How We Organize Says Who We Are
When I tell people that I'm a personal librarian, their typical response is "I didn't know that was a thing." They might ask "People do that?" After we talk more about what library curation means, and their furrowed brow relaxes, they respond in one of two ways. Either they tell me how they organize their own books or they ask me how I do it. That is: They want to know, from the expert, the right way to arrange a collection in a room, or on a shelf. We all do it differently, after all. There must be an accurate method.
Some people divide their book collection into his and hers. New and old may organize themselves organically in the order they fall, with no planning, on the shelf. Odd-sized volumes can force your hand. Color has been the Pinterest favorite for organization and presentation of late (frankly it lost its wow value for me back in 2014--these are books, not dresses). Author last name, reasonable (but where to put Du Maurier? Harriet Beecher Stowe?). Subject begs the question which subjects? Which sub-subject, for that matter? And there's always haphazard, wherever space is found, or "in order of last read." I've heard of a bedside table arranged in the order one's library books are due. All of these are perfectly fine themes. All with potential for madness as method. All desperately personal decisions.
The answer is this: We, each of us, are special snowflakes. We are unique and we need our books arranged to reflect who we are. We all deserve to have our own classification system, tailored just to our needs. We need someone to make us a system like Mr. Dewey made for himself. Melville Dewey was an American born in the 1850s in New York, and his system was created with his worldview in mind. American libraries (as well as those in hundreds of countries) still cram our subject matter, all subject matter, into the odd-shaped box called Dewey. Dewey's classification has become the law of the land by default, for better or for worse. Now for some of us, that might work-- surely there are communities whose lens on life, on God, on philosophy and art actually still resembles Mr. Dewey's pretty closely. Plenty of space for Christianity, painting, and European history, rough luck for Hinduism, film studies or the Silk Road. Have you ever run out of space on a shelf-- you collect books on billiards, say, and suddenly you've bought one too many for the furniture at hand? That's an excellent metaphor for any library that finds its contents not working within the bounds of how it was originally organized. In a library using Dewey, you plug five more numbers on the end of a decimal. If it's your home collection? Perhaps it's time to reevaluate how you look at, access, share, and get rid of your books. The lesson to be learned from the Dewey Decimal System is not which subjects are in the 360s and the 940s, but simply the creative process of making a system in the first place.
How We Encounter Our Books
When I organize a collection for clients, whether a house full of books they've had for ages or a brand new library I have curated for them book by book, I talk to them about what this library means to them. The first question is whether the books on the shelf are already-read, yet-to-read, for show, for safekeeping, for guests, or all of the above. Perhaps more telling: It's important to talk about how people in a space interact with books. Some of us come back to them again and again, reference them, run hands across spines, pick one up and loan it to a friend. In certain rooms, the library serves as wallpaper and communicator to others, a chorus about style, topic, or emotion from each shelf. There are challenging decisions to make when taking into account the space available, how (whether!) you want to use your books regularly, priorities, passions -- and the all-important "can you reach things on this high shelf here? What about this shelf?"
We can think of our books much like items in our pantry. While it would be lovely to have shelves evenly divided by major food groups, we typically shop for our stomach, not our shelf space. We want the ingredients we use most in the most convenient location in the kitchen. Rarely used oddballs go in a back corner cupboard (and if they don't, I'd consider expanding this article to include kitchen organization). This is precisely what needs to happen with your personal library. An inventory of space and a review of the subjects at hand will allow you to match the two.
Inventory of Space and Books
How many bookshelves do you have? Which rooms are they in, and who uses those rooms? Which are prime access points for you, for your family, for browsing guests? Which spots are less desirable -- top of the ladder, say, or bottom shelves blocked by an armchair, perhaps?
