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,,, donating to the local library used book sale,,, 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 JW on

    Great suggestion. I’m an academic, so books are my friends and my co-workers, but in the last six months or so, I’ve started winnowing a bit. I’ve sold about 35 items online and made a nice little chunk of change–it helps that a good portion of the books are from university presses. I’ve donated others that are essentially value-less. My home office is tidier, and I’ve got my SO going through his books, too. It’s a great deal, all around.

  2. posted by Abby on

    Make sure you check out cause they have loads of audio books to download for FREE that are in the public archives!

    Hello – I wish this was available back in high school when they were making us read all those classics!!

  3. posted by Abby on

    My bad, it’s !!!

  4. posted by LP on

    Also check out — basically Netflix, for books. For those who don’t have a convenient library with online book request (what I use). I mostly only keep books when I think I might have an overwhelming need to reread them or refer to them immediately. Or when they are special — signed by the author, or a valued gift, or something I intend to pass on to someone specific.

  5. posted by Meags on

    I also think that is a great idea. You just slap a sticker with a number ID on it and “release” it into the “wild”. Then you get an email if someone finds it and logs into the website. The site also has a list of places where books have been dropped all over the world. Very cool.

  6. posted by Billie on

    Also look to your public library for online reference books, many encyclopedias are online through public library websites, as well as other reference sources.

  7. posted by Jeff Flowers on

    This is probably not going to help everyone, but something I did was join LibraryThing and inventory my books. Not only do I now have a nice inventory for insurance purposes, it gave me the chance to touch and look at each book and decide if I really wanted it or not.

    I now have 155 books and they all fit on a single bookshelf.

  8. posted by Sue on

    Jeff has a great idea about using LibraryThing ( You can organize your library, catalog it, and weed as you go. LT also links to a large number of book swapping sites, worldcat, and online book stores so you can easily check on the availability of a book and decide whether or not to keep it.

  9. posted by Kate on

    Using my library (all the time, I’m an addict – currently have 18 things checked out) is one way to save me clutter and it also saves me money!

    For those of you who can’t keep up with what you have read, etc. … check out

    I started using it at the begining of the year and LOVE IT!

  10. posted by michele morgan on

    No time like the present to get a reality check. My husband is out of town for just a few days and I only have a day to get rid of stuff. I’ll ebay the books for sure but as a designer I’m ashame at moments to say that I hang on to the design books, music books, music charts, art books, magazines etc.

    I’m much better at the magazines. I take one to the gym, read it while I’m on the stair master and then rip only the articles I might blog about. Or, it just stays at the gym.

    Donating books is always great. Figure it this way, you can always pick up a new book at a garage sale. Ha!
    Then, you are back to square one.
    I like your advice and I’m sure it has inspired others along with me to get going.
    My first step with the cd’s I own is to put them in the new cd carrier (holds 1000). Wish me luck this week!

  11. posted by CJ @ SaveChange on

    Amen for! I used to be an avid “Bookcrosser” on Bookcrossing, but I like the idea of a one-for-one trade. (I do the same thing for body products and cosmetics at I currently have eight credits for books that I might either find or have on a wishlist that are auto-requested when they are posted. It’s beautiful. The question to consider, though, is where to store the books while they are available on your “shelf?” I keep mine neatly arranged in the guest-room closet. The top shelf works well for the books and they’re out of sight, out of mind for Darling Husband, who sees things and says, “But hey I want that,” even after he told me to get rid of it. Viva bookswapping!

  12. posted by Deb on

    “Unless you’re a British literature professor, there is no reason to have the complete works of Shakespeare on your office bookshelves.”


    How about because it is great literature! I have three different editions of Bill’s works, and they’re not leaving anytime soon.

  13. posted by M.R. on

    I need suggestions for what to do with used books I’ve bought for my adult Sunday School classes. They don’t seem like the type of thing that would do very well on eBay. I wouldn’t mind using FreeCycle….do you think anyone would want them?

  14. posted by Shay on

    @Deb: I think Erin was referring specifically to an *office* book collection in that case, in which case you probably wouldn’t need that collection of Shakespeare – better to keep it at home where you can enjoy it!

    I, too, have the complete works in a beautifully bound edition in my library at home, sitting next to Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, and (my favorite little piece of kitsch) a miniature bust of Shakespeare that serves as a bookend. 🙂

  15. posted by Michele on

    I second Meags’ post about – it is so much fun to scatter my books around and read the notes from the surprised and happy finder.

  16. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Deb — As @Shay explained, I meant office as in your place of employment. In fact, I had a boss give me advice one time to only keep reference books in a place of employment office. The way he explained it was that anyone who walks into your office makes an assumption about you based on the books on your shelf. He said that it was better for clients to base their opinions on my work instead. I agreed. Especially since I knew that there were books on my shelf that were just there because someone gave them to me, not because I agreed with everything contained within their pages. So, I cleared the shelves and kept only reference books where clients might be able to see them.

