Personal libraries : putting books on shelves

Of course, once you’ve got some idea of what things you have, you probably need to figure out how to store them.

As with the other sections here, there’s no one right answer. Your space, your preferences, what you want easy access to, are all going to affect how to shelve things.

I do have some tips for sorting it out.

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

Where will you use things?

This is the obvious sort of question – it probably makes sense to shelve cookbooks near your kitchen, crafting books near where you do crafts, children’s books where you read to your children (or they read to themselves), and so on.

You may not have perfect space to do all of that, but starting with the books that are most rooted in a particular task will get you started.

Plan for expansion

When you’re laying out shelving, think about where in your collection you may want to add more items in the future.

If you’re shifting over more items to ebooks, maybe you’re going to buy physical copies more heavily in some areas. (Books you want to lend people, or have in print, or books that don’t have electronic versions), and other areas of your collection won’t need much expansion space.

Consider building a virtual collection list first

You may find it easier to create a digital list of what you have first (or, well, I suppose you could also do a big stack of index cards.)

This will let you get a count of different types of books, and also a better sense of what you have. It’s also often a task that can be broken down into small manageable pieces more easily than actually moving everything around.

Tip: I found it easiest to work by taking a photo on my phone of 8-10 books (stack, as they would be on the shelf or flat, whatever fit in the camera frame readably.) I’d take a string of photos, then go enter them comfortably at my computer.

LibraryThing and some other catalog tools have scanning options, as well.

What groups matter to you?

We’ve talked already about books you may use in a specific place, but this is the time when you split things up.

Some people shelve their collections by author, A to Z, regardless of topic. Some people shelve by size, or colour, or other factors.

Some people shelve by type of book – topic or genre. This is what I do: all my modern fantasy books are in one place, all my mysteries together, all the non-fiction history together. (I group by subgenre, because when I am standing there going ‘what do I want to read’ my answer is usually a subgenre: “I’m in the mood for a historical mystery.” and when it isn’t, it’s a specific book, and it’s easy to find it on the genre shelving.

One shelf has my astronomy and astrology and stories about constellations and planets. Other people might entirely separate these three. Another shelf has what I refer to as ‘ritual technology’ – material on how to do things in magical or religious ritual, relevant to my religious witchcraft practice.

Your groups are almost certainly different, but find what works for you.

Expect the process to take a while.

I mean both that it will take some time to sort out, and that you’re probably going to end up doing more than one iteration of how things are laid out.

Chances are pretty good you’ll discover something in the first round that makes sense in your head, and not so much when you actually try it. (This happens no matter how sensible your planning process is, I think.)

Move things around virtually first

When I was setting up my bookshelves in my current apartment, I first put everything into LibraryThing.

Once I had that, I added tags to group them by, and figured out about how many books I had in each of the major tags. I set up a spreadsheet where I could list all of the possible topics, and then another sheet where I had a list of major subjects down the side, and then boxes along the horizontal for each possible shelving space.

I counted how many books would fit comfortably on each possible shelf, and then moved things around until I got shelf counts that made sense for me.

Move things around physically

For physical books and other items, there’s no denying you will eventually need to move things around physically.

I tend to strongly prefer to do this kind of thing by setting aside time to do it over the course of a week or so (maybe in segments, depending on your space) with some room to leave things in stacks on the floor temporarily while I’m arranging things.

Your stamina stands a good chance of being greater than mine, so maybe you can do it in the course of one or two more intensely busy days.

Either way, there’s a balancing act between arranging things mentally and getting them in the right places. If you need to move things in larger chunks, some banker’s boxes or cardboard book boxes can help you store and move things around temporarily.

Group items by shelf

Usually, it will go faster if you work on getting items for a given shelf in the right place, and then you can worry about arranging them on that shelf further. This may lead to stacks of books all over the place temporarily. If that’s a problem for you, try sorting things out into labelled boxes, or doing just a shelf or two at a time.

Finally, organise the shelves

This is something that may depend on your actual physical setup, and how much you care about precise order. Because I double stack some books (so many books, not enough wall space), I don’t worry about having books within each shelf highly organised by author or series, because they’re in small enough groupings I can spot things.

