How to set up a home library when I can't buy all new shelves
August 21, 2014 3:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm moving my approximately 900 books to a new apartment and will be combining them with my fiancee's books. I need tips for organization.

I'm going to "shelfread" the collection and update my LibraryThing so that it matches what I have. (I've found there are some errors, e.g. books I've sold, but still have listed) But I'm at the point in size (and my memory capacity) where I can't always easily find books that I can tell from LibraryThing that I have. I think I need a more rigid organization system to keep things organized.

Any tips? Ideally, I'd buy enough large spaced shelves to shelve everything in LC order, but that's not really in the budget, though I hope to buy enough additional shelving to get everything single shelved and not crammed together. But, they'll have to be organized by size to some extent at least because some of the existing shelving is small.

I suppose I could mark in LibraryThing which shelf things go on? How should I mark this in the books? I'm thinking bookmarks with the shelf codes written on them? Does this seem like a reasonable system?
posted by Jahaza to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Use colored stickers on the shelf fronts to make color zones. Then add the stickers to the books - either inside the cover, outside, or bookmarks. Then finally add the color as a tag in your library database.

The advantage of colored stickers is they don't relate to the book subject/author/name in any way, they are purely a physical reference. And if you use bookmarks, then you both always have a bookmark, and it's easy to move books to a new zone by just swapping the bookmark (use a paperclip so the bookmark isn't easily lost during reading?).

I'd also print out a physical index, with 3 versions - author, title, and subject - that you keep in the room so you can still find the books even when you don't have your software available.

Because you have limited shelf space, any system you choose should be relatively easy to shuffle books around, and not cause problems if authors, titles, and subjects are not arranged in any order. Otherwise when the cookbook section outgrows its current shelf and needs two shelves, you have to shuffle a lot of things to keep it together when you move it.

But if you just have colored tags, then cookbooks can be placed anywhere and you use your index to browse and find them...
posted by jpeacock at 3:41 PM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hi. I'm a professional cataloger, with the same size collection as you at home. My husband wanted me to catalog our library, and I laughed, with a collection that size it's generally not worth doing anything formal.

That said, there is plenty of in-between to work with. In my personal collection, things are arranged loosely by subject. On the left, I have a shelf for music and art, and a shelf for domestic things (cooking, gardening, home repair), a shelf for language and travel, things that just seemed to make sense. On the right I have fiction: genre fiction on the top, pulp fiction on the bottom (where my toddler can get to it, that's the stuff I don't care about), straight up literature in the middle. With half a shelf dedicated to poetry and plays. Within those smaller collections, it's easier to see and find what I have. I have found that I don't really need anything beyond that. Really, for a collection of under 1,000 books, things are pretty findable with simple arrangement.

One thing you could do that is quick and easy and doesn't require making up a special label for each book: take a classification system (here is Dewey; here is LC , here is BISAC, personally I think LC might be the least useful of the three for a home library) and assign a color to each class, then mark the spine of each book with a little bit of colored tape. (example: purple is history/900/D,E,F) If you find you have less colors than categories, you can use two-color combos to achieve a simple visual classification. Just print out your classification scheme and put tape on it to make a quick key.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 3:43 PM on August 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Speaking from experience, you will need to run any system you decide upon past your fiancee. Make sure you are both onboard with the system and commit to keeping to it. Anne Fadiman has a great essay in "Ex LIbris" on what it is like to merge libraries.

Having said that, I would be tempted to colour-code books and shelves.
posted by kariebookish at 3:44 PM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is there a reason why just alphabetizing them by author won't work? I have a few thousand more books than you and I find it manageable. I integrate fiction and nonfiction. I have separate sections for a few subject collections and anthologies. It is a hassle to add new books - I usually do so once every couple months and it takes a while to shift everything around - but I can't imagine a more intuitive system.
posted by vathek at 4:04 PM on August 21, 2014

I'd cull them and send at least half of it to your local library.

Then arrange them by color. It's an interesting look.,

Or separate by color and put them in rooms to compliment the decor. Black books in one room, white in another, red/orange in the bathroom.

Whatever works.

But seriously, I love books as much as the next person, but I bit the bullet and got rid of a TON of them and it's absolutely delicious!

Reward yourself with an eReader.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:05 PM on August 21, 2014

Then arrange them by color. It's an interesting look.

I do this. I can often remember what color my books are. Unless your books are wildly different sizes, it's tough to make an argument that you need to have super-compact shelving and organize primarily by size. You just don't have that many books. I also second reading the Fadiman article.