If you are able to get all of your books off the shelves to organize from scratch, do so. If you are opinionated about your topics and genres, they are perhaps already divided into rough sections. If they are all over the place (which tells me that you are a prolific, curious reader), start to gather together books you associate with one another. Make your own rules. You are the boss of these books. Thoreau's Walden could easily sit beside books on simple living, American classic literature, or memoir--that's your decision. Would you put your short stories in with the novels or perhaps separately, beside poetry? Group all of your books as best you can, title by title. Keep like groupings together in piles on the floor: history in one corner, art books in another, fiction yet another, etc. When subject areas get too large, further divide them into smaller categories of your choosing.
When I do this initial sort for someone, I do best when I can check with them along the way. You would be surprised how opinionated we can all be about things that go together and things that decidedly do not. Books that are dear companions and must be shelf-buddies and those that have nothing, absolutely nothing in common. It is here that I have learned, for example, the importance to one gentleman of geographical differentiation in books about Germany (Black Forest books being worlds apart from Berlin). In my public library work, my staff would identify 3 separate subject areas a book could fall into and have to decide for all of the public how that book might best be found. In public libraries, a system all can rely upon is invaluable. In your private space, it's between you and the books.
You have your many subject areas and a certain number of empty shelves. Take stock of the puzzle at hand: Of the topics most important to you, what will fit in the space you identified as prime shelf real estate? If you're lucky, this decision makes itself. But if you have 200 favorites and only "best location" space for 50, make further hard decisions about your topics. Before you start loading things onto shelves: Consider your big picture plan. Traditionally libraries read left to right, next top to bottom, and then move horizontally through a room. Certain shelving allows flexibility, though: If you have high ceilings, consider where subject areas could extend. Does it make sense to see the shelves as long horizontal "stripes," books go on top shelves all the way across the room before starting on the next row? Or do you see them primarily as columns, top to bottom, top to bottom, never across? Are you using other rooms to store books as well? Are there subjects you'd like to move there first, or will those areas have small, mixed capsule collections? Do you have large, simple subdivisions to start with, like fiction and nonfiction, children's books and adult books? If it helps, map out the space. Or simply dive in. Start deciding and shaping. Allow the progress to change as you go.
The Puzzle Begins
The easy part. Locate the books you use least, the ones that don't excite -- actually, let's stop here: Should any of them simply go away? (More in a blog post to come on simply getting rid of books). No? If they're keepers but not those that must be at hand and visible, go ahead and get them onto your highest, hardest-to-access, least visible shelving.
The hard part. Making things fit in a logical manner that allows for the things you love most at arm's length. That will make logical browsing sense to you down the road when you have forgotten your system in two months or two years and need to either locate something or put a new book in a proper place. Start placing subjects around their groupings. Be flexible with the categories you originally chose if they don't work practically on the shelf. Don't cram shelves full; leave space for new ones to come. Be good to your back as you work through the lifting and shifting that is home library organization.
There is no right or wrong way to organize your books. They are yours to love, to find (or not), to collect dust or have their spines worn out from lying open on a table as you peruse. If you like those rainbow Pinterest color-sorted books? Perhaps you remember books best by their color, in which case this logic is brilliant for you. If you like your French Revolution next to your history of couture, or your biography of Fitzgerald next to his novels and a history of the 1920s, then that is exactly as you deserve to access them on your shelf.
The Evolving Library
The Smirl Classification System (how the books are organized in my own home) changes as we ourselves change. I once had a shelf full of cookbooks until I realized I prefer two of them and the internet. When dear friends started bringing their toddlers on visits to the Tetons, I started accumulating children's books in our guest rooms. There was a time all of my local-interest books fit on one shelf, then the local history and the local ecology both grew exponentially. They are terribly stacked at the moment; it may be a battle for reader interest in our family to see which needs to be moved to a less preferable location. Lately my line of work has brought all manner of beautiful cloth-bound books into my path, and so they have taken a place in the living room. They add texture to the room and fill a space that needed a focal point, some color. All to say: It's evolving, my home library. Always evolving. Like me and the books in my life.
How would your dream library be arranged?
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