Roundtable on Organizing Books

How do you organize your bookshelves? To Be Read piles? Are they alphabetized? If you’re like me and can only dream of having organized bookshelves at the moment, how would you organize them if you had the time? How about magazines?

Stacie Hanes

They’re grouped by subject. I wish I had the time and space for full LOC organization. I don’t have the space to hang on to magazines.

Elizabeth Hand

The bookshelves in our house are arranged immaculately, because they’re arranged by John [Clute] — all fiction, alphabetical according to author, then chronologically for each author. An encyclopedist’s dream!

However, all the reference books are where I work at Tooley Cottage. That library is much more organic (read: chaotic) and arranged (sort of) by subject matter. So Ancient Greece is on one shelf, Ancient British Isles on another; books about punk and rock & roll, ancient ritual, folklore, theater, poisonous plants, photography, etc. I have a stack of classic ghost story anthologies by the bed. A few much-loved novels are stuck alongside myriad books on natural history. Books related to whatever project I’m currently working on tend to be in stacks around the cottage. Biographies are on shelves above my desk — there are too many books piled there, and I’m afraid that one day they’ll fall on top of me. This happened once some years ago, and gave me a mild concussion. File under Occupational Hazards, Writers.

Ellen Datlow

The fiction has been separated into genre and non-genre and is alphabetical (when overlap, wherever I first shelved the author), anthologies in a separate area, non-fiction (not much of it) separately and not alphabetized, Art books in another area (not in any order). But alas, most of my books are in non-organized piles on the floor in my back room (aka library) and living room. Those will at some point go into storage lockers where total chaos reigns. And I wish I had a system by which I knew what I have and where they are but I don’t. No time, no space.

Jeffrey Ford

I don’t have a system for my books and there are a lot of them, thousands for sure. In the room I write in, most of them are on the shelves but there are also a couple of stacks on the floor. In addition to these, there are little caches around the house, pretty much in every room. Their arrangment is willy nilly — whatever gets put on the shelf at whatever point for whatever reason, usually proximity as dictated by laziness. I like hunting books down, searching for them, relying on my memory, which used to be better. In searching for a book, I make all kinds of discoveries, sometimes books I’d all but forgotten. It’s good to see them again, and I think about them in a new light.

On the shelf next to me, for instance, the first five books in a row are The Gourmet Club by Tanizaki, Things Will Never Be the Same by Howard Waldrop, The Complete Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, a biography of Jean Luc Goddard, and Viriconium by M. John Harrison. When I look at them, I think, what a great guest list of characters and authors for a dinner party. I think about aspects of the ones I’ve read and the ideas mix together. I wonder about the ones I’ve not yet gotten to. In another place the bio of Thelonius Monk sits next to the Encyclopedia of Imaginary Places, and I have a vision of Monk playing his piano in The Vampire City.

There are times when a book I’m looking for eludes me for months, and it seems that when I’m not watching, volumes migrate around the shelves. They travel at night or when I’m out taking a walk. There’s this one mass market paperback I bought years ago, The Wandering Unicorn by Manuel Lainez that does a lot of wandering from one shelf to another. I’ve run into it on just about every book case only within the last year and spotted it once in the downstairs bathroom. It’s not a book I like or even finished. Even with an intro by Borges, it’s the most boring adventure story ever. At one point I thought I might have two copies of it but I’ve never been able to corroborate that, and I hate to think I’d bought it twice. If everything was catlaogued and I knew exactly where to find it, it would make finding them a lot easier, but it wouldn’t be half as much fun.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

I would need a house about 6 times larger than the one I currently live in to arrange all of my books on accessible shelves. What’s shelved is determined by what I have to access most frequently. Pulp magazines (just fantasy/science fiction/weird) are organized chronologically. Two bookcases for Arkham House titles. Two bookcases for antiquarian titles. Everything else goes into boxes, which are divvied by format (mass market paperback, trade paperback, hardcvoer) and whether they’re specialty press or not.

Before I turned 50, some years back, I had the bibliophile’s equivalent of X-ray vision, and knew just by looking at a box which titles were in it. Not anymore. Oh, Superman!

Karen Burnham

There was a brief shining moment where I had all non-fiction organized by loose subject areas, all graphic novels by series or title, all fiction hardcovers and trade paperbacks alpha by author/editor, and all fiction mm paperbacks by author/editor. It was a beautiful thing. However when we moved all the books out of the library so it could become the nursery they all got mixed up and we haven’t recovered since. We moved houses and even my TBR pile got shuffled into the mix, and now the only books I make sure to keep organized are the ones that I’m assigned to review in the next two months.

