Ask the grumpies: How do you organize your books?

Steph asks:

If you haven’t tackled this somewhere – How do you organize your books? How do you feel about the rainbow bookshelves trend that is still going on? (Or the “spines inward/pages outward” trend – maybe this is a deliberately controversial question ;) )

We have a somewhat strong disagreement on this topic in that #1 has taken all the pretty hard cover books out of the bedroom bookcases and put them into the living room and #2 thinks this is heresy.


two of the bedroom bookcases, mostly humorous SPEC fic in alphabetical order by author or editor's last name

two of the bedroom bookcases, mostly humorous SPEC fic in alphabetical order by author or editor’s last name

Otherwise:  #1 has all read paperback fiction books put together in alphabetical order in her bedroom bookcases.  To-be-read books are sideways in a pile double-stacked in no particular order across two shelves.  Our joint comic books have their own shelf in our bedroom.  DH doesn’t tend to keep fiction books (he doesn’t reread much), so the ones that we do have are scattered in with my books or DC1’s books, though they used to have their own shelf. Non-fiction books are loosely organized by subject in the living room shelves.  Cookbooks are shelved mostly by size (because of the different sizes of books and shelves… this bothers me a little, but there are only 3 shelves) just outside the kitchen.

I try really hard to keep the kids’ fiction chapter books in alphabetical order by author’s last name in their bookcases, but that doesn’t always happen.  Kids non-fiction chapter books have their own bookshelf in the hallway (they used to be on separate shelves in their room bookcases, but then we got DC2 a full size bookcase and moved hir smaller case to the hallway), which started out organized by subject but is now a total mess.  Spanish books are the bottom shelf of DC2’s bookcase.  They also keep all their comic books there which started out organized alphabetically by last author, but are not even shelved nicely anymore.  I just give up.   Books that DC2 has really outgrown are currently taking the bottom shelves of 3 bookcases in the living room not really organized at all.  I should note that I have mild undiagnosed OCD and having organized bookcases give me pleasure while disorganized bookcases give me a little buzz of unhappiness.  But I just cannot keep up with the kids being agents of destruction so I have found it healthier for me to just not try to keep up and mentally separate their messed up sections from all books.  I tell myself I’m never trying to find their specific non-fiction or comic or picture books so the lack of organization shouldn’t be a problem for me.

Most of my new books are kindle (because they’re cheaper and more portable… in normal times much of my reading gets done on airplanes) and they’re organized by read/unread and then date last read.  There’s also a separate thing for children’s books that have been read.


Three of #2's bookcases, creatively organized

Three of #2’s bookcases, creatively organized

I have fiction and non-fiction in my bedroom, with various piles of books stacked haphazardly in the living room, kitchen, etc. (And cookbooks in our kitchen.) I have a couple “emergency” books in a cabinet in the bathroom. They just ended up there.

I do not put my books in alphabetical order.  They are in an order.  For example, there is one case that is all my best-loved and most-personal books.  Authors who coauthor books have the coauthored book in between the other two authors.  I mix fiction and non-fiction together.

I hate electronic books and have been gradually replacing my cheap kindle books with paperbacks as they come available/get affordable/are gifted from my amazon list.

We’re mostly against sorting books by color (#1 moreso than #2).  We’re definitely against shelving them spine inward (though #1’s DC2 seems to favor this.  It drives #1 CRAZY.)  #2 wants to SEE people’s books out of curiosity.  #1 wants to be able to FIND books.  Why organize them at all if you’re not going to be able to use the index?


Billy the bookcase

Where the books are

Our fantasy library

Couchblogging and rearranging the library

18 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: How do you organize your books?”

  1. delagar Says:

    Most of ours are alphabetical by author.

    EXCEPT: (1) We have all the anthologies on a separate bookcase, with “guides” there too (Like Trees of North America, and A Field Guide to American Houses)

    (2) Foreign language books on their own shelves

    (3) Literary criticism books on their own shelves

    (4) Music and history books in their own room (these belong to Dr. Skull)

    (5) Cookbooks on their own shelf. We got rid of most of these in the move, so now we only need one shelf for them.

