I'm like a cat lady, but with books. Also, not a lady.
January 25, 2006 8:46 AM   Subscribe

How should I organize my personal library?

I have four large bookshelves and several hundred books, currently in boxes. I've put off unpacking them because a) I'm a bit anal about organization, and b) I love my books and want them to look nice and be happy next to each other. I have a decent-sized fiction collection but a rather substantial non-fiction collection as well. I don't feel like simple alphabetical order will cut it anymore, at least not for the non-fiction.

I'd like to start a subject-based hierarchical ordering system, like the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress system (which is what my university's library uses). But if I do this, how do I know where each book goes? And they're only for non-fiction, right? I also know there are "problems" with either system; are there better systems that are as widely used (outside the US, maybe)? Should I just go with LoC for ease of navigation across libraries (again, primarily university libraries)? And lastly, what's the best way to keep things in order across moves? Should I write/stick numbers on the spines as in libraries? Make a note inside the front cover very lightly in pencil? Keep a database on my computer? All three?

I use my library for academic purposes as well as my own writing, both fiction and non. I want it to be both scalable and browseable, such that all the books on serial killers are adjacent, the books on organizational psychology are together and are next to but not mixed in with those on behavioral, social, etc. Thanks for all your help, fellow bibliophiles!
posted by Eideteker to Home & Garden (50 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
This won't help the physical organization of your books, but LibraryThing is an incredible online book cataloguing tool/community.

It's contantly having new features added to it, and will give you both the Dewey number and the Library of Congress number for your books, as well as allowing you to liberally categorize and sort your books with your own tags, as well as Library of Congress categories.
posted by Robot Johnny at 8:53 AM on January 25, 2006

Response by poster: I'm not too keen on anything hosted on a website (plus, I have way more than 200 books, I think). If I keep a listing, it'll be a spreadsheet on my computer, to be later made into an HTML table hosted on my own website (as I've done with my CDs). I can search the LoC listings myself, I suppose. But stuff like my copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra in the original German goes where? Foreign language, or philosophy? Do different editions get filed in different places? I guess that's my call in the end. I'm still interested to hear everyone's opinions on the classification systems and recommendations on how best to organize my books.
posted by Eideteker at 9:03 AM on January 25, 2006

If you go to the Library of Congress Catalog, you can look up LoC numbers for all of your books, but it will be pretty time consuming.

The LoC system catalogs both fiction and non-fiction. For fiction, I believe the top level category is country of origin and then I think it's further divided alphabetically by author.
posted by pombe at 9:04 AM on January 25, 2006

If you only have several hundred books, using a system like LC or Dewey will not be super useful for you. Classification schemes like these are more important for libraries that need to share and be interoperable with other libraries, or for libraries that need to locate one book in a huge collection. You are under no such restriction, so it's important that this library be usable to YOU. You'd be better off with doing some sort of bookstore type organization in conjunction with a solid database of titles to aid with findability. So to that end I'd suggest

- fiction alpha by author
- non-fiction by subject, determined by you. if it were me, I'd then organize these sections by color unless you really think you'd have more than 30-50 books in any one category. eyeballing a shelf is not that hard and much more pleasing if it's color-coded.
- library thing database with tags used for category names allowing you to quickly and easily sort by your categories in an online [or local] fashion. This also gives you a db of your books that you can access when you're NOT home which I think is important.

In short, anal organizing types lose way too much time organizing their collections while they should be using them. Try to make this simple.
posted by jessamyn at 9:05 AM on January 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Mod note: sorry, was writing my post before you reposted, think of a local solution to the DB idea though but think of it as a stand-in for a more libraristic cataloging scheme and likely just as effective
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:06 AM on January 25, 2006

Best answer: Imagine your books are persons. Then arrange them according to the conversations they could have with their neighbors.

Disclaimer: I have not done this myself, but always liked the idea.
posted by AwkwardPause at 9:07 AM on January 25, 2006 [6 favorites]

If you insist on a formal structure and some sort of database, the Library of Congress system will answer just about every single one of your questions above. It's a bit like using a front-end loader to build sandcastles though, it will be a real time sink.

I've got somewhere north of 2000 books at home and I find, segregation into fiction and non-fiction if the first big step. Prose fiction I sort alphabetically by author. Poetry gets a separate shelf, again alphabetic. Non-fiction gets divided by loose subject (travel, work-related, what ever makes sense to you), each subject getting a shelf of two. Non-fiction I don't sort any particular way, but at that point, I've got only a few dozen books per category and it's fairly easy to find something anyway.