Terry Bisson

I don’t keep books; at least I don’t intend to. When my wife Judy and I left NY after 25 years, we had inherited the huge library of the then-defunct communist org we had belonged to. We donated all this to NYU’s “labor” collection. My own outsize collection (probably a lot like Jeff Ford’s) a mix of memory and promise , I decided to shed. (Very little of it SF) We had a benefit sale for Lynne Stuart (this was at the beginning of her legal travails) and raised over a grand. That was ten years ago. Now we live in Oakland, with kwik access to several great libraries.

I have a shelf of books by friends (unsorted), a garage filled with pro ‘file copies’ (anthologies, translations, mags remainders, etc, shamefully unsorted) and one antique glass door bookcase of poetry and criticism, unsorted but treasured. There are piles of library books around the house but they are as impermanent as cats or water. Why would I need a copy of Childhood’s End, A Handful of Dust, or Voyage of the Beagle?

John Clute

Terry: I keep books because I love them physically; because when they are sorted they physically tell me stuff (this partly because they’re all first editions, and a chronological presentation of an author’s oeuvre is in itself a lesson, sometimes minatory, in the changing nature of books [and careers] over the years); partly because when I’m doing work on the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which has driven me bats for decades, I need to know and touch a text in its original shape sort of thing; and because the only libraries around here in London which are likely to have an obscure book 1) are likely to have it on a noncirculating basis and 2), if it is the British Library, djs will have been stripped, losing all the joy and data a good dj conveys about the World and the Book.

Blurb. We’ve just put up a Picture Gallery on the SFE home page, with about 1800 covers now up, each tied to the specific edition it illustrates in its author’s Checklist (and each given owner provenance, so anyone can ask us more about the physical side of an individual title…).

Gardner Dozois

This is fascinating. I could spend all day clicking through this. It’s scary how many of these books I actually owned!

Cat Rambo

I go by clumps. There’s the bookshelf with books I refer to or otherwise use when teaching, which has reference stuff down on the lower shelves, like a visual dictionary and my beloved abridged OED. Next to it is the bookshelf full of stuff to be read or sorted. Another bookshelf has theory stuff and short story anthologies/collections. There’s another one with books that I come back to again and again, because I am a re-reader.

Unfortunately, I’m sharing a small space with one other human being, two cats, and a lot of machinery, so 90% of my books are in storage. Magazines get sent back out as fast as they arrive, usually to friends or family. In an ideal world, I have a library, where all the fiction is in alphabetical order, everything can be easily found, and nothing has ever been damaged by cat vomit.

Brit Mandelo

In an ideal world, where I had enough shelves and space to make it happen, the books would be alphabetized and easily searchable. I worked in a bookstore for half a decade, so organized, neat, alphabetized shelves are a sign of an orderly universe to me. I would likely only have a few divisions within the greater alphabetic organization–like, graphic novels would probably have their own shelf rather then being included with the rest, thanks mostly to size issues.

As it stands, my books are grouped predominantly by (a) type – short story collections and anthologies, mystery novels, graphic novels, nonfiction, nonfiction reference, etc. – and (b) size – because the shelves are double and in some cases triple stacked. There are also a few writers with their own shelves because of sheer productivity; furthermore, there are some increasingly peculiar genre splits, like the bookshelf that loosely covers “feminist and queer fiction and nonfiction.”

Mostly, the goal is that if I’m looking for a particular book, I’ll know the territory it should be in based on its type. Then I get to sift through that territory to find it. There is also a TBR pile by the side of my desk for new and exciting stuff. If something stays on the pile too long, it gets rotated onto a shelf. Magazines, however, are more or less just crammed into big comic-book boxes when I’m done with them.

Andy Duncan

While it in no way excuses my lamentably disordered entertainment bookcases — where Burt Reynolds’ memoir, The Twilight Zone Companion and The Complete Beyond the Fringe are likely side by side — Brit’s comment reminds me of the reason my comics shelves got so out of whack in the first place. I have complained for years about the hopeless mismash of book formats in which comics get packaged, from mass-market paperbacks to slipcased hardcovers too tall for any shelf, from sofa-sized coffee-table books to envelope-thin folios that stick out a mile from any bookcase and wind up with their pages permanently splayed. I once tried shelving them by size and shape, but that spread my Harvey Kurtzman collection across six different locations, clearly a Wrongness. So finally, to spite the universe, I stopped imposing any sort of order at all on the comics, although my Mad and Humbug reprints are at eye level now, so tired did I get of searching for them every six months or so. Still got to do something about the entertainment shelves, though, one of these days

Cat Rambo

One reason I’ve saved some books is that they have notes in them from classes or past study. If I go back to Pound’s Cantos, for example, I want that stuff in the margin to remind me of earlier readings. It’d take a lot to pry away some of those, like the Riverside Shakespeare, which I plan on being buried with.

