How To

How To Organize Bookshelves: A Guide To Myriad Options

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

If you, like me, have spent a lot of time in recent months cleaning your home, perhaps you’ve reached the part where you’re reading to figure out how to organize bookshelves. But even if you haven’t been cleaning and weeding, sometimes a refresh of your bookshelves is in order. It can be daunting to think about how to organize bookshelves: do you do it by size? Alphabetically? By color?

The fact of the matter is, however it is you choose to organize your bookshelves, it has to be a system that works for you and one that will not only help you find the books you’re looking for, but also fit the space you have available. It might also matter that it’s aesthetically pleasing—it’s easy to laugh about that and call it superficial, but a good-looking bookshelf setup really does encourage reading. This is part of why public libraries weed their collections. If the shelves are crowded, with books that are askew and haven’t been borrowed in years, readers don’t find browsing pleasurable in the same way. Discoverability matters.

Whether you love or hate them, find below how to organize bookshelves in a number of different ways. Remember: just because something wouldn’t work for you doesn’t mean it doesn’t work effectively for someone else (see: reasons to shelve your books backwards, among other hotly-contested topics in the book world).

You’ll also see throughout ways you can combine these systems and make them work best for you and your space.

How To Organize Bookshelves

Alphabetically by Author

Image of bookshelves organized by genre and category for how to organize bookshelves

Most public libraries organize their books alphabetically by author when shelving fiction, as do bookstores that don’t categorize by genre (and certainly, you can combine the methods—see below!). Although it might not look like it, nonfiction is typically also shelved alphabetically by author, once the book’s Dewey Decimal, Library of Congress, or other organizational system is implemented. When you browse World War II books by their subject groupings, those which share the same groupings are arranged alphabetically.

Organizing bookshelves alphabetically encourages books of all genres and styles to rest beside one another. This can really highlight the breadth of the books you own, and it can help keep books by the same author tucked together (how nice, for example, to see all of your Megan Abbott or Jason Reynolds books together, and how easy then to revisit your favorites). You can organize books by the same author alphabetically by title or leave ’em any way that feels right.

A big benefit of this system is also one of its drawbacks: you have room to grow as you’re organizing, since you’ll start with A authors and end with Z. But if you plan on procuring more books, you’ll need to leave space on your shelves for it. It might make sense, depending upon how many bookshelves you have, to leave each shelf one-third or one-quarter empty to incorporate new books.

Pro tip: consider using the “alternating stacks” method below in conjunction with this for books in a series that are by the same author and the same size. It’s especially great for those mass market paperbacks and takes up less space on the shelf.

Alphabetically by Title

Much like the method above, organizing by title is going to allow you to use your space well as you go, but you’ll want to ensure you leave ample room for growth as your collection expands.

When you organize by title, you’ll want to establish a few things right off the bat: do you honor words like “This” or “My?” Do you honor books starting with “The?” Establish the how of the system before you begin to move books around so you don’t find yourself pausing and frustrated as a new variable emerges halfway through the project.

Like alphabetizing by author, this system allows different books to be shelved next to each other, and in most cases, even books by the same author will be separated. Maybe that’s how your brain works, or maybe you love the possibilities of browsing and discovery to fuel finding your next read. How fun, too, to see what kind of spine poetry is possible.

Organizing your bookshelves this way is unconventional but sounds like a lot of fun.

Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress Systems

Want to use an already-established system? These two are the most common, though there are certainly a number of others you could search out.

Though the Dewey Decimal System (DDS) is anglocentric and problematic—as was Melvil Dewey himself—having a system of classification for your books can be helpful when you’re looking for a specific topic. Here’s a handy chart of all the major classifications, but you can find even more granular ones if you’d like to get super specific.

And yes, you can absolutely include fiction within the DDS. Novels can easily slide into the 800s arena—where you see exactly how limiting and white-centric the system is—while comics can be in the 760s. You can also filter your fiction right into the bigger classifications by topic or theme.

The Library of Congress System (LOCS) is another option you might be familiar with. Often used by academic libraries, the LOCS has very broad categories, layering more specificity beneath them. The systems and what’s within them are accessible via the Library of Congress website. Again, you can weave fiction in these categories however makes the most sense to you.

