How do I weed my book collection?
December 15, 2007 2:46 PM   Subscribe

Due to space restrictions, how do I bid farewell to my home library?

There's now way around it--stuff has to go.

I have a lot of books (~1000 in a small studio apartment) and I need to free up space. Getting rid of a lot of books is a must. How do I decide what to get rid of?

There are some that just look good on the shelf but I'll never read them again. Then there are some that I may never read again, but I feel a certain degree of affection toward them because I associate periods of my life with them. There are some that I never read but I always intended to. Some of them were timely when published (current affairs type stuff), but they've since lost relevance...but I paid good money for them. I don't have time to sell them all on

I keep telling myself that I don't need to get rid of anything because eventually I'll have a larger home that would fit my library comfortably. That's probably not a healthy outlook and I'm sure professional organizers and therapists would say that you have to accept and work with what you have now.

So how do I begin to weed my library?
posted by oldlies to Grab Bag (36 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
My method, in situations like this, is to perform a thought-experiment:

If the book were stolen from you while you were gone, and you were not informed in any way that it had been stolen, would you miss it?

I get rid of the ones that I would not miss.
posted by jayder at 2:51 PM on December 15, 2007 [5 favorites]

It seems your first category is a good place to start -- those books can't look all that good if they're contributing to clutter. For those books you know you'll never read again, start to look at them as enemies competing with you for a scarce resource (i.e. space!) and realize that you can beat them.
posted by tractorfeed at 2:54 PM on December 15, 2007

Start by getting rid of all of those outdated ones.
It will probably get easier as you go along.
posted by itheearl at 2:56 PM on December 15, 2007

When I did a similar cull before a 3,000 mile move, I had to get good and drunk. That dulled my ego enough to let me get rid of those books that I was keeping around because I thought I was supposed to even though, deep down, I knew I'd never read them again. It also meant that any book I couldn't remember why I was keeping when drunk, I probably didn't need to keep. I had to do a less sentimental pick through later when sober to cull out the ones that only drunk me thought were important, but I ended up cutting the collection in half.

In the three years since then, I've had maybe five or six instances of "Hey, where'd that book go? Oh, yeah, the drunk cull must have claimed it," but frankly, that was less than I expected. It was a horror I never could have faced while sober, sentimental pack rat that I am.
posted by mostlymartha at 2:57 PM on December 15, 2007 [5 favorites]

I needed to move so I sold about 100 of my books on Amazon and made over $1k after shipping and Amazon's cut. It payed the moving expenses, first month's rent, and enough wine to make unpacking pleasurable.

I just decided to be brutal. Would I ever read it again? Will I ever really get around to reading it? Is this stuff even relevant any more? These questions were all answered when I saw how much they were selling for still.

Anything under $5 that was interesting I donated to the library where you can always steel it back.

Enjoy the move.
posted by munchingzombie at 3:02 PM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

You box them and store them in your parents' attic until you have enough room to reshelve them. When you unbox then, you realise that a whole bunch of them can be binned.

(I'm so completely the wrong person to be answering this).

Ok, I recently freed up a couple of shelves by dumping a few kilos of technical books. If you have a lot of non-fiction, I'd start by pruning obsolete and thick.
posted by Leon at 3:08 PM on December 15, 2007

When I cleared out my extensive library, I made a big spreadsheet of each and every book I was getting rid of. Nothing fancy, just a list of author, title and fiction vs non-fiction. Somehow, having the list made it easier for me to say goodbye to them.
posted by browse at 3:15 PM on December 15, 2007

Well, the library's a really good place to store books you don't have room for. You can still go get them whenever you need to, but their not taking up your space.
posted by carolr at 3:16 PM on December 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Go for the books that are in good condition but are also easy to replace (bestsellers and always-popular books, not out-of-print volumes or books with inscriptions). Make a list of them so that you don't forget them - you can always go back and repurchase them later when you live in a bigger space. Then donate these good quality books to somewhere like your local hospital's bookcart or a prison reading program, somewhere where you will feel good about them going to a good cause and improving someone's life.
posted by cadge at 3:47 PM on December 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Toss at a second hand bookstore anything that isn't totally unique or sorta old (you could still go to Amazon and buy it). I've tossed tons of books during 'must move' times. There's only one that I truly miss, a first edition of a Lewis Carrol Logic book.