Karen Joy Fowler

I too have books all over the house and many are in some kind of order and many are not. When they are in order, it is a private order that makes sense only to me and the organizing principle is social. Richard Butner and Christopher Rowe are close friends so they are next to each other and Christopher is married to Gwenda Bond, so she is next to him. John Kessel is on Richard Butner’s other side and then Jim Kelly. And so on. I taught in Cleveland many summers in a row so all the Cleveland authors are together along with everyone I met at that particular workshop, like Maureen McHugh and Christopher Barzak and Geoff Landis. Only Ursula LeGuin has so many books that she takes up an entire shelf though Stan Robinson is getting close.

Gardner Dozois

I started out very organized when we moved into our house in 2002. Books shelved alphabetically by author, with separate sections for SF anthologies, SF collections, SF novels, mystery novels and collections, and non-fiction and travel books. I’d still do it that way if I could, but I ran out of room years ago, and now everything is piled in haphazard stacks wherever there’s a flat horizontal surface

Karen Joy Fowler

I do have books whose writers I don’t personally know. I think my last note elided that fact. Writers I don’t know are sometimes grouped by subject matter, sometimes by my enthusiasm level and sometimes simply by how recent a purchase it is. Or not grouped at all. Setting up the system is one thing. Keeping it up is an endless task where whole bookshelves have to be shifted to fit in some new fat book where it belongs. So lots of time I don’t bother. But I am actually pretty good at turning up the book I want when I want it.

Cecelia Holland

I don’t organize books. They stand in stacks on every flat surface in my house and my office. I know where each title is because I’ve seen it while hunting for another book I know I have someplace, and if I move them, I will no longer be able to find them. I do tend to keep the books together that go with certain projects–all my Byzantine stuff is together, all my railroad riots stuff, currently all my Jamestown stuff–but mostly I am a slave to chaos.

Brian Evenson

I do try to keep my books organized, but feel like over time I have competing systems that start to cancel one another out. I used to keep all the fiction I had read up at my school office in alphabetical order, but then I ran out of space and started putting it in with unread fiction at home, when I could figure out a way to shoehorn it in. To make that work, I ended up taking the genre fiction out and having a read SF/Fantasy section and a read Mystery section. But then that made me feel that I should separate those out from my unread books as well. I apparently did that in crazy ways, so that, for instance, I seem to have some of Jeff Ford’s books in my SF section and some in the fiction section, and some of those now are read and some unread. I also have sections that are press specific: a Library of America section, a Green Integer Press section, a Melville House section, a Centipede Press section, etc. Then add to that various shelfs and piles of books bought since that I don’t have a place to quite put, and that periodically I try to sort out. And that’s not even the confusing part: at least with fiction it’s still more or less alphabetized and I know that it’s probably in one of three places and if it’s not then I’m almost positive it’s in one of a half dozen more, and if its not there then I’m pretty sure it’s probably in one of the few dozen boxes of read fiction that may or may not be accurately labeled. Usually I don’t need the book bad enough to go after it if I get to that last step… But if I do, it’ll be there.

But believe it or not my non-fiction, fiction anthologies,and miscellaneous books are much more chaotically organized, by logics and systems that were long ago forgotten and since overlaid by other equally arbitrary systems. If I’m very lucky, I’ll go right to a book almost by instinct, or I’ll come across an interesting book by happy accident while looking for another. If I’m not, it can take almost forever to find it. I taught this semester a 19th century detective fiction class and was looking for Detection by Gaslight, a book I’d bought back in 1997 when it first came out. I remembered buying it, remembered what it looked like, even was pretty sure where I’d put it, but I ended up looking for it actively and passively for days in August before finally giving up and buying a new copy. I ended up finding just a few days ago, while looking for Delany’s Jewel-Hinged Jaw–which I still haven’t found…

John Clute

Love Karen’s idea of locating authors beside their friends or partners. Perhaps it could extended into a kind of line marriage: synchronically a group of authors who know each other (like Conrad, James, Ford Madox Ford, Stephen Crane, Kipling, Wells, all of whom settled for a bit around the Five Ports in Kent and squabbled amiably amongst themselves); and diachronically, patterns of friendship through time (Jane Harrison/Hope Mirrlees/T S Eliot/Mungojerrie/Rumplelteazer).

Maureen Kincaid Speller

I suspect there are as many systems for arrangement as there are people needing to devise ways to find their books.
There’s an immediate distinction to be made between personal and institutional systems, on the assumption that books shelved in institutional spaces can arrange them spatially in the logical order demanded by whichever classification system they’re using. Except of course, that no academic library I’ve ever known has been like that.

In the past I worked as a library assistant in a couple of academic libraries and though both had a main collection of books sequentially shelved according to classification, much of my time seemed to be spent in learning the library arcana: X was shelved in such and such place, Y was shelved over there, and there’s not much call for Z so it’s in the external stacks, we can get it by tomorrow.

