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How to Organize a Personal Library

Suggestions on organizing and cataloging a personal library.

I am developing what I suspect will soon be an extensive personal library. Though it is currently not all that large, as these things go, it is growing at an alarming rate. When we moved into our current house just over one year ago, I had, to the best of my recollection, four bookcases in my office which left me lots of wall space to hang prints of some of my heroes of church history. I couldn’t quite fit all my books in there (the military history books are still in boxes in the basement) but it did suffice for all of my other books. A year later the three available walls of my office are lined with bookcases, all of which are stuffed to overflowing. I’ve only got room remaining for three of those church history prints. In many places books are piled from the top of the bookcases to the ceiling. I have room along my walls for two more bookcases (though they’ll have to go between my desk and the wall, meaning that my desk will be pressed hard up against the shelves). At that point every wall in my office will be hidden behind bookcases.

While I do collect books, many of these come in because I am a book reviewer. Some publishers are eager to have me read and review their books (with tens of thousands of new books flooding the market each year they are anxious to have anyone review them!) and new titles come flowing in on an ongoing basis. This growing collection has caused me to have to get a bit creative with managing the library, so in response to questions from some of this site’s readers, I thought I’d tell how I keep my library in some semblance of order.

Perhaps it is helpful to first understand the orders of order. In the first order of order we organize physical objects—in this case books. As soon as we do anything with those books, placing them on shelves, sorting them by author, and so on, we have entered into the first order of order. This is helpful, but is best used in combination with the second order of order. In this second order we create metadata, which is information about information. Think of an old-fashioned card catalog—the kind you used to see at libraries. This card catalog contained information about the book, it’s title, author, and perhaps most importantly, the place you could find it. It represented the second order of order. To organize my library I depend on both of these orders of order. I’ll start with the second.

My Library in Bits and Bytes

LibraryThing is a great service that allows you to catalog your books through their web site. A product of this Web 2.0 world, it also encourages social networking, linking the libraries of various users in interesting and creative ways. While I do not often use the social networking features, I’ve found the site indispensable in organizing my library and in creating metadata about my books. If interested, you can see the results here: My LibraryThing Catalog (As a visitor to the catalog you’ll see the books ordered by title. I created a custom view for myself so I see them sorted by entry date so that the book I added most recently is at the top). As of the moment I write this, I have cataloged 1079 books which represents the bulk of my library (I didn’t add some of the older and more obscure theological volumes). Cataloging is a simple process. I simply click “Add Books” and type in a title or an ISBN number. In 99 out of 100 cases, the software will find the book (at Amazon, the Library of Congress, or any other number of places) and all I need to do is click to confirm it’s found the correct one. If I have already added that book it will let me know there is a duplicate in the library. Adding a book takes only a few seconds per title. Every time I receive a new book I immediately add it into my catalog. I don’t put it on a shelf until it has been added to LibraryThing.

When I first began using LibraryThing I had to invest a fair bit of time in cataloging the books. I went through each book in my library, adding the titles one-by-one. It was miserable, but was a necessary evil. If I had to do it again I would use a barcode scanner (which can be had for only a few dollars through LibraryThing).

While cataloging the books is great, LibraryThing does not stop there: it also allows books to be “tagged.” Unfortunately for me, I have not been very creative in tagging books. At some point I intend to go through the catalog to do a better job of this. A tag can be any word at all that describes the book’s content. I have tended to use “categories” more than tags: Christian Living, theology, and so on. What would be better would be to be more specific: atonement, justification, holiness, heresy, and so on.

Once the books are cataloged, I can search quickly and easily to see what I’ve got in my library using the available metadata. The search function will pull up authors, titles, tags, and so on. If I want to see if I’ve got a book by R.C. Sproul, I simply go to LibraryThing, type “Sproul” in the search box, and can see an immediate list of all of his books in my library. If I want to look for a book about a particular aspect of theology, such as the trinity, I could simply type “trinity” into the search area and see what shows up. Had I done a better job with tagging, the results would be better!

My Library in Atoms

After virtualizing my library, adding it to the world of bits and bytes through LibraryThing and creating that second order of order, I still need to deal with the actual books—those big, heavy, tree-based things that insist on being comprised of atoms and insist on taking up space (and a lot of it!). I need to find a way of sorting them using the first order of order and sorting them in a way that is intuitive. I tend to keep most of the books I receive, but do throw out the worst of the worst. There is little point in allowing some of them to keep taking up space. Every now and again I tend to weed through and cull any that have made it through my first filters and are now just taking up space.

I’ve chosen to organize my books on their shelves in this way:

  • Commentaries by book of the Bible. I have a bookcase that starts with the complete Commentary on the Old Testament series by Keil & Delitzsch. That is followed by the rest of my Old Testament commentaries organized by book of the Bible. I then have the Baker New Testament Commentary set (by Hendriksen and Kistemaker) and it is followed by volumes organized from Matthew to Revelation.
  • Church History. I’m not sure why I singled out church history as a category, but for some reason I did. So a church history section follows the commentaries.
  • Fiction by author. I chose to separate fiction from nonfiction and organized my fiction titles by author. This is probably the smallest section I’ve got!
  • Reference books. This is a somewhat arbitrary section of systematic theologies, commentaries on catechisms, and other similar reference books.
  • Everything else organized by author. And then I come to the rest (and the bulk) of my library. This stretches from Abanes to Zwonitzer and everything in between and spans many bookcases. Where I have many titles by the same author (such as John MacArthur) I have organized the titles alphabetically. When I first organized the library I left the bottom shelf of each bookcase empty so I had some room to grow. Needless to say, it has long since grown into that room!

I’m sure my method is not perfect. But it works for me. We can, I think, be very subjective, very pragmatic about this. When I browse through other people’s libraries I see a lot of variety—some are organized very methodically and others seem to be completely chaotic. As long as a person can track down the books he needs his method is a success. This is how I do it and it seems to work just fine for me. A few days ago I had to go through each of the 100 or so footnotes in the manuscript for my upcoming book. The system worked well for me as I pulled book after book from the shelf, never having to look for more than a few seconds for any of the titles.

I’d be interested in hearing how others here organize their libraries and whether you’ve also found value in using a service such as LibraryThing. Do you rely on that second order of order or can you still exist with just the first?