Book organizing

Tuesday October 21, 2008 @ 09:55 PM (UTC)

*dusts off website* *evicts family of pigeons roosting in blog software*

Greetings from Portland, where two industrious humans and one cat (slightly less lazy than usual) are unpacking and reassembling their home. Also trying to keep at least part of it from disappearing under the resultant layers of empty cardboard and crumpled newsprint, but that’s another story. The big story here is that for the first time in recorded history, Ryan has more books on shelves than I do. Yes, the man who was storing his books largely in artistically arranged stacks (don’t knock it, I’ve seen it done very beautifully by the French) has an entire bookcase full of the beggars. Whereas the woman who used LibraryThing to tag her books with the number of the box they were packed in…has 14 in a tiny Target bookshelf. Ooh, and the Millennium Edition of Lord of the Rings sitting flat on another shelf.

So book-arranging has been under discussion. Ryan, in the course of getting other people to go to Ikea to buy this now-full bookcase, made it clear that my books should stay away from his books (like beets from mashed potatoes) because our systems are different. I like mine alphabetized by author, and he recoils in horror from this idea (like the average human from beets). His mom (in the ‘other people’ going to Ikea) says she does hers by topic, then by size within topic. Ryan said this sounded about like what he does, though he conceded my point that having books by the same author together made sense. However, so far, looking at his bookcase, I don’t see that author-grouping occurring much. Here are the Complete Aubrey-Maturin Novels next to a glossary for the Aubrey-Maturin novels…good call. On the next shelf, two non-Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian together, next to two Jonathan Lethem books, next to a Brust novel which isn’t next to any other Brust novels. Well, it’s a stand-alone, isn’t it? But still in the Dragaeraverse…then there are the random sprinklings of Heinlein. I don’t really get it. You’ll have to ask him. But it appears that taller books are on the sides, which I guess is pleasing to the eye.

Which is (at last! Your patience is rewarded!) the point of this blog post. I had never thought of using book size as the organizing precept within each shelf of my library. When Ruth first said the words, I had to blink to reorder my universe, as if she’d said she organized her books by color (which I hear used to be pretty common). It made me wonder if my system seems as odd to others. Here is how I organize my books:

  • One shelf of ‘fawncy’ books (collector’s editions, rare-ish editions, leather-bound, otherwise pretty). I’ve kicked a few borderline books off this shelf when it got too crowded. Points for being beloved as well as beautiful, or for sentimental value. This shelf’s arranged to look nice, with a preponderance of slipcovered editions on one end.

  • The rest of my fiction books, regardless of target audience age, alphabetically by author, then by title except within series.

  • Fiction anthologies, themed then general, alphabetical by title.

  • Poetry books, alphabetical by author.

  • Poetry anthologies. I don’t really have enough to have a rubric. Don’t hurt me, poets!

  • Nonfiction. Ah, this is the question. Right now, it’s alphabetical by author. But doesn’t topic make more sense? I used topic originally, so there must have been some good reason why I changed. When in doubt, consider libraries. They use topic for non-fiction. But then I end up trying to decide whether to put pterosaurs before or after dinosaurs in the paleo section, and which possible segue book to use. Maybe I should get a labelmaker and use the Library of Congress system.

  • Exceptions: oversize/art books, bottom shelf. When I had franchised novels, I put them all together alphabetically by franchise (under ‘S’. Yes. I mean those. Those, too.)

Obviously, I’m open to changing how I shelve nonfiction. I am also still struggling with the question of drama, which in my case is 90% Shakespeare (the Shakespeare:drama ratio is even higher than the paleontology:nonfiction ratio. I have at least two complete works and massive piles of individual plays.) I have been shelving it as fiction, but perhaps it needs its own section, cuddling up to poetry, since it is, after all, largely Shakespeare.

This entire system was implemented in high school. Before that, I used a system of vague feelings. I read constantly, and reread constantly, and relied on my long searching browsings of the shelves (to decide what to reread next) to refresh my impressions of the current state of the shelves. So, if I had a sudden desire for a specific book — say The Midnight Folk – I would stand in some fairly clear patch of my bedroom floor – possibly balancing awkwardly, if the clear patches were far apart – and summon the physical memory of the book, the picture on the front, the color of the spine, until I remembered where I’d last seen it. This was possibly good for the mental muscles and may count as meditation, but it was an odd book-organization system.