Today I have a 1984 version of the BSD Unix manual, a 1978 version of "The C Rrograming Language, and "holy crap I picked this up from my apartment's leave shit you don't want on the laundry table for a few days."... a hard copy 1971 NASA SP-246 "Lunar Photographs from Apollos 8, 10, and 11". I would keep these forever! Otherwise it what do you think you couldn't find a version (or even updated version at Amazon or your local bookstore, or somewhere on the internets.)

I have a few $50+ books that I would try to hang onto, but everything else could be sold at the book pawn shop if needed and bought later if you really miss it.
posted by zengargoyle at 3:49 PM on December 15, 2007

Let me start out by saying I love the way they feel and smell, love the different editions with all their variations, that being said, here is what I do - FWIW I have a very limited amount of space.

I divided the bookshelves up like this:
  • There is the permanent shelf where I put books that I will reread at somepoint.
  • I have work shelf for CURRENT work references...I am a zealot about making sure that the work shelf has up to date references -- anything out of date is tossed or replaced, who cares about Photoshop 6?
  • I have a shelf of books to pass on -- ones that I liked and know I will find someone to pass them onto.
  • Then the hard one, the shelf of books to be read...when it is full, it is full. No spilling over to the other shelf.
So you could use this approach and divide the available space and when it is full it is full. It's a lot like packing a moving truck that is to small. The answers as for what to keep and what to ditch will reveal themselves in the packing process.

As for the future of your books, find a good used bookstore sell the ones you can't keep and then use the credits for the "To Be Read" shelf, once read, the book might make it to the permanent shelf or give away shelf. Otherwise, back to the used bookstore for more credit!

Hope this helps somehow.

One last though, if you don't want to go to the used bookstore checkout Book Crossing
posted by Fuzzy Dog at 4:02 PM on December 15, 2007

Over the last few years I've weeded by book collection down to probably a third of what it was. My rules in my last and most ruthless purge were:

1. Am I keeping this just because someone will be impressed by seeing it on my shelf? TOSS
2. Did I like this book ok, but have no plans ever to read it again? TOSS
3. Is this a classic that I may read again, but could always wait the day or two it would take to get it from the library? TOSS
4. Am I hanging onto this because I'll read it "someday"? Has "someday" been 2 or more years in coming? TOSS

And the rules for what I kept:
1. This is a book I read at least once a year.
2. This is a book that has great sentimental value to me.
3. This is a useful reference work.

Basically, the old de-clutterer's mantra of "Is it beautiful, useful, or loved?" If it didn't meet one of those criteria it went to the used book store. I haven't missed a single one I got rid of yet.
posted by MsMolly at 4:03 PM on December 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Make a list of your favourite favourite books and then go to the library (I use my library's online catalogue) to see if you can find them there. if you can, you know you can release it and still be able to read it some time later with a little effort.

If you're fond of quite old books, you might find there's already a free electronic version (try Gutenberg) and you won't even have to go to the library.

Count how many bookmarks/favourites you have. How many of those sites do you regularly visit? For me, it's about 1%. In fact, I could probably lose all my favourites and never miss them. It's probably the same with books. Most information I can find online quickly and more up-to-date than what's in my book.

Take photos or scan the covers of books you're particularly fond of (also a useful practice if you intend to sell them). The photos will become electronic memories.

Use librarything to record your thoughts about your favourite books.

Finally, when getting rid of them, put your favourites on bookcrossing and watch them move. Or donate them via Freecycle which has the advantage of you not having to take them anywhere or pay for postage.

(I'm in the process of denuding my 1000+ book library and it took me about 3 years to get to this point.)
posted by b33j at 4:05 PM on December 15, 2007

Er, "my book collection," obviously.
posted by MsMolly at 4:06 PM on December 15, 2007

Around here (Athens GA) The American Association of University Women puts out bins all over town once a year for donated books, and then they have a booksale (which benefits... uh, them, I guess. Something Worthy, anyway.) I believe this is pretty widespread. I have a spot in the attic for about a year's worth of culls AH MEANS deaccessioned items from the heap AH MEANS collection, and I offload whatever's in this spot on the AAUW annually.

