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10 Clever Ways to Organize Your Overflowing Bookshelves

Woman sitting in front of messy bookshelves and writing in a journal.
Viktoriia Hnatiuk/Shutterstock

Looking to tame the thicket of books in your home? Here are our favorite organization (and even decoration) tips to turn your wild shelves into something tidy and appealing.

The world’s favorite organization expert, Marie Kondo, has been famously misquoted as suggesting that no one should have more than 30 books. As the backlash to that suggestion proved, people are deeply attached to their books. Even with the advent of the e-reader, there’s just something about a well-stocked bookshelf that makes a home feel complete.

But “well-stocked” can quickly become “wildly disorganized.”  If your method of organizing books involves putting them on the shelf wherever they’ll fit, you might wonder if there’s a better way.

Organizing your books offers a compromise between your inner bibliophile and neat-freak. Systems range from those who arrange books by content to those who arrange by visual appearance. And there are plenty of methods that offer the best of both worlds, helping you find the book you want while also making your shelves look pretty. Here are some of our favorite options for book-lovers of all sorts.

Bookstore-Style

First—and maybe most challenging—is the option of organizing your books bookstore-style. This means alphabetically and by genre.

When you visit a bookstore, you start in the section most likely to have the book you’re looking for. This could be anything from Science Fiction to U.S. History. From there, you scan through the authors’ alphabetically-ordered last names until you find the book you want.

At home, this system is ideal for people who have a ton of books and want to be able to find a specific title, fast. Depending on how many books (and how much space) you have, you might not need to be quite as detailed as a bookstore, though. For example, you could divide your sections into “Fiction,” “Nonfiction,” and “Poetry,” and then arrange each section alphabetically by the authors’ names.

You can bend the bookstore rules as much as you want. For example, you might find it easier to alphabetize by title, instead of the authors’ last names. Or, you might decide to group your books by genre, but not alphabetize them at all. It’s your bookshelf, so the rules are up to you!

Publication Date

Although less practical, arranging your books by publication date can give you some interesting insights about your collection. You’ll notice which writers were contemporaries, and this might surprise you. Plus, you’ll have the fun option of immediately locating the oldest and newest texts on your shelf.

Location

Why not organize your books according to where the authors come from? You could separate sections by continents, such as North American writers, African writers, and Asian writers. You could further break things down by country, state, and city. Alternatively, you could group books according to the location in which they’re set, which would require an entirely different section for fantasy locations.

Personal Preference

Cozy library corner with a plush overstuffed chair.
Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

If you’ve read most of your books, then you almost certainly have favorites and not-so-favorites. You can group those you love together, and preferably, where they’re easy to reach. This way, you can quickly grab a favorite to lend out or reread.

You can use a similar tactic based on how presentable a book is. If you want to keep your “serious literature” on the living room shelves for party guests to see, while hiding your trashy romance novels in the bedroom, we aren’t here to judge.

Purpose

If you often buy books for a specific reason, you can arrange them according to their use. For example, you could put everything from your college reading list in one section, references for work in another, and everything you plan to read for fun in a third.

Read or Unread

You can also group the books you’ve read in one place, and those you haven’t in another. This might be especially helpful if you tend to buy books faster than you can read them. And you’ll always know how far along you are on your reading list.

Hardcover or Softcover

There’s a popular misconception that anyone who arranges books according to how they look must not be an avid reader. However, some book-lovers don’t need a logical organization system—they’ll happily browse their illogically-ordered shelves until they find what they want to read next. Don’t let anyone shame you for organizing your books by appearance!

One creative way to do this is to put all your hardcover copies in one area and all your paperbacks in another. This can work well visually, as hardcover books often look nicer on a shelf—consider putting those in the most visually prominent location.

Condition

Arranging your books by the state of their covers can create an interesting visual appeal, as well. Your most tattered books will be grouped, while the pristine, newer-looking covers will have their own section.

Size

You can also visually arrange your books by size—either height or thickness. This often looks pleasing and might help you get the most out of bookshelves that vary in size.

Color

Of course, there’s also the age-old interior design hack of arranging books by color. This method has attracted ire from self-proclaimed “serious” readers (and writers). But many avid readers remember what colors their favorite books are, so this system works better than you might expect.


Bookshelf organization methods tend to bring out strong opinions, so if you post your newly organized “shelfie” on social media, you might need to defend your logic. Ultimately, though, the right method is the one that makes you happiest when you look at your bookshelves.

Do your neatly arranged shelves need some new additions? Here’s how to build the perfect summer reading list!

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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