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    My Approach to Organizing the Library

    February 8, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    How in the world does one decide where to put a book, once one has plenty of shelf options? This was a predominant question in our home for the past three weeks. We are almost done with it; would already be done with it were the lady of the house {1} not running a fever right now and {2} {ahem} not so inclined to read five to ten books at once, and carry said books off to all corners of the house.

    I just found three books on my nightstand last night. Plus, I realized we had forgotten our books in the Cabinet Beautiful when we were entering our books into our Shelfari account.

    Sigh. What fun, what absolute pleasure it has been to reacquaint myself with our entire library. {It is an especially attractive use of time while sick.} I had forgotten how many old friends were nestled among the new.

    More than once during this process, I found myself sitting with a book on my lap that could fit anywhere.

    Hello, Book, I’d think. Where do you belong? Are you Christian Living? Worldview and culture? Sociology? Philosophy?

    Where does one category end and another begin? And should Wendell Berry be endowed with his own shelf?

    I found that the organizing went much easier once I had affixed the boundaries of our categories into my mind. For instance, Philosophy became a place to store our volumes for the study of the classic works of philosophy proper {like Plato}, an ethics book or two that were specifically covering ethics {rather than something more general like worldview and culture issues}, metaphysics, and epistemology. However, all logic textbooks went on my Classical Learning shelf.

    A lot of folks might not have a Worldview and Culture shelf, but that is my husband’s area of training and study, so we do. I found myself limiting those books very strictly. They are not books upon culture in general; that is Sociology. They are not books covering various worldviews from a non-judgmental perspective; that might be History and Politics, or perhaps Sociology again, or wherever else they best fit. These books are all the type of books we’d actually refer someone to who was studying some sort of worldview-type issue.

    Worldview, generally speaking, is Metaphysics for the layman, so I also tried to make that a mental boundary: is this something that is accessible to most people? Or is this a college-level work that requires a lot of prerequisite knowledge? Also, is the focus of this book being thoughtful in action {worldview} or being active in thought {more along the lines of philosophy proper}.

    When we arrived at fiction, we reached the same dilemma: what is fiction and how is it different from juvenile fiction? Some books are obviously juvenile {here I am thinking of The Trumpet of the Swan or Charlotte’s Web} while others are obviously for adults and older children capable of thinking at higher levels {such as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Anna Karenina}, so many choices are obvious. What I found is that while I was assigning the more obvious books a shelf, the divisions became more clear in my mind. For instance, I decided that adult fiction contains books I wouldn’t be giving the children before they were in their teens. I ended up with two shelves of juvenile fiction: books our readers are allowed to grab now, and books they will need to ask about. Some of these latter books already have cards in them stating the approximate a reader must be in order to read them. Others I have not pre-read yet, but children are free to put them on my Future Reading shelf and I will make a decision shortly.

    Some shelves invent themselves, as homemaking ended up combined with gardening because I had no need for two separate shelves. Others, like Christian Living, end up being a catch-all: if they aren’t really theology, and they aren’t really worldview, but they definitely have a Christian bent to them, then Christian Living it is. Some Christian Living books here are also books we do not love, but keep because of they were a gift from someone special and contain a meaningful inscription, or a book that we have since grown out of, but we keep due because of a strange combination of affection and nostalgia.

    Throwing Away, Swapping Away, and Selling

    We culled a lot of books; at least twenty, from what I can tell. Those that were thrown away were in such bad condition they were no longer readable {thanks to a certain resident toddler whose name I shall not mention}. Selling and swapping books met the same criteria; I only sell books I can make a profit on. {I made six dollars last week on a wonderful hardback.} So, books were listed for sale or swap based on two major criteria: {1} We had more than one copy of the book and didn’t foresee it being a good gift to anyone in the near future, or {2} they didn’t really “fit” with our goals for our library.

    We want our library to be a treasury of, for the most part, really good books. I am trying to be selective. When I was a teenager, I was very attracted to what Charlotte Mason would have deemed twaddle. These books were easy to read, requiring little to no mental effort on my part. They were decent stories, yes, but they do not even begin to reach the depth or quality of a classic. I am not against twaddle in an absolute sense, but when we are talking about what we actually want to own and promote to our children or people who borrow books from us, they just don’t make the cut.

    In addition to this, I find that my children already have different tastes than I did. Because I read Charlotte Mason’s works so early in my mothering, I desired to introduce quality living books to our children from their earliest days. One of the results of this is that they have a taste for such books. When I think about what they are going to grow up to read, I don’t foresee them being as attracted to twaddle as I was; they are showing signs that they will have more sophisticated tastes than I did.

    And lastly, twaddle tends to not be worth reading over and over. Books were born to be read, or at least good books are. A lot of modern books were published in order to sell books and pay for those printing presses, which tend to cost money whether they are running or not. This is why we are seeing such a decline in the quality of books coming out of Christian publishers. {Well, that and the decline of literary ability within the culture in general.} So when I was pondering some of my “twaddle” I couldn’t help but realize that I never planned to read these books again. And I doubted that my children would read them. And they certainly wouldn’t be my first suggestion if someone came to my house looking for a book.

