Dewey or not Dewey: on organizing one’s personal library

July 31, 2010

After months of living like animals with our books just thrown on the shelves however they came out of boxes when we moved in, my husband and I have finally organized our personal library. When I announced this project, a number my non-library-affiliated family and friends made jokes about the Dewey Decimal system, but it also prompted people to describe to me how they organize their own book collections.

One friend doesn’t organize his library because he values serendipity above all else. Another interfiles fiction and non-fiction and just alphabetizes by author; this makes finding what you want very simple because there’s exactly one place that book can be. A third friend organized her books by height because she doesn’t have a lot of books and doesn’t have a lot of space to store them. Another friend called me when I started library school to ask if she should use Dewey or Library of Congress to organize her library and even made up spine labels because she loves to organize but also loves to share. Others had more complicated systems and honestly, as long as you’re not sorting by color, I’m not going to pick a fight with you. (I know that there are people for whom color is an essential part of experiencing a book or the part they remember best, but most of the time I think sorting by color is done by people who own books purely for decoration.)

Organizing our library also sparked some discussions about the principles of arranging books. While I guess the expectation is that librarians love DDC so much that we bring it home with us, a real library science enthusiast knows that the purpose of classification and arranging is to make materials accessible to people. In libraries used by lots of people, we use standard classification systems like Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal Classification because they’ve been developed to work for lots of different kinds of people approaching books in lots of different kinds of ways and because they’re widely used, so frequent users (or those who’ve had some bibliographic instruction) know how to find things on their own.

But even libraries don’t always cling to the letter of the law: rather than keeping biographies in the 920s in between geography and history or interfiling them by the area in which the subject worked (the Cataloging in Publication data for my husband’s biography of Frank Zappa assigns it a call number in the 782s, which are books on vocal music), many public libraries have a separate biography section. Even fiction can be classified with DDC, winding up in the 800s with books about literature–but usually libraries separate out fiction, maybe even break it into genres, and then organize by author’s last name rather than the author’s country of origin or the language in which he or she writes like DDC dictates.

And while most of the time libraries have a system in place that’s intended to make things as accessible as possible to the most number of people and stick to that system, there are occasional debates about where things should live in the library. Every few months, someone on the YA listservs will ask what others do with non-fiction in their libraries: is all non-fiction in the adult section or is there a YA non-fiction section? What does it contain? Just homework and test-prep books or also recreational non-fiction reading like instructional books, inspirational biographies, and video game guides? (In general it sounds like most libraries have a small collection of high-interest non-fiction for their teens, but most research-oriented non-fiction goes in the adult section.)

But that’s what public and research libraries do, and they lots of people looking for lots of things. Your own personal library is used by far fewer people and the people who use that library probably don’t come to your books with the expectation that they’ll be arranged by Dewey or by LoC. You’re free to arrange books in a way that works best for you. Do you want to just sort all of your books by author because that’s the easiest way for you to find things? Do you want to keep every book an author’s written together regardless of genre or content? Do you have a huge collection of romance novels that you want sorted by raciness so you can easily find the book that’s right for the moment–or the company in which you’re reading? I think your organizational technique says a lot about your own interests, how you view your library, and how you perceive knowledge in general.

So after some time looking over what we had and waiting for patterns to emerge, my husband and I settled on the following categories in the following order:

  • Nerd stuff: role-playing game guides, video game guides, books about video games, books about computer games
  • Books about computer stuff (canonical theory books, programming languages, game design, graphic design, other special topics)
  • Books about math (textbooks first with related fields near each other, then more recreational titles), books about science (by discipline)
  • Books about philosophy, books about religion (sacred texts, apologia, books about different faiths)
  • Books about document design, books about English and writing (e.g., Strunk and White’s THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE and things like EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES, SISTER BERNADETTE’S BARKING DOG, and anything by Karen Elizabeth Gordon), dictionaries
  • Books about Swedish government and history (from the courses I took the semester I spent abroad)
  • Instructional and how-to books
  • Feminist texts, books about politics
  • Books about music and musicians
  • Miscellaneous non-fiction
  • Library science textbooks, books about librarianship, and books about books
  • Memoirs, narrative non-fiction, humor writing (all interfiled, sorted by author, anthologies come first)
  • Poetry, then plays, and then classics
  • Science fiction, fantasy, and dystopian novels (by author’s last name with series in publication order)
  • Graphic novels and comic books (manga, webcomics, small press comics, Marvel universe, DC universe)
  • General fiction (by author’s last name)
  • Young adult books, children’s books, and picture books (by author’s last name), children’s books in other languages (by language)

