On Shelves and Organization (or the Lack Thereof)

[Originally posted on my LIS blog]

Confession time: Unlike many of the folks I’ve encountered so far in these very early stages of my MLIS studies, I have not actually cataloged my libraries (home and work).

I know. Shameful!

I have sometimes thought about doing it (usually shortly before a move to a new home and/or office), but I always end up contenting myself with the (probably silly) idea that I can just keep it all in my head. I know what books I have, so there’s no need to do anything more. The silliness of this idea becomes most evident when I am forced to confront that fact that certain books once in my possession are no longer there; I found myself required to sell quite a hunk of my SF/F collection once upon a time (lacking both funds and storage space for them all), and sometimes I forget that those books are gone. *sigh*

Lately, I’ve thought of actually buckling down and doing it for real, and as I’ve entertained the idea, it has occurred to me that my two collections — home and work — are really in much different organizational states at the moment. It interested me to realized that many of the main reasons for the different organizational systems (sure, yeah, let’s call them systems…riiiiight) in both collections are purely spatial and physical in nature. What does that mean? Well, it all seems to break down along the lines of shelving and use.


Before I became a mortgage-paying homeowner, I used to organize my home collection alphabetically by author (then by series/date, etc.); most of the books I keep at home are fiction (classics, SF/F, etc.), and I’ve never felt much need to break them out by kind or subject matter. The thing that makes this tricky, however, is the shelving in my office/music room at home. Because I really liked them, I ended up using some sweet leaning shelves from Crate & Barrel (on sale, once upon a time). I have some cheapie pine slat shelves, too, but I use them for musical instrument and sheet music storage (mostly because the slats are really wide and impractical for small paperbacks). Problem: the shelf sizes get smaller from bottom to top, and it is really awkward to put big books on top shelves. I ended up having to organize my books by size, which just seems so horribly arbitrary to me  — almost as fake as buying a shell of Hegel in order to pretend I’ve read it. Yet that really did turn out to be the most effective way to get books put away. Whenever possible, I grouped things both by size and by author, so that it wasn’t a complete mess.

Just a small sample of the arbitrary mess...

Just a small sample of the arbitrary mess…

To catalog this collection, I think, could be done simply by organizing by author the way I used to, but if that catalog is also to serve not only as a list of what’s present but also as a map to where to find what’s present, I would obviously need to include some notation about shelving.


At work, I have four very large metal bookcases (much taller than I am) that I haven’t quite filled  — not for the lack of trying, mind you! While I had briefly considered alphabetizing my books by author, I ended up breaking the lot up into relevant subject areas conditioned on use and the amount of material I have. All of my Kant books (both by and about) and texts immediately historically adjacent and relevant to my particular focus on Kant are together. All of my Wittgenstein books (by and about) are together, and because I worked very briefly with the late Peter Winch when I was a student, my Simone Weil books are with my Wittgenstein books. My Nietzsche stuff is together, etc. I put the rest of my Early Moderns together, and my Ancients and Medievals. My philosophy of religion books are shelved with my actual religious texts. My collection of logic books (most of which I keep primarily as sources of problems and exercises for my students) all hang out together.

I have shelves of dictionaries and style manuals (in more than one language), and a sort of random shelf of books that are in my office for some reason but don’t otherwise seem to have a special place (a historical anthology about Mexico, for example). The lot of Classical Library editions that I inherited from a previous office resident have their own shelf, rounded out with old books rescued from a purge of a library collection. There are two bottom shelves full of old desk copies of textbooks, many of which I also inherited from someone else, that I refuse on principle to sell to the guys who come around trying to buy them. I kind of hate most of those books, but I’ll be damned if I’m selling them to those guys!

The trickiest thing about organizing that mess of academic stuff was not necessarily deciding on my area-of-specialization oriented groupings — it was deciding which shelves they should all go on. Most of the organizational scheme of my office books is about making sure that the books I use most often (either for class or for research) are ready to hand at a moment’s notice, so they’re all in the bookshelf closest to the desk. I also end up with piles of a given semester’s student texts on my desk, because I am using them, and I never quite get around the putting them back. To catalog this collection would require me, I think, to lay out an organizational scheme in my catalog design that would reflect both my subject-area needs and my immediate use needs.

Oh, the very grand plans one begins to work on when the snow is heavy, the windchill is sub-zero, and the winds are howling by at about 40 mph…


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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3 Responses to On Shelves and Organization (or the Lack Thereof)

  1. We have close to 3000 books, and the most vague organization ever. So naturally, we have a lot of duplicates as well (which comes in handy when people want to borrow them). My system is, “Hey honey, I’m thinking about buying X book. Do we already have it? Where is it?” And then starts the room to room search…there’s even a big stack of them supporting a murphy bed.

    BTW, the merging of books was my true marriage with my husband. That was the big decision. The piece of paper was nothing in comparison to that moment. Once those books get merged, there’s no going back, til death do us part.

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    • I have this vision of your murphy bed and its book supports that just makes me smile. :) THAT is a proper house full of books!

      If I didn’t have an office at work in which to keep things, I’d probably have to give my guest bedroom over entirely to books! As it is, even with everything shelved, there are piles on tables, piles on the window seat, piles on the filing cabinets…whee!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Logic and Classification (crossposted) | Ginger IS The Professor!

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