I'm a lumper. So while I have the one shelf that's really by color, for guests, I also have biggish categories and put things into those. You have to ask yourself what your main priorities are. Finding books? Putting everything in the smallest possible space? Having like books near each other? Start from there and work outwards. My categories are: paperback fiction (mostly the same size), Vermont books, library themed books, blogging themed books, big books that are unwieldy, graphic novels, old books, reference books, stuff written by me or by friends, a few random areas of non-fiction. I can usually nail down where most stuff is knowing where those general categories are.
posted by jessamyn at 4:44 PM on August 21, 2014

I would actually say don't arrange by color. We don't have nearly as many books as you do (many moves and tiny apartments means we have cut our collection considerably) but we decided to do this in an Ikea Expedit 4x2. It looks nice but I can't find anything! I often can't figure out if I gave a book away or I just can't find it!
posted by radioamy at 4:46 PM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

My books are organized by genre (SF, other fiction, travel, humor, science, art, reference), sorted within each genre alphabetically by author. This was not hard to set up, and finding a book on a shelf is not hard.
posted by adamrice at 4:51 PM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding rabbitrabbit. I'm a technical/software specialist in an academic library, and have maybe half again as many books as you do. Even though I have the know-how to set up a catalog, I haven't, and I can pretty easily lay my hand on any book in seconds just by shelving them in loose, unlabeled categories: speculative/weird fiction, cookbooks, the history of science, etc. Books only go missing when they escape from my system, to a friend's house, or under the couch--something that's a real problem in libraries, too.

Catalogs are purely functional things: they are only worthwhile when the work of cataloging is less than the work of not having a formal catalog. You probably aren't at that point.
posted by pullayup at 7:25 PM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I feel like I was a bit dismissive of your concern about finding books, so I want to clarify my system a bit, because it really is a system:

First off, I do separate fiction and non-fiction. Keep in mind that libraries only really shelve non-fiction by category: fiction is alphabetical by author, perhaps with a few other divisions (science fiction, mystery, other languages): the works of Borges or Le Guin shelved together, etc. The catalog can be used to look up fiction by topic, but that's not what you want; you know the book you need and simply want to find it.

If your collection is mostly fiction (like most people with a lot of books--mine is probably 60/40) you can just alphabetize that portion, maybe in two or three categories if you have them. Then, split the nonfiction into whatever categories make most sense to you, because that's what you will remember best. Now instead of finding one book in 900, you might be looking for one in fifty or seventy.
posted by pullayup at 7:53 PM on August 21, 2014

Response by poster: I find having a catalog is necessary because I access it on my phone to avoid opportunisticly buying books over again that I already own, something I used to do fairly often before I started using librarything.

So I already have a catalog for other purposes, so the question is really about linking the catalog to physical space. The color coded shelves is a really good idea.
posted by Jahaza at 8:45 PM on August 21, 2014

After many years of working in bookstores, the fiction is alphabetical by author, the rest is by category, with a generics non-fiction sections.
posted by theora55 at 10:31 PM on August 21, 2014

I organize my books by topic. Most of them are fiction, but I have a "modernists" section, a "recent literary hotshots" section, a "Edwardian/Victorian novels" section, etc. For non-fiction, I have really obvious/basic sections, like "human rights" or "economics" or "travel" or "reference" (for dictionaries and things like that). Within each section, I try to keep the works of a particular writer together, and I also try to keep works about a specific topic together (so, for example, my travel guides and histories of different regions of India are together within the larger "travel" section).

I sort the books into the sections intuitively so I'm not sure how obvious the categorization to anyone but me would be (thinking of your fiancee here, who I assume will also want to be able to find books!). However, I've found that to be the easiest way to organize books. If someone asks if I have a particular mystery or any works by XYZ author, I can just go over to that section and check within seconds.

Since it's a fundamentally visual system, I don't have a written catelogue. If you need one, you could either take pictures of the different sections with you phone so that you can flip through them at the bookstore if necessary, or you could write out lists of each section (similar to the color-coding idea that jpeacock had, though I don't think that color-coding is necessary if your books are already sectioned up by subject. You don't have to label a section "red," you can just label it "Modernists" or "Travel" or whatever, and you'll probably have a firmer and more intuitive grasp of what's in that section anyway).
posted by rue72 at 10:26 AM on August 22, 2014

I once color-coded my shelves and I loved it. But I'm pretty visual and have a fairly good idea of what the cover of the book I was looking for looked like. (I also didn't bother with the mass marker paperbacks, and kept the fiction and nonfiction separate.)

Once I got married, my husband said he'd be happy with any organization system I wanted except for by color, as he wanted to be able to find his books, so I picked Dewey Decimal for the nonfiction, as we didn't have enough to make LoC worthwhile. We use shelf markers similar to these, and just write the subject onto it in Sharpie. Fiction stays in a different area, all by author name since it's 75% fantasy and science fiction, 20% mystery and 5% other, so there's not much point in separating it by genre.

Back when I lived alone, before I arranged my books by color, I left them the way they were put onto the shelves by a friend of mine who helped me unpack, who put them in rough subject order based on what she guessed the subject was from the title. So the psychiatric therapy book The Mummy at the Dining Room Table got shelved next to Egyptian Mummies: Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Art. And I found that I also loved that system, as I could always find books I'd forgotten about while browsing the shelves for something else. But again: visual memory, so I usually had a rough idea of where a book ought to be (and the browsing would remind me of other books in that area, so my memory was always refreshing).
posted by telophase at 11:32 AM on August 22, 2014

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