Ask Unclutterer: Organizing physical media

Reader Nancy submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I’m about to finally get a storage unit for music CDs; it resembles an old-fashioned library card catalog. Should I organize the CDs by composer, performer, genre, piece type (symponies, concertos)? What makes the most sense? Almost all are classical but there are some “easy listening.” Many thanks for considering my question.

Your question is about music CDs, but my response can be applied to organizing many other types of physical materials — especially papers and books. And, the answer is simple:

Organize items in the way that makes the most sense to you.

If you’re the person retrieving items and also the person who is putting them away after you use them, you’re much more likely to maintain order in the system if it makes complete sense to you.

How would you want to search for the CDs so you find the exact CD you want exactly when you want it? For me, that would be according to genre (all classical together, all easy listening together, all rock together) and then subdivide according to composer (all Mozart together, all Beethoven, etc.) and then subdivide by work (Eine Kleine Nachtmusik) and then alphabetize by performance group or performer or conductor. I’d organize the CDs this way only because I usually have a desire to hear a particular piece of music. If you’re someone who usually desires to hear a particular performer or conductor, you would want to arrange to reflect that search preference.

I also recommend labeling your system well so if someone else approaches your CDs (or files or books) he or she can locate items and put them back.

If you’re not the only person regularly accessing the CDs, you need to develop the organizing system with the other people who will use it. Find the most agreeable solution and then make sure everyone is trained on how to organize the materials so things are returned after use.

Another good idea is to always leave room for growth and change. You don’t want things so closely packed into a space that it’s difficult to put items away or to move items around, if necessary.

Finally, you might also consider digitizing your CD collection. I realize this would take a considerable amount of time and expense, since I doubt you would want to compress the files. But, it’s definitely something to consider if you plan to expand your collection. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that people are very emotionally attached to their music collections and suggesting digitizing it can be taken as offensive. However, it does make storage and retrieval extremely simple, and you never have to worry about a CD getting scratched or something not being returned to its storage space after it is used.

Thank you, Nancy, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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19 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Organizing physical media”

  1. posted by Sarah on

    I’m not an audiophile, but ripping all of my music and recycling the CDs at BestBuy was very freeing.

  2. posted by Karma on

    We went the route of ripping all the cd’s to a hard drive as well.

    With movies, I have a large cd/dvd case that holds around 300, I fit quite a movie collection and several full-series television shows into it and still have room. I organized by seperating the movies from the TV shows, the animation from the live action, and alphabetically by movie title / show name from there.

  3. posted by gypsy packer on

    FLAC is a lossless compression program which can be used for digitizing. If you wish to keep your files in WAV format, the best way to do this is to convert them and store them on one or more external hard drives, and then access the hard drives to load to your computer’s music player. These will alphabetize automatically and mp3 files can be converted and set up into playlists for downloading to portable music players.
    I did not do this when I digitized my collection straight to WMA, and regret it frequently.

  4. posted by RP on

    I’ve used something called JewelSleeves, which hold all the inserts, booklets and CD’s in a compact plastic case and recycled all the jewel boxes. There are other alternatives that do the same thing. This way if you later find that .MP3 wasn’t good enough for you, you still have the CD’s available.

    Over the years, I’ve made musical compromises for the sake of convenience. Nothing sounds as good as a record, but man were they cumbersome. CD’s sounded worse, but they were durable. MP3’s were far more compact and portable (ie, an iPod) and finally those little ear buds instead of big speakers my kids will likely stick a pencil through.

    I can hear the difference and long for the good old days, but realistically, I probably wouldn’t be listening to my record collection any more. With these compromises it saves room and gives me much easier access to my unfortunately huge collection of music.

  5. posted by Rick Lobrecht on

    If you’re ripping your CDs, and then selling/giving them away, you’re likely giving up your fair use argument.

    I’d be more interested in finding out about the cabinet they’re buying. I’m having trouble finding good storage for our optical media.

  6. posted by JustGail on

    A question for those that keep the CDs/DVDs in cases without the jewel boxes – how do you keep them from getting scratched when taking them in and out? The DS put his playstation disks in a small case and after a while they became so scratched they wouldn’t work any more. The only place the disks were scratched was where the edges rubbed the inside of the pockets.

  7. posted by Carol on

    My CDs are alphabetized by artist. For artists with multiple CD’s I then arrange them by year they were released. I organize my books the same way. DVDs are alphabetized by title. This system makes the most sense for me and I’ve never had any problems locating anything this way. Organizing by genre has crossed my mind though.

