.

A Little Action Step to Try

Which books would you keep if you were going to only choose 10? Although you most likely will never own so few physical books, the act of thinking this through will help you discern which books you want to keep and which books have had their time in your space.

© 2013 – 2016 Joyful Surroundings LLC. All rights reserved.


Joyful Surroundings LLC – taming paper, clearing clutter, organizing homes and changing lives

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8 thoughts on “How to Organize Books

  1. Adding to Seana’s thought, even if the book is signed it may be worth little if the author signed thousands of them and a bunch of them are on the market! Or, if it’s a first edition but in terrible condition. My job as a Friends for the Library volunteer is to look up old, donated, possibly-collectible children’s books to see if they’re worth “real money”. If they aren’t (which is most of them) we price them at 10 or 20% of their current perceived value and sell them at our monthly sale, or in the library used bookshop. If they are valuable we sell them on eBay or Amazon. The websites I use to determine value are abebooks.com and bookfinder.com.

  2. I had a chance to hear an appraiser talk about books over the weekend. I was surprised to learn that in terms of financial value, the secret is to have a first edition, preferably signed. Just because a book is very old doesn’t mean it has any value, so if it isn’t unique and you don’t want to look at it or read it, let it go!

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