The whole arrangement took an afternoon of sorting last time I moved and takes only minutes of consideration when I reshelve or add a new book. Works for me.
posted by bonehead at 9:17 AM on January 25, 2006

I'm running a nearly identical system to Bonehead and heartily endorse it. One bit of advice: build room into each section or subsection.
posted by boombot at 9:21 AM on January 25, 2006

Response by poster: jessamyn: My idea is to spend the initial time organizing so that it's easier to use. I appreciate everyone's comments so far (even Awkward Pause's). Keep 'em coming; I'm going to shut up a bit.
posted by Eideteker at 9:22 AM on January 25, 2006

How about a color based system? Seriously, as long as you have it all plugged into an easily searchable database (maybe with multiple tags), why does it matter? You can just number the books in any order and browse on the database by keywords. "Thus Spake Zarathustra" could have dozens of keywords like Nietzsche, german, zarathustra, philosophy, poets, persian, myths, visionary, morality, etc, etc, etc.

Have fun with it.
posted by JJ86 at 9:25 AM on January 25, 2006

- fiction alpha by author
- non-fiction by subject, determined by you. if it were me,

This is what I do expect for the color part, and I probably have five hundred books. I also find that having a separate "Best of the Best" bookshelf is very nice.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 9:36 AM on January 25, 2006

Sort fiction alphabetically by author? Sheesh. For me that would be useless. I'd have Christie, Hammett, and Poe separated by Fielding and Joyce, instead of having mystery&detective fiction clustered nicely together. Alphabetical by author would put Tom Jones next to Jay Gatsby and James Bond. Might make for an interesting party arrangement, but for someone "a bit anal about organizing", I doubt it's too satisfactory.

I say sort it all by categories of your own invention. Depending on the relative size of the genres in your collection, you could lump all Romance together or have separate bawdy, titillating, and mild categories. Catalog your titles first, and you should see patterns that will lead you to your way of organizing. The patterns you see will be very different from those anybody else might suggest.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 9:58 AM on January 25, 2006

I have a *lot* fewer books than you, but what works for me is ranking by frequency of use/favoriteness (yes, I just made that word up), then by type of book (paperback v. hardbound, with size a consideration), then subject, then author. So all my Poli-Sci books are together, and all my favorite fiction books are together, etc. But there's (as recommended above) a "Best-of" shelf for the various groups, then the others grouped more...sensibly.
posted by fuzzbean at 10:00 AM on January 25, 2006

You're thinking about this too hard.

Look at it this way: How many books can you have lumped in one category and still find the book you want quickly? 20? 100? I suspect the number is closer to 100. If you go over this magic number in a category, then think about sub-categorizing it (and you will probably be informally sub-categorizing before that point). If you can get one category per shelf (or if you get those little shelf dividers) you're ahead of the game.

Ultimately, you need to find books on the shelf. Put them on the shelf in a way that lets you scan them and find them quickly. Don't mess with a database, at least not for this purpose. As I understand it, the main branch of the NY Public Library organizes its books by height, for more efficient storage. This means you need to maintain and refer to a meticulous database to find anything. I don't recommend this approach.

As to packing: If you're a bibliophile, you know where your books fit in your collection. You don't need to remind yourself "Oh yes, this belongs in South American Fiction." You don't need to label them. It's nice if you can box like books with like, but failing to do so will not appreciably increase the amount of time it takes to unpack them or the level of entropy in your organizational system (says the guy who has packed his books twice in one year).
posted by adamrice at 10:04 AM on January 25, 2006

Thomas Jefferson had a unique system for his library, where the books were grouped into three different logical sections.

I thought it was novel, but for the of me I cannot remember the three grouping and I cannot tease it from Google.
posted by unixrat at 10:05 AM on January 25, 2006

For my books (a few hundred volumes) I collected catalog data from the Library of Congress site to populate a MySQL table. While this is useful as a reference database (queries should generally, I think, provide more flexibility than spreadsheet files) it obviously doesn't solve the problem of shelving.

