How to organize your book collection

"BIBLIOTECA PALAFOXIANA" by José P. Torrealba - Ayuntamiento - Oficina de Turismo. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Biblioteca Palafoxiana” by José P. Torrealba.

Whether you have a crazy cookbook collection or an overflowing child’s bookcase, a few simple tricks can help you get organized. I know because last month I organized my daughter’s bookshelves. She has 300+ books from all over the world spread over 2 bookcases. There are floppy soft covers and tiny collectibles. There are boxed sets who’ve long since lost their boxes. After 6 years of use the bookshelves were so disorganized they were barely functional. Heavy books shoved smaller editions to the back of the shelf where they’d be lost for weeks at a time. Random art projects were strewn in with the toppled volumes, making finding a favorite book near impossible.

Organizing the bookshelves was my daughter’s idea.

Even though I was annoyed with the state of the bookshelves, I had mostly accepted the weekly grind of reshuffling things. And even though I’m becoming more and more of a minimalist, I draw the line at downsizing my daughter’s book collection – books build creativity and knowledge. We’ll always have well-stocked bookshelves.

It was my six-year old daughter that suggested we fix things up. We’d just been to the library and were talking about how easy it to find what you’re looking for there even though dozens of people pull from the shelves every hour.  I told her librarians decide how to categorize the books with color codes and labeling systems.  Sometimes, I told her, it’s not an easy job figuring out where books should go (my memoir can be found in the cooking department and sometimes in the memoir department, for example).

This captured Ava’s attention.

“Let’s organize my books, Mama,” she chirped.

I paused. I blinked. … not because I didn’t want to do the work, but rather because I knew I’d throw myself into the project wholeheartedly. I couldn’t just half do it.

The whole project took about 10 hours spread over two days… and I’d do it all over again given the chance.

In the month since we organized the bookshelves they have STAYED organized.

I am able to find the African folktales and I know exactly where her cookbooks are. Best of all, so does she. Since we introduced this system my daughter can be found checking the spines of her books before putting them away… exactly where they belong.

Here’s how to organize your bookshelves, no matter how many books you have.

How to organize your book collection

1. Put all your books on the floor.

Don’t skip this step. The only way to get organized is to see what you have. I got the idea of pulling everything off the shelves from Marie Condo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Not only will you find duplicates, but you’ll be more inclined to let go of less-loved books because it’s quicker to donate them than sort them.

2. Make piles by common type

As you take books off the shelves you’ll start noticing – “Hey! My child has a lot of biographies.” And science books. And cookbooks. And Egyptian reference books. And Christmas stories. Every child’s bookcase will reflect their interests; this is the key to how you need to categorize their bookshelves.

Build the category piles on pieces of labeled construction paper to help keep them straight.

The piles may change as you work:

  • I initially started a pile called “Folktales/Fairytales.” It grew so big, I decided to break it up geographically. I had “The Americas,” “Africa and Asia,” and “Europe.”
  • Same with nonfiction – there were enough books to create the following sections: “Science,” “Egypt,” “Biography,” “Entertainment,” “Animals,” “Cookbooks,” “Global.”
  • I then had a whole section called seasonal that I further broke up: “Fall” and “Winter/Christmas.” Those were books that are rarely read except for those times of year.
  • I was surprised to find I had nearly a dozen volumes of children’s poetry. So they got their own section.
The orange and green dots are books in "Entertaining" - the red dot is "Biography."

The orange/green dots are “Entertainment.” The red dots are “Biography.”

Two green dots are global interest; yellow/red dots are science books.

Two green dots are global interest; yellow/red dots are science books.

A single green dot indicates "European" stories or fables.

A single green dot indicates “European” stories or fables. Sometimes we keep multiple copies of the same story to compare illustrators or translators.

3. Use colored stickers or washi tape to indicate sections.

Once you’ve come up with your sections, start putting the books back on the shelves. To start you can use a post it note to mark each section. Then go back through and tape on colored stickers to the spines to give a visual indicator for each section. A piece of tape will secure the stickers so they can withstand frequent handling.

Color coding is very Montessori – it almost doesn’t matter what the sections are – your kid will feel empowered to put her books back where they belong based on the stickers alone. I’m not kidding when I tell you my daughter and husband now keep the bookshelves looking awesome with no effort or reminders.

Even after teaching the cat to make egg salad.

Two yellow dots? Cookbooks!

Two yellow dots? Those indicate one of Ava’s favorite sections – cookbooks!

4. Add the name of each category to help your child learn them

This is the final step that helps make a pretty and functional system educational. Add the name of each category on the bookshelf. Use a label maker if you want. I decided to use “barely visible” white stickers with pencil. Over time my daughter will realize where certain fables come from, and that books about real people are called “Biographies.”

If Ava wants to know what her cat is thinking or learn about Ancient Egypt she can follow the red and blue dots or read the labels below them!

If Ava wants to know

5. If you have a wide bookcase break it up with magazine files

Don’t make the mistake I made: large bookshelves with frequent use are nearly impossible to keep tidy. This is because it’s never just a few books that topple – it’s all of them. And it’s never just a few books that slide behind others – it’s a dozen.

When I struggle to put books away without pinching a finger it’s unreasonable to expect my 6-year old to successfully put her books away.

So what to do?

If you go to the library you’ll notice they use metal dividers to help manage their books. Magazine files are an elegant way to break up the home library while also providing support.  I used White See Jane Work Magazine Files that I found at the local office supply store. Three per shelf was the right number to keep things from sliding around or toppling. Plus 3 looks nice.

Real Talk: One of my shelves was too short for the magazine file so I used an exacto knife to trim the top. A little white paint or tape and you’d never know the difference.

6. Fill the magazine files with the skinny or short books that always get lost

This way you’ll be able to get your hands on them. I have one filled with Ava’s art pads, another with her beginning reader books.

7. Enjoy

Now that you’ve done the hard work, sit back and enjoy the books! Make themed story times. Perhaps spend one night reading poetry. Or an entire week on biographies. Or a week on folktales with very important messages, like the one below.

A story every child should read.

Do you have a big collection of cookbooks or children’s books? How do you organize your shelves? Share your tips (or frustrations) below.


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