Technology has allowed us to read from our computers, tablets, and smartphones, but nothing beats flipping through the pages of an actual book. With an increase in print book sales by more than eight percent in 2020 — and book clubs becoming a popular way for friends local and afar to get together virtually — now’s a great time to assess your home library and organize your bookshelf. Whether you’re a longtime book collector or an occasional reader, arranging your books is a deeply personal activity. There’s no single “best” way to do it, and many famous writers and bibliophiles have admitted to wildly different organizing systems. Here, we’ll offer a few bookshelf ideas for your home library to help you get started.
1. Keep Track of the Books in Your Home Library
First thing’s first: it’s helpful to have a record of exactly what books are in your home library, regardless of how many you own. This can begin in a notebook or a spreadsheet if your collection is small, but avid collectors may find themselves with more books than they can mentally keep track of (or experiencing tsunduko, a Japanese word that means “acquiring books and letting them pile up without reading them”). Cataloging your books on a digital platform can be a convenient way to manage your own personal library, and many apps allow for sorting, ranking, sharing, and tagging your media. Libib, for instance, is a cloud platform that allows you to categorize your books (and movies, records, etc.) via tags. It’s a free tool for up to 5,000 entries, which should suit most home library needs. LibraryThing, a completely free platform, can connect you to more than two million readers and offers library-quality cataloging. Another option is Book Crawler, a portable tool that is accessible by mobile app and desktop as well as offers ISBN barcode scanning capabilities.
2. Donate, Regift or Store the Books You Don’t Need
As you assess and catalog your books, set aside the ones that you’re happy to part with. From there, you can create three distinct piles:
- Free-for-all books to place on a coffee table or a section of your bookshelf for guests to take from when they visit (when it’s safe to do);
- Books you want to donate or resell; and
- Books you plan on regifting for birthdays or the holidays.
While the Salvation Army and Goodwill are great places to donate reading materials, there are many other organizations and literacy projects that accept books, including your library (call first!), Prison Book Programs, retirement homes, and Better World Books. You can also think about setting up a self-replenishing Free Little Library in your neighborhood. If there are books you’d like to hold on to but are taking up too much space in your small apartment or home, you can move them into your garage or separate storage space to keep them safe.
3. Organize Your Home Library Bookshelves
Once you’re left with the books you’d like to keep in your home, you have several options. Let’s go over a few of the most popular organizing strategies and bookshelf ideas.
By Category and Genre
Much like a public library, you can arrange “likes with likes.” Divide your books by category first — fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and reference materials like dictionaries or encyclopedias. If your collection is large, you can get more granular. Fiction, for example, can be further broken down by genre into romance, historical, literary, mystery, science-fiction, speculative; and nonfiction can be subdivided into art, biographies, travel, history, and more. Once you have your piles in front of you, you have two choices:
- Alphabetical organization. Within each category and genre, arrange your books alphabetically according to the author’s last name. This is the standard and most common practice.
- Chronological organization. If you’re a serious literary nerd, you may want to keep your books chronologically, as did the late writer and cultural critic Susan Sontag. If you have books from different countries or languages, keep them in separate sections.
Organizing your home library by book jacket colors is a bold move, but there are notable writers (like Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon) who’ve done it. Color-coding means that you’ll have an aesthetically distinct setup, but you may need to do a bit of extra behind-the-scenes work in your cataloguing app or spreadsheet to keep track of where exactly each book is. (For example, if your books are typed out in a spreadsheet, you may want to have sheets or sections for each color, with books of that color listed underneath. When you need to find a specific book, you can simply do a quick search in the spreadsheet, and head to the respective color-coded shelf.)
4. Other Bookshelf Ideas and Tips
Your bookshelf will develop its own unique organizational needs based on your reading habits and preferences. Down the line, you may find that it’s helpful to have a section for books you own, but haven’t read yet (and plan on cracking open in the near future). You may also consider dedicating a section to books you want to lend to friends, or a “most-read” or “frequently accessed” shelf for the books you reach for most often. The most important thing is to find a system that works or makes sense for you, that keeps you engaged with your books and helps you know where they are when you need them.