As for the library of my beloved alma mater, it also has its amusing quirks, including a mysterious set of shelves containing books about cultural production which seem to have been quarantined behind the architecture books (I only know they’re there because my favourite desk lurks in a corner behind them).

The arrangement of our home library, which is extensive (though everything is on shelves, and yes, we prune the collection from time to time), is shaped in part by what we can fit into each room, so hardback fiction in the dining room, paperback fiction in the ‘book room’ (and for paperback read A/B size and small hardbacks; for hardback, read case bound and really large trade paperbacks). Fiction is fiction; no breaking out by genre, except that most, ideally all, of the Native American/First Nations novels are currently in my study because I need them for my thesis.

After that, non-fiction is distributed around the house according to topic, shelf availability, and need for immediate access. Thus, our studies tend to hold the things we most frequently need to consult while my craft room holds things that are occasionally needed, and also American history because it’s the longest run of shelves available outside the studies.

Paul’s study contains the criticism (including journals), along with various other things, while my study contains my particular interest collections: all my books on indigenous history, philosophy, criticism and so on, along with my texts on postcolonial theory, gardening/garden history, food history, editorial reference books, plus a series of micro collections on feminist theory; bog bodies, mummies and pickled knights, landscape archaeology, plagues, and probably one or two other things not immediately on my mind. Also, my review pile. My study shelves reflect my mind, well stocked but a bit unruly.

Anything that doesn’t immediately fit a category is usually dealt with by asking ‘where would you be most likely to look for it’.

Fiction is alphabetised by author and then by title; non-fiction depends on the circumstance. History books are arranged by historical chronology, biography is arranged by subject. Criticism is arranged by author, except when the subject is an author or theorist, at which point all books on that topic go under the subject’s name.

Paul is in the process of cataloguing the library (at long last; redundancy has its compensations), which will be good as the fiction has become somewhat unruly and I have to ask him where stuff is if I can’t immediately lay hands on it.

And it works because it’s our system, geared to our particular needs. I’d like to think that someone else looking at our shelves would quickly get the general idea, though the micro collections might be a little puzzling, and indeed I think they should be.
I am frequently reminded of the fact that in Sir Robert’s Cotton’s original library, his collection of manuscripts (including things like Beowulf) was housed in presses surmounted by busts of the Twelve Caesars and two Imperial Ladies, and this is reflected in their classification marks at the British Library. In which case, I think we can classify by ‘end room’, ‘Paul’s study’ and so on.

Kathleen Ann Goonan

I’m afraid I got off to a bad start. When working in the Serendipity Book Shop in Fairfax VA in the early seventies, I had full run of arranging the shelves, and redid all of the (pre-chain-bookstore) nonfiction shelves to reflect connections between subject matter that seemed appropriate to me. The customers seemed to like it, and when I overheard Steve, the owner, telling someone that he’d never had an employee who knew where every single book was, I smiled to myself, knowing that it was because I’d put them there.

The organization of my personal libraries, though, suffers because of daily use. I had a beautifully arranged library in Knoxville in 1987, and when I moved to Hawaii and had to store them my sister (who worked at one time as a packer, as did I, for a moving company–Top Hat Service!) lovingly packed them in perfect order. They have remained in that order through several subsequent moves, but are housed in a space that is too small to incorporate any other books, and, even if there were more space they would resist incorporations like already-kneaded bread dough resists incorporation of an egg. Last year I withdrew all Gary Snyder-related books (beat poetry, Chinese poetry) and have still not returned them: thus entropy exerts its terrible power.

My in-process shelves are organized by the books I used for reference for particular novels. The books I used for QCJ, about Cincinnati, cities (Richard Sennett’s THE CONSCIENCE OF THE EYE, for instance), bees, Shakers, jazz, ragtime, etc. are too high to reach without climbing onto a desk. Books that I use for works-in-progress about WWII, the Sixties, bebop, Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories, the CIA, neuroplasticity, scientific/sociological books about humans and war, and so on, are loosely grouped together, and biographies have their own shelves, though sometimes they find themselves incorporated into other libraries. I have a special place for books like We Took to the Woods, The Country of the Pointed Firs, How To Live In The Woods on a Nickle A Day, and other books about the road not taken. Another for S.J. Perelman, Benchley, Thurber, E.B. White, and other essayists and humorists. Literary theory, another, art books (mostly about craft), another.

Anyone but me would say What A Mess!

I’m afraid that magazines are on their own, though I do have boxes of Locus, NYRSF, The Journal of Consciousness Studies, etc., in their own boxes. Somewhere. And fiction is in a sad, delicious jumble, lucky if on a bookshelf and not in a stack somewhere in the house ready to topple over and cause a mysterious crash in the middle of the night.

