How to organize books

As I mentioned before, I’m reorganizing my space. Lately, that means books. I have tons of them, too many. I’d tried various strategies to organize them but I think I have it figured out now. If you have a lot of books on one topic, this system might help you too.

In a previous effort, I bought white spine labels and see through colored overlay labels from a library supply years ago so I could color code them. I love the library supply. I’ve been buying from Demco but have learned there’s other companies. I really like these plastic magazine cases [see note at close]. They are ten times better than the ones you get at the office supply. I also get the heavier, industrial grade book ends. Anyway, my book situation has gotten out of hand so I’m reworking it. I decided it was time to get real shelves so I got some solid wood, oak veneered ones from Sam’s. Not bad for the price ($166) but you have to put them together. I bought three sets for my office, I hope that’s enough. I need more at home. These are 48″ wide.

I bought two other things I’ve been wanting to tell you about, assuming you’re an addict like me. I bought a book organization program called Readerware ($40) and I cannot tell you how much I love it. If you buy a barcode scanner (the other thing I bought that I love love love to death), you can scan the barcode, upload it to your database and all the fields are populated -after you tell the program to connect to the web to get the book data from locations you specify, like Amazon or the Library of Congress.

At first I just got the program but not the scanner and was manually entering it all in but that was dumb, a real waste of time. Now I’m irritated if a book doesn’t have a barcode to scan. I’ve decided it will be less work for me to create a barcode label from a book’s ISBN and scan that, than to enter all the information manually. So many of the older books don’t have barcodes. More on buying a scanner at close.

How I organize the books
Books are first sorted according to location, color code (label overlay) and then by Dewey Decimal spine label. If you don’t know the DD numbers for it, Readerware usually retrieves that information for you, depending on the data sources you selected the program to search. Mine is set for Amazon (I can download covers too) and the Library of Congress. Note: if you get this, set your location to LOC #2. LOC #1 is clogged and you’ll get lots of errors.

Books are color coded based on the way I use them. For example, all the red labeled books are related to pattern making in some way. These are either pattern drafting, grading, draping or anthropometry books. The yellow books are apparel management or manufacturing related. Blue books are craft, design, sewing or home sewing (quilting, embroidery etc) related. Green is hard science, origami, engineering, math, electrical, building or making things books. Orange is all other non fiction like general management, writing references, cognitive science etc. I don’t have a lot of fiction so those don’t need categorization.

Books are then organized by location. The Readerware program allows me to assign a location to each one. First I assigned a letter designation to each shelf. Then I put all the anthropometry books (red coded) on that shelf and put that in the database. All the pattern books go on another shelf, the oversized ones to another shelf etc. This allows me to correctly sort all the red books differently. The historical pattern books can go on another shelf I use less frequently. The red label foreign books on another shelf. All of my red books won’t be stuck in one area, hogging primary shelf space if I don’t use them often. This way, if I know I have a book but can’t find it because I forgot how I categorized it (a common occurence before), I can look it up in the database to see where it is. I also plan on scanning all the books at home because many are stuck in piles there.

With the software, I can also enter those books I photographed at the library of congress. Their location would obviously be a location on my hard drive but they’d be in my database and more easily found. The system also allows me to enter miscellaneous papers, data sets, studies, monographs or whatever. I put those in a binder and enter them as a book, assigning a location etc. I’ve had a hard time keeping track of research materials.

The last great thing about the program is handling loans. You can track to whom you’ve lent your books which is great. I lend a lot of mine -and usually to people I’ve never met. At some point I’ll upload my list of titles so you can see if there’s something you want to borrow.

Below is a picture of mostly unsorted books. Some are color coded from my earlier organization attempt several years ago.

Below is a picture of the system in process, still not done but farther along than it looks. The shelf assignments are left to right, top to bottom, A, B, C, D etc. The only shelves completed in this picture are B, D, E and H.

Shelf A will end up being mostly green books (they’re there now but not color coded). Some of my most favoritist books are here. I wish I had an excuse to use some of them for posts but I can’t think of a reason to. The books on shelf C are some of the foreign drafting books, not all are color coded yet. Those will go on another bookshelf on the other side of the room which is mostly for blue (home sewing, crafting) books. Maybe you can see how this system might help you if you tend to collect a lot of the same kinds of books. If you were to organize strictly by dewey decimal, you’d end up with a lot of books you don’t use often, hogging primary shelf space.

I went round and round over this. If you have a bar code scanner or one of those cue cats, you can use that. I didn’t have one so I got a cordless one. I ended up buying Symbol CS1504 from Total Barcode. It’s small enough to put on a key chain but it’ll hold over 150 scans. Do not make my mistake and get the USB adapter. Later I found out that the USB isn’t as accurate, you’ll need to use a port. Another use of the scaner, being portable, is that you can take it to the book store and scan titles there. This is useful if you’re price shopping. Readerware is integrated with all of the book selling sites and databases on the web and the program tracks books you want to buy, not just ones you own. Once the scans are uploaded, it will search the web for the lowest price.

Magazine cases:
The Demco site has got to be the worst. Product links EXPIRE! You have to do it the long way (boy, somebody find me another vendor fast). You have to type in “magazine cases” in the search box. Then, you have to hit the “go” button. Hitting “enter” on your keyboard does nothing. Anyway, its the second one down. Alternatively, paste this >WS14258160< in the search box and hit “go”.

