Indexing Books (Paper/E-/Audio)

Two things I wanted to accomplish this weekend—lay a new wood floor in our main level living room and, secondly, finish the novel The Betrayal. This meant my weekend was going to be filled with the sound of carbide teeth scraping through hard wood planks and the complete solemnity of reading. If I ever write an autobiography it will be titled My Life of Books and Saw Dust. So overall it was a loud weekend and I finished the floor this afternoon. The novel will take another day.

As I opened up my computer this evening to dig out of a pile of weekend emails, I opened an email question from blog reader Alyona. It’s a good question and one I thought I would answer publicly. She writes:

I’ve been reading your blog, and after seeing a post on organizing a library, I decided to ask you a related question. How do you read (listen) to the electronic books you’ve got? I mean, while reading paper book you can underline it, write in the margins etc, but what to do with electronic ones? Since I’m living in a country with no public libraries, all my books are borrowed or digital. Can you give any advice on how to read them more productively, retain information and be able to refer to selected passages in them more efficiently? Thanks a lot and God bless you!

Wonderful question, Alyona.

Currently I archive about 2,000 e-books on my computer that are searchable and readily available whenever I need them for research. I enjoy reading books on my computer and Kindle device, but you are right, e-books and audio books pose a problem for indexing, and that’s bad news for a quote-collecting-junkie like me.

The answer to your question is yes, I do have a process. And I hope to develop my process in further detail in the near future. For now let me say I use a simple Excel database on my computer that provides me with endless empty boxes that I can fill with references. I’m aware there are computer programs that will do the same thing, but I prefer a database. It has worked well for me over the years and I have no plans to change.

I use a four-column approach. This allows me to type in relevant information for each individual quote. In the first column I type the broad category (lets say, “Grace”), then I type in the secondary and more precise category (“definition of”), and the author in the third (“Jerry Bridges”). In the fourth column I type the quote out in the box (if I will not have access to the original source) or I simply add the book title and page numbers for easy reference in the future (for print books or e-books I own).

This simple Excel database provides me with a lot of needed flexibility to archive insights, quotes, and random info I want to keep on hand. My simple four-column approach makes it possible for me to categorize various sources of media. I can archive the text from blog posts, copy-and-paste from websites, record notes on audio podcasts, note YouTube videos, capture song lyrics, file away an audio book excerpt transcript, make notes on an MP3 file that can be found in my iTunes folder, reference both electronic and print books, cite the content from pages and paragraphs and individual sentences, and I can archive even down to individual Twitter lines.

As you can see, my process allows me the flexibility to capture broadly differing sizes of information in one place. Here in the columns I will archive a reference to an entire book, a podcast, a paragraph, or a single sentence. It really does not matter the size of length of the media.

Maybe it would help to show you a picture of what a few references in my database look like when I sort them alphabetically. I’ll show you three references to parenting that I captured in the past 3 weeks.


The first is a reference to a book in my library. I merely need a general paraphrase of the point and the page number to find it again. The second reference points to an online article. I can easily find the entire article using the excerpt I’ve copied but likely this excerpt is what I found most helpful from the article. The third reference was a Tweet published a few weeks back by biblical counselor Ted Tripp.

The challenge is to develop your own list of categories and sub-categories to provide the framework for your archive of quotes and references. This will be different for every person.

Two benefits of this system come to mind.

First, when I print the full list I can review substantial points that I never want to forget. That 20-page document of quotes contains some of the most important things I need to remember and being able to print them out and to re-read them for review is very helpful.

Secondly, this method of organizing information frees our books from the badgering questions of where to shelve them, as if books are to be shelved in a single topic. Some books—like J.I. Packer’s Knowing God—contain as many topics as there are chapters. Where would you shelve it? The four-column approach provides me the flexibility to electronically shelve it in as many topics as I wish and unburdens me from this age-old question. And I’m kicking around the idea of organizing my library by author name and keeping an extensive record of the topics in my electronic database. Pre-database I would never have considered organizing my library by author.

Well I have strayed off the path a bit in my random answer, Alyona. But is it helpful? Do you have any further questions? Thanks for reading!

8 thoughts on “Indexing Books (Paper/E-/Audio)

  1. Wow!

    That is amazing. It looks like one of those things where some extra work on the front end saves a lot of work on the tail end.

    You wrote: “That 20-page document of quotes contains some of the most important thinks I need to remember and being able to print them out and to re-read them for review is very helpful.”

    Did you mean ‘things’? I hope not, because that is a great line! I have read a lot of important ‘thinks’ that I need to remember too!

    I have been typing out quotes in WORD documents but I still have a lot of searching to do to find the particular quote I want. For example I probably have 14 pages of quotes from Stott’s The Cross of Christ. If I even remember that the quote I’m thinking of is from his book then I still have to find it. I like your topical divisions.

    Very cool.

  2. I know that you are not looking for another tool but for those who might be looking for something other than a spreadsheet that is cross platform Zotero is an incredible tool that you can use right from within your web browser. Here is the link:

  3. Thank you so much! I’ve immediately adopted this method, and I imagine that it will prove incredibly helpful.

  4. Thanks for this Tony.

    Methods of library organization would be a fine topic to expand upon. By subject? By author? By period? And how about by aesthetic value? How a library “looks” is no small thing. And what about age? Should your rare books stand beside a new tome?

    For instance, it is generally very difficult for me to separate the Puritans on my shelves, even though the subject matter is very disparate. The Puritans must-by and large–stand together.

    However, I’ve not alphabetized the Puritans on my shelves, or grouped them by subject, but rather my placement of these volumes has hitherto been ruled by aesthetic taste: the Cripplegate set looks rather splendid besides the works of Ezekiel Hopkins, und so weiter.

    But you can probably foresee where this system might get me into trouble. It is the enduring problem of the aesthete.

    Anyhow Tony, “Sundry Thoughts on the Placement of My Books” would be a useful post, when you have the chance.

    Grace and Peace,

  5. Good questions Tom. It does cheapen an old leather volume to be sandwiched between glossy paperbacks doesn’t it? I’ll need to give more thought to this. My little and rare Alfred Plummer commentary (Cambridge) on the Epistles of John just doesn’t look right with all the other commentaries. I agree there should be an aesthetic element here. And the good news: If you keep an electronic index it really doesn’t matter where you shelve the books. Good idea for a future blog post…

  6. Hi, Tony!

    Thanks for the detailed answer, you’ve been much of help! Sounds like now I’ll actually be able to find any given book or note I’m looking for.

    God bless you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s