I discovered fairly quickly that arranging books according to LCCN was not a felicitous choice (mainly, I think, due to their varying sizes (it usually isn't very efficient or even attractive to have, for example, a few mass markets mixed in with a shelf of trade paperbacks or larger formats)). As others have said, for your purposes a slightly more personalized method may be necessary. (Also, many people do not have in their own homes, as is common in libraries, a long row of shelves of uniform shape and size; certain consideration may need to be given to location and efficiency.)

I ended up separating books by format; then by fiction and nonfiction, with the former alphabetically (and chronologically within author) and the latter grouped loosely by subject, with each subject located more or less arbitrarily. A lot like bonehead above.

In general: foreign-language texts concerning some subject are just texts on that subject. What real difference does it make which language it's written in?

Still waiting for electronic texts and appropriate hardware for viewing them.

posted by yz at 10:18 AM on January 25, 2006

Best answer: I don't think I would go with LoC, but I just wanted to mention that most books have the LoC call number listed on the copyright page so you wouldn't have to look them all up online.
posted by stopgap at 10:21 AM on January 25, 2006

Best answer: Ah, yes, the problem I face all the time with my library, except that I'm not dealing with several hundred books but several thousand. The life of a bibliophile is hard one, is it not?

I've tried all sorts of classification systems. I've tried Dewey, I've tried LoC, I've tried home-brewed stuff. From my experience, any organization process that requires you to look things up on line is tedious after the first hundred books or so. You may think you have the mental stamina to complete such a task (and perhaps you do), but trust me: it's a pain in the ass.

One reason that categorizing books via online tools is so difficult is that the online catalogs are woefully incomplete. Library Thing is keen in concept, but it seems random as to what categorization information exists in its databases, even for recent books. And for old books? Forget about it. No online system that I've ever used can account for pre-ISBN books (which means, what? books before 1970-something?). If you're like me, you have many books from before the seventies. I have hundreds. I don't know of any on-line system that can handle them efficiently.

How do I organize my library? Very carefully and very carelessly, all at the same time.

It's important to do some advance planning. As jessamyn suggests, Dewey and friends are really only useful to libraries. (Seriously, some of the Dewey classifications are just bizarre. I considered moving to Dewey again in early December, but after going through a few dozen books, I was baffled. My music books, for example, were scattered over call numbers that seemed completely unrelated. I gave up.) What's most important is to find classifications that work for you based on how you access the books.

Using my library as an example, the largest section is fiction. All general fiction is lumped in one place. I'm a science fiction aficionado, so I have almost as many science fiction books as I do general fiction books. These I've removed to a completely separate room. For me, it doesn't make sense to have them together, not even in the same room. Some books — Jonathan Strange, Cloud Atlas, Kurt Vonnegut — still give me trouble, but I can generally remember what sort of judgment calls I've made for each line-straddler.

I also have small subsections for nautical fiction and for adventure fiction (James Bond, the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, etc.). It's fun to have small stacks of books around the house, no?

All my fiction subjects are alphabetical by author.

My nonfiction is mostly lumped together. I've tried to organize this main body of nonfiction by topic, so that my hiking books are all together and my "back to the land" books are all together and my science books are all together. Again, I've pulled some subsections out. I have about eighty cookbooks that live by themselves in one corner of the house. All the gardening books are in one spot. I'm a fan of early American popular music and of the 1920s, so both of these topics have shelves of their own. My writing books and manuals live upstairs by the computer. My photography books and magazines have a separate section.

And, of course, I have to special mini-libraries. My comic book collection (all compilations of various sorts) has a place honor safe from kids, cats, and sunlight. The children's books have their own room. But my favorite bookcase of contains all of Really Good Volumes, the nice-quality hardbacks I've tracked down over the years. Filed according to my normal plan, these would be scattered throughout my library, but I've pulled them all together into one location because they look nice.

These sections all make sense in my mind. They work for me. They're not based on any sort of external classification system. I've tried external classification systems, and they don't work.

My main problem is running out of bookshelf space. My wife won't let me get any more (not that our house could hold them), so for a while I had to put a hold on book acquisition. Though it pained me deeply, I recently went on a purging spree, trying to shut off my emotional centers and just yanking books that I knew I would never read or use or that I was keeping only for sentimental reasons. These books still haven't left the house — they're stacked in boxes in a spare room — but at least they're closer than before, and I've managed to free some shelf space.

Some additional notes:

I've found that it's tedious to keep a computer database of my books. It sounds like a good idea, but it's not. If you have hundreds (or thousands) of books, you're probably acquiring and purging books in large quantities on a regular basis. Keeping a computer database of this inventory is a chore. It sucks.