    Now, if you work in an office where clients don’t come into your space, you probably have a little more give and take on this issue.

  17. posted by Recovering Food Waster on

    Over the last year, I have sold SO many books on My bookshelf is way emptier than it used to be, and I have more money(woot!). Between my church library and the public library, I don’t have that much need to own books(and honestly, a lot of books are just not going to need to be read twice).

  18. posted by adora on

    I’d also suggest having 5-10% empty space on your shelves. When it is fully packed, it is hard to take the books out. You’d be tempted to put books horizontally rather than where they should be. Before you know it, you stop using the shelves because it is hard to look for anything. It will be be just a storage of dead trees.

  19. posted by erin on

    I only buy books that I have already read and know I want to read again. Everything in my collection (three bookcases so far) is special and staying with me. But since I do my decision making when I buy the books, I don’t consider them to be clutter.

  20. posted by Michael Moniz on

    This is a great topic. So many times I have more books then know what to do with. They only collect dust and I rarely ever go back to them. I have had to learn to let it go and stop keeping them.

    A great thing I do is share my books. When I am done, I give it to a friend to read and ask them to pass it on as well.

  21. posted by Patti on

    Another good place to catalogue your library online is I started using it recently and enjoy the opportunity to keep a record of all my books somewhere outside my home. Only thing is, I have a few books I wouldn’t want my mom or my boss to see, so I don’t catalogue those ones! 🙂

  22. posted by STL Mom on

    I’m in a book club that meets monthly. Every third month or so, people bring books for a book swap. If you want your book back, you write your name in it. Otherwise, it travels around until everyone who wants to read it has read it, and someone donates it or sells it or gives it to a friend outside of book club.
    I’m checking out – looks fun!

  23. posted by Brandon Checketts on

    Thanks for the mention of I created it when going through a similar process and was amazed at the difference between what online stores were buying it for.

  24. posted by Zora on

    When I first started volunteering at Distributed Proofreaders (we MAKE the free ebooks) I realized that I could clear my shelves of dead-tree books that duplicated my ebrary holdings (I have thousands of books on my hard drive now, all neatly catalogued.) I dragged sacks and sacks of books to the library for their collection or their booksale. What a clean light feeling!

    Then I started buying old books so that I could scan them for Distributed Proofreaders. My bookshelves are jammed again. This time with musty old tomes, too valuable or precious to give away 🙁

    You can have my copy of LeStrange’s _Lands of the Eastern Caliphate_ when you pry it from my cold dead hands …

  25. posted by mojo on

    I have no particular attachment to the feel, look, smell of a book* so I’m taking a rather militant stance at the moment. I am going all digital as and when the books I own go digital.

    All my paper books as they are replaced by their electronic version are brought up to the local dump where they have a ‘Books for Africa’ ( collection point.

    * The main reason I’ve been given, when showing people my e-ink devices, why they will never stop buying p-books.

  26. posted by Wendi Kelly on

    Ah, my passion and my shame. I hate parting with my books. I am emotionally attached and just like looking at them. My husband just shakes his head. Every now and then, I will pack up a few and I always regret it!
    I go to book stores the way that some women shop for shoes…

    I’m hopeless.

    I need intervention.

  27. posted by Nina Katarina on

    We donate to the local used bookstore about once a month. We get store credit, most of which we don’t use. Once a year, we convert that store credit into a gift certificate for our elementary school library. It works out to about $100-$150 per year. It’s tax deductible. The school librarian converts the gift certificate into 10 smaller gift certificates, and uses them as the rewards for the school’s writing competition.


  28. posted by Jesse on

    I’ve had a pretty good experience with Bookswim ( It’s an online book rental service similar to Netflix. I pay $20 a month and get as many books as I can read. The nice thing is that I get to read the books I want to read (which many times the library may not have or is always checked out) but I don’t have to keep them. I find that if I really want a book I rented I’ll just buy it used on for a fraction of the price but I’ll be certain that I really want it. Most of the time, though, I’ll just send it back and enjoy the next one and my clear shelves with plenty of margin!

  29. posted by Mayooresan on

    mm… I have a passion for books and I buy at lest one book per month!!! I can’t buy more.. cz I can’t afford it!!

    Later, I found a solution.. that is renting a book! if a book is 500Rs then I need to pay 500 Rs. When I return I’ll get 400Rs!!!

    thats a good solution for my book hungry!

  30. posted by Mark - Productivity501 on

    I’m not going to toss my leatherbound copy of the Scarlet Letter even though I can read the whole thing online. 🙂 I am building a personal library because I want my daughter to grow up with the same value of books that I had growing up. In our digital world, I think this is going to be more difficult that we realize. I heard someone talking the other day about how his 12 year old child was “uncomfortable” in a library just because it was so unfamiliar to them.