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  1. Laritza says:

    I also have tons of books. More than I want to admit. I found the “perfect” solution at
    you can have a free account with up to 200 books and then go either by year or lifetime membership.
    You can import books from Amazon, the Library of Congress and other sources. They also sell an affordable isbn scanner that works.
    You can export a spreadsheet of the books to have it handy or in your computer.
    I was desperate for a solution when I caught myself buying duplicates!
    This did it, now on the book shelves, that is another story.

  2. Janet Fletcher says:

    Hi – hope u don’t mind but 2 things – 1.your catalogue system for books i’m sure my daughter needs – she is forever organising things – including me so I will pass this link on if u don’t mind
    and 2. as u were so kind in contacting me through Threads and seem interested in what others do – would u kindly spend a few mins. accessing my etsy site to comment on my 2 corsets Kate has uploaded for me. I’m ashamed putting photos on was a step too far for me at the mo!
    Your blog is so interesting to me – loads of information and relevant snippets of textile stuff – but i’m off on holiday tomorrow so au revoir – guess where we’re going!

  3. mamafitz says:

    Wow! That is a really cool system. I am going to have to look into that software, even if I only use it to track where my books get lent. The link to the magazine cases tells me it’s a discontinued item. Is there another type you’d recommend?

  4. carissa says:

    It’s really nice to know that I’m not the only one that goes to the scary extreme on some things!This is waaay beyond the norm for bookshelf organization, but hey, something about it is very interesting to me!!

    I love it!!

    Geeks rule, Kathleen!

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Oh my God, drooolll….
    Glad to see I’m not the only one um… “passionate” about organization and books.
    When I was little I proceeded to catalog my grandma’ library to the last book- by hand, no computers, just one big, heavy notebook (extensive task)- it was around the time I caught the bug of reading, it was summertime and I was sorting, grouping, and making lists! By author (the fiction books), by author nationality, language, time period, topic, publishing date, etc. Then I put a loan/ lend out system in place so I could keep track of what friend or neighbour borrowed which book (you know how things get “forgotten”). Oh, memories…
    I know we have computers and the Internet, but I love books.
    And now if you’ll excuse me, I have the urge to organize- anything!

  6. Lisa NYC says:


    What an awesome system!!! Brillant!

    I only have three shelves of books related to sewing. I have them organized by type of sewing (ie., heirloom, home dec, adult garment, children garment, sewing machine manuals, techniques, etc.). It would be overkill for me to organize them other than the way I’m doing it…however, I’m thinking this barcode scanner and some type of software could be useful perhaps with those who have an extensive pattern collection…what about fabric? You could use the manufacturer’s product number, etc….the possibilities are endless…LOL

    it’s nice to see I’m not alone with my organization obsession!

    With friendship,

  7. AnnieBanany says:

    I’m in the middle of a major sewing studio overhaul–20 years worth of fabric, patterns, books, beads and buttons and notions. This entry is the answer to my chaos. Thank you-it couldn’t be more timely!

  8. Amy says:

    That’s awesome! I love organizing things. I had to blog this (and of course link back to your site) since there are a lot of book lovers on the blog I contribute to who I’m sure can use this information.


  9. Lisa Bloodgood says:

    Wow, that is pretty cool. The Readerware program sounds cool, too. I live in a tiny duplex that’s like an apartment with a yard, so I don’t have a ton of space for bookshelves and a lot of books are in the attic. However, my father-in-law is going to put shelves up on the walls just above the tops of the doors and windows (but all the way around the rooms) in nearly every room. I suppose I’ll comment on the results after they’re up and I have actually put stuff on them. It’s too cluttered here and hopefully that will at least solve some of it. Thanks, Kathleen.

  10. Kathleen,

    May I trade green tips with you? You were very kind to encourage me to become a vegetarian, a few weeks ago, and I have been pondering your comment ever since. Regarding books, I know there are books one’s got to have, especially reference books for work. That being said, I have also made some drastic changes in that regards, and made a point to avoid buying new books if at all possible. I have rediscovered the pleasure of weekly visits to the local library, and when I do buy a book, I make sure to circulate it to as many of my friends as possible!

  11. Sandra B says:

    Kathleen, do you have Folding the Universe by Peter Engel? The first half relates the maths of origami to fractal theory, Zen philosophy, music and more. I’m too clumsy and impatient to actually fold a jousting knight or rattlesnake, but the process is beautiful. I also have an abundance of books, but my organisational strategy is at at odds with my husband’s so we’ve both given up and now just ask where the book currently resides.

  12. Fazal Majid says:

    I have a system similar to yours, using Delicious Library, a Mac program similar to Readerware, suing a Microvision ROV Bluetooth scanner (although it can use the iSight webcam on Macs as a scanner as well). Before that, I was rolling my own, I even went to the trouble of writing driver software for the excellent Symbol CS1504 scanner you use.

    Shelving is not the only way to go. You can put less-used books in boxes in a garage or equivalent, number the boxes and use that as a shelf code in your library catalog program. I recommend using Rubbermaid Roughneck plastic containers (the small size, as books are heavy). Unlike off brands, they stack properly with a deep lip, and they will still be made 5 years from now with the same dimensions when you need more.

    It’s less convenient than shelving, but not everyone has enough wall space to shelve their entire collection.

    That said, I am buying a majority of my books as ebooks nowadays, so the pressure on shelving has decreased quite a bit.

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