  2. EB Says:

    You all are making me feel terrible. My husband’s serious academic/professional interests (ancient near eastern languages, art materials analysis, black and white photogra;hy, world religions) are scattered here and there, along with many poorly labeled loose leaf binders full of the proceedings of conferences he has been to and presented at. Even he cannot find books he wants quickly since they could be in den, dining room, living room or on about 8 different sets of shelves in the basement. There is no room for my carefully pruned collections of American literary fiction and nature guides. These take up a grand total of 3 shelves and a few boxes. Where did I go wrong? On the other hand, I can find what I want and he cannot.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      You should only feel terrible about disorganization if you have ocd(!) (I am fairly sure I have undiagnosed ocd about books. It makes me feel really anxious when a bookcase is disorganized and I can’t do anything about it unless I take proactive steps to counter that anxiety. Giving up on the kids’ picture book and comic book organization took a lot of effort and use of CBT techniques on my part.)

  3. Natka Says:

    I love books. But organizing them is not a priority right now. Maybe some day.

    Our nonfiction are (very loosely) grouped by subject (art, science texts, travel, etc). Every once in a while someone (one of the kids, typically) will pull out a book and NEVER put it back in its proper place but shove it somewhere else on the shelf. I hate organizing/tidying up, so I just let it go.

    Our fiction books are all over the place, not alphabetical, not by size, and certainly not by color. The sight of book-filled shelves warms my heart, but I don’t care what order they are in. For the most part, I can find the stuff I want Unless one of the kids got their little paws on it and then I’ll have to check under their beds. Putting the books spines inward is terrible (how would I find a specific book I want to read without seeing the spine?), but I used to do it when I was a child (because it was easier to shove a book into a tight spot that way). I do have my Russian books grouped together. Mostly.

    My MIL once organized one of my bookshelves by size. It nearly drove me bonkers because all of a sudden I couldn’t find anything…. Took a couple of days before I remembered the new spatial order and then I was fine again :)

    Kids books are a mess – we have designated shelves, bins, and baskets for kid books, but I think we need to expand because nothing fits and most of the time kids shelves look like book explosions. All my 3 kids love to read (or listen) to books, so they grab books off the shelves all the time, leave them all over the place (kitchen counters, bathroom floor, on the beds, under the beds, on their desks, under their desks….) or shove them into the shelves backwards (genetics?).

    I would be so grateful is my MIL would come over once a week and organize kid books :)

    The only good habit we have – designated shelf for library books. Library books are not allowed to go anywhere else (unless someone is actively reading them).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I gave up on organizing the kid’s non-chapter books. Thankfully they mostly leave/return the chapter books in the proper order now that they’re older. I had had hopes for their comics, but alas, those aren’t even standing up properly in their bookcase– it’s a mess of piles in all directions.

    • Steph Says:

      My books are also not alphabetical! I keep series/authors together, but otherwise it’s organized by “what fits where” and “free association”. Currently my fiction is roughly divided into “Has dragons” and “Does not have dragons”. I haven’t gotten all the non-fiction out of boxes here, but at my last place, I also kept it roughly organized by subject. My books about women were in rough chronological order – and that was also the shelf with the strongest color theme. Can we please stop making every book about ladies either pink, white, or red?!

  4. Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

    My scholarly books are organized by LC number. Fiction is alphabetical by author. My husband’s books are separate, and I have never been able to figure out any organizing principle at work there, except for a general division between fiction and work (math/computing), but he can always lay hands on anything either of us wants. So either he has a really good memory or there’s a principle I don’t understand.

    • Steph Says:

      Do you put library-style labels on the outside (or only buy used library books), or do you just check the LC number inside when you put them up?

      I’m a lot like your husband – nobody else could probably understand my shelves, but I always know where everything is!

      • Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

        I check the insides, or a library database if the book doesn’t have an LC number (as is the case for most older books and books published outside the US). I have a spreadsheet in which I enter my scholarly books, with LC numbers. TBH, most of them are only roughly sorted ATM, thanks first to having packed away a lot to show a house, and now to moving, but I’ll gradually get them more fully organized. Once I get more books out of storage, foreign-language fiction will have its own shelves, as will children’s books. Cookbooks go in the kitchen, but I expect to do a big cull of them when I get that box back because there are just too many things I can’t eat anymore and the cookbooks taunt me painfully.