    As far as taking up space, I’m lucky to have relatives who are willing to store my books in exchange for having a very nice looking shelf of fancy books. That will do until I get my library built some day.

  31. posted by georgeL on

    I agree with Deb. Books stay as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got over 7,000 and I don’t plan to get a divorce from them!!!

  32. posted by Bakari on

    We had a little threaded discussion about this topic a while back in the unclutter Flickr discussion group.

    And here is mybefore and after attempt to downsize books in my overly cluttered office. I gave about 8 boxes of books to two local libraries, and pretty much boxed up the other half of my collection and put them in garage. I think by the end of the year I might get rid of those as well. It’s hard to let go of books, but I decided that I had read many of them and others I would probably never get around to reading in my lifetime. So it was time to let go.

  33. posted by pam on

    I just wanted to put in a plug for Powell’s buy-back program. I sent them five books, out of which they offered $ for four. I received about $15 in credit, which allowed me to buy two great used books. The best part was being able to print the mailing label.

  34. posted by Lily on

    Right today I sold 5 books (in great conditions) in a bookshop and they gave € 2. Total. Umpff. I’d rather give them away if I founs someone who take them.

  35. posted by rich on

    this is the most retarded advice i’ve ever heard. just because something is available online doesn’t make the physical copy any less valuable. hold up, i’m gonna go donate all my concert posters from the 60s cause i found them on flickr.

  36. posted by CDG on

    I’ll add a plug for We have started using it to trade a lot of unwanted books and DVDs. I used to buy a lot of used books on Amazon and can often find them on swaptree. They also trade CDs and games.

  37. posted by Erin Doland on

    @rich — A Dover copy of the Scarlet Letter retails for $1.50 or something like that. There are easily thousands of the Dover copy of this book. There is nothing, absolutely nothing special, about a Dover printing of The Scarlet Letter. I will liken it to a flier a man in a sandwich board might hand you on the street telling you about a new place in the mall to get a manicure.

    I’m going to assume, however, that your concert posters are rare. That to replace them would be a difficult task. Your concert posters would be like a signed, leather bound, original copy of The Scarlet Letter. So, if you read the above article, you would know that I would not recommend giving away your concert posters (or your highly personal copy of the Scarlet Letter).

  38. posted by Tiffany on

    My husband and I just went through a massive book purge a few months ago. One of the most important pieces of wisdom for me was, “Classic books do not go out of print. In the unlikely event you want to read The Great Gatsby again, there will always be a copy available. Do you really need that crappy, yellowing, paperback copy from high school English?” On the other hand, I can read East of Eden over and over, so I kept that crummy paperback. 🙂

  39. posted by Jeannine on

    Because I always assumed books to be a “righteous” purchase (I’m an English grad student, after all), I somehow managed to justify holding on to them even though what they were really beginning to be just clutter. Although I try very hard to unclutter all other parts of my life, somehow my eye glazed over my (overflowing) book collection. It used to stress me out, seeing all the books I’ve not taken time to read yet, and buying more books worried me because I knew all my shelves were full. What a concept! Only keep as many books as fit on your shelves. Hmph. Who would have thought?

    Thanks for helping me to see my “righteous purchases” in a new light.

  40. posted by Ed on

    I hope by “toss” you mean “donate”. I’m part of an organization called “Books for the Planet” which creates sustainable systems for rescuing books/media from landfills and redistributing them both nationally and internationally. One of our current projects is collecting books for a new school that is being built in Ghana, West Africa. It’s goal is to create a mostly free private school system, including grades K-12 plus college, to train an entire generation of children for sustainable leadership — political reform, health reform, economic reform, AIDS prevention and education, eradicate political corruption, etc. Our goal is to collect and ship 100,000+ books to them by early next spring. We will assist in training the teachers to educate the students about sustainability, environment, and recycling.

    We are also looking for potential volunteers who would be interested in going with us to Ghana to help in this amazing endeavor.

  41. posted by ZlatkoGR on

    Yeag, I think you really have to try

  42. posted by Campus Books on

    Better World Books will accept donated textbooks and some other books and put them to good use to promote literacy worldwide. Their requirements:

    Published date after 2001
    Novels of historic importance
    In shape that a classroom could use them

    They pay for the shipment of your book donations, so it is important that books received can be used. When unacceptable books are received they make the cost of doing business more expensive which reduces the amount of money that can be used to promote literacy causes.

    Your books, when received, will be assessed to decide the best use for this contribution. Books are either
    Donated directly to students in need in Africa, Asia or in high risk communities in the United States;
    Sold to generate needed funding (especially for the actual shipping of books once collected) for groups such as Books for Africa, Room to Read or The National Center for Family Literacy;
    Recycled to ensure that no book is ever thrown away where it will likely end up in a landfill.

