How To Organize A Bookshelf

Clients regularly ask for advice on ways to organize their bookshelves. There is no absolute “right way” to do it at home, but there are systems available depending on how many you own. First of all, decide how you want to organize your collection.

There are many ways to organize books. Common ways are by size, subject, titles, author, genre and then by author, color, reading level, Dewey Decimal system, and the Library of Congress Classification system. If you do not care much for the fancy stuff, do a basic bookshelf clean-up and organization:

  • Using a nearby table or the floor, remove all decorations, pieces of paper, and nic nacs from the shelf. Sort into groups of like items as you go.
  • Remove all books and as you go, sort into basic topics of your choosing. Set aside any you no longer want.
  • Clean the bookshelf. This may be your only chance for a while.
  • Put books back onto the shelf according to the topics you chose. Experiment with placing them vertically and horizontally for aesthetics and space maximizing.
  • Replace decorations or nic nacs you want on the shelf.
  • Find another home for excess nic nacs and miscellany. This is a good time to purge and donate.
  • Recycle unwanted papers or find a home for them elsewhere if they do not belong on the shelf.

If you only have a handful of books, you do not need a detailed organizing system. Have a little fun and organize by color. If you have tens or hundreds, a simple way to organize is by subject, size or both. Sub-organizing by color can be an interesting decorative addition. Here is how we do it at home…

Subject | size | color

We have under 200 books on our 3.5′ wide x 4.5′ tall bookshelf. They are categorized by general subjects, but not much else. We are happy enough they are all in one place and not scattered around the house in different rooms.

The subjects we have books separated into are:

  • Hiking/Outdoors/Travel
  • Art Books
  • How-To Books
  • Spiritual Learning / Self-Help
  • Fiction
  • Non-fiction (other than categories listed above)
bookshelf-organizing-whole

An organized bookshelf (BEFORE)

That’s it! If we have a book unique to any above we just pop it in wherever it makes the most sense, and miraculously can find it in a flash. We can find a book quickly because of the subject categories we created.

In addition to subjects, we place books according to their size: tall books on the left and shorter books as you move to the right OR tall books on the right and shorter books as you move to the left…we make the decision based off whatever looks most pleasing.

Speaking of pleasing, let’s rearrange and decorate a bit using things from around the house. Except for the magical wands in the vase that are souvenirs from the Big Sur Fashion Show, all decorations are a gift from a friend or family member.

decorated-bookcase-7

An organized and decorated bookcase (AFTER)

Next, we organize books within each subject category by shades of color, with priority given to the size of the book. I consider this color organizing a fun fine tuning. It’s not according to any particular color chart, just similar colors and matching shades. Experiment and get creative with how you organize by color. It is all about YOU.

bookshelf-organizing-3

If you want to further organize books by type, start with the general book subject, then split it into subgroups. For example, cookbooks can be organized by cuisine type: American, French, Italian, Mexican, Thai, etc. Subtopics can be as specific as carnivore, pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan, etc.

author | book title

You can also categorize books alphabetically by author and/or title. In this case it helps to be familiar with who wrote the book and the exact title when you want to find it (is it called “Ultimate Field Guide to Photography” or “The Ultimate Field Guide to Photography”? Either of these ways can be useful and pleasing, you just need to spend a little more time setting up the system and putting books back in the correct spot. Tip: Horizontally lay a book down next to the one you are grabbing and you will be able to return it to its’ home faster.

over-sized books

Drats! What can one do? These are books that are too long or tall to fit normally on a shelf with others, and we have A LOT of them due to the artist in the house. We have little choice when it comes to oversized books since the shelves are not adjustable. Luckily, the large books do not bother us enough to buy a different shelf. We like the simple and natural look of this one that Jon has had since college.

A stack of books lays horizontally for aesthetics and space maximizing. Can you tell someone is an artist?

A stack of books lays horizontally for aesthetics and space maximizing. Can you tell someone is an artist?

Quite often large books will need to lay horizontally to fit on a shelf. Only in this case will I mix book topics together. I may also place a couple of the most interesting oversized books on the coffee table, changing them out every once in a while. My own personalized “Coffee Table Books.” It is nice for guests, and a great way to remember to glance through the books we have.

decorated-bookcase-4

TIP: Store large, heavier books on lower shelves to prevent them from falling and hurting someone, particularly when kids with little grabby hands are around the house.

dewey decimal system | library of congress

If you have THOUSANDS of books at home, you may want to use the Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress (LC) system. For this caliber of bookshelf organizing, I suggest hiring an experienced librarian. Just walk into a library and ask one if she can use extra cash. You may make a cool new friend. There are a few professional organizers familiar with this system- usually a retired librarian. I, personally, am always ready and eager to neatly organize your books by size, subject, color, author, and/or title.

prevent the house from turning into a library

Too many books in a room becomes visual clutter and makes the space look busy and feel heavy. Think about it: paper is made of WOOD. So many book colors, so many size, shape, and style fonts on book spines…it can make a room feel weighted and uncomfortable.

At our house, we prevent over-accumulation by regularly selling, giving away, or donating books. We only hold onto books in our house if they are of:

  • deep sentimental value
  • high monetary value, or
  • something we regularly refer to such as a favorite hiking, cookbook, or craft book.

We do not keep a book we have read if it is popular and can be found at a library, such as a New York Times best seller. If we have read a best seller, we pass it on to someone and encourage them to pass it on from there. If we really want to read it again, we will check it out from the library… which has yet to happen.

For fun bookshelf organizing and decorating ideas, visit my recent discovery Molly the Pirates’ blog.

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Resources for book selling, give-away, and donations

Sometimes it is easier to get rid of a book you do not need if it can be sold for a good amount of money. Finding out how non-valuable a book is can also help someone let go of it…a win win if you are looking for inspiration to declutter. This can be worth the internet research. Some places to check the value of your books online are:

You can also give away books at:

More Tips

  • For a more formal catalog system, LibraryThing can be used to organize books online while it keeps track of people who read the same things as you. LibraryThing also provides Dewey Decimal numbers, Library of Congress Subject Headings and more.
  • Computer software exists to help organize and track your book collection. For Macs, visit Delicious Library at http://www.delicious-monster.com. For Windows, see All My Books http://www.bolidesoft.com/allmybooks.html. Freeware book management software can be found at Spacejock http://www.spacejock.com/BookDB_Version.html, including full Library Automation packages. Search Google using the search phrase “Free Library Automation Software” for more options.

How do YOU organize your books?

Feel free to share in the comments below.

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READ MORE BELLA ORGANIZING TIPS, IDEAS & TRAVELS HERE.

Isabella Guajardo, also known as Girl With A Truck™, is a professional home organizer and member of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO). Living in Oakland and Monterey, she travels in her truck to work with clients throughout the SF Bay Area, East Bay, South Bay, Silicon Valley, Santa Cruz and Monterey Peninsula. She shares simple and creative ways to stay organized and stylish while reducing, recycling and re-purposing. Join Bella Organizing on Facebook.

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