The books I accumulate are, in very large proportion, old stuff that's long since in the public domain (e.g. Catullus in Latin) and for the last 20-odd years I have been dumping the physical copy of pretty much anything I can also obtain in an online version and store on ye olde hard drive (exceptions made for really nice-looking old volumes located in dark corners of junk stores, even if these are easily available on Gutenberg or elsewhere, and some personal faves that I've read several times previously and will probably read again several more times before I croak (Tolkien, Gibbon, Rob't Burton, Life of Johnson)--very likely at bedtime, where bound pages are absolutely required; I will NOT have no farking ebook reader in my farking bed.)

Anyhow, this is a longwinded way of saying... if you have books of which you are really only interested in the content rather than the emotional or sensuous value of the physical thing itself, and you can find a downloadable online copy, consider just keeping the e-version. In my experience this makes it a lot easier to let the material object go.

N.b., this only applies if you back your e-stuff up religiously.

On preview: b33j said all of this already, and better.
posted by jfuller at 4:22 PM on December 15, 2007

Here's some advice on the subject from the always-useful Unclutterer.
posted by deadmessenger at 4:32 PM on December 15, 2007

I concur with much of what's been written so far. Here are some questions I ask myself (since I too love books and have a lot) and my clients (since I'm a professional organizer):

1. Is the book out of date? That's easy - it goes!

2. Is this a book I tend to think I should read (a classic, for example) - but I really don't want to read it and it will be sitting here unread three years from now? OK, it goes.

3. Is this a book I got because someone else likes it, but it just doesn't seem to appeal to me? It goes, too.

4. Is this one of those books that was an OK read - but I'd never re-read it or want to encourage someone else to read it? I don't need books like that; it goes.

5. Am I keeping this book because there's one really great paragraph on page 127? If so, I can just transcribe that bit into a file or a journal, or scan that one page, and let the book go.

6. Does this book contribute to my life now? I've gotten rid of some wonderful software engineering books because that's in my past; it helped that I gave them to someone else who will appreciate them as much as I did.

If you'd like to read someone else's sorting story, Jon Carroll has a good column on this.

And here's a list of 10 ways to find new homes for your books (self link).
posted by jeri at 4:34 PM on December 15, 2007

Those are all good suggestions, but the obvious answer is....Give them all to me! Then you can visit them any time you want! You can even check them out again. I'll make some library cards and everything.

Hmmmmm....better go check with ms. ricketts before you send them....
posted by Wink Ricketts at 4:50 PM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you start with the physically largest books and work toward the smaller ones, you will end up getting rid of as few as possible.

Actually, applying this principle to all your objects, not just books, works well too. I bet you could avoid ditching at least thirty books just by getting rid of your TV.
posted by flabdablet at 4:57 PM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Taller shelves!
posted by tomble at 4:59 PM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

First step: Anything still in print that you can quickly find for less than $5 on Amazon goes out the door immediately.

Second step: Anything you haven't touched in five years or three moves, whichever is shorter, goes out the door immediately.

You won't have 1,000 books, and you *really* won't miss the ones that are gone, after applying those two simple rules.
posted by mediareport at 5:02 PM on December 15, 2007

I got rid of well more than half my books recently. The biggest two things that helped me were: listing them all in my librarything and then offering them to friends (some of whom I had to ship to). The biggest collection that was painful to cull was all my Heinlein books -- they are incredibly easy to get a hold of in libraries, I've read them a million times, so why keep my own copies? Sending them to friends though made that a *lot* easier.
posted by R343L at 5:24 PM on December 15, 2007

I just did this last week. It was brutal. The best way to tackle it for me was to have a friend help. For the first few books he held up, he said "What do you love about this book?" and if I didn't have a good answer, it went in the GO pile. After a while, he was able to just hold it up and I would say STAY or GO, and after that I was able to just imagine him there and do it myself.
posted by judith at 5:39 PM on December 15, 2007

I'd say look at every book and think "would my local Borders/Barnes & Noble/indie bookseller have this book?" If the answer is yes, then toss it. You'll hang on to your more esoteric books and if you get the burning urge to read the tossed book again, then hey, great excuse to hit the book store. And you'll be supporting the publishing industry by buying it again.
posted by Kronoss at 8:11 PM on December 15, 2007

Why does everyone go Amazon? At a dollar per listing? Yeah right! has a listing fee of zilch.