    More info at

  43. posted by Dusitn Boston on

    Woo hoo, I started my book purge. It felt good to literally remove half of my books from the shelf. If I could only get the wife to do it now too 😉

    @Mark – Productivity501 That is a good point that you made. It would be really nice to have a sort of culture of reading in our home. Actually have good books around to read would help with that. But I’m not convinced that this is the only way to create that kind of environment.

    @Ed Seems like a good idea to donate books rather than just waste them.

  44. posted by IBelieveInFae on

    Humm, I have to disagree with a lot of what you said. I’m a home schooling mother, and I do actually need to have all the works of Shakespeare on my shelves for education. This is the same reason I have public domain books on my shelves – to encourage actual reading of the books. It’s often less expensive to buy a copy of “The Scarlet Letter” than to print one off. Many public libraries are having huge financial problems. My own local library system doesn’t have anything written by Zora Neale Hurston. If I want to order it through Inter Library Loan it’ll cost me $10. I lived one place where they didn’t have ILL at all. The closest used bookstore is a four hour drive away, and the closest new book store is one and a half.

  45. posted by Catherine on

    Great advice, but just one question: Why do you hold onto a book if its value is more than $5? Does that make it any more useful to you or your home? Does it change your plans for that book? Just wondering.

  46. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Catherine — Great question. I only use the money evaluation for books I’m on the fence about purging. It’s more of a measure for books under $5. If I know that I can buy the book again at a very minimal price, then it lessens the burden of getting rid of it. For example, I had three copies of Beowulf in my collection from my teaching days. I do not need three copies of Beowulf. One of the copies was a poor translation, a paperback, and was selling on Powell’s for less than $5, so I took it to my local used bookstore. The second copy was a poor translation, but turned out to be a pretty rare book after I investigated it on Powell’s. I decided to keep it temporarily, but will probably put it up for sale on ebay this summer. The third copy isn’t valuable, but is the Seamus Heaney translation, which I think is the best translation on the market right now. It’s not an expensive book, but one that I love, so I kept it. Come September, the Seamus Heaney translation will probably be the only copy of this book I still have on my bookshelves.

  47. posted by Catherine on

    Thanks for the explanation Erin. I just sold a slew of books to Powell’s thanks to reading your entry, and I was curious as I was more than happy to unload those few $5 or $6 books.

    By the way, one of my books – a photo essay called “The Americans” – netted me a bid from for $40!!! 😀

    Thank you for such a great post. It’s easier to unload the books emotionally when I know they have a home.

  48. posted by sarah on

    Bookins has been really working out for us — mainly because we only want to get rid of books, not get new ones, and with Bookins it is free to ship books and dvds out. People recommended Bookmooch to me, but so far it would have cost me about $100 to send out the same number of books I’ve sent off through Bookins for free.

  49. posted by Cliff on

    I’d have to disagree on the “on-line” books option.

    I see that you say, “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.”

    I do agree on the idea of getting rid of a lot of books. But I disagree that the online public-domain option is any good. For many purposes, it probably is; but for many other purposes, it simply is not. For several reasons.

    Reason 1. The online edition might not be a decent edition. There’s usually no telling which of many versions of a text gets into print (there are HUGE discrepancies among the various versions of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” from within his lifetime, for instance; imagine what happens AFTER he’s dead!), and so a typical edition in paper-print will TELL you what’s there and what isn’t and who made the decision. An online edition generally doesn’t have that apparatus with it. So, you might read Shakespeare’s Sonnets and discover that you ended up reading the one edited by the homophobic who believed Will was actually Raleigh, and yet you’d never know. It’s risky to accept editing from a silent editor.

    2. Online is a pain in the butt. I don’t LIKE reading on-line. You waste paper by printing it back out again, which is both environmentally unfriendly, and counter to the purpose of reducing. Many things which you think are accessible on-line are actually just PRINT-able FROM on-line. Keep in mind which of the two you’re likely to perform in the future, when you consider whether or not to get rid of your non-on-line copy.

    Anyway, aside from those caveats, I approve of the idea of recycling books. Other readers can enjoy them just as well. I try to buy nearly all my books used (here’s how: use the ISBN and Google, or use The words don’t tend to fade out through excess eye grindage …

  50. posted by Rhett Smith on

    I googled “downsizing personal library”, etc. and found your blog. Thanks for the helpful hints. Makes sense.


  51. 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…

  52. posted by Teresa on

    I just wanted to comment about 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 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

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  57. 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.

  58. 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.

  59. posted by Erin Doland on

    Did the Kindle exist when we wrote this post??

  60. 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!)

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    […] 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 […]

  68. 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.

  69. posted by Sean on

    Try selling them to They buy almost any book you would have and usually for a solid amount of money

  70. posted by Spring Cleaning… | Creative Mamma on

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

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