    I do wish I had a better place to store everything though. I had a coworker who bought a large portable CD wallet and stored the CD and booklet in the sleeves before tossing out the jewel case. That used to horrify me but lately I’ve been thinking about doing that. You really don’t need the jewel cases unless you think you might want to sell the CDs later on, which I don’t. I’ll definitely have to check out the JewelSleeves RP mentioned. Digitizing is great but I wouldn’t get rid of the actual CDs.

  8. posted by Beth on

    Another good idea is to always leave room for growth and change. You don’t want things so closely packed into a space that it’s difficult to put items away or to move items around, if necessary.

    As a professional collection development librarian, I want to just pluck this piece out and repeat for truth.

    Give your things room to breathe and grow. Rearrange when the system doesn’t work anymore.

    If your collection is very large or broken up between several rooms, I do recommend a catalog of some kind, even if it’s just a spreadsheet with basic details. Don’t overthink it (don’t put, for example, shelf numbers – just the shelving unit or even the room) because this document, too, should have room to rearrange and grow, and editing it should not be unneccessarily frequent or fussy. A catalog/content list also helps if it’s neccessary to put some things in long-term storage.

    And Rick is right; ripping copies for personal use and then passing the originals on to another owner (with or witout payment) is just as much technical copyright violation as the reverse. But if you do, or if you’re just thinning down the collection a little, please consider options for donating.(My workplace’s DVD budget is $500/year, y’all. I know individual families who spend more than that on DVDs, and we’re serving a community of 10,000. We have NO music budget, but a 1,000-plus title music CD collection, thanks to wonderful donors.)

  9. posted by tba on

    This comment is inspired by RP’s remarks about making compromises, but I realise it’s gone way beyond a simply reply. This is my plea for records, and I hope its worthwhile reading, because I tried to bring an uncluttered perspective into it.

    So, your situation is something like this: You can hear that your CDs/mp3s do not sound as great as your records, still you’ve got rid of them. You’ve substituted your speakers for earplugs, just because your kids might break them. You think mps are less clutter because they take up less space. I’m not so sure.

    Firstly, if you want great sound in a room, you put the speakers on head level, or above head level. Mine sit on the top of my shelves. I can’t reach them without raising my arms, so there is no way kids (or anybody, for that matter), could do them harm.

    Secondly, CDs are, most likely, NOT more durable than records. Of course, there is no single-handed answer to the question of how long CDs last. Figures vary according to storage, type of discs, etc.
    Have a look at this:
    You can see that CDs have only been tested to last 15 years, and it is estimated (“guessed”) that they may last longer – but there is little experience (They’ve only been around for less than 30 years). More than 50% of recordable DVDs do not last 15 years.
    Also, durability of your data does not only depend on your CDs alone. New versions for programmes are being developed all the time. New types of data as well. We currently use mp3s for music, but it has been explained in the comments already that mp3 is actually not a great format, and if you look around, there are many many others. About 15 years ago a lot of people still used floppy discs, and nowadays it’s hard to find a computer where you can put them into.

    So with CDs or mp3s, you are very likely to find yourself ripping your information, storing them on a computer and/or external hard drive, sometimes burn them on CDs or DVDs, and then you find yourself repeating that process every couple of years because technology changes.
    You’re gonna spend some time on mainting a digital library. If that’s something you enjoy doing, fine, if you actually hate it, I would say – not very uncluttered.

    Thirdly, a fact we all know but find hard to admit: Digital information is worth nothing in an economical sense of the word. Mp3s can be multiplied a million times, distributed all across the world, CDs ripped and burned. You spend a lot of time ripping, filing, burning, storing things of which the financial value is nil.

    So here’s me being in the defense for records: You’ve got a physical object that has a value. If you still bought records in the early 90s, you’re very lucky. They are among the most valuable items in music that you can have, because with the introduction of CDs there weren’t that many vinyl records produced. So hold on to them, their price can only rise.

    We know records can last a long time. You can go to a shop or flea market and get a Beatles record from 1964 and play the music. 1964, that’s almost 60 years ago. Put your records in plastic sleeves. Clean the dust off the record and the needle before you play it, and you’ll be fine.

    You can listen to records with headphones, too, if you don’t want to disturb anyone in the house.
    But most importantly, you can educate your kids about great sounding music, supervise them when they want to listen to music, enjoy the songs together. Instead of you listening to mp3s on your earplugs alone. Ever noticed hwo crap smartphones sound? Go to a book shop and pick ANY musician’s autobiography: You’ll read that they became turned on to music because their parents used to play records when they were little and that influenced them.