It’s not Dewey, but it’s a good way to group like things in our own collection, and–most importantly to me–it lets us put things that might fit into two categories at the boundaries of those categories. For example, books on cryptography are at the end of the computer section or the beginning of the math section, depending on how you look at it, and the Swedish-English dictionary is between the other dictionaries and the books about Sweden. Specific kinds of fiction that we particularly enjoy get their own sections, and fiction is all sorted by author’s last name to make finding a particular title easy. We also had to make accommodations to the space in which we were working: I’d like my books on library science to be with the books on writing and language, and I’d like graphic novels to not be in the middle of our fiction collection, but both need to be on a bottom shelf to accommodate oversize titles.

Throughout the rest of our home, media is sorted by platform (movies and television and concert footage and music documentaries on DVD, CDs, vinyl, video games by console) and then alphabetically by author or title. In all we have almost 37 yards of shelving of media (we had to buy three new bookshelves when we moved into this apartment).

Our categories and our system can’t really be extrapolated to anyone else’s library–they’re hyper-specific in some places and very broad in others–but it works well for us because it reflects the way we perceive our collection. How do you organize your library? What principles guided that organizational scheme?

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11 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. karl  |  July 31, 2010 at 4:40 PM

    here’s a book i picked up a few years back. has great ideas about displaying the books, but not catalogging. my paperback books tend to be a bit of a jumble, but my hardcovers are generally more arranged by topic/author.

  • 2. karl  |  July 31, 2010 at 4:40 PM

    oops, sorry, i forgot the link!

  • 3. Tweets that mention Libra&hellip  |  July 31, 2010 at 4:58 PM

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by karl lindner, Gretchen Kolderup. Gretchen Kolderup said: New blog post! – Dewey or not Dewey: on organizing one's personal library – […]

  • 4. A.J.  |  July 31, 2010 at 5:04 PM

    I love learning about how others organize their (at-home) shelves! My partner & I have lived together five years but have not combined our book collections, with the exception of cookbooks and graphic novels. The shelf space does not lend itself to my ideal organization scheme, but I do categories like you: general fiction, YA fiction, music, feminism/women’s studies, language & writing, style/design, how-to, and essays, memoirs & biographies. At my parents’ house, I have all my books from college divided into even more categories! I’ve thought about re-organizing by Dewey, but I think you’re right, one’s own personal organization works better than anything else.

  • 5. webber  |  July 31, 2010 at 7:38 PM

    Where is the social science section, Gretchen!

  • 6. webber  |  July 31, 2010 at 7:40 PM

    Also, where do you put the humor books (if you own any)?

  • 7. Gretchen  |  August 2, 2010 at 10:03 AM

    Karl: it’s interesting that you separate out your paperbacks and hardcover books. Is there a reason for that? And that book looks interesting–as does !

    AJ: this was the first time my husband and I had actually merged our book collections–leading us to realize just how many duplicates we have! Being able to clear a little shelf space was nice, but we still don’t have loads of room for expansion. And before this merge, I had all of my assigned reading novels from middle school through college arranged by the class for which I’d read them. In retrospect, it reminds me a little bit of the autobiographical arrangement of albums in High Fidelity!

    Webber: the humor writing is mixed in with the memoirs and narrative nonfiction (e.g., Bill Bryson). Unfortunately as Casey and I have more natural science/tech backgrounds, our social science section is pretty tiny (just the feminist texts, I suppose). Do you have some recommended reading for me?

  • 8. Erin  |  August 2, 2010 at 2:22 PM

    I am a librarian with an unorganized book collection. In my defense, I think its lack of space more than anything. At least all our Harry Potter books are together on the shelf!

  • 9. Gretchen  |  August 3, 2010 at 1:05 PM

    Erin: the more people I talk to about this, the more it strikes me how much the organization of our personal libraries is influenced by space. I suppose that’s because most of us don’t have dedicated libraries: our books share our living space, so they have to make accommodations. But oh, to have an actual library in my home!

  • 10. Cary  |  August 3, 2010 at 7:39 PM

    Hmmm. No Romance novels?!! I know what you’re getting for Christmas!

  • 11. Gretchen  |  August 3, 2010 at 8:13 PM

    Well, I do have a copy of WHAT THE LIBRARIAN DID that was given out at PLA! But that is my only romance novel.

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