Spend $1k on listing fees for 1k books that might not all sell so well, or zuh-hero for such the identical gamble? Uh..
posted by Quarter Pincher at 8:19 PM on December 15, 2007

I agree with those who've said that finding a good donation site makes a huge difference. I mean, if I gave my copy of Beowulf in Old English to Goodwill, would anyone appreciate it? On the other hand, giving it to the Library of Congress's employee book sale made me feel like I was passing the book along to a fellow book lover. I had a huge collection from my years in English grad school, but I've trimmed it down considerably.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:32 PM on December 15, 2007

I'm surprised no one's mentioned an alternative option: start a public library.

That's what I did, when my girlfriend accused my books of 'taking over the apartment.' I took the entire lot down to work, and set it up in the break room along with a sign-out sheet and an explanation. Everyone at work could take a book, return it, write reviews, etc. It worked beautifully, and everyone loved it. Some books may disappear in the long run, but if your intention was to get rid of them anyway...

You don't say you're moving, just clearing up space. This way, the space is clear, you still keep your books, and you do something awesome for your friends and co-workers.
posted by laughinglikemad at 8:54 PM on December 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

When it comes time to thin out the shelves I like to imagine some well respected intellectual perusing my bookshelf and sniffing disapprovingly at the trite crap while sighing pleasantly in recognition of the great classics. Trite crap goes to in the donation bin, the intellectually pleasing stuff stays.

Is it wrong to toss out the Harry Potter* and keep the Huxley or Orwell? Well no, everyone reads Harry Potter, but having that 1984 on the shelf which you can quickly jostle out and hand to a friend in need is priceless.

*I have never owned nor read a Harry Potter book.
posted by wfrgms at 11:25 PM on December 15, 2007

Oddly, my culling tended to fall to the exact opposite end of the specturm as wfrgms'. All the books I kept cause they looked impressive went to the used bookstore. If I ever want to read 1984 again, it's rare that the urge will be so severe that it will seem to trying to run to Borders or the library. Whereas the frivolous, fun, read them once a year over a series of long baths books, those I kept. I wanted my collection to make me happy and feed my soul, not necessarily my brain or passing intellectuals. Sure, a lot of "serious" stuff stayed (my collection of seemingly boring nonfiction about sociology and stuff is huge), but easily 3/4 of the books I was assigned in high school or college that I was holding on to because it made me feel smart went. However, all the Jasper Fforde books I keep within easy reach.
posted by mostlymartha at 1:22 AM on December 16, 2007

Somehow, someway, every bookshelf collects books that you would never read but have managed to find a way into your house. I got a stack of books from my Dad when he moved to a new house and was forced to confine his library to one bookshelf, after having had a living room full. I couldn't bear to lose them all. Also, my brother and I swap books and you know, you pick one up, you like the first sentence, you take it home and you never read it.

Not to mention second hand book stores but mostly charity book sales where you get to take home garbage bags full of books for $5 and such.

It's easy for bookshelves to fill up with that. So what I did, last move, was go through and ruthlessly cull books that I know I will never read. Just get rid of them. Just start like that. Get rid of the absolute crap and then move on to stuff that's interesting but you will never take down from the bookshelf, and well. That's basically it. You have to keep a few sentimental ones, that's necessary, but things you bought because you thought you'd read them but really you know you never will, they have to go.

It's just a start. (And of course, take the books to a charity drop off somewhere, if you don't think you can bothered doing the selling on Amazon thing).
posted by h00py at 6:06 AM on December 16, 2007

I just culled a huge assortment of books last week (prompted by the fact that I just bought a condo and I'm not going to want to move the damned things, and want to get the emotional pain over with now, even though the condo isn't built yet). I found it helpful to think of it not in terms of which books I was going to give up, but which I was going to keep. That made the process less a series of emotional partings and more a series of joyful reunions.