Gary K. Wolfe

I’m relieved to find that others have as chaotic a system as I do, at least for most books. I like to think that my arrangement is cleverly designed to foil any graduate student cat burglars who might break into my apartment in search of a particular citation, but beyond that the system is basically Where I Think I Put It Last. There are some exceptions: like Karen, I tend to put books by good friends together, and try to keep inscribed books apart from the rest (though that’s getting difficult). All the SF and fantasy criticism and scholarship is in one place, more or less, and I try to keep alphabetized recent genre fiction, since I often need to refer to an author’s earlier work when preparing a review. For the same reason, I try to keep anthologies together and in some sort of order (for the year’s bests, for example, first by series and then chronologically. Visitors often remark “how do you find anything here?” and the honest answer is I often don’t. But most of the time I do.

Maureen Kincaid Speller

You know, Gary, I’d been fondly kidding myself that my system was actually fiercely logical, and for its users it is. It had literally never occurred to me that when I describe it to anyone else it must sound as bizarre as everyone else’s systems sound to me. I think there might be a moral in that.

Andy Duncan

Maureen’s comment about our shelf organization being bizarre to anyone else reminds me that the same could be said of our writing process, to the extent we have a process. To us it works and seems sensible, but often, not to others. Late one night at a SFWA gathering, fueled by wine, various people were attempting to explain their writing process, and after I finished explaining mine, a colleague said, not without sympathy: “That’s the most horrible thing I ever heard. I never would write a word, if I had to do it that way.” Our personal libraries, like every other aspect of our personal writing lives, are reflections of our personalities, and no one else’s.

Russell Letson

We’ve been in this house since 1977: two (then) English teachers who also write, a four-bedroom home, and thousands of books and (at the time) records. I spent a couple years building shelves, and we bought sets of those glass-door stacking lawyer’s shelves whenever we could get them reasonably. Two bedrooms became offices with shelving in all available walls, and the finished half of the basement gradually became the relatively-inactive stacks area. Each run of shelves was filled as soon as it was put up–Shakespeare and the rest of my wife’s working library in her office, SF reference and anthologies and my other research and recreational books in mine, general SF and mysteries and whatnot in the basement, general reference, cookbooks, signed copies, and (eventually) brag shelves in the lawyer’s bookcases in the social/public rooms on the first floor. And since the house is a finite space but our acquisitiveness knows no bounds (and because we’ve been rooted here for 36 years), our situation sounds like Gardner’s, with working materials piled up wherever they can be accessed. But my office retains its original functional plan: core SF (and now Hawaiian music) reference volumes above my keyboard, music (mostly guitar) related books a step away to my left, magazine archives high enough up that I have to stand on a chair to reach them, and the rest of the SF research books and files laid out by category (history, bibliography, biography, criticism, picture, anthology) around the room. Tchotchkes of various kinds occupying any sufficiently inactive leftover shelf space. (I had to stop collecting space toys when there was no longer anywhere to display them.) Oh, and a guitar hangs next to the door.

The music collection–which was not quite as extensive as the combined libraries but was still crazy-big–has grown as well, and there the categorization goes by medium (down to LP and CD now, though there remain some cassettes, DATs, and mothballed reels), genre, period, and artist. LP archive in the basement, working sub-collection of Hawaiian material in my office. We occasionally fantasize about buying the house next door as a library annex, but it would be easier to just move over there to sleep and let the books and records take over the rest of this space. Don’t know what the cats would think of that, though.

Gardner Dozois

My basement is lined with bookshelves (as is the office upstairs) that are visible through the basement windows from the street, and occasionally a neighbor out walking his dog will comment that “It looks like a library down there!” or say, rather suspiciously, “You actually READ all those books?” (No, I just rub them over my body.) There’s still a great deal of wariness about “intellectuals” in this country, and having a great number of books makes you somebody to be suspicious about, perhaps not to be trusted. You might be a Commie!

The issues of ASIMOV’S I edited are neatly shelved, but I don’t have the room to keep most other magazines, especially as I get a LOT of magazines during the year. Every so often, I will box up the books and magazines I don’t want to keep and haul them to the local used-book store to trade in for store credit which I almost never use. I can’t bring myself to throw books away, so I’m tasked with finding a home for those I don’t want to keep (it’s a rare week, for instance, when I don’t get at least four or five paranormal romance novels in for review). My basement has slowly become packed solid with author’s copies of my own books, which I similarly don’t want to throw away, or even give away, but don’t really have any use for.

