Monica Chavez, pictured, built her home library with her husband. They chipped away at it on weekends for two years. (Monica Chavez)

How to organize your books, according to people with thousands of them

Serious book lovers share their strategies for displaying their collections and keeping all those titles from taking over

7 min

Here’s a riddle for you: When a book editor and political science professor downsize from a six-bedroom house in the suburbs to a 900-square-foot Manhattan apartment, how many books will they have to get rid of? For Matthew Budman (the editor) and his wife, Cristina Beltrán (the professor), the answer was a staggering 12,000.

“We had, you know, giant yard sales, and we had people carting off thousands of books,” says Budman, author of “Book Collecting Now: The Value of Print in a Digital Age.” The transition was tough, but he says it allowed him to recognize that quantity isn’t everything. Now, he keeps roughly 3,000 titles at home (plus thousands more in storage).

Living with books, in Budman’s case, has meant learning how to let them go. For many book lovers, collecting is as much a practice of labor as it is love: Gorgeous shelves have become a status symbol to flex on social media, but managing all those volumes can be a much less glamorous endeavor. We asked bibliophiles, with libraries ranging from 300 to 3,000, about their displaying and organizing strategies.

The storage

When he furnished his house in the Philadelphia suburbs, Budman relied on a longtime favorite among book fanatics: the eminently practical and affordable Billy bookcase from Ikea. He ultimately amassed 16 of them: “There was always room for another Ikea Billy bookcase.” Three made the move to the new apartment, along with a mix of other Ikea shelves. Although Budman says he’s typically drawn to antique furniture, he sticks with basic bookcases, because they don’t sacrifice storage space in the name of fussy trim or aesthetics.

The Billy ($89) can also serve as a foundation for custom projects. Monica Chavez, a DIY blogger in the San Francisco Bay Area, used the bookcases to design what she calls a “mega Ikea hack” in her house for a room that has a vaulted ceiling perfect for a library.

Chavez and her husband, who both work full-time jobs, chipped away at the 14-foot-tall project on weekends for two years, building out the wall and trim, so each Billy bookcase would fit in seamlessly. She commissioned a custom aluminum library ladder for a fraction of the cost of a custom wood one.

When the couple finally finished, they had a minor problem: The library was so big that they didn’t have nearly enough books to fill it. Chavez found the solution at an estate sale in nearby San Jose, where a 2,000-title collection was being sold for $10. “The caveat was you had to take all the books,” she says. “We had to rent a U-Haul.” Chavez spent months sorting through them, finding hundreds that resonated with her, including autobiographies, cookbooks and old war books, which held meaning because of her family’s military background. Now, she estimates about 1,500 volumes sit on her shelves.

In Birmingham, Ala., book blogger and home builder Brittany Mareno also seized on the high ceilings in her living room as an opportunity to create an epic book display. As a gift, her husband commissioned a large, custom bookcase from a carpenter who’d helped them with other projects. “My husband said, ‘You are never going to fill these. This will be more bookshelves than you’ll ever need,’” Mareno recalls. “I filled them up immediately.”

Mareno uses a wooden ladder that her father made to access the upper shelves. “I’m a notorious klutz, so he wanted it to be really super, super sturdy,” she says. (Ladders don’t have to be custom-built. You can find library ladder kits online that come with the ladder and the necessary hardware.)

The organizing

Although there is no single way to organize a collection, there are some useful guidelines. Typically, libraries and bookstores sort titles by genre or subject area, then stack them in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.

Chavez uses that system for shelves at eye level, which, in her house, hold contemporary titles and current reads. She keeps her kids’ books on the lower shelves, where they’re easy to reach, and reserves the highest space for collectible and valuable books. Because those extra-precious titles aren’t meant to be read regularly, she doesn’t need to arrange them in a practical way. Instead, she organizes them by color for that rainbow-shelf effect. “People get really riled up about having books displayed by color,” Chavez says. “I think it’s a great conversation starter, but it’s my library, and I’m going to do what I want with it.”

Mareno also suggests keeping special editions on higher shelves — a method that saved her books from damage when her house recently flooded. Still, there’s no requirement that you organize your books at all. Benét Wilson, a freelance journalist, says there is no particular order to the charming library in her family home in San Antonio. Her father built the house in 1987 and designed a glass-encased library that holds about 300 books.

“Right now, it’s just random,” Wilson says. “I’m looking at a book by Donald Rumsfeld, which is a fine first edition of ‘Known and Unknown.’ On one side [of it] is Elizabeth Gilbert, ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ and the other side is ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.’” She says one of her goals is to go through the library to make a record of the titles and arrange them more thoughtfully.

The shelf care

When your book collection is constantly growing and changing, maintenance is key. Christine Manzari, a romance author in Forest Hill, Md., gets so many advance copies and special editions as part of her work that it’s often a challenge to keep up. The result, she says, is a mix of chaos and curation. In her home, you’ll find stacks of books on the floor, in boxes and on windowsills, in addition to shelves holding some 3,000 more titles.

To meet her ever-expanding needs, Manzari’s husband renovated an unused dining room into a dedicated space for her books and has continued building custom shelves elsewhere around the house. “I’ve now requested another [shelf] in my bedroom, so we’ll see if that happens,” she says. Still, she can’t keep them all: To manage the overflow, Manzari set up a free library at the end of her driveway and regularly donates by the hundreds.

Mareno also makes a habit of thinning out books she doesn’t plan to reread, often selling them on eBay. To protect and preserve the titles you do want to keep, “definitely think about dusting,” she advises. She recommends using an air compressor to get the job done quickly.

If you want to get really serious about it, you can use home-library software such as BookBuddy, which catalogues where each book sits on your shelves, or an app such as Evernote, which organizes extensive lists of titles. Mareno catalogues her latest finds on her blog, Tattooed Bibliophile, which she also uses to make collecting more accessible to her readers by posting ISBN numbers and pointing them to booksellers. “My theme on my social media pages is the anti-gatekeeper,” she says.

For Budman, the act of winnowing down his 15,000-plus titles underscored one takeaway in particular. Whether you maintain a library of 20 or 20,000, “ideally, you have a story about every book in your collection.”

Rosa Cartagena is a features reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer who covers arts and culture.

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