Jacob J. Walker's Blog

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How to Organize a Large Personal Library

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The Problem:

My wife got me a t-shirt that says “I got 99 problems, but my books ain’t one”, and while there is some debate on whether that is true or not…  one thing that has been a problem is the organization of my books.   With around 1,000 books in our house, I had struggled for years to find a paradigm to use to organize them, such that I could quickly get a book on a particular topic when I wanted it.

Like Aristotle, my first thought was to have a philosophy of ontology, such that everything would have a clear hierarchical category.   And in fact, I developed the A to Z Framework for Formal Education Systems based upon my attempt to have a clear method of categorization of my books related to education (which now are predominant in my library).  But, as prototype theory is showing, classic views of ontology are psychologically false.  And even if hierarchical categorization of entities didn’t have innate problems, there would still be a problem with organizing books, because no book only covers one topic.  So, every manner I attempted to layout my books, whether one dimensionally or even two dimensionally on my bookshelf, just didn’t work.

To first try and solve this problem, I read several webpages about  organizing personal libraries, and I also looked at what library science had developed, including the categorization of the Dewey Decimal System, the Library of Congress, and other systems.  All of them had the same inherent issues that I had discovered, and were pragmatically worse for my personal use, than my classification system.

The Solution:

But, it was my dad who gave me the “obvious” solution, although it took thinking about Amazon’s chaotic storage system to make it so I could accept the solution: organize the books alphabetically.

On the surface, this did not seem like a good idea to me at first, because with non-fiction, I thought it would be a system where it would be very difficult to just go to my bookshelf and get a book I wanted on a particular topic…  And that would be a problem, without the use of technology.

But, the key to the solution is not have the library’s physical organization system being the real organization system.  The key is to have an electronic organization system of the personal library which can be searched by categories, tags, and unstructured data (abstracts & actual content).  I am using a combination of Zotero, where I have all my books indexed, and also My Library in Google Books, so I have better searching ability.  There are of course other good book and reference indexing software.

I chose to go the traditional route of alphabetizing by author’s last name. Although I did this more out of the tradition of academia to organize things this way (such as in a works cited section).  But, honestly, for non-fiction, alphabetizing by title would be better, because the title is generally more clearly shown on the side of the book and it deals well with books that don’t have a clear author or a “corporate author” only.

In either case, my system of organizing alphabetically by author’s last name has worked reasonably well for me, as now when I want a book, I just go into Zotero or My Library in Google Books, and search for a topic, and then I can quickly retrieve from my physical library the book(s) that I want.

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Written by Jacob Walker

October 27th, 2013 at 9:19 am

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