E. Lily Yu

Reading about all of your well-thought-out systems, I’m envious. I’m still at the point where I’m young and transient, meaning that I’ve changed residences twice every year for the last five years (college dorms, then project-term job), so I’ve never had the luxury of having any but a small fraction of my books at hand. I just packed up all my important books into two boxes to ship back to New Jersey before carting them up to Ithaca in the fall. Most of my books are in my parents’ basement, stacked on a table, if they haven’t thrown them out. The books I do carry around, I usually arrange by genre–fiction, poetry, reference–and then group by how much I love each book, or whether I’ve met the author and had the book signed.

Jonathan Strahan

My system is alphabetical, chronological, biographical. Before I was married, I had a lot of time and a lot of space. My books were divided neatly into fiction and non-fiction. Fiction was subdivided into novels and short story collections in one space and anthologies in another. All fiction was organised alphabetically by author, then chronologically by date of publication. There was time when I also subdivided hardcovers and paperbacks, but that proved impractical.

When I was married we faced the challenge of integrating our book collections. We didn’t really do that for nearly eight years. My wife’s books sat in boxes while mine were on the shelves I had for them. During my marriage I’ve been editing/reviewing books many have poured in and they were alphabetised as best I could, then a couple years ago we bit the bullet and integrated our collections and mostly alphabetised/sorted them. A bunch are in boxes, and a bunch are in shelves. There is a weird disconnect still, though, because the books in the front room weren’t sorted, because we’d already spent two days on this. So, there’s pre-2002 alphaetical order in the front room, 2002 onwards alpha order in my office and in the family room. That is subdivided into anthologies, nonfiction and fiction, and then into alpha by author, and pub date.

I do have a bookcase for my own books, but have been chasing extra contributor copies out the door as fast as I can. I have a shelf near my desk that has this year’s books on it, in this case 2013 new releases, so I can keep track for my best of the year and writing the end of year stuff.

And then there’s the extra chaotic stuff. Books drift in and get stacked places. I try to sort those. Electronic books arrive like cruft, and sit on my hard drive and on my ereader. I have no way of tracking those. That said, I can usually find what I need, and some books I just keep close. My copy of Brian Aldiss’s Space Opera anthology is in line of sight because I always want to quote from it.

Marie Brennan

My system is organized according to flawless logical principles known as My Brain. 🙂

Most of it’s fairly intuitive, really. Fiction is separated into mmpb and trade paper/hardcovers, largely because the mmpb bookcase is an old one from Pandemonium and can space the shelves down to that size. Within that, we follow the usual pattern of alphabetical by author, with series together and individual titles alphabetical afterward. Comic books are together; so are RPG books, foreign language dictionaries and textbooks, and biographies.

After that . . . well, there’s a lot of nonfiction, most of which is semi-arbitrarily separated into “topics” and “culture areas.” Running down the top shelf of the former, we have Alchemy, Architecture, Astronomy, Calendars, Clothing, and then the beginning of a section my husband insists on having, Eliptony, which is best defined as “weird stuff Ken Hite likes.” The latter category has Aegean, Africa, Caribbean, Celts, China, and so on.

The trick for other people is figuring out whether I consider something a topic or a culture area, and what term I might be using to alphabetize it. “Early Christian Church” used to be a culture area (under C), but got moved over to topics when I reorganized the religion section to have sub-areas of “scripture” and “stuff about religion.” Jewish Travellers in the Middle Ages is ultimately shelved under “Medieval” (a culture area) because I decided it was more about the Middle Ages than Judaism per se. Fortunately, those two bookcases are next to one another, so if you can’t find it in one spot, you don’t have to go far to try the other.

And then you have the stuff floating elsewhere because of space requirements: mythology and folklore have migrated out of topics due to sheer size, and the Onyx Court series gave me enough stuff on both English history in general and London in particular that they collectively eat up two shelves. My academic fields (archaeology, anthropology, folklore, literature) get a couple of shelves, and so does our meager collection of twentieth-century history. All the technical and most of the scientific books are in my husband’s office. Things move as our collection expands and contracts.

We’ve got it all catalogued in LibraryThing, but have not done the logical next step and given the books tags according to their shelving location. If we ever move into a bigger place, though, such that things can sprawl out more, we should probably think about doing that.

Charles A. Tan

Presuming I had enough shelf space, I’d probably do it by author (and even then, only my favorite authors, since as a reviewer, new books come in all the time and books need to be culled), and then by series (if they work on a series). The only problem with organizing bookshelves is that the books are often loaned out (here, read this author!) that there’ll always be gaps.

Right now, my most organized “shelf” are my ebooks, which can be placed in multiple folders (copy/paste), and currently organized by year, and separated by read and unread.

Rich Horton

Well, I’m like many here, I can only dream of having them organized.

In theory, separated into SF, mystery, HF, other fiction, poetry, and NF. Magazines of course separate. Each category divided into MMPB and TP/HB. Alphabetized by author. Magazines organized by magazine, issues in date order.

