How to Organize a Bookshelf and Create the Library of Your Dreams

Updated 10/24/19

Design: Emily Henderson Design, Photo: Sara Ligorria-Tramp

Sure, books stacked and piled through the house can be eclectic and cool, but eventually, you need to find a way to display them. Not only is a well-curated bookshelf more attractive than those haphazard stacks of "to-reads" and "already-reads", but an organization system makes it a whole lot easier to find your next book.

Arranging and displaying your books doesn't have to be an arduous process, but it will likely take you the better part of an afternoon to do it well. But the good news is once you decide on a system and stick with it, the upkeep is minimal.

Supplies to Organize a Bookshelf

What you'll need to get started:

  • A stack of all of your books
  • A box for donations
  • Post-it notes
  • A pen

Arrange Alphabetically by Title

Want an easy system that's universally simple to follow and remember? Go with an alphabetized system based on the book's title. This may not be the most inventive or fun way to arrange books, but it sure makes it easier to find that novel your BFF wants to borrow next time she comes over.

Make a plan for how to deal with books that start with "A" and "The" because there will be a lot of them. We suggest leaving out the first word and alphabetizing based on the second word in the title.

Arrange Alphabetically by Author

If you want to take a note from your local library, go with alphabetical, but focus on the author's last name instead of title. This is a great choice if you're someone who often has the urge to read your favorite Stephen King novel, or you're just an expert at remembering the last names of the authors of your favorite books.

Group by Genre

Fancy yourself an eclectic reader with a variety of tastes and an ever-changing palette? Try sorting your books by the genre so you can easily reach for your next crime novel fix when the air gets chilly.

Start by stacking your books into piles based on genre, with a Post-it note on each to keep track.

Arrange by Color

This method of arranging books is by far the most Instagram-friendly approach, and definitely appeals to the aesthetically-minded reader. Whether you're someone who remembers and categorizes books in your mind based on their covers or you're simply looking for a way to make that unwieldy collection of novels look a little more attractive in your living room, arranging by color is a great (albeit controversial) idea.

While following the ROY-G-BIV method is always a good call, you can get creative with this idea. Go for ombre or color block your shelves for the ultimate eye candy.

Separate Fiction and Nonfiction

While some bestsellers straddle the line between fact and fiction, there is typically a clear distinction between fiction and nonfiction. If you have a healthy collection of both in your library, try grouping your bookshelf by type.

If you have any attractive textbooks or research materials you haven't parted ways with yet, stacking them (instead of standing them up) is a great way to keep them from overpowering your shelf.

Keep Only the Favorites

We love our Harry Potter collection as much as the next guy, but sometimes a massive book collection can look a little messy, especially in a small apartment. If maintaining a well-organized bookshelf is out of the question, consider displaying only your favorites. Not only does this look less busy and prevents a room from feeling messy, but it gives you more space to have fun with accents and objets.

Point Books Backwards

The bibliophile in us feels a little bad for how much we can get behind the "backward book" trend. Face it: That one paperback novel you love may not be the literary work of genius you want to show off in your home.

Instead of facing the spines of your books out, turn them around and allow only the pages to show. Not only does this give off a more minimalist vibe and blends in beautifully with neutral decor, but it also allows you to hide some of those guilty pleasures from prying eyes.

Keep a log of where your favorite books are (think top shelf, middle section) so you can find them easily when you need to.

Separate by Hardcover and Softcover

Paperback and hardcover books simply look different on a shelf, so separating them can be a good way to create a more streamlined look. You can sort hardcovers on one shelf and paperbacks on another, or divide full bookshelves this way, depending on how many books you have.

Group by Read and Not-Yet-Read

One of the easiest ways to organize your shelves is by focusing on the books that you haven't read first. Dedicate the first few shelves to those pages on your to-be-read list and move them to subsequent already-read shelves as you devour them.

If you have way more read than not-read books, consider making the first few books on every shelf not-read books so that they're the easiest to grab next time you want to pick up something new.

Stack Your Books

While stacks and stacks of books scattered across your floor may not be the most aesthetically pleasing look, don't be afraid to arrange your books into stacks on your shelf. This is a great way to highlight certain books (maybe your favorite novels or your to-be-read books) and create an uncluttered look.

Arrange by Height

Try lining your books up by the tallest all the way down to the shortest, and find fun ways to arrange them by height on your bookcase. Maybe start one shelf with the tallest book and the next with the shortest, or keep tall books on the edges and go shorter in the middle.

Add Decor

Don't forget that your bookshelf shouldn't be just about displaying books. Styling a beautiful bookcase can turn a boring, messy shelf into a statement piece in your living room or bedroom.

Decide on an organization style and then add framed images, knickknacks, and mementos from your travel to keep the shelf visually interesting.

Up next: these are the best interior design books to dress up your coffee table.

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