I used to keep Dewey numbers on the spines of my books, but the stickers ossified with time, became brittle and crumbly, leaving behind a gooey mess on the spines. After a time, I started penciling the Dewey and LoC call numbers in the back of books. This was worthless, though, as the number weren't easily visible. As I've mentioned, I have cast aside any outside classification system.

Another unrelated point: if, like me, you have a large library, and if, like me, you enjoy loaning books to friends, invest in a small stack of library cards. Seriously. You may think that you can remember all your loans in your head, but you can't. You may think that it's easier to track them on the computer, but it's not. Sometimes a pal will ask to borrow a book as he's walking out the door. Rather than run upstairs to type this into a spreadsheet, it's easier to have a stack of library cards sitting by the door so that you can scribble down each book that is borrowed. I've been doing this for several years and it works like a charm.

On preview: If you're a bibliophile, you know where your books fit in your collection. This is very true. Once you've decided what your categories are, it's easy to fit new books into them. You don't even have to think about it.
posted by jdroth at 10:21 AM on January 25, 2006 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have all my books (I have maybe 300?) organized using the Library of Congress system. Previously I had organized my books using my own system (based on categories and authors) but I had some books that were difficult to categorize. (for example, would a women's history book go in the women's studies section or the history section?)

Yes, every book has a label. To make mine, I used 3/4 inch white sticker labels and clear packing tape. I handwrote each label.

Yes, it did take a while- I did it when I was in grad school, during winter break. It was a mindless activity, good to do while watching tv or listening to music/NPR. It took me a couple days, much less time than I thought it would.

In the process, I learned a lot about the LoC system. And when I moved last summer, it was way easier to redo my bookshelves because everything was clearly labeled and had a proper place.

And it looks cool.
posted by elisabeth r at 10:26 AM on January 25, 2006

Oops. I just noticed I missed this part of the question: And lastly, what's the best way to keep things in order across moves?

Once you've decided on a system that works for you, this won't be an issue. When you have a classification system that makes sense, moving is easy. You'll open a box at the new place, and you'll know instinctively where the books go, which belong together, etc.
posted by jdroth at 10:27 AM on January 25, 2006

Had to (or, rather, will have to) flag pombe's comment. I have a bunch of loose ends in my library that are bugging me. Will definitely check LoC.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 10:34 AM on January 25, 2006

Best answer: Of interest also is Clay Shirky's Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags. Again, this is mainly of interest only if your books are digital files and not big, heavy stacks of paper of often arbitrary format.
posted by yz at 10:35 AM on January 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

I have about a thousand books. I've organized it this way:

- fiction is organized alphabetically by author
- non-fiction is organized by subject (i.e., history books on one shelf, reference on another, art on another).
posted by orange swan at 10:40 AM on January 25, 2006

Best answer: First consideration:
If its currently being read it goes to the bedside table.

If it is something that can be a conversation starter or is something i know my friends will likely want to borrow and take with them, is full of pretty pictures, easily browsable -- it goes into the bookshelf in the Living Room for easy visibility.

If it is something definitely worth reading and about medium in depth, but not so cutting edge or topical to merit the Living Room shelf, then it goes into the bookshelf in the guest bedroom. This usually ends up with books that are deeply browsable or easily read in a visit's worth of bedtimes...

That leaves us with the scholarly, the philosophical, the books that require dictionaries to read, the technical, the reference, the unlendable and the like. These go into the Office.

Then in each bookcase, we have to fit the smaller books onto the smaller shelves and the larger books into the larger shelves. At this point arranging which books go next to which other books becomes moot because all my years of librarianism have taught me to find a book in a shelf of 100 in under 60 seconds, easy.

Truth is stranger than fiction, so there is no discrepency between the different genres.

I'd guess we have somewhere in the neighborhood of 300-500 books...for a year and a half we haven't tired of this arrangement yet.
posted by iurodivii at 10:48 AM on January 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty much in agreement with Ghost (and, sort of along the same lines, Awkward Pause, whose characterization of the act I really love). I tend to arrange my books by genre and/or other similarity, but those similarities are more dictated by me than by any established system. The fact that you, Eideteker, talk about books "being happy" says volumes (pun intended, of course). I've always found the process of shelving to be more organic than mechanical (I'd call Dewey Decimal/LOC mechanical).