By Genre or Category or Mood

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Perhaps you want to mix and match how to organize your bookshelves. This is where organizing by genre, category, or mood can be super fun, as well as super specific.

First: determine whether you want to organize by genre, and what genres you’ll be using. Will you get super specific and organize all of your science fiction by sub-genres within that genre? If so, you’ll want to then think about how to organize those sub-genres (if alphabetically, you’ll have your space operas before your splatterpunk before your steampunk and time travel). You can organize those genres alphabetically by title or author or any other methods below.

Maybe you’re more interested in organizing by category, then by genre or alphabetically. This will allow all of your children’s books to be together, all of your middle grade books to be together, all of your YA together, and all of your adult books together. You can separate out fiction and nonfiction within each of those categories as well. Another option is to organize books by genre within those categories, too, so all of your middle grade fantasy are together, while all of your adult romances are together.

Another option is to organize by mood. Put all of your scary books together, as well as all of your funny books. Maybe all of your books that make you cry are together, while those that make you swoon settle in with one another. This could be a lot of fun to see what books are shelved by one another while also really allowing you to think about how a book makes you feel before you put it in its new home.

What’s nice about any of these methods is you can combine them. As seen in the image above, the library had both a science fiction genre shelf, followed by a humor mood shelf.

By Size

Weird-shaped books can be annoying, as they don’t sit nicely on a bookshelf. When book trim sizes change for an author or you own paperback editions of some books and hardcover in others, as well as mass market and special editions, it might be unpleasant to look at them mixed together. Likewise, sometimes your shelves simply don’t have the space to hold those giant books alongside the small ones.

A solution can be organizing by size. Put all of your oversized and coffee table books on the top of your shelf or on your bottom shelf lying down, as opposed to standing more traditionally on their spines (more on this shortly).

It can be a visual treat to see your same-sized books lined on a shelf. Maybe you want to grab a mass market paperback for your trip to the park to read or you’re ready to settle into your reading nook for perusing one of your coffee table books. This allows you to find what you’re looking for easily and makes the books themselves fit more easily on your shelves.

Again: ample opportunity here to mix and match any other organizational method among the book sizes.

By Color

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✨Q: Happy #shelfiesunday ! If you didn’t arrange your books the way you do arrange them, what sort of arrangement would you choose? . 📚 I guess I’d choose to arrange them by title and series instead 🤔I’m not great at remembering the names of books, and even worse at remembering author names 🙈 I am good at remembering colours of books, which is why I arrange by rainbow as my first choice 😄 . . . #bookstagram #bookstagrammer #bookaesthetic #aussiereaders #booknerdigans #booknook #rainbowshelves #bookshelf #bookdragon #lifestyle #booksofinstagram #myhomevibe #homedecor #livecolorfully #crashbangcolour #colourmyhome #bookster #thebookstagram #bookworm #booklover #booksbooksbooks #bookphotography #booknookstagram #bibliophile

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Think-pieces about whether or not it’s okay to shelve your books by color are boring and judgmental. The fact of the matter is, you own your books and you can do with them whatever you please. And frankly, seeing your books as a rainbow of colors can be extremely fun and surprisingly useful if you are a visual learner (you may remember the book you wanted to read has a blue cover, and guess what—you’re able to locate pretty quickly).

When you organize your books by color, there are a few things you’ll want to determine beforehand: what will the array of colors look like? Where do colors like black or white or brown or gold or silver or grey belong? What about a book that has a spine which is half one color and half another? Do you feel okay splitting up book series if they’re different colors (see: Harry Potter)? Will your books be shelved by hue of color, such that deep reads are together, lighter reds are together, darker pinks are together, and so forth?

Or, like the photo above, are you electing to use each shelf as a rainbow individually?

Like with alphabetizing, you’ll want to ensure you give yourself plenty of shelf space to grow.

Read/To Read

This method is especially helpful for small spaces or collections where you don’t keep a ton of books. Rather than trying to organize by another method, simply put books together that you’ve read and those which you haven’t read.