Some of that actually persists. Others are in increasingly random boxes …

Ellen Datlow

I forgot to mention that I have “special books” in other areas. I have books I want to read –mostly very old supernatural and suspense series of short stories that I should have read and never have, but also non-genre novels that have been highly recommended to me over the years plus a few nonfiction books by writers like Oliver Sacks. Those fill a small bookcase in my bedroom and every time I look in that direction I feel guilty.

Then there’s my Edward Gorey collection, which reside in the glass cabinet of a “side-by-side” in my library/back room. I also have a bookcase for “little books” of various types and for my special art books, like Amphagorey and Amphagorey II, several different volumes of illustrated Alice in Wonderlands/Through the Looking Glass (I collect ‘em), and the first expensive art book I ever bought a big M.C. Escher coffee table book.

Mark Kelly

One reason we bought our current house, in 2003, is that it has a large room at the front, once a formal dining room, that was ideal as a library. I blogged about this, in 2009, with photos, and the current arrangement is much the same except that the glass desk is now at 90 degrees to the front window, rather than looking straight out.

In this room there are 27 bookcases of varying sizes, of which 19 are the main SF/F/H collection, novels and collections, arranged by author and then by title or chronologically, depending on how closely I was paying attention the last time I integrated annual updates. Hardcovers, paperbacks, mixed in together. There are also 3 bookcases of SF-related nonfiction and reference books, 4 bookcases of general fiction/nonfiction (actually, split between general fiction/nonfiction, and science/tech nonfiction), and a couple others of miscellaneous items.

I have a library cart, on which I accumulate current year’s books, those I buy and those I get sent for review (not very many, compared to those Locus Mag must get, but a few); three or four cart shelves over the course of a year, typically. Every year or so I integrate those I want to keep into the main alphabetical collection.

I have an auxiliary room downstairs (main floor is upstairs, bedrooms etc are downstairs; house is on a hillside) where I keep magazines and anthologies, double-deep — digest-sized magazines in the back (I have a full run of F&SF and Asimov’s, Analog since the late ’60s, almost all Galaxy and Ifs, etc), with anthologies in front of them, arranged by editor then title. Other magazines are problematic; I have a full run of Omni, still in two boxes, 10 years after moving to this house.

Between the main library upstairs and the auxiliary anthology room downstairs, I can set my hands on any title you could name, if I have it, within a 30 seconds or so.

I also have various other subcollections scattered about the house – a small bookshelf of movie/TV related books in the master bedroom; old textbooks and childhood/juvenile books on a bookcase in a guest bedroom, etc.

Andy Duncan

Very roughly:

All my journalism books — that is, books about journalism (including textbooks and style guides) and books OF journalism — are in my campus office, shelved alphabetically by author.

Also in my campus office are two shelves of books on law, ethics, and political theory, mostly focused on the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights, but also books on economics, environmentalism, sustainability. My Library of America volumes of political writings are shelved there, too.

All the other books are at home.

Our house has two floors. The main (upstairs) floor, with the master bedroom, living room, kitchen, dining room, etc., has no bookcases in it. The only books there are the dozen or so I’m reading at any given time. The most current 25 or so magazine issues are up there, too, and the past week or two of newspapers, en route to the recycling bin. Also on that level of the house is my long-suffering wife, Sydney, reminding me that I need to get all this crap off her dining table, coffee table, kitchen counter, etc.

All the bookcases, a LOT of bookcases (I’ve lost count), are downstairs.

Downstairs, the bookcases in one guest room are devoted almost entirely to sf/fantasy/horror novels and single-author collections, shelved alphabetically by author. The only exceptions there are a few shelves devoted to children’s picture books, including a dedicated Dr. Seuss shelf. (YA gets shelved among all the adult books, since I can’t tell the difference. Already a genre-definition problem rears its head!)

The other downstairs guest room has three bookcases dedicated to sf/fantasy/horror/crime anthologies, alphabetical by title. Also in that room are bookcases dedicated to general fiction (including crime fiction, mixed in with everything else), history/biography (shelved together), comics, and entertainment books. The fiction and history/biography books are alphabetical by author, the comics and entertainment books, alas, in no order at all. Abject failure.

In the downstairs kitchen is another bookcase of history/biography (that’s where the A’s begin), with a dedicated shelf up top for books by/about Lyndon Johnson and L. Ron Hubbard. (Make of that pairing what you will.)