How about you? How do you organize your books? And if you are Ruth or Ryan and I have grossly misstated your system, feel free to abuse and disabuse.


I have not yet begun the organizational process! Step one was merely unpacking the books and getting them on the shelves. Step two, in which order will be imposed, will occur later, when I don’t have more important things to do (like sleep).

I think to myself that I use an alphabetical system, but Glenn points out that actually I group by subject, then alphabet; for instance, feminist books on writing are all together, then alphabetized; all fairy-tale books are together, non-alphabetized, same with mythology collections. Poetry is alphabetical, except for anthologies, which are grouped, again, by subject. Writing about poetry (poetics) has its own shelf (alphabetized) and fiction is alphabetized in an orderly fashion. Art and large-sized books are stacked in no order on the bottom shelf, so you find “the art of Totoro” next to a book on hummingbirds. Comic books, writing marketing books, and other ephemera have their own separate shelf.

There are ‘office’ books and ‘other’ books, in two different bookcases, the first of which is naturally heavy on the software development side. Mainly, everything is ordered by topic and then loosely by author.

There are a few oddities, though, that I’d classify as ‘legacy ordering,’ where certain books, or group of books, are placed ‘where they’ve always been.’ I suppose the latter is a matter of efficiency, sort of, so I don’t have to adjust my mental maps more than necessary.

Now that I look at it, a few latecomers have been assimilated into legacy groups, for unknown reasons. I guess I don’t really know exactly why my books are organized as they are, but it makes sense to me. It’s just another example of the bizarre way my brain works.

In general, I like systematic order, since it saves a lot of time when you’re trying to find something. I am not so fond of very stringent systems, however, since they most often meet an early demise, either because they get compromised by unforeseen additions that just don’t fit, or because they get too cumbersome and time-consuming to maintain.

There is usually a ‘golden middle-road,’ as they say in Denmark, which offers just about the right amount of order to be both useful and maintainable at the same time.

Well, if you’d obsessively tagged your books with the box number they were in, you could combine organizing and unpacking ;)

I like to keep trade paperbacks of comic books together, as well…since they’re all the same size and everything! Chronological within series.

It does seem like once you cement the idea of where something is, it can’t be moved. For instance, the first built-in bookcase in my parents’ living room (when I was growing up) must have mostly been reference: I remember the Durant World Histories, a Wildlife Encyclopedia, and so forth. But it was also the most convenient to the big comfy armchair. So the copy of Lord of the Rings that my parents read out loud to us was kept there, easy to reach from the chair, and there it stayed years after the reading aloud had concluded. By what logic? Couldn’t tell you.

The next bookcase and half of the shelf system on the other wall were hardback sci-fi. Paperback sci-fi, often of the same books, was downstairs. I think other subdivisions included kidlit and literary, both in the dining room. Hmm.

Paperback Agatha Christies lived in a big box in the closet. I had to reach in and fish around until I found one I hadn’t read yet. :)

the books to shelves ratio is my demise. I never have enough shelf to properly segregate types. I have the presentation shelf in the living room with favorites, particularly curious (but not so curious as to give away my deep dark secrets) or worthy texts.

Upstairs is the mess.

Stacks happen by influx. Library-only stack. Recent purchase/gift stacks. Faculty-author stack. I find anything on a shelf is Legacy Ordering. Thank you GreyStork for the term. I love the “Legacy Order” label.

Good topic, Felicity.

I have anthologies, religious stuff, and important boxed sets on the top shelf, unread fiction by author on one shelf, read fiction by author on another, and the rest is done by size. It’s okay to have multiple sorting criteria ;-), and it’s fun to go back and play with it when you get neurotic like me and have to rearrange something.

I will admit I’m enjoying considering a new regime for nonfiction sorting. shifty

Desperately searching the internet for a new system, I found your common sense approach which seems to deserves a try. Thanks.

Anne once had hers organized by color. It was beautiful. What is S book franchise?

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