    As for physical clutter: I admit records can be cumbersome. They are large, heavy, should be stored standing upright – in short, they do take space. If that’s not for you, fine. But you could see it as a challenge against clutter: I’ve started collecting records only a couple of years ago. I’m gonna build myself an eclectic, flawless collection of music that I really love. No cases of
    “OMG, I can’t believe you’ve got that cheesy Rick Astley Album”
    – “Yeah, I know, but I don’t really listen to it, I just found that one song really great a couple of years ago”

    Instead, a collection of great music that looks good and sounds great. I find that very uncluttered.

  10. posted by Sue on

    I second the “use what makes sense to you” concept.

    What works for us is genre, artist. Genre runs the gamet of classical, rock, techno, easy listening, ethic, sacred, sound effects, movie soundtracks, jazz, etc. This has allowed me to find the duplicates in our large library and regift them to a friend with similar tastes.

  11. posted by Sian on

    Heh, this just reminded me that when I first met my now-husband he organised his cd collection by location! Sounds mad but it did kind of work as there are often local trends in music (Detroit blues, LA rap vs New York rap, Scandinavian indie pop…). But when we moved in together and merged cd collections I just couldn’t use it so he had to swap to boring old alphabetisation!

    Of course, now we have everything on a hard drive and have sold the physical collection to Music Magpie.

  12. posted by Anne on

    Absolutely digitize! You’ll be able to find anything instantly.

  13. posted by Debbie M on

    I don’t have much music, so I just organize it by musician/group. Same with movies, but organized by title. I organize books by genre, then author.

    For more ideas on organizing music, see “High Fidelity.” There are lots of fun things about the movie, not just the silliness with ways to organize music.

  14. posted by chacha1 on

    I just recently did the major part of organizing my music CD collection. Because I’m a dancer, I used dance genres as the organizational categories. When I want a particular swing or tango artist, I can go directly to the swing or tango shelf box.

    All the discs are filed alphabetically and I’m ripping most of them to iTunes just for ease of use, since complete audio fidelity is not a major concern.

    But I also have a considerable amount of classical music. I divided it up into categories as well: opera; piano; guitar; and then Composers, for the largest category of orchestral works.

  15. posted by GMTB on

    I went alphabetical by artist up to the year I got an iPod, and I spent all of Labor Day weekend converting them to MP3. Moving ten boxes of CDs to the local radio station’s used music sale was incredibly freeing. I’ve kept maybe 20 CDs with great sentimental value or autographs. Now if I can just get my husband to do the same.

  16. posted by GMTB on

    @Debbie M: Hee! I love “High Fidelity.”

    Dick: It guess it looks as if you’re reorganizing your records. What is this though? Chronological?
    Rob: No…
    Dick: Not alphabetical…
    Rob: Nope.
    Dick: What?
    Rob: Autobiographical.
    Dick: No ^&*(‘ way.

  17. posted by Rosemary on

    Just a reminder that laws about copying CDs vary from country to country.

    In Australia, it is actually illegal to rip the CDs to another medium. However, most people do it and it will probably be all right provided you KEEP the orginal disk, and DO NOT share the digital files you create.

  18. posted by Robert on

    “I’ve used something called JewelSleeves, which hold all the inserts, booklets and CD’s in a compact plastic case and recycled all the jewel boxes. There are other alternatives that do the same thing.”

    Thanks for that suggestion. I just organized my CD collection (500 + ) earlier this year. Now that I see how much space it’s taking up, I was looking for some way to get rid of the jewel boxes while keeping the discs and inserts for future use (ie, if my hard drive crashes).

    While the reviews on Amazon for JewelSleeves are positive, some have recommended the comparible Jazz Loft’s CD sleeves due to price. As you said, there are probably other alternatives, too.

    FYI: When I organized my CDs, I used Google Docs to catalog them.

    At the bottom of the spreadsheet, you’ll notice there are 4 tabs : “General Music” “Classical Music” “Spoken Word” “Other Compilations”

    Probably not a perfect system, but “good enough” for a first attempt.

  19. posted by Mark Harrison on

    If you are worried about obeying the law, then you can’t make a copy then sell the original and claim ‘fair use.’

    If you aren’t worried about obeying the law, why not pirate the music in the first place?

    I’m all for digitising music, and compared to the cost of a CD, the disc space to store it (even uncompressed) is tiny…

    … but once they’re converted, then the CDs need to go into a box in the loft, not to the garage sale.

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