I don't think I have any alphabetically organized shelves--however, I do have two large cases for poetry and books about writing, a long case mostly for nature, a shortish case for general fiction and memoir, a skinny case for eighteenth and nineteenth century fiction, a tall case for religion/spirituality, and a few other cases divided up by shelf (e.g., one case is threeshelves of contemporary women's fiction, one shelf of world lit and one shelf of science fiction).

The thing is, this arrangement is purely based on my own collection, my own interests, and what fits together within them. I'm willing to go with "what feels right"--and it feels OK to have the science fiction living with the world lit, for instance. I know very few other people who would have two cases full of poetry--but I do, and things like that are really what's influenced my shelving and layout space. I couldn't really feature doing it any other way

(OK, I have to admit I did have a slight jones to arrange them ALL by color when we moved, like this wonderful project, but decided that I'd be happier with my standard cataloguing format.)
posted by dlugoczaj at 10:48 AM on January 25, 2006

Best answer: One small hint - for when you go looking for a book and it isn't in the first place you look: when you do find it, return it to "the first place you looked". It's a better place than where you had it.
posted by mediaddict at 10:53 AM on January 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

A friend did his by color (the rainbow in the den, b/w in the dining room). It was fantastic. I had mine chronologically for a while; it was fascinating to realize that Novel X was written at the same time as Textbook Y.
posted by gleuschk at 11:14 AM on January 25, 2006

When Samuel Pepys, the diarist, bequeathed his 3000 volumes to Magdalen College, he specified they be placed on shelves in custom bookcases he had had built, in order of height, smallest to largest. This pretty much necessitates a catalogue system, but has the advantage of maximizing storage space.
posted by beagle at 11:19 AM on January 25, 2006

Best answer: browseable, such that all the books on serial killers are adjacent, the books on organizational psychology are together and are next to but not mixed in with those on behavioral, social, etc.

This is exactly why libraries use complicated systems of classification, usually LOC or Dewey.

If you have a catalog, especially an electronic, searchable catalog, there is no real reason except browsing for doing more than assigning an accession number and putting the books on the shelf in accession order.

If you truly want scalability, you are going to be better off using an existing, extensible classification. That way, when a new book comes along there is a good place to put it, and when a new category comes along there is a place to put that too. LOC or Dewey would work fine, though there are other more esoteric classification schemes.

Libraries spend a lot of time cataloging (mostly copy cataloging, but that's a different matter), maintaining the catalog database (or card catalog if they are still doing that), labeling, shelving, and reshelving books. It's labor intensive and time consuming, but helpful when you have lots of books, often hundreds of thousands or even millions for large academic libraries and lots of different people coming in to find them.

Unless you either have a very large personal library, a largish collection and a special need for accurate, fast search and retrieval of books, the associated work will take you far more time in set up and maintenance than it saves you. Some people like doing this sort of thing, which makes it worth the effort for them. If you just want something that is browseable but not too labor intensive, just come up with broader categories that suit you then, if you move pack each section in a labeled box.

An example of the sort of personal organization system I mean would be Alistair Cooke's library -- he shelved his books about America geographically: Washington State upper left, New England, upper right, Mid-west somewhere in the middle, and so on. Simple and effective for him, without too much time or thought needed for organization.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 11:22 AM on January 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

I organize fiction into genre categories, but, then, I almost exclusively read genre fiction. Ben Bova certainly does not belong in the same section as Ian Flemming.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:32 AM on January 25, 2006

Thus Spake Zarathustra in the original German goes where? Foreign language, or philosophy? Do different editions get filed in different places?


...Dewey again in early December, but after going through a few dozen books, I was baffled. My music books, for example, were scattered over call numbers that seemed completely unrelated.

These comments lead me to point out that cataloging a library is not really a simple, rote process. Classification relates to what a book is about, but books can be "about" more than one thing, and can indeed be about different things for different readers. The idea is to put the book where most people would look for it, but that is always a judgment call. The catalog helps make up for this deficiency and the related variability .

The beauty of modern computerized catalogs is that you can have as many "access points" -- subjects, authors, contents notes and so on -- as you like, making the main classification less restricting. The fact that I've never seen a really good browse interface on a electronic catalog detracts from this somewhat, but you can't have everything.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 11:42 AM on January 25, 2006

And if you're looking for something to catalogue your books, I've been using Readerware. And if you beg/borrow/*cough*find*cough* a cuecat barcode scanner, you can scan the ISBN, and readerware will search for that book online and get the price and book cover for you.

