Personal Libraries : Simple cataloging principles

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

Which is to say, now that we’ve got a bunch of items, how do we keep track of them? This article is an introduction to basic cataloging principles.

(The quote, of course, is from Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter” and it’s here because it’s a thing that often pops into my head when I start thinking about lists of subjects.)

A hidden bookcase opens out, revealing a room behind. The bookshelves are full of leather-bound books.

What is cataloguing?

Most library schools require librarians to take courses in cataloguing, and many librarians find it really frustrating. At its most formal, cataloguing has a lot of little tiny minute details and special cases.

(My favourite of these, from the system in use when I was in grad school, the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, 2nd edition, was that there’s a method for cataloguing material gained through spiritual mediumship. For the curious, it’s point 21.26 and says “Enter a work that is presented as a communication from a spirit under the heading for the spirit. Make an added entry under the medium or a person recording the communication.”)

Fundamentally, though, it’s about providing ways to get access to information about what your library has.

There are lots of ways to do that. Some of them scale better than others (or work better for large, nuanced collections). Some of them are easier to manage. Some will make more sense for you intuitively than others, probably.

The essentials

Some of this will depend on how you’re keeping track of what you have. If you use software, they’ll probably ask you for certain pieces of information, or have a way to search for it. (I use LibraryThing, about which more in future articles.)

You want to think about points of entry for finding works. Normally, these are author, title, and some sort of subject categorisation.


Titles are usually the easiest to sort out.

Sometimes you have a subtitle, sometimes you have something that feels a little weird. Sometimes series titles look like book titles or vice versa. But we can usually figure out a title most of the time.


The author is also usually pretty obvious, but again can have some complications (some systems deal with multiple authors a lot more elegantly than others.) Corporate authors, the term for an organisation being the author, can also be complicated.

But you can usually look these up, and use what the booksellers or libraries are using.


Subjects are where it gets complicated.

Libraries use established subject headings (sometimes from the Library of Congress, sometimes from other established lists. These are almost always going to be way more complicated than you want for a personal collection.

However, there’s a concept you may want to consider, which is the idea of the controlled vocabulary. This means that you use a set list of terms to organise what you have.

Controlled vocabularies are often contrasted to folksonomies, which are things like open-ended tagging. A lot of us are now used to tagging our things in some way, whether that’s blog posts, social media posts or something else. (Tagging people’s names or handles is a sort of variant method: it connects pieces of information together by whatever that thing is.)

The downside of an open-ended system is that you can end up with things like

  • cat
  • cats
  • cat stories
  • my ridiculous cat


  • book
  • books
  • reading
  • read

Now, these may actually be four distinct categories for you! If they are, there’s no reason they shouldn’t have four distinct labels. But if they’re not, you might want to think about tidying this up.

If you use a variety of words to mean the same thing, you’ll lose a lot of power to search and gather similar items.

Controlled vocabulary tips

Here are a few tips for beginning to build a controlled vocabulary for your collection, if you want to be able to use your tags to find all the material on a topic.

Start with a sample set

It can be really helpful to start with a small but manageable set of items and see how that goes. You’ll often learn a lot about what you care about after you’ve done a few dozen items.

Somewhere between 20 and 40 is a good starting number: you can work through that fairly quickly without it feeling overwhelming, but there’s enough variation you’ll start seeing places your initial ideas may work well or not. Either pick items that are in a similar large category (different fiction books, different non-fiction books, writing research books, etc.) or you can try a mix of all your categories.

Decide on format

Part of why I suggest starting with a sample set is you may discover you have a really strong preference for format when you start actually applying it. This can mean different things, but I find it helpful to have a consistent structure for similar things.

In my catalogue, I have genres broken out by different aspects (usually historical/modern) because that’s part of how I shelve them. So I have:

  • fantasy – high
  • fantasy – historical
  • fantasy – modern
  • fiction – historical
  • fiction – modern
  • mystery – historical
  • mystery – modern

That means I can see all the mysteries together, and all the fantasy, and so on. I could also have decided that each item would get a genre tag, and also get a ‘time’ or ‘style’ tag. (High fantasy is for the ‘this is a unique magical world with stuff that is not directly connected to our historical timeline’ and ‘historical fantasy’ is what I use for a world that has magic or other elements not in ours, but that is rooted in a time and place that either is in our world, or is a close cognate. The point is, the terms make sense for me.)

Formatting also applies to things like ‘do you use plural or singular or adjectives’ or what? For topic terms for my books, here are some examples:

  • astrology
  • astronomy
  • biography
  • cosmology
  • creativity
  • deities
  • divination
  • embodied life

It continues with things like

  • genii loci
  • internet & technology
  • magical fiction
  • microhistory
  • ritual technology

These may not be terms that matter for you – but these are all really useful for reasons I often go looking for books.

As you can see, I am mostly using names for disciplines if there’s a name for that, and then creating other terms or phrases. I also tend to prefer lower case.

Apply your terms

You’ll almost certainly need to make some adjustments as you go. That’s entirely normal and expected.

You may figure out a more elegant way to phrase things or a phrase that makes you grin. (It’s your collection. You get to have puns, pet phrases, or personal in-jokes in your cataloguing if you want.)

You may also decide to combine things. I try to find a larger category for any term where I have fewer than 2-3 works that fit into that category. (And I look pretty closely at anything less than 5-8.) This helps keep my overall list of tags manageable and useful.

Consider fancy formatting

Depending on the tool you’re using to keep track of things, you may have the chance to group tags (such as in Pinboard, which I use to keep track of web links.)

In others, you may want to use specific characters to group things, if your software allows. You can use these in some tools to keep similar terms together. For example, in LibraryThing, I use characters on the front of terms to group things.

  • !time for the era when something takes place, such as !ancient, !modern, !between the wars. (Where I’ve got rather a lot of books.)
  • .genre for the genre. .fantasy – high or .mystery – historical go here.
  • @location for where it takes place. Some of these are pretty general (@Africa), others are more specific, like @Boston or @London. (Those cities also get regional tags, like @New England and @British Isles).
  • I use the tilde for specific shelving locations for print books, which sorts those at the end.

I find these really helpful for two reasons – it lets me scan the list of tags quickly for similar things. And when I’m entering tags by hand, I can use autocomplete to see a short list of the things of that type. If I type a period at the beginning, it will give me a pretty complete genre list, and the period plus a letter or two gets even better. This is tremendously helpful in keeping a manageable and internally consistent list because I’m relying on autocomplete, not my memory.

I also love using tools that let you rename tags quickly and easily – in LibraryThing it’s just by editing, in some tools you have an extra step or two. But if I discover I’ve been entering “cat” in some and “cats” in another, I can quickly combine the two by editing. The same thing if I have a typo.

Next time

I’ll be talking more about how to figure out how to group things and put them on shelves or otherwise deal with them in long-term groups.

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