  5. omdg Says:

    Books are organized by 1) my research and clinical references, 2) books for grown ups, 3) books for kids. That’s all! #1 is in my room, #2-3 are downstairs. Oh! I think my husband has a shelf for cookbooks somewhere. I gave away most of my paperbacks over the years as I tend not to re-read.

    I am an utter failure at the pretty book wall!

  6. First Gen American Says:

    We generally organize by category, then by who’s book it is. It’s all very haphazard.

  7. rose Says:

    Luckily I use professional librarians to shelf my books (cannot afford my reading habit) so grateful for public libraries.
    Cannot picture any reason to shelve books with spines hidden. Decorators get really silly sometimes!

  8. Debbie M Says:

    I love the rainbow-order bookshelves. I would never do that though–unless I made book covers in the right colors to put my books in the order I want and have that come out to be rainbow colored. Because yes, you can have it all! (If you have a lot of time.)

    I order them first by public versus private. The fabulous things go in the living room; the boring reference books go in the office. Oh, and cookbooks go in the dining room.

    Second, by topic. Fiction has categories like romance, fantasy/sci-fi (because I have hardly any fantasy), mystery, and classic literature. Shelves are chosen for each category based on the size and quantity of books and with the ones I like the most closest to eye level.

    Nonfiction (besides cookbooks) have categories like home repair, travel, and various academic subjects. (And photo albums.)

    Oh, I also have kids’ books on a shelf at the bottom–easy for them to reach.

    Third depends. Nonfiction is organized for one topic to meld into another, sort of like at libraries, though I don’t use any of their systems. Each fiction category is organized by author and then by title or by series order.

    I also have tchotchkys that are displayed by category. Like my unicorn is in front of the sci-fi/fantasy books and the stuffed mammoth is in front of archeology.

    Comic books are not separated out, but sorted the same way as other books.

    Oh, I have an in-box (bookcase headboard) and out-box (piano in the living room) for borrowed books (from the library, little free libraries, and friends).

    I’ve also started putting post-it notes inside each book with notes for me like “next time make a character list” or “don’t love the characters, but there are a few great scenes/lines.” It does bug me a little to have books by the same author in different categories–it seems like sometimes you’d be in the mood for a certain author–but I have only a few (like Douglas Adams), and I’m usually also in the mood for just one of the categories (I don’t even like Georgette Heyer’s non-romances).

    All of my books are vertical with spines facing out. Ideally. When I have a huge pile of books by one author, I put them in two rows, with the front ones being my favorites. Currently I just got a huge pile of Louis L’amour books which are stacked horizontally in available shelf space–I am reading through them and deciding which to keep and which to pass on. Also, I have extra copies of some books for giving or lending; I tuck those behind the other books.

    I don’t have kids or anyone else who messes with my books, so it works out. My boyfriend has his own shelves. He has one bookcase specifically built to house all his favorite books when he was in college. He has culled and added a few, but that has stayed inviolate because he knows where those are. For small books, he is always stacking two layers of them horizontally. And then cannot find them. Oh, I want to re-organize! Our cookbooks are intermingled, but he doesn’t have many and mostly cooks from online recipes.

  9. revanche @ a gai shan life Says:

    Definitely no organizing by color here but my comics (GNs mainly) are organized by author and my regular books on the other shelf are by author and then there’s a smattering that just don’t fit anywhere and are stacked in piles in front of the other books. I haven’t been reading them lately though. Having them in the less damp office means they’re out of immediate reach and if I can’t just reach for it a foot or two from where I’m hibernating, then I’m sticking with an ebook. Also the ebooks are much easier on my hands and I don’t have to keep the lights on late into the night. But I still cherish my paperbacks and sprinkling of hardcovers and comics.

  10. accm Says:

    One downstairs bookcase has cookbooks and non-fiction (mostly science); the other has mostly the slightly more serious (non-dragon) fiction that people will see when they first come into the house. Upstairs are the fantasy, sf and mysteries. All of these are organized by “This set of books makes me think of that set of books.” Hey, I know where everything is, to within a quarter shelf. Then there’s an overflow bookcase on the stairwell landing, which has a mishmash of non-fiction, fiction, and parenting stuff, and is not really organized at all. Not sure what that says about me. I may need to start using #2’s vertical stacking soon. Meanwhile, the kids don’t seem interested in keeping their books organized at all.

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