Really nifty.
posted by Arthur Dent at 11:43 AM on January 25, 2006

5700+ books, cataloged on the aforementioned LibraryThing (here). Multiple rooms involved, as you might guess. With one exception, everything alphabetized by author.

In the house:

Contemporary literary criticism
Literary criticism written in the 19th c. & earlier
Theology & religious history
Biography & autobiography: alpha by subject, with autobiographies & letters preceding biographies of the same person
History written in the 19th c. & earlier
Art history

At work:

Miscellaneous literary criticism (not related to 18th & 19th c. British lit)
History of science
Biographies (of non-Brits)
Freshman comp manuals
Miscellaneous classical, medieval, and world literary texts
Miscellaneous history (non-British)
Miscellaneous literary reference works
Teaching texts

At some point, I may rearrange fiction so that 19th c. fiction occupies its own space.
posted by thomas j wise at 11:50 AM on January 25, 2006

I have about two thousand books in shelves where I live and about twice that in storage. Ask me for one of them and I'll find it to you in and instant (or - a drive and an instant) - it's not that many books!

My system is fairly simple, and similar to some of those mentioned above:
1 a). Fiction -in all languages- alphabetically.
1 b) Poetry& plays
2. Non fiction, organised by subject (languages, classics-related with sub-divisions (architecture, archaeology, history&related, religion in Greece, religion in Rome, food, literature studies, textual critisism....), general history, cookery-related, and categories with less than five books...

And even though I don't quite do like AwkwardPause says, I sometimes wonder whether my fiction books are happy with their neighbours, and what they talk about. Does Tolkien really like Minette Walters? Tried for a while to organise my fiction in groups, sf, crime&mystery and, ummm, the rest, but quite often I didn't agree with myself how to sub-categorise a book, so I decided just to lump them together, Cervantes next to Chandler (imagine those conversations!)
posted by mummimamma at 12:01 PM on January 25, 2006

If you do decide to use LCC or DDC, the call number can often be found in the "Cataloging in Publication" data on the back of the title page.

Also, one note about LCC: the sorting, where numbers are involved, is a bit non-intuitive. The first group of digits after the initial letter(s) should be treated as an integer (A3 comes before A24); all other groups of digits should be sorted as characters (G5 A3 goes after G5 A24).

Thomas Jefferson had a unique system for his library, where the books were grouped into three different logical sections.

Memory (history), Reason (philosophy, law, government, science, geography, etc.), and Imagination (arts, music, literature, etc.) It wasn't original to Jefferson, though--these were Francis Bacon's three "faculties of the mind."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:29 PM on January 25, 2006

I came running in here to mention Readerware, but I see Arthur Dent beat me to it. It's a great program, and even if you don't have a cuecat, you can input ISBNs by hand and it will do the searching. It will also help you keep track of who has your books, if you tend to lend them out.

As far as sorting, it will pull the subject categories from Library of Congress, so you could use those if you wanted to. I found them unnatural, and often completely missing the point of why I bought the book. Instead, I lumped my fiction into a couple broad categories - modern, classic, scifi/fantasy, and alpha sorted that way. Nonfiction, by broad categories that fit on a shelf. So, lots of history books = several separate history categories (women's, ancient, popular, etc), each on a shelf, but just a couple books on art/design means no categories beyond "Art". Once on a shelf, arranged to be pleasing to the eye, since it's just the one shelf I have to search through.
posted by donnagirl at 3:03 PM on January 25, 2006

Best answer: It sounds like you're paralysed by the fear of not getting it right first time, so here's a simple idea. Just get started with some really big, obvious, fat categories (like, 'fiction' and 'non-fiction'), get your books out of the boxes, and shelve them accordingly. Even though they won't be super-organised, they're at least more accessible than when they're in boxes.

In the course of shelving them and, more importantly, using them, your books will start to fall into natural categories in your mind. You'll think "man, it would really make sense if all my psychology books were in one place". Grab those books, put them together, and shove the other ones out of the way.

Later on, you might decide to break that psychology group into a bunch of more detailed categories. Or you might find that you have a bunch of fiction that sits naturally together in your mind. Make it so on your shelves.

