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Blog: Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles
Book 'em, Danno! Organizing Your Beloved Books

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.

~Henry David Thoreau

This weekend, as I visited a beloved used bookstore and left with a few new (used) books, as well as extra cash and trade-on-account, I thought that Thoreau was right that books are, indeed, the inheritance of generations, but that doesn't mean every book is fit to bequeath to our great, great grandchildren. (Novelizations of movies about Transformers, I'm talking about you! Diet books touting all-grapefruit menu plans? You, too!)

It's hard to let go of books, but if we kept every book we bought over a lifetime, those of us who live on the second floor would soon collapse, and those with a lifetime of books on the first floor might be pushed, by force, all the way through to China.

Paper Doll is indeed a lover of books; the written word is my dearest companion. But even books, if left unrepentantly unorganized, become clutter. That way, madness lies.

I generally advise my clients that when they begin to get organized, they should consider some basic rules under the rubric of "Don't put things down, put them away". The rules are simple.

1) Everything should have a place to live.
If you've been reading organizing blogs, you already know that clutter is deferred decision making. You acquire a book (and you may even read it) but then don't know what to do with it. You might pile it on your bedside table with the intention of reading it, but more likely, you've plopped it down atop any other stack of books in your kitchen, living room, bedroom or staircase.

When you make a conscious effort to determine where something should go, it forces you to make the decision if it even needs to be with you in the first place. Everything should have a place to live, but not everything has to live with you!

The Pareto Rule or 80/20 Rule says that 80% of success comes from 20% of the effort. This is why paring things down gives you a much bigger bang for your buck than you expect. You usually don't miss the things you purge out (even though you anticipated you would) which was what blocked you from downsizing in the first place.

Not counting essential reference books (and yes, you should always have a dictionary and thesaurus nearby), the books you're keeping (and likely tripping over) represent three aspects of your life:

NOW Books—These are the books that represent who you are now, TODAY!

They might be novels by authors you love (or whom you hope to come to love) and subjects you find compelling enough to actually read. For me, these would be my complete collection of Jane Austen (which I reread yearly, as Mr. Darcy is the closest some of us get to Mr. G. Clooney), new novels I'll to read on my flights to the NAPO conference in April, guidebooks to online marketing and blogging…for just a few examples. Your own NOW books might be the latest thriller, some pretty gardening books and a biography you're slowly but satisfactorily nibbling your way through. If these were library books instead of books in your personal collection, they'd be the ones you'd read hungrily and return on time.

Keep NOW books, but sort and maintain them well so you'll be able to find them when you need them, and be able to identify easily when they've become THEN or SOMEDAY books.

THEN Books—These types of books represent who you used to be.

Subjects of THEN books might be parenting newborns, titles you read when your own children were small, but you're now an empty-nester. My own THEN books cover all aspects of the television industry dating from when I was in graduate school and the days I was a television program director. The books are chock-full of facts that the Internet could now supply more quickly than I can amble to the book nook, but more importantly, they represent a time in my life when I needed and wanted that information. I no longer need to know the details of libel law court cases or how to calculate gross rating impressions. The books are like 9th grade lab assignments. They dutifully served their purpose, but the frog is dead.

THEN books are the ones that need to leave your home; they're taking up space like guests who have overstayed their visits. The options for ridding your home of these overdue interlopers include:
  • Sell books to brick & mortar used bookstores.
  • Sell them via Amazon, Powell's or any online bookstore's used book section.
  • Donate them to your library's annual book sale.
  • Donate to school libraries. Local elementary, middle, high school or even college libraries are often desperate for titles. Your house of worship and community group buildings may also be eager to accept book donations.
  • Donate them to our hardworking military personnel or incarcerated persons seeking to improve their literacy.
  • Set them free via Bookcrossing. (Check it out. It's so cool!)
  • Trade them (if you must acquire more) at PaperbackSwap or BookMooch.
  • For more ideas, just type "donate books" into your favorite search engine.

SOMEDAY Books—These are the books representing who you wish (or once wished) to be someday.

SOMEDAY BOOKS are the literary equivalent of the exercise videos that gather dust next to the TV. They're the guides to speaking Italian or Urdu that you bought in hopes of learning an exotic language, the cookbooks for cuisines that are too complicated, too fattening or too much fuss for you to approach in this lifetime...or the books on topics that represent your less realistic dreams. If you've decided that you're starting a home-based business, books on writing business plans belong in your NOW collection; if you've been talking about starting a business for ten years but have never made any movement towards your goals, sell these books and let them fund a current dream.