At times when I’ve had more space to play with, I’ve usually preferred to shelve my fiction by author, and by internal chronology of the series (though there are some series where I prefer publication order – it’s weird what things we have a really strong opinion about!) My shelves, though, so my strong opinion is fine.

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.

Organising a personal library: 5 ideas from Ranganathan, applied

Organising a personal library is hard. Even for librarians.

I moved here a bit over two years ago, but with one thing and another, I was busy in ways that made it hard to sort out my personal library for a long time. Since December, I’ve spent part of two vacation weeks sorting out my books, including the second week of July.

I’m delighted to say they’re all on shelves now in some semblance of order that pleases me, and entered into LibraryThing. I’ve got a bit more work to do, but I’m now at a stage where I can work on it in much smaller pieces that fit into my day to day life.

One of the things I was thinking about while I was doing this was S.R. Ranganathan, who in 1931 wrote the Five Laws of Library Science. These are like ‘laws of physics’ not ‘laws of the United States’, which is to say they’re concepts for understanding how things work or should work, so we can create practical models that work with our physical and intellectual world, not against it.

All of which makes me want to talk about organising a personal library, and how this librarian does it.

Card catalog drawers with different drawers of slightly different woods. Text reads: Personal Library: 5 ideas from Ranganathan, applied


Ragnathan’s Laws

One reason these are so popular is that they are stated very simply. (Though they have a lot of room for nuance and discussion.) Here they are:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his / her book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

So how do those apply to a personal library? How I apply them may be different than how you apply them, but here’s some food for thought.

1) Books are for use.

When applied to institutions, the idea behind this law is that books should be available. Ranganathan was familiar with libraries where books were chained up, could be used only after extensive application processes, or only by people who could provide certain kinds of references. That’s a very different model than most public libraries in the United States in the 21st century.

For personal libraries, I think this is a great place to apply the core Marie Kondo question – does this thing bring you joy? Is it actively useful? Or are you keeping it for other reasons?

I don’t think people should get rid of books if they don’t want to (minus actual health and safety or practical reasons like moving or moving into a much smaller apartment) but it’s definitely good to think about why we’re holding on to physical objects.

My personal library these days is about 400 print books, and over 600 ebooks. (I got rid of a lot of print when I moved from Minneapolis to Maine, for reasons that are obvious if you think about moving print books.) These days, I mostly read print in the bathtub – I’ll come back to that – and ebooks everywhere else.

Here’s what I chose to keep in print:

Books with specific sentimental value. Not just ‘a friend gave this to me’ but things where the book itself has a lot of specific resonance. 1066 and All That which I remember reading with my father. Books he wrote.

Books I want potentially want to lend (or at least let someone look through). Lending ebooks doesn’t really work (both logistically and legally). This means most of my Pagan books are in print format.

Books where the print format works better for me. A large book of illustrated stories about the constellations. Cookbooks. Herbalism books.

Books without an ebook version. For obvious reasons, since this is the only way to have that book.

Books that had an ebook version, I made notes about, and have been slowly adding titles back to my collection as my budget allows if I want to replace a copy. There are places I made exceptions (I have a complete set of Dorothy L. Sayers novels in print, because my brain wants to read them in print.)

Your decisions might be different! That’s to be expected, because I bet you use your books differently than I do.

One other part of books being for use for me is that I’m hard on the physical objects. (With a few exceptions of rare and hard to replace books that have particular value – I’ve got a first printing of the Charles Vess Book of Ballads, for example – that link describes the second printing.)

I read in the bath. I read while I’m eating. I dogear pages. (Only in my own books, all of these.) I want the books to be something I use, not something I worry about damaging. I take reasonable precautions, of course, and sometimes I have to replace a physical copy. But normally it’s the content I care about deeply, and the physical item is the way to get that.

2) Every reader their book.

In large libraries, this rule guides librarians to look at the entire community they serve when deciding what books to focus on. (Since basically no library can buy – or house – everything. It’s also a rule about not judging people by what they want to read.

Back around the turn of the 20th century, there was a significant movement in public libraries in the United States to have libraries focus on morally uplifting literature – things that would ‘improve’ the reader. If you’ve walked into a public library recently, you’ll see that’s not true these days. But librarians still argue about how much libraries should focus on books versus movies and dvds. If they should be collecting video games. If certain genres (romance, or genres tightly associated with particular communities, like urban fiction) should be part of the collection.