You'll gradually organise your library into categories that make sense to you, categories which are divided to just the right depth and level of detail for the profile of your library and the way you use it.

It does sound like a lot of pointless extra work. But there's a certain amount of simple pleasure to be had in physicality of grabbing your books, holding them, piling them, shelving them, sliding them into new juxtapositions. I know I get a huge kick out of it. This way you'll get a chance to do that on a regular basis, and you might even get to know your books better.

And it does sound kinda wishy-washy. But you can satisfy your inner anus (don't worry, I have one too) by realising that you're evolving a self-organising, fractal-like library system. Way cooler than a number system that's set in stone.
posted by chrismear at 4:35 PM on January 25, 2006

(Or, you know, you could just order them autobiographically. This system has the superb advantage that you'll never have to move things around to make space for new books!)
posted by chrismear at 4:39 PM on January 25, 2006

I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned my greatest problem. I have to organize them first by Hardback/trade paper versus paperback smaller shelves can hold paperbacks but have no room for hardbacks. graphic novels are better stacked horizontally so the pages don't curl.

Geometry is my major concern.
posted by Megafly at 6:04 PM on January 25, 2006

Since my books are for me, I order them by what I plan to do with them. Use them for reference, condense into an article, develop course material, read for entertainment, etc.

How about a color based system?

I know one old guy who had quite a large library arranged to his liking, and the new maid came in and reorganized them all by color and size!
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:32 PM on January 25, 2006

Best answer: I have about 3000 books, I guess (really, I haven't counted since 2000, but I seem to have half-agained), roughly half-and-half fiction and non-. I alphebetize the fiction and use LoC numbers (printed out in an appropriately-cell-sized spreadsheet, cut out & taped) for the nonfiction. It makes sense to use the LoC scheme if you're familiar with it, which I was, having spent a lot of time wandering around the library. If you do a lot of academic research, it has the side benefit of keeping you familiar with the system.

The thing I found most important (with any organizational scheme) was having bookshelves big enough for my books. Like Megfly, I've had problems with shelves only big enough for mass-market paperbacks that, according to my organization scheme, needed to have large hardcovers there as well. I solved this by replacing my five or six different kinds of bookcases with one standard when I moved.
posted by fidelity at 8:24 AM on January 26, 2006

We keep the business, science, computer and design books in the office, loosely by subject; the general non-fiction in the living room by LoC, and the fiction in another shelf, alpha by author.

The only person I've ever seen in real life who organized her books by color was COMPLETELY NUTS, and it was just one more red flag (next to the orange flag, obviously) in a long series. Sure, it's organized, but in a completely useless fashion - especially if you have tons of books. And what do you do with gradients?

"Oh, Foucault? History of Sexuality? Look on the periwinkle shelf!" ....Come on!

The only weirder system I've seen in the wild was by publisher... this is all very much a lot of irrelevant metadata to keep track of when you just want to find a book!

That being said, I love awkward pause's solution. Or, you could organize them by the first letter in the text. That would be cool.
posted by mimi at 8:48 AM on January 26, 2006

Ooh! Or by the name of the font used on the spine!
posted by mimi at 8:56 AM on January 26, 2006

Response by poster: Fidelity: I believe those are the shelves I have, with a few of the largest that Staples sells (since I don't there are IKEAs around here; not that I'm IKEA loyal, I just like things standardized).

A few notes, after first thanking everyone who's answered (and anyone yet to answer; you still have 11.97 months left):
+I live in a one-bedroom. I plan to keep all the books in the study/office, since the only thing I do in the bedroom is sleep, watch DVDs, and fold clothes.
+Yes, I'm a student, but also an aspiring academic (which is one reason why scalability is important). That also means I may, at some point, have an academic office, and provided that books are not obsolete/outlawed by that time, I may have to bring them back and forth (without losing them!). It'll also leave me able to find copies of similar books/journals when I go to do research at a library. fidelity and Quinbus seem to have understood this best.
+As jdroth mentioned, a huge percentage of my books are pre- or non-ISBN. I appreciate the suggestions pertaining to ISBNs, but they're almost a trivial part of my collection.
+I really like mediaddict's suggestion, except that yz's link really sums up for me my conundrum. I'd be forever shifting books between two or three different places. Using an external system obviates me of some of the freedom, but also of some of the responsibility/ambiguity. The ideal system would have a copy of the book for each section it belongs to (mirroring a digital storage method, a la Unix, where the spines would only point to the one copy of each book).
+As for the book being exactly where I want it to be, well, it's not that simple. I usually know where to find whatever book I want (which is how I've been using them out of boxes). What I want is related material adjacent, so that if I'm working on a certain topic or report that I can mirror my thinking and move laterally, perhaps to find another way to approach things. I honestly tend to think in manners entirely disjointed, such that reading something about music may remind me of something from evolutionary psychology, but that something might not be in the particular book I'm looking for; there may be a different perspective in another book, or I may not even have a particular book on the subject in mind. I probably should have made that clearer originally (if it's at all clear what I mean here), but I wasn't able to eloquate that until I'd gone through the Ask process.
posted by Eideteker at 9:22 AM on January 26, 2006

