How to organize your books

If you have a substantial number of physical books you intend to keep, how do you organize them on your bookshelves? There’s no one best approach, but the following are some possibilities to consider:

By genre and/or author

These are the most common approaches, and they are often combined. For example, you might put all science fiction together, organized by author. It’s up to you to define genres (and sub-genres) as you wish, depending on how you classify books in your mind and how many books you have. You could also use one of the library classification systems: the Dewey Decimal Classification or the Library of Congress system.

I tend to organize by genre and I keep all books by any one author together. However, that’s as detailed as I get — I don’t organize authors or titles alphabetically. But some people find alphabetizing to be helpful, and some will add a chronological component: organizing books by each author in the order they were released, organizing history books from oldest time period to the most recent, etc.

By color

While this can create an interesting look, does it interfere with finding a specific book when you want it? Not always, since some people remember book covers and colors. You could also choose this approach for the books in just one space — it doesn’t have to be the approach taken for all your books.

By height

This is often a compromise from a genre/author approach, when some books just won’t fit with the others. Or it could be a second-tier organizing strategy, where books within a genre get organized by height.

But you might also choose to organize by height — especially for really tall or really short books — to make the best use of limited bookshelf space. This works best when you can adjust the shelves to just the right height. I have one shelf that’s a collection of super-short books.

And as with books organized by color, some people just like the look of books organized by size, and use it as their primary sort.

By read vs. unread

This would be an approach to use in combination with another one, where all the to-be-reads are kept together (and organized however you wish). All the ones you’ve read and are saving would be kept separately (and also organized however you wish).

By how much you love them

Some readers like to keep all their favorites together, and then use whatever other system they want for the rest. This especially makes sense if you tend to re-read these favorites frequently, or if you often loan them to friends. If you have a guest bedroom, you might want to put some favorites in there.

By language

If you have books in multiple languages, your first sort might be by language. Within each language you could then organize by author/genre or whatever other approach appeals to you.

By personal chronology

I’d never heard of this approach until I saw what James Reynolds wrote about how he organizes books: “by date I got them. simple that way. new books just get added to the end. in this way, you get to trace the story of yr entire reading life – in chronological order.”


Some folks know that simply getting books off the floor and onto the shelves is as much as they’re likely to do, so they don’t set up organizational systems they know they’ll never maintain. And other people just enjoy the randomness. For example, Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, said:

What I like about that disorder is that it allows that element of surprise and serendipity. When I’m looking over my shelves, trying to figure out what I’m going to read next, I don’t know where everything is and that enables me to be surprised.

And a note about shelving techniques: There’s been some recent attention to the practice of shelving books backward, with the spines inward and pages outward. While I’ve seen many people deride this, it winds up that some neurodiverse people find this a much less stressful look. I had never considered this, and I’m thankful to C. L. McCollum for sharing that perspective.

5 Comments for “How to organize your books”

  1. posted by Allan on

    It would be great to have some recommendations for tracking books. That is, is there a simple, reliable app that could, say, scan bar codes and create a searchable database of books?

  2. posted by laura ann on

    Many people I know ditched 90 percent of their books, donated to libraries or church groups. The internet has much that’s updated. Books can be checked out of local libraries, but reference books I kept. Way less clutter and got rid of a bookcase too.

  3. posted by G. on

    I’m a subject/author organizer. I prefer real books because reading on e-readers or computers causes too much eye strain and interferes with my ability to go to sleep. Also, I don’t have to worry about outdated or incompatible file formats and books disappearing from the internet. I will do e-books for antique out of print out of copyright books that have been scanned and put on the internet.

    Having books on a shelf spines in, or wrapped in identical dust jackets is decorating, not organizing in my mind. Unless you take the extra step of having an inventory of where the books are, I’d think trying to find a particular book is more stressful than looking at a jumble.
    Unless maybe combine the spines in shelving with read/not read? Put any book you’ve read spine in, so you focus on what’s not read yet?

  4. posted by Jennifer on

    I have many art books and years ago a friend helped me get organized. I arrange them by category: architecture; interior design; exterior design; artists; history and instruction. That pretty much covers everything.

  5. posted by Susan on

    @Allan: I use to catalogue my books (both the ones I keep and the ones I pass on). It has an app so you can scan the ISBN codes on your books and add them to your catalogue.

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