Individual different libraries come to different decisions about these things, and how they do that is a topic for other posts.

For me, it means that I think about what books fill out my collection. What does this book bring me that isn’t already here? “Something amusing to occupy me that’s similar to other things I’ve liked before” is a perfectly fine reason.

Knowing how a book I’m considering relates to what I already have and don’t have yet helps me make better choices. (And since I’ve always read more than my budget entirely supports, this is important!)

3) Every book its reader.

This is the flip side of the second law. This means that every book that someone wants to read has a place in the library, even if a relatively small number of people want to read it.

For me, this is a reminder in my personal library that it’s my personal library. The books that are there make sense to me, for reasons I don’t have to defend. (Though I do choose to keep my main LibraryThing account private for a variety of reasons.)

In a world where there’s often a lot of performative norming, especially on social media, this is a pretty powerful concept.

We’ve probably all seen the discussions where people are shamed because they’re reading something from a problematic author, or not just reading things from authors valued particularly by that community or group, right? And how poisonous that can get sometimes?

I definitely believe in thinking about what I’m reading and why I’m reading it. But I think that is – has to be – my own call.

Sometimes I find myself doing what I’ve come to call processing reading, where I find myself reading certain kinds of stories, for an extended period of time, as I try to work through particular emotions or reactions or situations. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious why I’m stuck on a thing, but sometimes it isn’t. (And often, during my witchcraft training, this would happen and it would take me months to figure out what my subconscious was working on!)

Letting other people control what goes into my head has never worked well for me. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Especially for something as personal as reading.

4) Save the time of the reader.

Applied to larger libraries, this has to do with things like signs and catalogs and information about how to find books.

In my personal library, I come back to “When I want to find this book, where am I going to look for it?”

I normally group my physical books by genre and subgenre because those are the things I’m most likely to remember about a book or want to look for a book by. Here’s some examples of my current shelving:

  • Stars : astronomy and astrology, because I have some books that are about both.
  • Ritual technology : magical and ritual techniques – though not ‘how to write a ritual itself’
  • Rituals : which is the shelf for collections of ritual works, and larger ritual structure discussion.
  • Fantasy – historical : my classification for fantasy in mostly historical settings.
  • Anthologies : because they tend to be cross-genre but I’ll remember that it’s an anthology.
  • Embodied life : books about being in a physical body, with all its quirks. (Cleaning, health, exercise, etc.)

In my current shelving, I also thought about making sure the books I’m likely to want to grab most easily are convenient for that – my cooking books are in the shelf nearest the kitchen (on the other side of the wall in the living room), and in my bedroom the physical copies I keep but don’t read often are in the bit of shelving that I have to move something to get to.

5) The library is a growing organism.

This last law is about remembering the world changes, and we should adapt with it. In libraries, the approaches (and books, and materials) that were great 20 years ago are no longer sufficient. We’ve got new technology, different needs, communities the libraries in are changing.

In my personal library, it’s a reminder that this book that was hugely meaningful ten years and two moves ago might not be a thing I need to hang onto forever. It’s a reminder that a book that I love can have some serious flaws (and that means some things about whether I should recommend it to others). It means I should look at what I’m doing periodically with my books (and other sources of information) and make sure that’s still working for me.

And on a practical level, it means I should think about how much space I have for shelving, and what I’m going to do about that. In my current apartment, I have a bit of expansion space, possibly, but in other places shelf space has been so limited that I definitely had to watch how many print books I brought home. Some people have a “One book in, I have to get rid of another.” (Yet another reason I love ebooks.)

What does it all mean?

There are hundreds of different ways to look at organising a personal library, whether we’re talking about print books, or ebooks, or videos, or bookmarks, or podcasts, or any of the many other possible formats. Having a guide like Ranganathan’s laws helps me remember what really matters most when I’m making decisions.

It’s not a quick and simple checklist (I’m working on one to help people with these questions!) On the other hand, five rules are pretty easy to pin up and put somewhere obvious.

How do you apply these concepts in your own library? Leave a comment, use my contact form, suggest what you do on Twitter.