Bringing your bookshelves back to order

I love, love, love books. The wikipedia entry for bibliophilia should include a picture of me with my nose in a book. I read between 10 to 20 books a month, and I almost exclusively read non-fiction. If money were no object, I would have a home library complete with rolling ladders, comfy leather chairs, and shelves full of my favorite books.

Money has not yet started to grow on the trees in my yard, so I don’t have the luxury of having a dedicated room for a home library. Until then, I have had to accept that I cannot keep every book I’ve ever read or hope to read. So, how do I decide which books stay and which books go? I follow these simple rules:

  1. Don’t keep more books than you can fit on available bookshelf space. If a book doesn’t have a safe place to live, you’re not treating it with the respect it deserves.
  2. Don’t keep books for the sole purpose of impressing other people. This rings true in business offices, too. Unless you’re a British literature professor, there is no reason to have the complete works of Shakespeare on your office bookshelves. Potential clients will wonder why you’re spending your time reading Macbeth instead of focusing on their case.
  3. Get rid of any book you’ve read, don’t plan on reading or referencing again, is in the public domain, and can be found in its entirety online. That’s right, I’m talking about ditching your Dover copy of The Scarlet Letter.
  4. If you live near a public library or a used bookstore, try to think of these places as an extension of your personal collection. Also, now that so many libraries have free audio books to download, using the library is in some ways more convenient than a personal collection.

Beyond these rules, I’ve found that books are best evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes, if a book is in bad shape, I’ll recycle it. If I’m on the fence about getting rid of a book, I’ll go online and find out how much it’s selling for on Powell’s — if it’s selling for less than $5, I’ll get rid of it — if it’s selling for more than $15, I will usually hold onto it. I also have found that I have difficulty parting with books that have beautiful bindings, so these books I have to scrutinize more diligently. And, don’t forget to ask yourself these vital questions each time you finish reading a book.

After deciding which books should go, there are many resources available to you. I’ve used or read positive reviews about the following services: Powell’s, my local used bookstore, half.com, PaperBackSwap.com, donating to the local library used book sale, BookMooch.com, BookScouter.com, and donating to charities that want specific types of books (nursing homes, literacy programs, etc.).

Good luck sorting through your books, and stay tuned for next week when I’ll discuss how to organize the books you’ve chosen to keep.

70 Comments for “Bringing your bookshelves back to order”

  1. posted by Mary on

    Unfortunately, the husband is VERY sentimental about his books. In spite of lack of space, I will never, ever get rid of the thousands of books we have, much of which is pulp…

  2. posted by Teresa on

    I just wanted to comment about Paperbackswap.com and how easy it is. I signed up awhile ago and had never posted my available books. I did so today and instantly got rid of five books that have just been sitting around. Plus, I have have seven credits (two for posting my first 10 books and five for the ones I mailed) for books that I really do want sitting around for me to enjoy. I hope avid readers take a moment to check it out.

  3. posted by Chris Palmer on

    Personally I’ve grown used to reading online texts of out of copyright works, particularly on my iPhone.

    But, the fact that if you need to look up a passage in The Scarlet Letter at 11PM, you can find it online and if you need a paper copy you can buy it again for a few bucks (or maybe 50 cents at a used bookstore) means that there really isn’t a need to keep your dogeared copy from high school or college unless you have some really good notes scribbled in the margins or something.

    One exception to this is for those of you who are parents: look ahead in your kid’s next few years of required reading (most schools have their required reading lists online) and don’t throw away classics that are on the reading list. Inevitably your kid will remember they are supposed to be reading it and you’ll have to make a special trip to buy it or they will leave their copy in their locker on the night before a test.

    One of our friends (knowing that I had a big library) called me at 10:30PM once to see if I had a copy of Hamilton’s Mythology because a report or project crept up on their son. I did.

  4. posted by Bob Durtschi on

    “4. If you live near a public library or a used bookstore, try to think of these places as an extension of your personal collection. Also, now that so many libraries have free audio books to download, using the library is in some ways more convenient than a personal collection.”