For me, I decided in advance, that I was going to keep
a) anything from a few select authors who I'm collecting and reading all of (Rankin, Robinson, Adams, Paretsky, Rowling's Harry Potter books, more for the series than the author)
b) any books that were read as part of my monthly book club
c) any books of a literary bent that I didn't, you know, hate, where literary was determined by 'is this the sort of thing we could conceivably read at book club?'
d) any books I haven't read yet
e) any books which I have previously read more than once
f) collections of short stories, assuming it was a collection I actually liked the first time I read it

Those were my categories, and yours would be different, but having that framework made it very easy for me to sweep away broad swathes of my collection on the grounds that they were not part of what I was keeping. I've marked about 2/3 of my collection for going away using this method, and find I don't feel bad about it at all.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:03 AM on December 16, 2007

I've moved a lot, and so I've done quite a bit of weeding. I haven't gotten much better at keeping my rampant acquisitiveness under control, but I give a lot of books away, and so I'm usually at a kind of stasis, where my bookshelves are overwhelmingly full, but there aren't any stacks of books on the floor. Here are the kinds of questions I consider.

Is it a book that I can reasonably expect to be in the collection of my nearest library from now until the end of time? What about the nearest bookstore? Is the information duplicated somewhere else?

Will I want to reread it, or at least pick it up again? How often? Is it rare, collectible, out of print, expensive, or anything else that might frustrate my future acquisitions?

And, most importantly: is it a book I really like? Is it beautiful or inspiring or brilliant? Is it something I've cherished for years, or that I'd like to cherish for years?

Your questions will vary, but once the framework is clear in your mind, it's not too hard to scan your shelves, looking for what doesn't belong.
posted by box at 9:09 AM on December 16, 2007

I spent the last two years living in a room rented from housemates. (And now I'm in a 400 square foot studio-apartment type space.) I'm also a librarian and compulsive reader. My rules on weeding my shelves down to 4 sets of shelves (5 shelves per bookself, and yes, there's doublestacking in the paperbacks) went like this:

1) Is this a book I want to be able to pick up at 3am? Keep. These are my comfort reading, and the ones I return to again and again. (probably 3-4 shelves total.)
2) Is this a book that my local library system is likely to have and continue to have, and that I don't need urgently when I want to use it? Discard.
3) Is this a book that while I *could* replace it, would either be unusually expensive to do so (over $30 or so) or hard to find? If so, keep.
4) Does this have sentimental value? Can I pack it into a small enough shelf space to make it worth keeping? If so, keep.
5) Do I have remaining shelf space? Keep things to fill in, using the same criteria. Weed periodically.

Rule 3 includes things like my Riverside Chaucer or my ancient Greek books and other reference titles. I don't use them terribly often, but when I do, I enjoy the specific editions, and they'd be a pain to replace even if I had the money to do so. Some college texts, too. It also includes some older SF and fantasy works that are out of print and not easy to find.

Other considerations:

Special interests outside the scope of most public libraries: I have a collection of books that I reference regularly, and that I don't trust my library system to have (they're related to my religious practice, and while libraries have some of them, copies are sometimes missing or just not easily available.) I keep these. They have 6 shelves currently. I consider it shelf space *well* spent. Many hobby titles fall in this category too.

Professional titles: I kept only the ones where I felt I'd use them later. Mostly, I figure that when I get a job that might require them, a) they might provide them or own them and b) I can then reconsider which I need/want anyway. No need to keep things just in case I end up with that kind of job.

My extra books were mostly SF/Fantasy and mysteries, so I took them off to our local specialty stores, and got a substantial amount of store credit ($200+) and found loving homes while I spent the credit on presents for friends at a time when cash has been really tight. The few books outside this category went to Half Price Books, where I got less money, but they also will get turned around. I've done some selling on Amazon, but found it hard to work shipping things out into the rest of my life.
posted by modernhypatia at 10:14 AM on December 16, 2007

Okay, I haven't read most of the comments above, but one thing you may want to consider is PaperBack Swap. You can trade the books for a credit for another book, hold them for as long as you like, then "buy" books back when you get your larger place. The downside is that you pay shipping to get them out, so that may not work so well with 1000+.
posted by TheDukeofLancaster at 8:03 AM on December 17, 2007

If the time constraint is the only thing keeping you from selling your books, do keep in mind that many used bookstores will make housecalls for large-ish collections. When I was trimming my library down to 500, the buyers from Powells made the experience relatively easy and pleasant. I gave myself an hour to pack away the books I wanted to keep (time limit to prevent greed and sentiment), and let them do their work. It took them about 45 minutes to go through everything, pack it up, cut a check, and leave. Anything left over (and there wasn't much) went to the library.
posted by mfcorwin at 4:43 PM on December 29, 2007

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