I have several thousand books, and I shelve by general categories. This leads to some mash-ups, but not too many, and they are already inherent in the way I think about my books. So, I've got a shelf that has all my books by Aharon Appelfeld, and on one side other writers who wrote about the Holocaust and then other Eastern European fiction, and then, Walter Benjamin, which shades into Gershom Scholem and other Israelis. On the other side of Appelfeld sits books by Coetzee (who I read as very influenced by Appelfeld,m but otherwise would make no sense here), and then books about related to Coetzee. But Coetzee and Appelfeld are linked in my mind, and the shelf makes perfect sense. Much more sense than alphabetical would. I really think this is the best way to handle shelving. There are shelves that are broad categories: psychoanalysis; and shelves that are discreet: Joyce and Proust, but everything is basically by category and the categories are small enough that I need not arrange them internally except by whim.

Also, before you unpack (and during and, again, after) you should read "On Unpacking My Library" by Walter Benjamin. It's collected in Illuminations and in Selected Writings Vol 2.
posted by OmieWise at 11:06 AM on January 26, 2006

I have but one suggestion, which I've implemented and already find to be great: a "things I've not actually read yet but been meaning to" shelf. Independent of subject or author, though I do seperate fiction from non.

It's amazing how many books I forget I have buried away that I really want to read. I can always find something new there, and anything that sits there too long maybe I don't actually want to read...
posted by freebird at 2:18 PM on January 26, 2006

I've got a collection of about 600 books. I tend to organize them roughly as one genre per bookcase with one or two book cases in each room. Then I sort primarily in alphabetical author order then by date or series. Plus then I have a shelf of my favorite books that lives in the living room in a nice bookcase.

I've got a friend who has 1800 books, and one enormous book case in his living room. He tends to sort by author / date where possible (shelf heights!).

Another friend combines his DVD and CD/album collection in with his books so it's a collection of everything cultural put together. Makes for an interesting collection to browse.

As a solution to keeping track of them all I wrote a catalog application that uses cover art to display the collection -- that way I can sort by whatever I like (even color, which looks really cool). One of the more useful features is being able to log a location for each book -- so I enter whichever 'room' it's in, and from there it's usually easy to find.
posted by Reto at 4:44 AM on January 27, 2006

I guess I've got somewhere between 3-4,000 books. I keep them in six of Ikea's tallest 'Billy' bookshelves, with the books stacked two deep on each shelf. There are also some stacked in a Victorian glass fronted display cabinet, and more in a mountain around the bed.

There's no rhyme nor reason behind any of it, and looking for a book I haven't seen in a few years is a struggle. Just last month, I rebought a copy of David Sklansky's 'Theory of Poker' because I was sure that I'd lost my original, only to have it turn up before Amazon delivered my new copy.

I should organize them, but I'd much rather spend the time reading them.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:55 PM on January 27, 2006

I have just enough books not to know where everything is (about 300) and what I did is that I took each book and decided wether it was "red" or "blue". I have my library divided down the middle and red are on one side, blue on he other. Books that are more red go farther from the middle and visa versa. That way if I can't figure out if a book is red or blue I start looking in the middle. I've been thinking about getting stickers for the spines but I haven't gotten around to it yet.
posted by Suparnova at 5:55 AM on February 3, 2006

Categorizing books so i could find them was never an issue with a couple hundred books.

Now with over a thousand, i use fat categories and a fiction/non-fiction divide.

Don't use sticky labels if your books are collectible or you want to preserve their value.

For aesthetics, it's best to group books of similar heights together on a shelf. This makes also for delightful juxtapositions.
posted by storybored at 2:26 PM on February 3, 2006

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