    There’s a major challenge with this. Libraries Also have a limited amount of shelf space. The book you want may not be available. In fact I’d say the last several hundred books I’ve added to my library have been via the $5/grocery bag sales at local libraries, Hollister and Santa Clara, CA.

    Bob Durtschi

  5. posted by Clutter Begone « Avansyn’s Blog on

    [...] I have done is to prune the bookshelf by selling off a lot of books to Powell’s [hat tip to Unclutterer: Bringing your bookshelves back to order]. Even with that, I still had a full bookcase full of books that I will move with [...]

  6. posted by Form an Attack Plan For A Cluttered, Messy Home | Lifehacker Australia on

    [...] Books from university you can easily find free online. [...]

  7. posted by Rae on

    Freeing myself from the slavery of book ownership was one of the steps I took to go from being a pack rat to a full-time RVer. I limited myself to 200lbs worth of books, which is a ridiculously small amount for someone who used to own close to 10,000 volumes.

    In my new life, I firmly apply the ‘rules’ set out in this article–create boundaries and don’t keep anything that you can find in a library or online or just to impress people.

    I wrote an ebook about my decluttering journey and how I dealt with books takes up most of a chapter.

  8. posted by L. on

    No mention of the Kindle? It is not a perfect or only solution. You can’t get all books on there, and many (most?) people value the tactile experience of a “real” paper book. But it is great for more popular or common books, or for those books you don’t need/want to have in paper form, and will help declutter your shelves for the ones you do.

    Many older books are available in e-form free. In general the books are cheaper than buying a new paper one. Sometimes the older books are cheaper than buying used. Again, not perfect–you cannot resell or give away due to the DRM–but I like this option for light reading like mysteries; I will read them again but I don’t want those 8 million paperbacks cluttering up my shelves. So over time I will slowly transition that type of reading over to the Kindle.

  9. Avatar of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    Did the Kindle exist when we wrote this post??

  10. posted by Camille on

    I can’t seem to find the follow-up post on organizing your book collection post-purge…

    (Just found your blog recently and I’m finding it so helpful and inspiring!)

  11. posted by The Bookworm’s Guide to the Lifehacker Galaxy on

    [...] that you’ve tossed out the old books, given them new life, or turned them into something new, you may as well make the piles of books [...]

  12. posted by The Bookworm’s Guide to the Lifehacker Galaxy [Books] · TechBlogger on

    [...] that you’ve tossed out the old books, given them new life, or turned them into something new, you may as well make the piles of books [...]

  13. posted by The Tech Town » The Bookworm’s Guide to the Lifehacker Galaxy [Books] on

    [...] that you’ve tossed out the old books, given them new life, or turned them into something new, you may as well make the piles of books [...]

  14. posted by The Bookworm’s Guide to the Lifehacker Galaxy | UpOff.com on

    [...] that you’ve tossed out the old books, given them new life, or turned them into something new, you may as well make the piles of books [...]

  15. posted by The Bookworm’s Guide to the Lifehacker Galaxy [Books] - 4088th Edition | Technology Revealed on

    [...] that you’ve tossed out the old books, given them new life, or turned them into something new, you may as well make the piles of books [...]

  16. posted by Give me Give you » Blog Archive » The Bookworm’s Guide to the Lifehacker Galaxy [Books] on

    [...] that you’ve tossed out the old books, given them new life, or turned them into something new, you may as well make the piles of books [...]

  17. posted by The Bookworm’s Guide To The Lifehacker Galaxy | Lifehacker Australia on

    [...] that you’ve tossed out the old books, given them new life, or turned them into something new, you may as well make the piles of books [...]

  18. posted by Andrea on

    @Erin: Yes, it did – you guys did an article about it just two weeks after this post was written, mentioning that it had been hard for Amazon to keep in stock since its November ’07 release but that they were now able to ship immediately (and Wikipedia confirms the November ’07 release date). So while it was hard to get hold of at the time of writing, L. is right – not giving it even a mention seems a large oversight in an article of this nature.

  19. posted by Sean on

    Try selling them to http://www.eCampus.com They buy almost any book you would have and usually for a solid amount of money

  20. posted by Spring Cleaning… | Creative Mamma on

    [...] Bringing your bookshelves back to order [...]

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