2) Things should live with others like them.

3) Things should live where they're used.

These two rules go together. If you've got books of all sort piled up without rhyme or reason, you'll never be able to select the book you want when you need it or find a quote that escapes you. Instead, focus on these two rules—group like with like so that all your cookbooks are in one place, all your novels are grouped together, every book on personal finance can be found in the same place, and so on.

If you group similar subjects together, you need not worry that you lack a large library in which to corral them. The trick is to have mini-libraries, preferably on sturdy bookshelves with your tomes stacked vertically (for the health of the books and the functionality of your library).

Fiction is the easiest to organize, if you choose to do so at all. (You could just keep all fiction together and go no further!) Alphabetize by the last name of the authors and you're done. If you're really intent on the organizing process, you could organize books alphabetically by title within authors.

If you're a budding librarian with disparate reading tastes, you could even have separate sub-sections by genre (romance, science fiction, mystery, etc.). However, alphabetizing authors and titles is objective and can be done quickly; it can even be delegated to older children and teens as part of their chores. Determining genres can be very subjective; even the Library of Congress has trouble with books that are mysteries and romances, or science fiction and mystery. Some books, like those by Jasper Fforde, defy category. Make it easy on yourself.

Non-fiction books are a little more complicated. As for a former page (i.e., library worker), I had to learn the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress classification systems for cataloging books. Unless you have a personal library that rivals those of most small towns, you won't need anything quite so complex. Just sort your books by subject, generally, and perhaps by sub-section.

So, if you're like my friend, Paul, who is partial to reading about war history (and explosions), you might have one sub-section for Revolutionary War history, one for Civil War history, one for each of the World wars, and so on. If you have an extensive cookbook collection, consider dividing them by ethnicity (Italian, Mexican) and/or by food or meal type (desserts, soups, etc.).

Children's books can generally be divided by age groups: picture books, storybooks, chapter books and so on. If these are shelved separately, when your children age out of the toddler or pre-school books, you can select one or two favorites, toss the ones that have been gummed and chewed to dilapidation, and send the rest to live with someone else.

Next, once sorted, these mini-libraries should be organized where they'll be used.

Thus, you might have a cabinet or shelf in or near your kitchen or pantry where you keep your cookbooks. It wouldn't make sense to store your romance novels there (the concept of "heating up", notwithstanding), but keeping the cookbooks near where you use them is logical.

Similarly, if you have a small collection of personal finance books, these would fit nicely on the shelf nearest the desk where you pay bills, research investments, complete your tax return and plan your financial future.

Children's books are best suited to be kept in your kids' rooms for bedtime reading or the family "library" if there is one; chances are low that kids will choose books over toys (except for use as truck ramps), so playrooms aren't usually the best option for kids' books.

4) Things should be arranged according to the rules of proximity and utility.
In general, if you should be using something all the time, whether it's the dictionary, tax code, or moisturizer, keep it at your fingertips. These are the things that deserve PRIME REAL ESTATE on your desk or the bulletin board next to your phone or your bedside table. Conversely, if you can't bring yourself to get rid of your THEN or SOMEDAY books, or if they're the kind of NOW books that aren't "now" in terms of your busy life, but will be this summer for your beach vacation, store them on higher shelves or out of your way.

Your bedside table is for true NOW books; the shelf next to your computer desk is perfect for the computer guides you reach for all the time; your desktop itself should probably only have a dictionary or a resource you grab all the time.

5) Know What's Living Where!
Think of your books as people, and an index or catalog of your books as a census to know who (or what) lives where and with whom. The larger your book collection, the harder it may be to know exactly where a book is located (on your shelves or even lent out to a friend?) or whether you even own it anymore.

Over the next few posts, we'll talk about easy ways to organize and catalog your library. You may be amazed at the creative ways to arrange them and the wide array of low- and high-tech methods available for making cataloging books as easy as the wave of a magic wand (or the wave of your book in front of your web cam).

Happy reading!

posted on: 3/25/2008 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
category: Paper

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Discuss This Post

by Janet Barclay on 9/8/2011 8:16:55 AM:

I love the idea of asking whether a book belongs to NOW, THEN or SOMEDAY. I will definitely keep that in mind when it's time to clear some room on my bookcases!

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Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles

by Julie Bestry

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Julie Bestry, President of Best Results Organizing in Chattanooga, TN, is a Certified Professional Organizer®, speaker and author. Julie helps overwhelmed individuals and businesses save time and money, reduce stress and increase productivity through new organizational skills and systems.

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