    Is a book like that worth keeping? In my mind, no. Not even though I have the space right now. Because, frankly, there are more books to be bought, every single year for lessons, not to mention our own personal additions. So why waste space on such a book? Surely they can be found at most church libraries and public libraries.

    Et tu?

    So…how do you organize your library? Do you do anything you think is rare or unique? I love hearing about this; whoever first mentioned combining poetry with drama was a great blessing to me!

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  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts February 9, 2010 at 4:26 am


    YAY! I can’t wait to hear all about it. Thanks for putting me on the list.


    I agree that Berry “got us on the path” as you put it. He, combined with our children’s food allergies, were the two formative things that landed us on our microhomestead, as we like to call it. With that said, I put Berry in sociology because my other books were more “how to” books rather than “philosophy of” books, and also I thought he deserved a more visible shelf. πŸ˜‰

    I think that you are right–a database like Access or a spreadsheet in Excel would suffice for this process. I enjoyed using Shelfari, though. I like that I can give the address to family and they can check our library list before purchasing a book for anyone. I like that I can perhaps put a shelf display on my blog someday, if I decide I want to. But I especially liked that there were suggested tags for the books. This gave me a starting place in the very beginning. I had never categorized our library before–everything was just stuffed in where it fit–so seeing what other people tagged the books as helped get me on my feet, so to speak.


    I look forward to your post! I know you have a huge library, so I look forward to gleaning some wisdom from you. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Headmistress, zookeeper February 9, 2010 at 12:58 am

    Kansas Mom, we also shelved poetry and drama together, and we put Wendell Barry with homesteading type books!

    Brandy, I like this post so much I am turning my response into a post of my own.=)

  • Reply Kansas Mom February 9, 2010 at 12:43 am

    Oh, and we put poetry with drama mostly because we only had two or three books that would fit in the drama group and I don’t have shelf space for a shelf like that.

  • Reply Kansas Mom February 9, 2010 at 12:42 am

    We shelve Wendell Berry with the homesteading / country living / organic books. This category makes sense to me because reading Wendell Berry was one of the ways we began on this path.

    What I really want, is a program to categorize my books that would include tags preloaded when I put in an ISBN: time period, setting (countries / continents / etc.), stuff like that. Otherwise, I’m not sure I see the benefit of a program over Excel (or making my own simple database with something like Access).

  • Reply Mystie February 8, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    Oh yes, still pregnant. πŸ™‚ Due date is next Monday. I’m thinking the baby is most likely to arrive next Wednesday or Thursday. I did put your email address in my email group list to receive the email birth announcement, so you’ll get the news within 24 hours. πŸ™‚

    So I’ve spent the past hour and a half fiddling with my LibraryThing tags and peeking at your Shelfari to see how you’ve tagged different books. Our collection is about the same size. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts February 8, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    I totally agree: categorization is personal.

    I forgot to put in my final way to settle these questions: Where would I actually look for this book first? That one actually helped a lot for books that were borderline…

    I solved some of the fiction issues by creating a Faerie/Fables/Fantasy shelf. This where we place our Tolkien, Narnia, Lewis Space Trilogy, Aesop, fairy tale collections, and E. Nesbit books.

    I know what you mean about little people keeping categories straight. I tried to divide our children’s books into children’s books (general), children’s history, and nature study (which also had some chapter books and textbooks and field guilds), but the toddler is just destroying all of this because they are on bottom shelves. Oh well.

    So…still pregnant, hm? I was wondering…

  • Reply Mystie February 8, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    I love this sort of talk. πŸ™‚ Where one category begins and ends is exactly what kept me from tackling the cataloging process for quite some time. Then I wanted to borrow a book from my dad, who has over 1,000 books not shelved in any particular order and some double-shelved and I realized if I didn’t get a handle on my library now, I’d have the same overwhelming task he’s been procrastinating for 15 years! πŸ™‚

    What your post clarifies for me is that categorization really is a personal thing. It depends quite a bit on one’s interests (what books one has) and goals. I have one bookcase for literature, which I deem different from fiction (Tom Clancy or historical fiction). But then is Wodehouse literature or fiction? Happily, so far just shelving it all chronologically ends up separating the literature from the fiction, and Wodehouse is part of my very small smattering of twentieth-century books. πŸ™‚ Like the Library of Congress system, too, I shelve literature critical analysis next to the author or at the beginning of the century it deals with.

    And now I am starting to add juvenile books. Do they get broken up between literature and fiction, also? Previously, all we had were Narnia, and that was shelved with Tolkien — chronological literature.

    I have 3 books on hospitality. Do they belong with Family books? Christian Living (“Practical Theology” in my categorization) books? Domesticity (my catch-all for organization, housekeeping, and gardening)? They end up moving based on which of those three shelves has room for them. Hence my trepidation about starting to label anything.

    However, that would certainly make a great last-week-of-pregnancy & no-school task. πŸ™‚ I might tackle at least the picture books. I just bought 4 big dishpan tubs (that’s what my parents kept kids books in) and labeled them “information,” “stories,” “alphabet/counting/poetry/wordless,” and “folk & faerie.” I have a smaller bin for board books. However, I’m the only one who can keep them organized that way, so I’m thinking of adding a color code of some sort.

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