Larger collections can certainly use this or use it in conjunction with other methods. Keep a shelf in one room which is just for books you’ve not yet read, while you use shelves in another space that you have read and organize them in a way that you like best.

If your TBR is towering, note you might want a bigger space for your unread books than your finished titles.

Alternating Stacks With Spine-Sitting

One of my favorite methods allows you to choose any organizational method that speaks to you while also maximizing shelf space if you own a lot of books in a series or that have a similar trim size. When I worked at a small public library, I loved doing this as a means of helping teen readers looking for that next book in a series, too.

The traditional way of shelving books is standing them on their spines. But in the alternating method, some books are on their spines while others are shelved the wide way, with the back cover against the shelf or books below it. If you’ve got a bunch of mass market paperbacks or a book series, consider alternating them with your other books and placing them cover-down and stacking them on top of one another. It looks like it might take up more space, but in actuality, it’s a space saver. And like so many other ways to organize your bookshelves, you can use this style with other methods (by color, alphabetically, etc.).

A bonus of this is the stacked books can act as bookends for your standing titles.

Another take on this method is to pull the first book in a series or one with a cover you love and put it face out in front of the stack of books, giving your space even more style.

By Theme/Collection (Special Editions, Cookbooks, How-To Guides, Etc.)

Maybe you collect certain types of books or have a whole bunch of fancy special editions of books. Maybe you want your cookbook collection easy to browse, as well as your gardening books or your household maintenance books. Put ’em all together.

You can customize this method of organization so easily, and you are likely able to worry less about future space for all of your books. If you know you aren’t going to buy a ton more home improvement books, you don’t need to save a ton of shelf space beside those titles. If you know you regularly add craft books to your library, you know to leave plenty of room for them.

This method also lets you show off those fancy books you have and maybe you can pretend you have your own special library with your gorgeous titles.

Another benefit of how to organize bookshelves in this manner is you maximize space available to you. Maybe you don’t have room for a ton of bookshelves or they’re spread out throughout your home. Put your collections where you will utilize them most: cookbooks in the kitchen, books about grammar and style at your desk where you may reference them, humor books in the bathroom, and so forth.

By Publisher

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It's been a while since I did a #tribandtuesday! When I used to make and sell more Paperback Pots, I ordered hundreds of Penguin Books to accompany each pot. Now that I don't make the pots as often, I have a huge selection of books that I will be selling – as beautiful as they all look together, I just don't have the room. I'll post about prices and availability later in the week, let me know if you have any wishlist titles though! I hope everyone is keeping safe and well 🧡🐧 #bookstagram #penguinbooks #vintagebooks #penguinstagram #tribandtuesday #penguinclassics #randomhouse #cactus #bookstack #bookhaul #secondhandbooks #vintagebooks #booksforsale #pileofbooks #paperbackbooks #booksofig #bibliophile #bookish

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Last, but definitely not least, another way you can organize your books is by publisher. While the general reader might not care about publishers as much as publishers care about them, there are some publishers who put out books with the same cover aesthetic or trim that just go well together.

We’re all familiar with Penguin Books with the orange trim or, in other collections, a similar black trim. There are Penguin Puffin imprint books that also have a recognizable style.

You might have a vast array of Barnes & Noble classics or a pile of those $10 Harper Perennial Olive Editions (which would look amazing also organized by rainbow within itself!).

Maybe you’re even lucky enough to own a number of Folio Society editions of your favorite children’s books or literary works. Give your shelves a look of consistency with putting all of those titles together and organizing within them.

Organizing your bookshelves like this can be great in small spaces or when you have a small collection of books, though it can be easily adapted for larger collections and spaces, too. Perhaps those books get their own shelves while you organize everything else by another method. Or you could weave those into your system in a way that works well—for example, if you organize your books alphabetically, you could put Penguin books together, stacked up, beside your author or book titles also beginning with “Pe.”

There is no one right for how to organize bookshelves, and the above list of ideas is far from comprehensive. But sometimes you need to think about what’s out there before you decide which will work for you—or what you’d like to create for yourshelf.