There are three main issues to consider when trying to organize anything in our homes:
- What’s to be organized.
- How best to organize.
- Where to locate or relocate this beautifully organized stuff, be it garden tools, sports equipment, or books.
There were 675 million print books sold in the United States in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. Does it sometimes feel as though a good portion of those books ended up on your nightstand, coffee table, and desk? I’m sure my piles of books account for some hefty percentage of those 675 million.
It’s well and truly winter now, no gardening projects beckoning you out-of-doors, the perfect season for curling up with a good book. But perhaps finding the pile or shelf or box in which you carefully deposited that good book has slipped your mind. A cold January afternoon might be just the time to tackle those random piles of books, to put them in some logical and attractive order. Which leads me to the subject of this column, which you may already have guessed—organizing your home library.
Looking around at my library, I can identify the traditional print material—books, newspapers, and magazines. But I’ve also got to consider my e-reader, PC, earphones, and charging cables. What will be the most useful way for me to find a particular book or periodical, or the earbuds for my iPad? How do I use this wealth of material? Let me suggest several ways of organizing a personal library:
Use: One collection might be the books, periodicals, and electronics that are useful on a daily basis. Another group could be the material for book clubs or courses. A third group might be favorites, books never to be loaned or parted with. And, what about grouping together material for my hobbies—gardening, sky diving, spelunking? (I’m a bit of a Walter Mitty.) There’s that guilt-inducing pile of “read it again” books too. Could we put together all the books and magazines that come highly recommended but have yet to actually be read—that “next thing to read” group.
Genre: Of course, there’s always the traditional organization by genre. (This one works best if your reading tastes are wide ranging.) You’ll have your mystery and espionage collection, sci-fi books, romance, travel, biography and memoirs, etc. If you really have a lot of time on your hands, you could even categorize your collection by the Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress systems.
Appearance: This one’s for those of you who want your library to please the eye as well as the mind. You can arrange your books by hardcover and paperback, size—small paperbacks to oversized coffee table books. You might be very bold and group your books by the colors of their spines or covers – all the red covers, the blue ones, the black spines. Even the width of the book could be a determinant—novellas separate from their pushy cousins, the sagas and tomes. (There’s a certain advantage here. I find my little 100+ page books sometimes slide in between two 500+ pagers, never to be found again!) Within your color-coded collections, you could categorize the books alphabetically by author, title, or subject.
Now that you have a plan, don’t panic. Stick with me here! Choose one of those out-of-control bookshelves or piles of books and begin placing the volumes in boxes based on the categories you’re using. If you’re really enjoying this project, you might want to download one of the free or modestly priced apps for cataloging your books. Librarything.com is free, and easy to use. Goodreads.com is another popular cataloging tool. These apps usually provide a method for entering the ISBN number of the book, and the computer fills-in the rest—title, author, publication date, etc. Cataloging your books is particularly helpful if you have an extensive library and perhaps some valuable books. You might provide your insurance agent with a copy of the catalog as you would for a collection of jewelry or fine art.
While you’re sorting through those random books, transforming them into a useful and handsome library, begin thinking about the housing of your freshly organized library. Where do you want to locate some or all of your books? Do you have a room designated as the library, den, or office? Are there some blank walls that would happily support bookcases or shelves? How about that funny space beneath the staircase? Or that long hallway wasting precious space? Maybe you’ll want to locate parts of your library in different areas; cookbooks and foodie reads on some shelving in the kitchen, humor and joke books in the powder room, travel books in the guestroom. I have a friend who organized his books chronologically, based on when he’d read or bought the book. So, he had his collection of comics and children’s books in the front hall; the romance and adventure collection reposed on the landing; and his collection of classics held pride of place in the den.
When you’re thinking of the where and how of your physical library, keep in mind the practical issues:
Safety: ideally, tall bookcases make the best use of space, but they need to be secured to the wall to avoid toppling. In addition, you’ll want to think about how you’ll get to the books on the upper shelves; will you need a step stool or ladder? This is the point when you may want to call on the services of a carpenter. Whether you want built-in bookcases or less permanent bookshelves, they will need to be sturdy enough not to bow or collapse under the weight of your book collection. Equally important will be ensuring that the books won’t come tumbling down on top of some unsuspecting passer-by. And check that the placement of your bookshelves won’t block heating or cooling vents. A professional fix-it person or carpenter can ensure that your books are housed in safe and attractive cases and shelves. Don’t leave it to chance.
Lighting: If you are going to use your shelved books, you’ll have to be able to read the spines; see the titles. How will the areas you choose for bookshelves be lit? Too much light can damage the books’ covers and binding. You’ll also want to think about lights for reading in or near your library. Will it be feasible to plug in a floor lamp? Will you want to bring in an electrician to install some track lighting or additional electrical outlets?
Furnishing: You’ll probably want to add some seating to your library, a comfy easy chair, a bench for quick reads, a table for your cup of tea, as well as that lamp casting light over your shoulder and onto the page.
Special touches: If you’re inspired, you might want to toy with the décor in and around your library. Perhaps you have seen the clever bookshelves made of old stepladders and weathered boards. Or, you may have a collection of bobble heads or Wedgwood china that would be lovely displayed on some of the shelves between the books. You might find a geode to use as a bookend, or some handsome, antique bookends to prop up your books. If your library is in a multi-purpose room, say the dining room or the TV room, you could install drapes in front of the bookshelves; you could draw the curtain and transform the room.
Housekeeping tips: Finally, when settling your reorganized books and periodicals into their new location, think ahead to the day-to-day maintenance of your library. If your home tends to be damp, you may need to install a dehumidifier to protect the books from moisture which can lead to damaged covers and pages, as well as mold. If your library is in a dry area, a humidifier may be necessary, but I caution against overdoing the humidity.
Finally, if you collect used and antique books, they may come with their own collection of silverfish, book lice, termites, or cockroaches. To prevent such an infestation of your books, when you get a suspicious book, seal it in a zip bag and pop it in the freezer for a couple of days. That will kill anything living among the pages.
As educator and politician Horace Mann noted, “A house without books is like a room without windows.” You’ll enjoy those books more when you have your collection under control and easily accessible.