QA: Organizing a library

tssqa.jpgNoah writes: Tony, I know you read LOTS of books and probably have lots of books. I have somewhere around 2,500 to 3,500 books in my personal library. It has gotten so big I can’t use it effectively. I am trying to organize it but don’t know how. How would you suggest organizing a library? I don’t want something as detailed as the Dewey Decimal system, but I need something more than ‘Commentaries’ and ‘Christian Living’ as categories. Also, how do you know which category a book belongs in? For example, R.C. Sproul’s stuff is written on a popular level and could be classified as ‘Christian Living’ or as ‘Theology’ as in the case of The Last Days According to Jesus. Thanks for your help. Noah

TSS says: Hello, Noah! This is a great question I get a lot. First, scrap the idea that your books are best organized physically on shelves. This is a big mental hindrance, as you know. Sadly a number of computer and online programs are better suited for book collectors rather than detail-minded Christian readers.

The physical location is important only so far as is makes each title (not each topic) easy to find. I arrange my topical and theological books by author, and commentaries by the biblical book covered (i.e. all commentaries on Romans are grouped together). Commentaries are easy, topical and theological books are tricky. Let’s talk about theose tricky topical books.

The key to organizing topical and theological books is electronic. I find electronic databases critical because (as you mentioned) most books fit multiple categories.

It’s very easy. Here’s what I do…

I start with a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. I run five columns across (A-E). The first three are topical (A-C) and grow increasingly specific as you move to the right. The fourth column (D) is the author and the final column (E) is the book title and page number where the specific subject is addressed. Once I input my data for each subject on a horizontal line, I sort the data into alphabetical order.

Here is one example. For our purposes I have taken 3 books and begun my spreadsheet. It looks like this:

  • Biography > 19th century > Robert Murray M’Cheyne > Iain Murray > The Banner of Truth Magazine: Issues 1-16 (pages)
  • Christian living > Prayer > Call to diligence > J.I. Packer > Growing in Christ (pages)
  • Christian living > Evangelism > [undefined] > J.I. Packer > Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God
  • Ecclesiology > Outreach > Evangelism > J.I. Packer > Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God
  • Theology > Calvinism > Defense of > Iain Murray > The Banner of Truth Magazine: Issues 1-16 (pages)
  • Theology > Nature of God > Sovereignty > J.I. Packer > Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (pages)
  • Theology > Soteriology > Union with Christ > J.I. Packer > Growing in Christ (pages)

I hope this makes sense, Noah. The key is to use electronic tagging system like this that allows you unlimited breakdowns of each book. Establishing this system takes some work on the front but will be worth it in the end. Feel free to modify the system to your own preferences!

Blessings to you, Noah! May God bless your reading and thank you for reading The Shepherd’s Scrapbook!



ADDENDUM: A second post was added to answer some common questions raised in the comments of this post. Click here.


Have a question of your own? Pass it along via email (tony AT takeupandread DOT com). Thanks for reading! Tony

14 thoughts on “QA: Organizing a library

  1. “scrap the idea that your books will be best organized physically on shelves.”

    You know, that is pretty earth shattering, and it’s surprising. I’ve had the same problem — do you put Lewis’ Surprised by Joy next to Miracles? Well, maybe that’s not an important question. You’d think Libronix would have taught me that the shelf location wasn’t important. Good point Tony!

    For Noah, and anyone else, puting hundreds or thousands (!) of books into a spreadsheet sounds daunting. Here’s help: Library Thing (

    With Library Thing you set up your own online database (it’s social, but you can make yours private). You can buy their scanner which will allow you to scan barcodes into their system. You can then organize with all the tags you want. Then you can export your database in an Excel friendly format. You’ll save hundreds of hours of work. The scanner costs $15, and if you have more than 200 books a “membership” is $10/year or $25 for life. It is totally worth it!

  2. Hello Chris! I’ve used LT and Booxter. They are both helpful but I have personally returned to a spreadsheet myself. Booxter (for Mac only) integrates the webcam for reading barcodes. Thanks for the helpful comments! Tony

  3. I love Library Thing! It took me about half a day to type in all my books (about 1,000) and now they are all there. When I get new books in the mail, I set them on my desk until they are entered. The “tags” function helps me with the multiple category problem.

  4. All these systems are great ideas but I still have the physical book. It still has to go somewhere. How do I relate these electronic organizational methods to the physical storage of my books so I can find the book I want when I need it?

  5. Another LT fanatic here. Though I’m only at 600 books, so I guess that makes me a mere lightweight.

  6. Greg, as Tony pointed out, if your library is cataloged, the location doesn’t matter. I’d just alphabetize by author in broad genres (eg, Christian, science, literature).

  7. Also, you can tag your books with locations. In my case, I have some in storage and have tagged them by box so I won’t have to open a bunch of boxes if I need to dig out a specific book.

  8. Tony, thanks for answering my question. Excellent suggestions and concept. But I have one problem. I don’t know how to use Excel! I’ve started using Library Thing, but I agree with your addendum that I’ve got more than just books to catalog. I really like your method– just got to figure out Excel.

  9. Does anyone know of any other on Web sites similar to “LIBRARYTHING.CON” that could allow for a comparison of use, recall, data culled from other sources etc ? I have thousands of books and drastically need to catgalog them. I want to do it right the first time.

    Thanx for this great posting and all the comments!


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