In the downstairs main room — my home office — are all the reference books, the most important of which occupy bookcases devoted to paranormal/pseudoscientific/Fortean writings, the credulous and the skeptical and everything in between. These are alphabetical by title, for some reason. But also in the home office are other dedicated shelves: a few for my own books, and books I am in, arranged chronologically; the complete run of the Datlow-Windling Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror; most of the run of Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction; and two dozen dedicated shelves for the writers who have been the biggest ongoing influences on me: Aldiss, Bradbury, Dick, Emshwiller, Ford, Fowler, Gaiman, Haldeman, Hurston, Jackson, Kessel, Link, Matheson, Straub, Wellman, Wolfe, etc. (Next project: Harvey Kurtzman, Stan Lee and Alan Moore shelves.)

Of the thousands of magazines, in every drawer and cabinet and closet, we will not speak here. That way lies madness.

The moment I send this to the list, I will remember another several bookcases that I didn’t mention, but that’ll give you an idea of what Sydney has to put up with.

My consolation, if you can call it that, is that I suspect I’m one of the final generations of writers who associates the writing life with being surrounded by books as tangible paper artifacts, in stacks and on shelves and on every flat surface. My students are likewise book-obsessed, but with rare exceptions, they view books as digital files they shuffle from device to device.

I don’t think that’s the end of the world, but it’s certainly the end of MY world. From childhood, I never have been happier than when surrounded by books, and when I say books, I always will mean physical things, things capable of surround: paper, binding, ink, soul.

As threatened, I realized, soon after my previous post, that my initial tidy list had omitted hundreds of books on various dedicated bookcases: astronomy/aeronautics/astronautics; canonical English-department texts (from Shakespeare through Woolf, roughly); genre criticism; music biography and musicology; poetry; rarities (many signed and inscribed).

Michael Dirda

When people come into my living room, which is lined with book cases on three walls, they ask: Have you read all these? I answer, “Almost none of them.” In fact, one bookcase is full of “favorite” books and one of valuable ones my heirs will sell. But most of the books on the shelves are those I want to read and write about someday. They are there always before my eyes as reminders to get cracking.The authors I have read and written reviews or essays about tend to go into boxes, and those boxes are then moved to the basement or the attic or to a storage unit.

Alas, I can almost never find anything with ease and being around Clute makes me feel guilty about this. Like many on the roundtable, I rely on my memory to locate material, but since the boxes themselves aren’t always author specific, this can be difficult. Half the time, I end up going to the public library or the University of Maryland library and checking out books I know I have but can’t find.

Obviously, I don’t deserve to own these books and should either get a bigger house and more shelves or pare down my so-called “library” dramatically. But it’s hard. I love physical books, as well as the stories and poems and knowledge they contain. (E-books have only one aspect that interests me–the capacity to enlarge the type font. Aging eyes may lead me to acquire an e-reader eventually.) I recently bought a button at the Malice Domestic convention here in DC: “I do have a life; it’s a life filled with books.”

Oh, yes: Up in the attic there’s a pretty good run of the classics of English and American literature in solid, hardback editions and sets. I also have the 20 volume OED (partial payment for some work I once did for Oxford), and the 11th edtion of the Encyclopedia Britannica and a broken set of about 40 volumes of the Dictionary of National Biography. Down in the basement are my French books, Sherlockiana, editions of Jules Verne (about whom I think of writing a book someday), and a lot of detective, sf and supernatural/fantasy fiction and several shelves of classic true crime (Roughead, Pearson, Notable British Trials, that sort of thing). The books I look at the most tend to be by my bedside: Mostly reference books like Ev Bleilers Guide to Supernatural Fiction (and the two sister volumes on sf), Barzun and Taylor’s Catalogue of Crime, Martin Seymour Smith’s New Guide to Modern World Literature, reference books about children’s books, lots of dictionaries and odd volumes of poetry.
But nothing is really well organized. For a while I used to murmur Wallace Stevens’ phrase “A great disorder is an order” or say that my books were a reflection of the jumble that is my mind, but lately I’ve begun to worry that I’ve passed into the hoarder phase and will soon be collecting third printings of coverless Lancer paperbacks.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

When I was younger, I owned fewer books, and it was easier to keep them shelved and organized. Now that I’m older, I own more books than I can possibly read before I die, or organize in any coherent fashion without infinite shelving space. The increasing disorder of my book piles is a reflection of the increasing impact entropy on my mortal life.

One thought on “Roundtable on Organizing Books

  • November 27, 2013 at 11:53 am

    Organizing my books these days is something that just happens, when something else happens and I have to move stuff around. I just had to unload my shelf with SF / fantasy hardcovers, to get at leaky pipes. After the pipes were replaced and the wall repaired and painted and the bookshelf put back, I took the opportunity to alphabetize them again, mixing in all the acquisitions of more recent years, or at least all I could find. Now they’re all in one shelf with four waist-high stacks of the overflow parked in front of them.

    That still makes it better than the pile of general nonfiction in my living room…if you ever hear of someone crushed to death by a pile of books falling on them, it might be me.


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